Date: Monday, November 29, 1999 8:21 PMDoug McLean World Tour 1999-2000Back Home Next
Subject: Nov. 5-6, 1999: Berlin
Current Date/Location: November 29, 1999 in Jarrell, Texas...home sweet
Itinerary: Getting itchy feet...should be leaving for South America on
Wednesday or Thursday.
November 5, 1999
Kathleen and I took the train from Dresden to Berlin.
Arriving in Berlin, I could see that the rumors were true...Berlin is currently the largest construction site in the World! This year, Berlin has resumed it's position of being the seat of government for a unified
Germany...it had been Bonn after WWII and during the cold war. The relocation of the government to Berlin is sparking an already huge construction boom. There are probably 75 to 100 huge cranes that can be seen on the Berlin skyline.
We checked into our hostel (Central Youth Hostel...only virtue is it is near the Zoo Trainstation...other than that...nothing to write home about) and then went walking around the city. We walked through the Brandenburg Gate (site of the Berlin Wall celebrations) and visited the new Reichstag (new capital). The Reichstag has an amazing glass dome ontop that has a wonderful view of Berlin. We walked around the city some more...down the "Unter den Linden" (Under the Lemon Trees) street where Hitler used to love to have tanks on parade (not many Lemon Trees left...another casualty of Nazism)...visited a museum that had an interesting photographic exhibition...it showed pictures of German politicians taken each year since they took their posts...showing both the effects of aging and stress on these people...quite interesting. Hard to describe...but Berlin certainly has an energy about it that is unmistakeable. We crashed...had to have an early start the next day...walking tour!
November 6, 1999
We left the hostel and walked toward the Zoo trainstation to catch our walking tour. Along the way, we saw the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirche Church...it is left as a stark reminder of war. This church was hit by a bomb on November 22, 1943...it has been left in it's bombed condition to remind Berlin and the world about the carnage of war.
We met up with our tour and our tour guide, Hannah, at the trainstation and we were off! We took the U-Bahn to get us closer to the main sites of the city and saw the Berliner Dom, National Gallery, and other museums. Hannah related some interesting stories:
During the final days of WWII, Berlin saw one of it's saddest moments...as the Russians moved to take the city of Berlin, Hitler armed old men and children and ordered them to fight the Russians in the streets (all the "fighting age men" were already away at war, dead, or captured)...this led to a slaughter of inexperienced old men and boys in the streets of Berlin...the ones that were captured were sent away for years in POW camps the same as they would have done to soldiers...many would never return
We visited a monument called Neue Wache...it is a monument to the victims of fascism and despotism that is the shell of big building that had been a guardhouse...only the walls and a roof remain...the interior is bare, except for a single bronze sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz called "Mother and Dead Son". It shows a woman holding her son...trying to shelter him as he dies. This sculpture is under a big hole in the roof that allows rain, snow, and the elements to affect the statue...showing that there is little shelter
from tyranny...very moving.
We also visited an amazing memorial...that could almost be overlooked...but I am glad we didn't. In the middle of Bebelplatz (a square near National Library and Humbolt University) is the site where on May 10, 1933 the Nazis held their first book burning...the spot where the Nazis made one of their earliest attempts to condemn and destroy beliefs that were not consistent with their own. On this spot an estimated 20,000 books were burned. As Hannah described, one of the regrettable facts was that the books were pulled from the library and the University by not only the Nazis...but also the educators, students, and staff...the Nazi ideology and terror was even affecting the "enlightened" people of the times...a sad commentary. On that site is an amazing memorial...on the surface, it seems to be a glass window in the ground...when you look down through the glass, you see a large room...painted completely white with empty bookshelves imbedded into the outer walls.
Hannah explained some of the symbolism associated with the memorial: Obviously it is intended to represent a tomb or grave for those books that were burned, it is estimated that the 20,000 books would fit on all the shelves in this room, there is also no entrance or exit to the room...the glass completely seals the room...the shelves can never be filled...the books are lost forever, she also explained that there is a light that is always on within the room and illuminates the shelves day and night...and at night it gives the impression of light emerging from the ground to symbolize that although the books are in a grave...the illuminating light of knowledge can never be extinguished...that they will never die. The last note was
that if you stood directly ontop of the glass and looked into the memorial/tomb...you would only see the white floor...and in the daylight, this blank background allows the glass to serve as a mirror...so all you
really see is yourself...and you are left to wonder "What would I have done?", "Could/Would I have done this?"...it is a pretty heavy memorial...the walking tour was worth the money just for these insights.
(NOTE: In my travels I have never regretted taking the "Walking tour" of a city...gives you insights and history that you would not otherwise get...save money in other areas when you travel...you owe it to yourself to know what you are seeing. That said...don't take the cushy-ultra-touristy tourbus that insulates you from what you are seeing if you can at all help it...experience it as you learn about it!).
