I Love Berlin

Trip Start Jan 22, 2013
Trip End Jun 03, 2013

Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Saturday, February 16, 2013

I was going to put all of Germany in one post, but we have had such a great five days in Berlin that I didn't think I could squeeze it in with the rest of Germany, so here goes!

Berlin is such an incredible city. I have absolutely loved visiting here. Germany itself is linked to so many things I studied throughout school and university - some of the greatest composers and art movements have come from here, I learnt German for a few years at school, and a lot of 20th century history that I learnt about in school was based around this area. At school I loved Modern History and it has been really incredible to see all those places where all these major world events happened - things I had only read about, watched on video and researched and written assignments about. It's been so awesome to see the real places - it has really made the past come alive for me and I think I have rediscovered my love of history.

Berlin is not a very good looking city - it's not pretty, like Bergen, it's not overly modern and cutting edge in the way that parts of other cities are - but it is an absolutely fascinating place with so much history. The city itself has survived so much in the last century - two world wars where it was a major player (& lost both times), a huge recession, massive debt, the ongoing GFC, Nazism & Hitler, Communism, a divided city, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall - that it's a wonder it is doing as well as it is! Although there are obviously very ugly parts to Berlin's (and Germany's) history, it is really impressive to see how they have dealt with their ugly past in such a positive way. They are very open with the fact that many wrong things went on especially during World War Two and the rise of the "Third Reich" and they have made many steps towards healing and acknowledging the grim past. There are many memorials and museums about the terrible past, and German school kids are made to learn about Nazi Germany, the concentration and death camps, and they do not bury the things that went on. In many ways, they seem to keep it out in the open as if to remind themselves that this can never happen again.

We did a walking tour of the city the first day where we were here, and visited sites such as some small remains of the Berlin Wall and the former site of Hitler's bunker where he shot himself (impressively, the Germans have not made any official site for this - it has been turned into a carpark for a unit block and there is only a small plaque in the corner just to confirm that this is the area. This is to avoid any hero-worship - I certainly don't think he deserves any sort of positive recognition after what went on in Nazi Germany). We also visited a memorial to the Holocaust victims, which sits in the centre of Berlin, right near the Reichstag (German parliament). We learnt a lot about the history and our guide was fantastic. I didn't know a lot about the divide between East and West Berlin and so that was fascinating. I can't believe that the Soviets managed to basically get the wall up overnight in secret - must have been extremely distressing for the people of Germany. They've taken down most of the Communist parts to East Berlin since the Berlin Wall fell, but Ampelmann, the funny little red and green men at the traffic lights, have remained and gained cult-like status!

The second day we went out with the same guide (Posh Rob from New Berlin tours, if anyone is looking for a great tour guide!), out to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp museum and memorial. This is the actual site where the Nazis sent people they wanted to "re-educate" in order to create a "better" society. It was different to the death/extermination camps like Auschwitz (which were basically part of the Final Solution, and were just about mass killings), in that the original intention was to "re-educate" (at least, that's what they told people). Well, that's how it started, but in the end there were mass killings. It seemed crazy that they were able to keep all these people in without the prisoners attempting to escape - the ratio of guards to prisoners was very, very small - but they maintained power by separating the people into their groups on the inside and turning them on each other. It wasn't just Jews who were imprisoned, but also homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, political prisoners and criminals (hopefully I haven't missed any major groups). They managed to have a hierarchy of groups so that groups such as the criminals were treated better than the Jewish people. I guess that's how it "succeeded" in that the prisoners didn't try to escape. The conditions were absolutely appalling - torture techniques such as malnourishing and underfeeding the prisoners, making them stand out in the cold for hours on end for roll call in only thin cotton uniforms, overworking the prisoners. It's a wonder to me that anyone had the fortitude to keep going on in the terrible situations they were in - I honestly think that I wouldn't have had the resilience to keep going. What was also unbelievable to me was that there were people living right around it, who apparently had no idea what was happening - or at least, alluded to not knowing. Apparently the smell of death was so bad that people wrote in to the administration of the camp asking if they could stop the smell. The prisoners were allowed to write letters to their families outside of the camp, but those letters were read by the Nazi soldiers and so most of them had to write things such as, "I am fine. Looking forward to coming home." It's really sad that it took so long for something to be done, and so many people died before the place was shut down. Sachsenhausen was a terrible place but now it has been turned into a museum and memorial - I think this is a really important thing because if there's one thing we know from history is that it is very easy to repeat the mistakes of the past - and we shouldn't ever think that something like this could not happen again (or isn't happening at the moment in other places around the world). I think it's really easy to turn a blind eye (as I usually do) and not do anything when you see terrible things happen. This quote by one of the Sachsenhausen prisoners, pastor Martin Niemöller, has really stuck with me. (You probably know it. The exact wording is unclear but this is the agreed upon words from his foundation):

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

A huge challenge, and something I will take away from visiting Sachsenhausen, and will think about often.

