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My Favorite International Cities #7 - Berlin

First published September 22, 2021 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and

Although reluctant in early life to go to Germany, duty, conventions, tourism and daughter Stephanie all called. By now I have been to Berlin 10 -15 times. It has grown on me to become one of my favorite cities. In particular, I love its “wide open” spaces (1/3 of the city is green space), the determination and hard charging attitude of the people and its general modern spirit of gusto teeming with about 4.5 Million people in its Metro. Come with me for a brief history and tour.

Of course, Berlin was damaged in World War II, not as severely as Dresden nor Frankfort, but now rebuilt and thriving, even surviving with renewed vigor the Communist division of 1945 to 1991 (but all foreign troops not withdrawn until 1994) with its fatigue and drabness, mostly with American, Arab States, Russian, Japanese and Chinese money. The Berlin Wall, built by the Russians to keep Germans in East Berlin, fell in 1989. Berlin is proud to be once again the capital city of all Germany since 1999. See “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall” Morning News, July 3, 2018.

Germania attracted Roman attention about 100 BC with later famous excursions and conquest by Julius Caesar and Augustus. But the Romans were interested in the natural resources, in access to water, in a northern land buffer for Italy, in trade routes and for country retreats; besides they really didn’t want large gathering of peoples, and so developed no large cities. The Germans were at first pleased with Roman influence and embraced the Romans, moving south and joining the Roman legions. As Roman influence wanned the Germany peoples fought among themselves, against the Romans and against their Western neighbors to form the Franks or Franco-Germanic peoples, with influence waxing and waning between local and regional leaders. In the 800’s some regional capital cities were built mainly for trade as the economies were still basically agrarian. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was able to gather many French/German tribes together into what was called the “Holy Roman Empire” or as he preferred “The Empire of the Franks and the Lombards;” over the years he found himself fighting not the Roman Empire, but rather the Roman Church. Eventually, Slavic tribes from the east also mixed in with the Saxons and Franks to the west; even today many towns in the eastern part of Germany have slavish names.

Berlin began as a city in the 1200’s with the combination of Spandau, Koepenick and Colln nestling themselves along the banks of the Spree River. It became the center for the Elector of Brandenburg in 1415 and reinforced by the Hohenzollern family to become the center of their Elector government that eventually became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701; incredibly the family ruled until 1918 (longevity akin to the Medici in Florence, Italy). The family began building projects including Berlin (the City) Palace in 1451. The Lutheran revolution disturbed the city, but by 1539, the city and the government was solidly Lutheran. The Thirty Years War devastated Berlin; the war can be simplified and portrayed as partly Catholic vs Protestant, partly a German civil war, and partly Northern Europe vs Southern Europe – it was finally ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The war destroyed about a third of Berlin and it lost about half of its population to death and emigration. Curiously, in order to rebuild Berlin, the Elector Frederick William issued the 1685 Proclamation of Potsdam to encourage immigration to Berlin of Huguenots from all over Europe to avoid Catholic persecution and by 1700 30% of the city was French, plus other immigrants from Bohemia, Poland, and Salzburg. Rebuilt and successful again by 1701 the family named Berlin the new capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, Frederick III, of Brandenburg declared himself then to be the new King, Frederick I of Prussia. The Berlin land area was increased with amalgamation with Freiderichasweder, Freidrichastadt and Dorotheesnstadt. By 1740 the city was successful enough to be consider the center of the Enlightenment (think Immanuel Kant and later, German Higher Criticism – curiously, still resonating today, the City birthed the Critical Race Theory philosophy, from 1927-1937) and to attract temporary military occupation by Russia (Seven Years War (what Americans call the French and Indian Wars), 1762) and Napoleon (1806). The Industrial Revolution cemented Berlin as the most important German City and in 1871 it was named the Capital of all Germany.

Both the architecture and economy of Berlin flourished after the two World Wars. The whole county is proud of their government center the Reichstag and their cultural achievements in the arts, theater and architecture. The population zoomed to about 4 million and despite political turmoil became ever richer as a tourist center and the physical spirit of the Roaring Twenty’s (see the movie, Cabaret, and the novel series, the Berlin Stations by David Downing) stretching into the 30’s. Albert Einstein of Berlin, won a Novel Prize for Physics in 1921. The Berlin economy now is dominated by the service sector, with around 84% of all companies doing business in services. Important economic sectors include life sciences, transportation, information and communication technologies, media and music, advertising and design, biotechnology, environmental services, construction, e-commerce, retail, hotel business, and medical engineering.