Hard to go to Berlin and not be fascinated by the history...now, I am not here to reinvent history books...if you want accuracy in history, I am not your source...but I fell compelled to include information that I learned on this trip that interested me...sorry for the history lesson...it's my journal and I'll throw history in it if I want to!
OK...some History: After WWII, Germany was split into 4 zones (French, USA, English, and Russian)...and Berlin (which is located in East Germany) was also split into 4 zones. After the start of the Cold War, Berlin basically became East and West...and was literally an island of the West in the middle
of Eastern Germany. The Russians tried to blockade Berlin (June 1948-May 1949) to force the US, French, and British to leave...due to the great airlift kept West Berlin going until the blockade was lifted...this also served to galvanize support for the USA in West Berlin...the same planes that had been bombing them a few years earlier were now being used to keep West Berlin from falling to the Russians...a great political move on all accounts. Well, this island of Western ideas and freedom allowed over 4 million East Germans to defect to the West (1945-1961)...these people were generally more educated, young, and wealthy...exactly the type of people that you would want to lose if you were hoping to run a productive economy and country...West Berlin acted like an arrow of democracy in the heart of Communism and it was literally bleeding the life-blood out of East Germany. Anyway, in August 1961the East German government (under approval from Russia) erected The Berlin Wall. Initially it was a small wall...but over the years was replaced by higher, stronger walls...and a "death strip"...there were really 2 walls...the one that was at the border to the West, and one that kept the East Germans in...inbetween the 2 walls was a "No Man's Land" that was literally a death strip...if you were in that area from August 1961 until November 9, 1989...you could consider yourself dead...orders were to shoot to kill.
Fall of the wall: ....long story...don't have time or the attention
span...but to summarize, Gorbachev in Russia had problems of his own. He told the Eastern Block countries in Europe that they were now left to govern on their own people with little oversight from Russia...there was considerable confusion for sometime among the various countries. Hungary
first opened their borders to the west...and when Russia did not respond to stop this, the people of Germany started to do 2 things...defect via Hungary to the West...and to protest. Some of the biggest protests were in Lepzig and Dresden. Anyway, the East German government was trying to slow the
growing uprising and were going to allow some limited travel to the West...in a pretty huge public relations blunder, some politician uttered a collossal misstatement of "Travel to the West will be allowed...as far as I know, immediately" (probably not an exact quote...deal with it)...the East Berliners heard this and went nuts! ...immediately went to the border crossings and asked that they be allowed to go to the West as they had heard on TV...one problem...the poor 21 year old military guards had not heard anything about it...it was a little tense for a while...but finally, one of the guards opened a gate...and the party was on! Berlin has not been the same since. I think that history will give much credit to Gorbachev (and F.W. de Clerk for his efforts in South Africa...but that is a different story) for allowing power to go back to the people in a relatively bloodless change of power from the old ways to the new world order.
Construction in Berlin: The site of most of the construction is the old "death strip". It is amazing, imagine being a city planner who is just given a gift of an extra 150 meters of "new land" that is suddenly available
for development...in the MIDDLE OF THE CITY!!! Yes...it is quite a building bonanza right now...and if you go, the big pink pipes above the ground are to drain groundwater out of the construction sites...Berlin is kinda built on swampy land...go figure. Now, this reclaimed territory is also creating problems...it is ofcourse on the site of where the old wall was...much of which has been torn down, sold, or claimed as souvenirs...there is actually very little left of the original Berlin Wall left...and what remains is in
danger of being bulldozed in the name of progress...many historians are wanting to keep some of it as a monument...many Berliners want it completely erased off the map and out of their minds...we'll see what happens. I believe that if we are allowed to forget the past, we are doomed to repeat our failures (famous quote...not mine...of unknown origin. Probably not an exact quote...you get the gist.).
Another source of controversy is how to commemorate 6 million dead Jews. Another thing I learned while in Germany was that during WWII Land has been set aside for a Jewish Holocaust Memorial...but how the heck do you design
something that speaks of unspeakable horror??? I would hire the person who designed the Memorial to the 20,000 burned books...they seemed to have some insight of how to immortalize the unthinkable...
OH...yeah...wouldn't want to forget about Hitler! ...OK, here is the short story about how a very short, irritating man took control of a big country and unleashed his brand of terror on the world. In 1933 (remember, the year of the Nazi book burnings...), the Nazis increased their strength in general
elections and Hitler was appointed as Chancellor. OK...now is where he gets tricky...when the Reichstag (capital building) burned down the Nazis blamed the Communists. Now, most historians generally agree that it was probably the Nazis who burned down their own Reichstag...WHY YOU ASK??? Well, I'll
tell you...it allowed Hitler as Chancellor to declare that the Communists constituted a National Emergency/Threat...so as Chancellor, he dissolved the parliament/congress and assumed absolute control as the Fuhrer (leader) so they could combat the Communist Threat...they found one poor guy, accused him of burning the building and executed him. NOTE: The way their constitution was written at the time, Hannah said that the method in which Hitler grasped power was legal (shaky reasons, but legal)...I am assured that the constitution has been rewritten....and the rest, as they say...is history...
