Monday, January 20, 2014

Berlin - Museums and Memorials Galore

With grey skies and cold temperatures, sightseeing in Berlin’s winter might not seem such a great attraction, but with a multitude of museums and memorials relating to both the city and the country’s turbulent history, there is plenty to see that will soon make you forget the less than pleasant climate.

One of my favorites, the German History Museum, offers a fascinating timeline of the region
from 1 B.C. through to present day, charting the transformations that created the country as we know it today. Did you know that it was only after the unification of several Germanic states in 1871 that ‘Germany’ existed as a nation? The museum is so comprehensive you could spend hours wandering its exhibits. For anyone on a tight schedule it certainly provides a one-stop overview of some of the historical events that other museums and memorials concentrate on in more detail.

It’s been almost twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straβe offers a potent reminder of the days when families and friends were separated virtually overnight in order to stem the flow of people from the East to the West.  It is chilling to imagine the panic those who lived along the Eastern side of the wall must have felt as they saw their freedom being taken away, and easy to understand why some attempted to escape by leaping into the Western sector from upper-story windows as apartment buildings were sealed off to form part of the wall.

This is the last surviving stretch of the complete wall (with both sides intact and the no-man’s-land strip between), but other pieces of the wall still exist including the mile long section now known as the East Side Gallery where international artists were invited to cover the walls with murals. Sadly, those walls have also become a target for graffiti – some of which almost obliterates the original art. 


Perhaps one of the most well-known locations from the Cold War era is Checkpoint Charlie, the point at which most foreigners used to cross from West to East Berlin. The original checkpoint is no longer there so a replica has been built nearby, unfortunately becoming something of a tourist trap with actors playing American guards who pose for pictures.


A walk along Karl-Marx-Allee provides an insight into life in communist Berlin. The buildings on the street were flattened by the Red Army during the war, but in the 1950’s the DDR government decided to rebuild it as a grand boulevard in honor of Stalin. Intentionally made one meter wider than the Champs-Elysées, it was lined with ‘worker’s palaces’ in a style similar to those in Moscow and, perhaps not surprisingly, initially named Stalinallee.   

The sheer size of the buildings, not so much in height but in width, with individual buildings stretching for a whole block, adds a severity to the landscape despite the attempts at grandeur.  On our walk we stopped in at Café Sibylle which not only has delicious cake but also offers a free museum exhibit about the history of the street and a glimpse into what it was like to live in those apartments.

Berlin is a big city and, in my opinion, not a particularly pretty city (though I’m sure it looks better with the greenery of spring and summer), but for anyone with an interest in 20th century history, it’s well worth a visit.

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