A city with a lot of history…and so much more!
Berlin, Germany; a concrete jungle with a horrifying past and an ugly, long-lasting social and economic divide is the best description I can use to illustrate Berlin at face value. My trip to this city was an emotional eye-opener, to say the least. The purpose of the trip was to give myself a better understanding of the topic I would be writing my coursework on in History A Level; the Holocaust. But this trip and everything I did became much more relevant than getting contextual knowledge just for some essay. In fact, I would say with confidence, a lot of what I did in terms of visiting memorials and the such are integrated into German culture just as much as the typical sightseeing objects, like the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag.
Bristol to Berlin
On arriving into Berlin Schonfield Airport in the midsts of winter, the change of location from my home country, England, was evident through the frozen air which nearly knocked me out upon the first confrontation from the arrivals lounge all the way along the walk to the train station. I cannot say enough that if you go to Berlin in winter, wrap up five times more than you would at home because it is cold, really cold! A prominent point to make with not just Germany but most European countries, in general, is that their public transport is impeccable and actually made the many trips I took on the train during my time here quite enjoyable. Especially when I got to witness and ride the double-decker trains which aren't a common sight in England. The frequency and the affordability of public transport play to any visitor’s advantage as this mode of transport will be your go-to when commuting to all the sights you will want to see across Berlin that you can’t walk to unless you have very good walking boots and stamina to go with them.
Even on the outside of the centre, the traffic doesn’t stop and people still fill the streets at all times of night and day. I stayed on the outskirts of the city centre in a hostel on the doorstep of Hauptbahnhof Train Station. If you don’t mind slumming your trip a little in terms of accommodation, then it is the way forward as the money you may have been spending on that little bit nicer accommodation right in the city centre, can go towards day excursions and a few traditional Bratwursts in German restaurants. Fair warning, German beer is fantastic and like no other beer I have come across yet in my travels, but only in small doses! Additionally, being away from the main tourist attractions also allows you as a visitor to really understand Germany and its culture, not just the sights they sell to you. The values of the average German are similar to the English in the sense that they are very prim and proper in everything they do in order to reach perfection, which may explain why they appear at first quite curt and evasive but that is not the case. I found many of the German’s I came across to be really quite pleasant, but it does seem true when people say the Germans don’t joke around. Their dry sense of humour acted as a barrier at times but when it came to casual conversations and helping out some lost British tourists with a limited German vocabulary and very bad pronunciation (however hard I tried I just couldn’t seem to perfect it!), they couldn’t have been more friendly.
Central BerlinI encountered parts of Germany’s past with a walk through the Brandenburg gate on my way to a tour of the Reichstag. In between this short walk are placards and bricks marking where the infamous Berlin Wall stood that once separated East and West Berlin; a ghostly reminder of the continued hardships this country has had to face. I find it amazing still how much Germany infiltrates its history into the country we know today, for example, the Reichstag still stands as a meeting place for the German Parliament. The tour I took of the Reichstag exploited the most phenomenal views of Berlin under the night sky through the glass roof. A little warning for those that fancy this activity and are afraid of heights, don’t worry I’m in the same boat as you! Walking up the slope that winds around in circular motions allowing you to see how high you were was terrifying and ended with me actually crawling to the top but the views I was faced with made it all worth it. Another sightseeing monument of Germany’s past would be Checkpoint Charlie which I personally felt was quite underwhelming, I expected more but it is a part of a history and it is what it is so it’s worth a photo to put in that album you will most definitely be making of your trip to Germany. Present and past intertwine again with a train ride to Osbanhof to witness the amazing East Side Gallery, or in other terms, the remains of the Berlin Wall that have been transformed into controversial and astounding pieces of artwork. Its transformation of what was once a barrier into a gateway for opening your mind and thoughts is truly amazing and has a sweet unity to it. It also goes on for metres, 1316 metres to be exact. This is where those good walking shoes and stamina I mentioned earlier comes into play, as I learnt when I was just about ready to collapse and I was hardly half-way! The future of Germany was not to be found where the past and present had so far been found, on the ground. I found the promise of a better future for Germany within the buzz of modernisation that lingered with the cranes and hoists dotted on the Berlin skyline waiting to develop and carry Germany alongside its European counterparts as the 21st century progresses. If you get a chance to go to Berlin before they change what was prior to the wall coming down, East Germany, then it is worth a walk to see the blatant physical differences between East and West of which the country still hasn’t recovered from.
My first excursion on the list was Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Predominantly a work labour camp but that didn’t save the 50,000 people that lost their lives here. The setting is vast and empty and the reality of the nightmares the victims of the Holocaust had to face on a constant basis just in this camp solely, took a while for me to process and recognise the harsh reality of what occurred. I don’t think even now, 8 months after my visit, I fully recognise the atrocities that happened.
A monument commemorating more lives lost in Germany’s past was the Memorial for Homosexuals, an abstract form of art that you could easily overlook for another art piece among the many that occupy the modernising city. Opposite is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, not a landmark that is as easily missed but its meaning could be to an uninformed visitor. The experience itself of walking through the growing pillars and dips in the ground that suddenly raise you up and above the ground again was very disorientating for me, as I think was the purpose of it. From the timeline that wrapped the walls to the projected letters on the floor that displayed the thoughts of innocent children off to camps or trapped in the ghettos, it all worked together to create what I found to be a truly heartbreaking experience that really honed into reality the strong prejudices people objectified onto others just because of how they stereotyped them in the past.
A mixture of German past and present I think is best displayed at The Jewish Museum. I found this museum in particular, exceedingly fascinating as it combined the horrors of the holocaust with modern art, a bitter-sweet combination I instantly fell in love with. I’m not an arty person and I still found most of the pieces easy enough to comprehend and appreciate even with my lack of skills in interpreting art so it really is for everyone.
Outside of the City Centre
I found the whole week to be an emotional rollercoaster, if you hadn’t guessed by now, adapting from a sensitive topic to enjoying being in a foreign city and being the typical tourist. Outside of the city centre is Wannsee House. Now, this was the worst for determining my emotions in with its immensely beautiful setting and horrific past as I so badly wanted to love where we were but it’s past made me hate it that much more. Another love-hate relationship I shared with a piece of history was Platform 17, otherwise known as the Platform of Deportations. Again, it’s past sickened me but to see another cultures way of paying their respects to their dead as the Jews do by placing stones on the list of deports, similar to how we place flowers on our dead’s graves, was heart-warming and gave me hope that someday people will focus on the similarities between us instead of the differences. Both are difficult to get to as they are not central Berlin so don't have as easy access to, but if you don't mind putting in that extra effort of taking a few bus and train journeys to go off the beaten track, then I strongly advise you give both these places a visit.
Conclusion on Berlin
I still haven’t even listed the half of what I did on this trip because it is a city that has endless amounts of possibilities on what you can do, both modern and old. I had an incredible experience, to learn so much, even if the majority was completely heartbreaking, and to get so much done in such a short space of time really gave me what I felt to be the German experience. Museums are a high recommendation but choose them wisely as there is always the possibility that you will become desensitised to the reality of the Holocaust and the unfortunate events of German history due to the repetitive facts they bombard you with. In terms of sightseeing, there are so many different sights to see, from churches to the Neptunbrunnen to the monuments or Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, so there's not even a chance that you'd get bored quickly!