Hmmmm...speaking of history...to work chronologically in reverse order (why not???)...the short version of why the Nazis came to power is to some extent the fault of the USA. Yes...after WWI, the Germans were forced to pay war reparations and were basically left as a destitute country that was told it should have no worth or value. Now, humans do not like to think that they are worthless...so when a funny little man arrived on the scene who said that they were great and that all the problems were really because of the Jews...well...they fell in line right behind that goose stepping idiot named Hitler...the outcome was scary. Hmmmm...ever heard of the Marshall Plan after WWII...why do you think the USA threw money at Germany and Japan to get them rebuilt after the war...hmmmm...kinda helps me wrap up my
discussion about learning from past mistakes...and how we treat our enemies is an example of our humanity that may influence them to be our friends in the future...deep, eh??? This stuff never really hit home in history class...but when you visit these areas...it kinda comes together.
OK...I am skipping around historically...but I want to relay one of the funniest stories I heard on my entire trip...and it involves an American using their questionable language skills in a foreign country and suffering for it...what could be further from the truth???!!!
Just after the Berlin Wall was built, US President John F. Kennedy, Jr. visited and made a historic speech. It involved how the USA and all the free world was there in support of the Berliners, how the USA has never had to wall in our citizens, and how we feel for you Berlin! At this point, the President wanted to relate that he was the same as them...that he was a Berliner! OK...so at the end of his speech, our President said:
"Ist bin ein BERLINER!!!"
Now, it is obvious that he wanted to say, "I am a Berliner!" (meaning a person from Berlin). However, it is not commonly known that slang in Berlin for a jelly doughnut is "Berliner"...so using this interpretation, our
President stood infront of a crowd of millions, on live television, and in front of the Brandenburg Gate and declared loudly,"I am a JELLY DOUGHNUT!!!!"
Ahhhhh...you gotta love languages and cultural differences! The Russians did not see the need to surrender to a jelly doughnut, so the Berlin Wall remained standing until 1989. Needless to say, I can not speak much German, but out of respect to JFK, I immediately learned this quote and used it continuously for the rest of my stay in Germany (I even have a picture of me with a real Berliner...it was very tasty...)...Kathleen was very amused with this new habit of mine. JFK was understood by the masses...but the media lampooned him mercilessly the next day with caricatures (sp?) of him as a
Jelly Doughnut...sometimes you just can't win!
We then visited "Checkpoint Charlie" as the final stop on the tour. As some of you may know...and others don't...this was the most visible crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin. I took a picture infront of the famous sign saying "You are now leaving the American Sector".
This was the end of the walking tour...but then, the tour guide said that we could receive a free coke from a local deli if we used a coupon in our brochure...now, you coulda pushed me over with a feather when she said that the deli's name was Schlotzsky's!!!!! Now, for those of you who have never visited Texas (PAGANS!!!)...you must understand that this is an Austin, Texas based deli sandwich restaurant...ahhhhh...they have the best sandwiches. For all of you in the world who believe that all American food is bland, uninteresting, and similar to McDonalds, I challenge you to say the same after visiting the Texas Flagship Sandwich Shop in Berlin...SCHLOTZSKY'S!!! We went there for a late lunch after the tour...and it is the only place in all of Europe that gives you a cup and allows you to get FREE REFILLS of Coke and other softdrinks!!! YES!!! Free Refills in Europe!!! Ahhhhhh.... I don't think I am speaking too much for Kathleen when I say that she was VERY impressed with the place (we ended up
having dinner and breakfast there...but alas...I am getting ahead of myself). Did I mention that they have incredible sandwiches??!!! Really, it was like being home again...but this Schlotzsky's served beer
on-tap...hmmmm...many of my Texas friends may defect to Berlin just to visit the perfect Schlotzsky's.
OK...so we walked around for a while...then went to the Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie. This is basically a museum that testifies to how people tried to escape East Germany. Going under the wall, over the wall, through the wall, or by hiding in things such as suitcases, cars, disguises, or by driving past the guards...the escapes were impressive...the failures were very sad. It is a great place to visit and I highly reccomend it.
We met up with 5 other people from the walking tour and went back to Schlotzsky's for dinner...did I mention that this is a GREAT place??!!! And, not to mention...it is pretty darned hard to find a Schlotzsky's outside of Texas (there is one in San Diego that I know of...)...so finding one in Berlin is a pretty spectacular find! Anyway, this group of Americans and Canucks were also very impressed with Schlotzsky's...see...we DO have culture. Anyway...we ended up hanging out with the group...going back to their hostel...and going out dancing at a club called Delicious Doughnuts Research...no kidding! I figured it was a monument to JFK...so we partied like it was 1999.
Called it a late night...crashed back at the hostel.