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Berlin – encapsulating the old and the new Germany

Our days of very hot weather are a distant memory at the moment as the August air feels cool and there are lots of storms happening every day around 4:00 pm. However, we did enjoy quite a few days in the blistering sun in lakes around Spandau just west of Berlin, in the former American Zone. We went through the Wannsee and anchored out one evening (close to a beach so Kerry could go for walk). The journey from Potsdam was not far (about 25kms) but 25 years ago it was a journey between two worlds. Now the free flow of people, boats and tourists like us showed the true unbroken extent and beauty of this watery landscape connected by canals. The German National Sailing Championships were happening when we ploughed through the water in our large boat (compared to the sailboats) to the St Gothia Sailing Club where we parked the end of the dock and settled in for a few days. (The juggernaut barges powered through the middle of the sailing race too which made the race more ‘interesting’).
Spandau lake

Spandau was a bus and an “S Bahn” train ride from the centre of Berlin so we thought it was a good jumping off point for our visit. In addition, there was a large chandlery within a spitting distance of the marina. Guess what we did first?

We invested in some new house batteries as our 2008 batteries were shot and having some problems keeping a charge. So €650 later we had new batteries. There were lots of goodies in this very well equipped chandlery, so we also walked out with a new swim ladder and a two-part swim platform. Yes boats are expensive propositions – although the rewards are quite instantaneous. The St Gothia Sailing Club was the oldest club in the area with over a hundred year history. We were made to feel very welcome by the club members, especially Thomas Ernest who was the Harbour master. We also learned that in the 1920’s Albert Einstein was a sailor in this area, and lived a few doors away from the clubhouse during the 1920’s.

After we spent a lot of money in the chandlery, we had a look around Spandau and visited the shopping area and loaded up on groceries. It was still quite hot we took every opportunity to jump in the water (and use our new ladder). We took our first foray into Berlin late in the day, and bought a runabout transit ticket that cost about €6:50 for the day. It was very good value for money as we could travel extensively on the bus, tram, train, regional train and underground system. The maps and signs were very complex, difficult to follow given there are four different transit systems, and printed so only those with better than perfect eyesight could read them certainly not made for the vision impaired or older people like us☺

Our first walkabout was a stop at the Zoological Gardens Terminus – and huge shopping centre, then we ( and about a hundred other tourist) hopped onto the No. 100 bus that took us around the sites and dropped us off near the Brandenburg Gate and the historic Friedrichstrasse railway station. The Brandenburg Gate is a city gateway to the huge (once royal ) park called Der Tiergarten (the animal garden) and the Victory monument.
Brandenburg Gate
My cousin Paul was joining for a week (flying in from New Zealand via the UK and his mum’s funeral – a couple of blogs ago) so I arranged for him meet us in Berlin. I discovered there was a direct Airport Express train from Schonfeld Airport to the Friedrichstrasse Station. We arranged to meet at a certain time. Paul had my phone number and was going to text any changes, but he did not have Martins phone number. Needless to say what could go wrong did go wrong. I forgot my phone and left it on the boat so spent hours trying to get come communication going – eventually phoned Martins cell phone. Talk about technological hitches!

me and Paul at Brandenburg
Paul’s plane had been delayed (Easyjet fails again) and he was on an underground train into Berlin headed for the district of Pankow (where?) when we talked to him. He would get off and meet us at Alexander Platz. So Martin and I went to Alexander Platz – which is a central square in Berlin surrounded by huge stores, markets, beer gardens and throngs of people. We later discovered that there are 8 entrances to transit system in Alexander Platz. After shaking our heads at the situation we decided to go for a beer and wait for Paul to call. At the top of one of the entrances to the transit system I turned just around and there he was…………… our Paul. Well now how lucky was that – he was as surprised as we were to just bump into us. So we all three sat down and had a beer.

Martin and I had gone walkabout before Paul came – found a brilliant book and record store near to the Friedrichstrasse train station and marvelled a the idea of being in the former East Berlin (Under the Lindens Boulevard) in area of the Humbolt University. We walked around some of the new and the older buildings and Martin was suddenly living a John le Carre spy thriller ….. He came back down to reality and checked out the location of moorage near the Reichstag (which is near to the Brandenburg Gate) and we got a feel for the place.

The day Paul arrived we had advanced (free) tickets to see the Reichstag. He was quite exhausted but was still in awe of the place and with good reason. The German Parliament building was built towards to end of the reign of the Kaisers (Emperors of Germany), shortly after the Nazis took over in 1933 the building was fire bombed. It was not rebuilt until 1999, after the War, the East German occupation and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now is the symbol of the new Germany based on open and transparent government. The symbolism of open government were evident in the new glass and concrete administrative buildings that have developed around the Reichstag.

