Monday, September 23, 2013

Postcards from Berlin: A Cold History

Pico Iyer was once asked about traveling to dark, sad places.  He said that a place doesn't have to be beautiful to be interesting.  Talking about his travels to Jerusalem, he likened it to a "man in a torn overcoat, ranting and raving... so fascinatingly that you can't stop listening..."

This is exactly how I felt about Berlin.  Berlin has a latent poignancy that I do find profound.  It was the center of Nazi Germany and after World War II ended, it was split into two and piecemealed to the French, British, Americans on the West, and the communist GDR on the East.  After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 to open up Eastern Berlin and indeed to the democratic west, Berlin has become a vibrant, young metropolis.  Supposedly very artistic and fun-loving, Berliners have carved a new identity for itself as hip and urbane.

But that's neither why nor how I wanted to experience Berlin.  I wanted a history lesson on the Cold War and I want to be enlightened about this part of world history I knew zilch about.  I was here to learn about the wall, its history.  I want to get a better sense of the iron grip that tightened around east Berlin and eastern Europe and what that meant to the rest of world, and actually, humanity. 

We drove east from Holland on the Autobahn on the A2.  Pictured below is the Helmstedt-Marienborn which used to be the largest and most important border crossing in Germany.  Although closed for years, they still hold tours here.  (We didn't go on one).  

About an hour and a half later, we reached Berlin and upon entering this German capital, I could immediately feel a sense of foreboding.  It had an eeriness to it, and of course the weather that day was cold and gloomy, so I was not in an excitable mood.  We drove through nondescript, cold, pale buildings that still carried over from the communist time.  The buildings looked lifeless, empty, though I can tell from the simple white curtains, someone lived inside.  Buildings were meant to be functional, not aesthetic. In addition, to build social housing quickly and inexpensively, these buildings had to be utilitarian. Beauty encouraged liberalism and that is a gene-killer in a communist society.   

The Dutch had to go to a meeting while I was left to my non-German-speaking devices to explore this strange city.  To get my footing (or at least, attempt to), I go for what's familiar to me:  Food.  I made a beeline for the 6th level of KaDeWe, the biggest department store in continental Europe, where they have gourmet food from all over the world curated and waiting for your euros.  I just had my first-ever weinershnitzel at a local joint with The Dutch so although I would have died to indulge in one - any! - of the overwhelming display of every food group imaginable - from wine to chocolate to fish to foie to weinershnitzel to currywurst, I refrained.  Nobody has said a word to me or smiled at me yet at this point either so I put away the camera to avoid unwanted attention.  

My first German weinershnitzel, served with frites and saurkraut - not devoured from KaDeWe
I felt grounded a little bit knowing that Germans and I have at least one thing in common (food) so I mustered enough courage to wander away from the safe, womb-like warmth of KaDeWe and into soggy, drizzly, Berlin.  

I never do this anywhere but in a place like Berlin, I felt it was acceptable to hop on a tour bus.  Yes, the ghastly red, open-top ones, with voice-over recordings of major sights.  It cost 15 euro to hop on one and my problem is, I never got my ROI because as soon as I hopped off, I never really hopped back on.  I'm the type of traveler who learns by walking and I know I should have trusted my instincts that I'm just not cut out for tour buses.  

I didn't exactly jump out the first stop.  I think I might have been on the bus for a good ten minutes.  We were at a stop at Martin-Gropius-Bau Musuem when an Anish Kapoor poster caught my eye.  Must. Jump. Out.  

Kapoor is a sculptor with Indian roots.  If you've seen "The Bean" (official name: Cloud Gate) at the Millennium Park in Chicago, that's him.  I'm never one for modern art but there is something intriguing and beguiling in art expositions of splattered red wax on pristine walls, or a single black dot on a stark white wall.  And although I don't get it, not even close, I am fascinated by minds like Kapoor's.  I want to make the same transcendence, kind of like "Being John Malkovich", and get into that head.  
A photo I snuck of one of the art pieces.  I know, right?  
Next door to the Martin-Gropius-Bau is the "Topography of Terror".  Yes, it is as dark as it sounds.  It was the former site of the headquarters of the Gestapo, the Reich SS Leadership, and from 1939, the Reich Security Main Office.  It was destroyed in the war and was completely demolished in 1956.  Now it's a very modern building that serves as a free museum and resource center (there's even a library) about the terror brought on by the Nazi.  It is a very sad place to read about how many lives were changed, torn, ended - but that sadness doesn't make history less true. 

Just outside Topography of Terror is a long stretch of the Berlin Wall, actually, still the longest stretch of wall undemolished and still surviving today.  

The Berlin Wall went up, almost overnight in August 1961, to prevent east Berliners, then part of the Soviet GDR, from escaping into the free west.  The wall sealed the east from the west physically and ideologically (or at least in theory).  There were about 1200 escape attempts that ended in fatalities.     

It's so harrowing to even imagine how a single wall could make such a huge difference between liberty and repression.  I sometimes think the idea of borders - invisible lines on the ground - as absurd.  But here, a wall, this wall - concrete, impenetrable, formidable - is harsh, cold and cruel.  

Just steps away from Topography of Terror is another free museum offering great nuggets of history for eager learners like me - the Stasi Museum.  The Stasi is the secret police of the GDR, and with its extensive network of spies and informants (it could be your co-worker), who monitored and made arrests based on suspicious liberal behavior.  

Here's Checkpoint Charlie, former American border.

The sky opened up for just a brief second! A small section of the Berlin Wall on display (L) and Checkpoint Charlie
And here are some snippets from inside the GDR/DDR Museum.

This is an oversimplied building, pale, colorless, limp and lifeless on my walk to the Museum Island on a dreary afternoon.

Prior to the trip, I developed a brief obsession with the history surrounding the Berlin Wall.  Having seen what remains of it and how Berlin successfully broke away from a dark past is encouraging in the midst of a rapidly changing world politically.  

Ideologies change.  Walls do come down.  

Up next: Berlin's Museum Island 

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