“You really need to drive this car with the roof open,” says Kerstin-Viktoria Flöge while she stops her vintage convertible Mercedes on the side of the Kurfürstendamm,Berlin’s busy shopping street. It turns out she’s right. Once the seat heating is on and I am packed under a faux fur blanket, Berlin comes to life. Now that the car roof is open, we can enjoy the new buildings, fancy shops and the one destroyed church that has been turned into a war memorial, so that no one will ever forget what happened in Berlin.
Bismarck and Marx, Einstein and Hitler, JFK and Bowie, they’ve all shaped Berlin, and the city’s richly textured history stares you in the face at every turn. This is a city that staged a revolution, was headquartered by Nazis, bombed to bits, divided in two and finally reunited – and that was just in the 20th century. We drive along remnants of the Berlin Wall, marvel at the parliament building,drive through Berlin’s hip shopping area, see East Berlin’s Soviet construction and realize Berlin is like an endlessly fascinating 3D textbook where the past is very much present wherever you go.
Berlin went from a royal city to a place of tragic history and then reinvented itself again as Europe’s hippest cultural center. While other destroyed European cities rebuilt themselves in the sixties and then went on with life, Berlin was divided up by a huge wall and tragedy continued. So it took forever to rebuild. In fact, Berlin is still not finished. “One German writer said, ‘Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being,"says Flöge and her tour certainly shows what he meant.
In its constant rebuilding, history is not something to be forgotten, it has to be included everywhere. Starting from the three thousands small gold ‘Stumbling stones’ in the sidewalk in front of the buildings where Jews were deported, to the modern shows in the rebuilt theaters that are never just for fun.
Mountains of Rubble
“Right after the war, the city was destroyed and there was so much rubble, that it was impossible to get rid of it all. So the government ordered all women to sort out the debris and use the leftovers to construct a mountainin the park, right on top of a military college, ”Flöge says, showing pictures of Berlin in ruins. Once the rubble was cleared, the East Germans built functional Soviet style apartments for the people while the West Germans tried to stay with the old styles.
Now it’s the turn of the old Prussian palaces to be renovated. In the morning, anInsider Tour Berlin walk took us around the Museum Island and Unter den Linden, all former East Berlin, and the place where all the royal buildings are. While Germany would also like to show about this more glorious part of its history, the WWIIkeeps infringing here also. The Nazi’s burned books on the university square, an event which meant the beginning of the end for many and is commemorated by a memorial that shows a room with empty bookshelves. The Prussian buildings surrounding Unter den Lindenwere all recently restored, and the government is even rebuilding a whole Prussian city palace.
Most tourist, however, come to see the remnants of the Berlin wall. Checkpoint Carlie, once a strictly guarded border crossing, has become an attraction where tourists can take pictures with fake American soldiers. Nearby, a disorganized museum shows all the things people did to escape from one side to the other side – building tunnels, hide under carseats or in suitcases, build flying machines. While on the other side of the road, artist YadegarAssini’s panorama aims to show visitors how most people just lived their normal lives right next to such an abnormal division of their city.
But that’s it for the tourist attraction, the rest of the neighborhood here features brand new office buildings. “You can imagine when the wall came down, Berlin had a huge piece of empty land right in the middle of the city,” Flöge explains. “So they used one part to build a memorial and the rest became brand new development.”
This constant rebuilding has made the city into one of the most popular entertainment centers in the world. Young people, international artists and entrepreneurs all continue to settle in the city and Berlin's nightlife has been celebrated as one of the most diverse and vibrant of its kind.
At night, it is the Roaring Twenties that are commemorated here, when Berlin was all about partying and enjoying life. Before the Second World War struck, the metropolis experienced its heyday as a major world capital of science and culture. Albert Einstein rose to public prominence during his years in Berlin, as did Christopher Isherwood, the British-American novelist whose work inspired the Hollywood musical Cabaret. The city was packed with bars, restaurants, dance halls, cabaret theatres offering shows and huge cinemas with full-sized symphony orchestras providing live musical accompaniment to the silent films.
Nightlife is something that was picked up very soon by the people of Berlin. In the seventies and eighties, Kreuzbergwas a center for punk musicand culture. After the fall of the Berlin Wallin 1989, many historic buildings in Mitte, the former city center of East Berlin, were occupied and re-built by young squatters and became a fertile ground for underground and counterculturegatherings. The central boroughs are home to many nightclubs. Clubs are not required to close at a fixed time during the weekends, and many parties last well into the morning, or even all weekend. One famous club, the Berghain features a bar that opens its shades at daybreak, allowing party-goers a panorama view of Berlin after dancing through the night.
Even some of the old variety theaters have come alive again, although their shows are quite different from what you might expect. In a reconstruction of the old and famous Wintergartentheater, there is now a show called LIKE Berlin with brilliant acrobats and great singing, all artists dressed like young people in jeans and t-shirts or as typical Berlin residents: party girls and streetcleaners. The show promised to discover the soul of Berlin, and does this with no more than a Giant B prop. One acrobatic act is carried out with an old wooden chair and four piles of books, and still manages to engage. You certainly do get a feel for the alternative, young, city watching this happy bunch of acrobats perform.
On the other side of town, there is the exact opposite. The rebuilt FriedrichstadtPalast, features an 11 million euros extravaganza of beautiful costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, a moving stage, and actors dressed in feathers hanging from the ceiling. No joking acrobats here, the whole show is devastatingly beautiful and serious. It follows a man’s dream about finding The One into different worlds, none of them particularly happy, but all creative, new and artistic.
Berlin is still a city brimming with a complex history, a vibrant arts scene and a myriad of cultural influences. David Bowie, who lived in the Schönebergneighborhood for two years, called the German capital"the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine."A culture which would not have developed without all this tragic history. No wonder the perpetual rebuilding people of Berlin are not about to forget their past.