The relevance of Berlin’s past 150 years in relation to where we are today as a society is undeniable. Much of its history is nowadays buried underground though some of it is hidden in plain sight if you know where to look. Take for example Hitler’s bunker, tucked away behind apartment blocks on Wilhelm Strasse just one block from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Though the bunker is still intact underground, there is only a small easily overlooked sign which informs people that the parking lot and small playground you are looking at is in fact where one of the most infamous dictators in history took his life on the 30th of April 1945.
In the former Jewish quarter of Berlin you also have to know where to look to find remnants of what was once the largest Jewish community in Germany until they were decimated by the Nazis during WWII. An artist named Gunter Demnig created a project called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) which installs bronze blocks about 3 inches by 3 inches into the pavement in front of the houses of former Jewish citizens murdered during the Holocaust. Each plaque has the name of the person, the date of birth and the date and place of their execution. His motto is, ”A person is forgotten when his name is forgotten” so for the price of 120 Euro he offers people the possibility to remember their loved ones taken by the Nazis. These can be found all throughout Berlin, though they are especially concentrated in what was known as the Scheunenviertel (Barn Quarter) but on a recent trip to Vienna I discovered that even in Austria you can find his subtle yet tragic reminders of past Nazi crimes against humanity.
Another example of Berlin’s more subtle reminders of its horrific past is at Koppenplatz in the district of Mitte. In the middle of this square is a table with two chairs around it, one of which is knocked over onto its back. A seemingly innocuous memorial until you understand the significance and the 55,000 Berlin Jews who were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and shipped off to concentration camps leaving only an “apartment of death” behind. The oldest Jewish graveyard itself just a few blocks away now only has one stone left, that of Moses Mendelssohn. The rest of the graveyard was destroyed first by the Nazis in 1943 and the remaining stones removed by the East German government in the 1970’s.
The remains of the East German government which disappeared on October 3rd, 1990 are also being cleared away without a trace. The most obvious example is the once mighty Palace of the Republic which stood on the former site of the Berlin Royal Palace on Museum Island and served as the Parliament of the GDR. Many considered the building an affront and its location on the site of the former city palace even more of an insult but the communist leadership did at least try to make the massive, black-mirrored building accessible to the public. Not only was the building home to the government chambers and auditorium halls, its walls also contained a theater, art galleries, restaurants and even a discothèque and bowling alley.
What was later to become home to the royal family of Hohenzollerns originally started out in the 15th century as a fort on the center of Museum Island. It was built out in the 17th century into a palace and by the 19th century was the most significant of Berlin’s architectural landmarks. Most people were outraged at the decision by the communists to destroy the Royal Palace in 1950 as an attempt to erase the proud Prussian imperial history. Two wrongs don’t make a right however and many now criticize the current government’s decision to demolish the Palace of the Republic in 2008.
Though I have been mainly discussing landmarks, for me it was the Germans themselves both from the East and West who made me realize that Berlin’s history is not in its past. Here you will find a people who lived in two completely opposing societies and were used as pawns to fight the Cold War between two superpowers and due to 45 years of occupation have drifted apart from their fellow countrymen. Today most visitors to Berlin are here for its legen (wait for it)dary nightlife but it is regrettable what those who do not take the time to meet the Germans will miss of what makes Berlin such an impressive European capital today.