Snackpoint Charlie

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Germany  ,
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Snackpoint Charlie

The Berlin Wall came down such a long time ago, and the reunification of East and West Germany to become the modern Germany is easily forgotten by some today. These events happened in our lifetimes, making them very significant to us and yet strangely difficult to explain to our children.

Gailen and Stirling had no frame of reference, as they knew little or nothing about American and Soviet armies in Germany, the division of Germany after WWII, the Berlin airlift, the Berlin Wall, or the Reunification. The Holocaust they already know some about, having visited the Holocaust Museum in New York. Laura and I are interested in modern German history, and Berlin gave us a great opportunity for a living history lesson - not just for the kids, but for us as well.

We didn't have to wait long. Stepping out of the train station we were within sight of the Reichstag, and managed to visit this site as four of the first visitors of the day. Highly recommended idea, as there were already queues out to the plaza and grounds by the time we left. I'd say there was no waiting, but there is a brief wait while German security has a look at you through the giant glass doors before pushing a button to allow you to enter.

The Reichstag was the seat of Germany's elected parliament, and powerful symbol of democracy in this country. The Reichstag was burned in 1933, and the puppet parliament of the Third Reich met in an Opera house. It was noted that Hitler never set foot in the Reichstag.

The original dome was lost, and the new one that has been built as part of renovation and reconstruction is rather impressive. The modern glittering glass and mirrored dome integrates surprisingly well into the older Reichstag structure. Walkways allow visitors to climb for amazing views of Berlin, although just walking the roof of the Reichstag is great for this.

Other Holocaust museums and memorials I have seen cover the Jewish extermination by Germany along with Roma, Gypsy, Homosexuals, and others killed in the camps. Here in Berlin, one block from Hitler's bunker death site (now a parking lot), there is no mincing of words about what Hitler and company did to the Jews of Europe. The official title says it all:

"Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe"

This is designed as sea of unmarked tombs over undulating ground, and allows visitors to get lost inside the passages that fall down between the tall structures (as unfortunately Gailen did). The underground memorial museum is very well designed, presenting high both level geographic and statistical overviews alongside very personal presentation of family stories. I learned a great deal from visiting that I did not already know:
Jews from such far-away places as Norway, Spain, Finland, and Greece were executed by the Nazis, the scale of what took place in Poland was jaw dropping and far exceed what was done in Germany (around 3 million killed at the major death camps), that victims in many camps were slowly gassed using exhaust fumes (not the Zyklon-B gas that we read about in textbooks), and that almost all of Europe was blanketed with Nazi concentration camps, prison camps, or death camps. A very ugly chapter in human history, indeed, and disturbing to think about mass killing which still takes place today (think Darfur, for example).

Berlin has been on a decade-long construction binge, and there are many new and modern areas of the city. The Potsdammer Platz area has been internationally recognized as a business and entertainment center, with a big enclosed plaza known as the Sony Center (popular for film premiers). This area was an old center of Berlin where several avenues come together, including the old road from nearby Potsdam. Divided by the Berlin Wall, neither East Berlin nor West Berlin wanted to invest in this area. Since the wall fell, the area has become home to major office towers and entertainment. One would never know the wall existed here except for the markers in the street and a handful of preserved concrete wall panels.

Those who don't remember the wall may think it was one barrier, but in reality it was two concrete walls - one built on the border between the West and East sides of the city, and another built deeper into East Berlin. The wall was quite wide in some places, so many structures, including a prominent church, were demolished to make room. This church is now being rebuilt.

The area in between the two concrete walls was known as the "Death Strip" and included barbed wire, electrified fencing, guard towers, and East German guards with shoot-to-kill orders. Many East Germans lost their lives trying to get over, under, or through this barrier to reach the west side of the city. There were some successful escapes, but there were many tragic deaths as well. We saw a memorial to the last young man to lose his life in the Death Strip, which happened a mere three months before the wall came down.

Americans like to credit Regan-presidency policies towards the Soviet Union with the fall of the wall, including his famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech, but closer inspection reveals something far more complicated with a strong German participation (let's not forget, it was Germans who tore down the wall after all). Germans were already moving towards this goal, having lived for decades under division. From what we read in Germany, the locals give just as much credit to a plea from Bruce Springsteen during a concert a few days beforehand for creating helping stir the population to act when they did.

Soviet President Gorbachev is widely respected in the west for opening the Soviet Union and making peace with former enemies. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, which was coldly received in Russia where his legacy is viewed very differently. 'Damning with faint praise' came to mind when reading the Russian reports and viewing speech footage about this prize at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. The Soviet superpower collapsed on his watch, creating a loss of influence, massive loss of territory, and economic chaos. Just like liberation events in Estonia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and eastern-bloc nations, the opportunity in Berlin is partially related to a preoccupation on difficult domestic events in the USSR at that time.

Berlin's modern history is harsh, but the modern city is not. This was our chance to catch up mentally with Berlin, since we sadly haven't seen or heard very much about it in U.S. media since the reunification. Strange for such an important and dynamic capital city, with such a high profile in Europe, but not that unusual for U.S. news media (which have closed most of their foreign bureaus over the last 20 years and now share pool reporters).

Checkpoint Charlie was the Cold War border crossing through the Berlin Wall between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin. This place was the stuff of spy legends, prisoner exchanges, novels, and films. We dropped in to see what was left of Checkpoint Charlie, and had quite a laugh at what has become of this imfamous security zone. Long vanished, it has been rebuilt as a tourist zone complete with the American guard shack and the warning sign about leaving the American Zone. Added are few embellishments, like the tall buildings crammed with souvenir shops, the American and Soviet "guards" posing for photos and offering souvenir passports stamps, or such high-end dining establishments as Snackpoint Charlie. We couldn't even recognize that this place once had a wall or a checkpoint; nowadays it has far more in common with a major mall food court and/or an airport gift shop.

The Pergamon museum has a good collection of Greek antiquities from the Pergamon Altar and nearby sites. What was left of the Pergamon is presented here in entirety, and some of the surviving sculpture is magnificent. They also have a good collection of artifacts from ancient Babylon, along with a great new exhibit we enjoyed about the myths that have been built up regarding Babylon over the centuries.

I have been listening to and collecting electronic music from Europe most of my life, and Berlin is an epicenter for this. Many important recording in my collection came from the Hansa Studios near the Berlin Wall, and countless other artists came from here or in a radius from here around northern Europe. We found some very elaborate street musicians here including a pretty cool duo set up with a stroller-mounted PA system, keyboards, loops, clarinet, and didgeridoo.

Very nice to see so much going on with museums, music, and business all in one place. Berlin today is cutting edge and has a hell of a lot to offer. I look forward to future visits to Berlin and exploring more of Germany.

- Demian
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