Begin your Berlin tour at the Brandenburg Gate, built in the 1700s to mark the road to Brandenburg, now one of Europe’s most famous architectural landmarks. To one side is the Reichstag with the Bundestag (Parliament) with both old and new buildings, some of modern, striking glass and the other as above, surviving the Nazis. To the other is a solemn Memorial to the Holocaust (the Memorial to the Killed Jews of Europe) with solid stone coffin-like blocks, all in different sizes, but even so, also smile as the children climb over them, unawares of the dreadful events of the 1930-1940s. Berlin has enabled bronze bricks/pavers throughout the City to mark the address of all exported Jews from the Holocaust. Basically, part of the same complex are monuments to the Berlin Wall with slabs still standing and preserved with appropriate text. Curiously, the new American embassy is RIGHT THERE, too, but deliberately across the line in the old east or at least straddling the two old sectors. And along some side streets, mounds of grass along the route of the Wall built up to its old height, now playgrounds for children and picnic spots. And within just a block or so is the old Checkpoint Charlie (guarded crossing betwixt East and West), now with volunteer actors and several private museums, all great for pictures.

Just along the canal behind the Brandenburg Gate looms the old Berlin City Palace, now a great museum of both art and lost kingdoms. Nearby loons the Dom Berlin, the old, still magnificent Catholic Church, but no longer Catholic, of course, basically a museum piece with marvelous and amazing interior art and architecture. Further along this direction opens the old Center of the East German Government, now much changed, some buildings taken down, but with dour architecture reflecting a dour and oppressive regime, now past. By the way the hotels in the old east sector are great and bit cheaper than in the west (I prefer, don’t laugh, Best Western and Dorint).

Now turn back to the opposite side of the Bundestag, across the great park (the Tiergarten), a huge collection of high quality museums: the Bauhaus, the Musical Instruments, Haus Der Kultrum, KPM, the Berlin State Museums (5), the Collectors Rooms, the Film Museum and the Science Center. Set aside at least two days for these visits. Go to Museum Island on the north end of Spree Island, for even more museums; the Berlin State Museums (6), the Humbolt Box and the Islam Museum . You really can’t miss the area of the Charlottenburg Castle: the Abyuss, the Berlin State Museums (4), the Brohan, the Photography Museum, the Villa Oppenheim, the Palace, Das Verborgene, the Kerunik and the Museum of Architecture. We also love the Train Museum.

Now if you really like to walk, go back to the Gate and trek the Great Park towards the magnificent Column to Victory; feel free to wander among the adjoining shrubs and forest; free yourself, relax. Somewhere within the forest is also Europe’s most famous and important Zoo. It’s easy to see the landmark Berlin Radio tower along the way. But you also can use the marvelous public transport tram and subway system (called the U-train and the S-train).

My teenaged boys loved the new City ExpoCenter (the Messe Berlin) particularly after I fell asleep, but so did I, even by day, with great stores, restaurants, several dramatic ,office towers and a few more museums. Ignore that it was all built with Japanese money to worship their cars, electronics and stores. The Convention Center is also here, and once I almost talked my way, with some old tickets, into the famous International Film Festival, passing through two levels of guards, but thwarted at the very doors themselves – oh, well, I got to watch some famous people pass by.

Keep this paragraph a secret, please. But it’s “neat” that you can visit the old Gestapo and KGB/Stasi offices; for a while the old Russian paperwork was actually left in place, well not all of it, now secured in vaults. These old offices are only six blocks apart. But the west did discover the unfortunate end of Raoul Wallenberg through the old files. I also like the Russian Memorial Park in Treptower Park with fascinating stonework, some history of the USSR and Russia and memorials including to their unknown soldier and a striking statute of a weeping, comforting “Mother Russia”; the Russians suffered 7,000 dead and 80,000 wounded in the Battle of Berlin. All this despite their evil treatment of Wallenberg.

I love German food, even those dishes turned aside by most Americans. Be sure to visit any neighborhood restaurant you wish, they are all excellent, but my usual compulsive memory fails me on the names. Typical of the well organized German, many restaurants have tourist sections, some with rooms or areas where they only use English menus (but beware, the prices are often higher on the English menus – do not ask for English menus, German words are mostly “English like”) and some even have rooms just for schnitzel. The Germans still love beer, although their white wines can be excellent, and wine is rising in popularity; you can buy draft beer in huge steins or even tall pipes that loom over your table. There are restaurants that they call “gartens” that serve only beer, or only wine, along with some food, often schnitzel or brats with spatzle or bread…these places are great in warm weather with large outdoor serving areas, but more common in southwest Germany, rather than Berlin.

And save one day for Potsdam. We remember it for the Potsdam Conference and the Church of Peace. Potsdam was the old capital of the German Empire, once mighty and rich, ruling much of Europe since about 200 years before WW II (Germany, Austria (although Austria might say it ruled Germany - Vienna is on our tour, soon), parts of Russia, France, Northern Italy, Denmark, and some of the Balkans). The palaces are magnificent, gathered around a central plaza, and almost overwhelming particularly the Sanssouci, competing with Louis XIV Versailles, Peter the Great, Nero and Solomon.

Take two pairs of shoes and lots of film or camera chips.

Auf Wiedersehen…for now.

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