Berlin is not a city that has always been on the “must visit” list. For much of our lives half of the city was closed off to Westerners, so we couldn’t visit even if we wanted to. Twelve years under Hitler’s grasp and another 45 under Soviet control, with 28 as a city divided by a wall, made it less than a nice place to travel to. But now living this close, only an hour and 20 minute flight from London, it became a place that was important to see, explore and experience. We knew this would not be a relaxing vacation, but more of an educational and life experience.
Berlin is missing many of the beautiful old buildings and churches of other European cities, but it has a story that few other cities in the world can tell. After years of war, destruction and neglect, it has spent the last 20 years rebuilding. In fact, it was difficult for us to take pictures without a multitude of construction cranes in the background.
Berlin had taken full advantage of its life experience. Germany as a whole has made a conscience effort not to hide its past, not to have secrets anymore. Evidence of Hitler’s rule and the Soviet occupation are still visible and they don’t intend to remove these signs of their history. The TV tower, one of the best know icons of Berlin, was built under Soviet control and is still featured on many souvenir items. The city has also created a booming tourist business for curious visitors wondering what life was like as a divided city. Checkpoint Charlie, the passage way from the American sector of the city to East Germany, was removed when the wall fell. It has now been recreated as a tourist attraction with fake American soldiers that you can take your photo with … for a small fee. The city is filled with museums focusing on all aspects of life as a divided city. It also has a vibrant art and music scene with many beautiful art museums.
Public transportation in the city is very good, and we quickly mastered both the bus and the rail system to get around. It’s a safe city and walking everywhere is not a problem. High end shops, good restaurants and outdoor cafes are everywhere. The bus is a great spot to observe and listen to get a good feel for the people of a city. I like sitting quietly and listening to the multitude of languages spoken. It’s also a treat to watch moms and dads with their little ones and to hear young little voices speaking languages I do not know. Everywhere we went the people looked busy, happy and friendly.
We did stop and think about the journey of their lives. If we were born in East Berlin, our lives would have started under Soviet rule with our parents growing up during Hitler’s era. All of our education would have focused on life under a Communist government, learning about the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. We would have been encouraged to avoid our religious faith and all of our thoughts to the future would have included staying right in East Berlin forever. We would not have known what life was before the division. Then suddenly, in our 20s, when you think you know who you are and you have your future planned, we would be told that we are free to move about the rest of Germany, and the rest of the world. We would be exposed to thought, technology and places that we never knew existed or that we had been misinformed about. We would be free to set our own goals and dream beyond what the government told us was possible. It seems to me a shocking life. Luckily for East Germany, their countrymen in West Germany were there to welcome them and nurture them through this incredible transition process. For many people, throughout previously Communist countries, this has been a very difficult transition and many choose to live their lives as they have always been accustomed. The older and younger generations sometimes struggle to understand each other.
“The Wall” is such an attraction in Berlin. There is not much of it still standing. The largest section has been transformed into an outdoor art gallery. We struggled trying to figure out just how the wall divided the city. It seems very haphazard. Where the wall has been removed, it has been replaced by cobblestone pavers so you still see a ribbon winding around the city. In some places the wall ran along the river, or right alongside a building. In other spots it ran down the middle of a sidewalk and then suddenly cut directly across the street to the other side.
To walk in a place that years ago we never thought we would visit was a great experience. Berlin has beautiful parks, plazas and monuments and there is a beautiful river/canal systems running throughout. They are working toward a prosperous future and we can only look forward to what the next 20 years of freedom will bring.