The day after, we visited the Pergamon Museum, which includes not just the Pergamon Museum, but also the Museum of Islamic Art and the Middle Eastern Museum (the proper name for it I can't quite remember). This is an AMAZING museum! The Pergamon museum included rebuilds of ancient Pergamon, including the Pergamon altar, and the Market gate of Miletus, from archaeological digs. The middle eastern museum was my favourite, with a rebuild of the Ishtar Gate and the Procession of the Way in Babylon from the time of Nebuchadenezzar II, and the facade of his throne. It was amazing to think how they repieced parts of tiles found in archaeological digs to rebuild it (along of course with modern day replica tiles). Would have been a huge job! The museum of Islamic art also had some beautiful pieces and especially carpets from the past. Really enjoyed this place! Worth a visit if you go to Berlin!

After the Pergamon museum, we visited the Topography of Terror museum, a free museum set up in Berlin to recount the days of Nazi Germany, set on the original S.S. and Gestapo headquarters. This was really interesting (as well as obviously very sad and grim) and detailed the Nazi's rise to power, the propaganda at the time, the way the Third Reich operated, basically the whole history of this period of history. Lots of photos, original telegrams etc plus very good displays. Would be a great place to take history students - the teacher in me was thinking this would be a perfect Modern History excursion trip. Was really interesting, and again, good on the Berliners for not burying the terrible past, but being very open about it so hopefully they can learn from it and teach others about how easily this sort of thing can happen.

Berlin of course, is also a very fun city with fabulous nightlife. I really wanted to go to Berghain, probably Berlin's best techno club, but having looked at reviews on the net, it seems you can line for hours only to be rejected by bouncers because you speak English, or are too whatever looking - so not feeling brave enough to face rejection, we didn't bother. Instead we did a pub crawl and met some really fun people - went to different bars around Berlin, and then finished off in a club called Matrix. Of course, if you think about it, they're not going to take rowdy tourists to the coolest clubs, because then they are no longer the coolest clubs! But anyhoo, we had a lot of fun and met some interesting characters (one American chap who kept yelling that he "wasn't even buzzed" after the first pub, a stupid Australian guy wearing a t-shirt in the freezing Berlin night (why are the Australian tourists always the stupidest?), some nice Portugese and Irish guys and the very fun Polish guide who was laughing about how at 29 she really needs to get a real job and not run pub crawls anymore). Was a very fun night! Actually, if you are heading to Berlin, the Irish guy was telling us about this great pub crawl that takes you to the alternative places in Berlin and sounded really cool - he went to a ping pong bar, a goth bar - there is also a toilet bar, a flower power bar and a rave place in an old warehouse - that tour sounds really fun. I think it is called the anti pub crawl if anyone is interested - didn't get to do that as we ran out of time but would be fun for a laugh! There's also an alternative city walking tour which shows you the crazy alternative things in Berlin that would have been really interesting, but also ran out of time for. Another time, maybe, right? :-)

Also did some shopping in Berlin, drank some great beer, enjoyed beautiful Italian pizzas (in my opinion, German cuisine is not the best, but that's just me), and generally had a great time. The first two nights we stayed in this great backpacker place called Plus Hostels, where they have a bar, restaurant, pool, etc - very fun! The last three nights it was full so we went to this other hostel called DDR Design Ostel. Not knowing what DDR stood for, I thought it was a really weird place, with clocks in reception only displaying the times of Communist countries, the decor looking very East Berlin from the time of the Berlin Wall, a Communist flag displayed outside....was starting to get a bit freaked....then realised DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratic Republic, and the place is to replicate East Germany in the time of Soviet rule....ohhhhh. Ha ha. After that, felt much more comfortable!

Anyhoo, this has been a VERY long blog for one city (I guess you can tell I really liked it), so I will leave it here! Off to Leipzig on the train at the moment, home of Bach!

Love to you all! Aufweidersehn!
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