Outside

The Reichstag was designed by Sir Norman Foster, a British architect, who was commissioned to retain the four monumental corners of the old building and adding a central dome. This mirror and glass dome has the latest features in heat exchange and solar technology, as well as providing a prime view of the city from the central core of the government. The 620 seat legislative assembly that passes laws and elects the Federal Chancellor (the most powerful politician – more about her in the next blog), the governing group and the President ( the ceremonial head of state). To say the Reichstag building (completed in 1999) was awe-inspiring was an understatement – the building and views of the city are a great introduction to the life and the dark and lighter times of the German people and their capital city – Berlin.

Inside the dome

Reichstag Roof
We spent another day on the boat in the searing heat – deciding to hang out on Skookum and swim rather than face the hot streets of Berlin. Our day on the lake included shopping and bit of boat maintenance. It also gave Paul a chance to get oriented to his new surroundings.

Writing about Berlin is quite thought provoking as the city generates many different emotions for both Germans and foreigners like me. Berlin is a city with a variable history: a noble history as the parliamentary capital, a shameful history as the centre of the rise of the Nazi’s and the holocaust, a devastating history as the obliterated defeated capital, a sad history of a divided city; its families, relationships and communities, by a concrete wall, a frightening history as the flash point of the Cold War, a redemptive city with the Berlin Wall fell and an inspired hopeful history as the capital city of a unified Germany still under construction.

The history of Berlin is evident on every corner, in museums, by monuments, markers, and newly restored buildings tell the story of the city and its citizens. The museums and exhibits showing the rise of National Socialism are free and open to the public. They show the impact of fascism and its terrifying impact on the Jewish people, Romany people, disabled and mentally challenged people, many Catholics and any political opponents, all considered by the Nazis to be inferior, treacherous and subversive. Groups and individuals, especially young Germans, are encouraged to visit these memoriums of horror to ensure that fascism will never rise again and the politics of genocide are never forgotten. I watched young people silently reading the information and looking at the exhibits and saw disbelief and dismay in their faces.

exhibit

My impression is that Germany is showing a national act of atonement by acknowledging the crimes committed in the name of the German nation, recognizing the horror of the past and trying really hard to ensure it can never be repeated. They have asked for forgiveness for many years, but now as a united nation they seem to be facing their own demons and making a national effort to make things right. Trying to right a historical wrong is a difficult task and maybe it can only be done if those from whom you ask forgiveness are willing to forgive. My friend Brigitte was 14 when she visited us in England in 1966. She told my mother she was ashamed to be German because of the World Wars. My mother was mortified and asked why she (Brigitte), who was not even born until after WWII, should feel such guilt. Brigitte replied that all Germans feel guilty about the War.

New Synagauce

Hitler once said that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years – it may take that long to get over the horror and brutality the Nazi regime unleashed. Lets hope not. (Rant over).

Germany was also broken hearted by War – Berlin was conquered by the Russian Red Army, the US Ninth Army and the British 20th Army then divided up by the Allies in 1945, blockaded by the Russians in 1948, saved by the Americans and Brits, then sliced through the middle by the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was a product of the Cold War as the Superpowers – the USA and the USSR faced off against each other in the battleground of Europe. The Wall consisted of concrete blocks about 3.6 meters high and about 1 meter wide, with a footing that allowed it stand independently. In some places there were also trenches and electrified fencing. The Wall stretched 156.4 kms around the city (43.7km through the city itself), it was patrolled by 11,000 soldiers. The crossing points were places like the famous Check Point Charlie and the Friedrichstrasse station. In 1963 US President Kennedy made his famous declaration of freedom by identifying with the people of West Berlin in front of the Brandenburg Gate in defiance of the Soviet threats. (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’)

Check Point Charlie

Between 1961 and 1989, 136 people lost their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. There were at least 5075 successful escapes including 574 military desertions, 37 bomb attacks. Unknown numbers were arrested for just thinking about it.

Berlin dead

The Stasi (the East German secret police) had everyone under surveillance, pitting neighbours and family members against each other. The DDR lasted about 40 years as a country, and was the most important of the Soviet satellites States. People can now read their records and find out what the Stasi knew about them. The Orwellian nightmare was real in the DDR.

The impasse between East and West was broken by the period of détente in the late 1980’s and the change in leadership in USSR. Soviet leader Michel Gorbachev took a new approach when dealing with West. By 1988 Poland demanded and won it’s freedom from Russia, and other satellite states like the Czechoslovakia and Hungary opened their borders to the West and hundreds of thousands of young people from the former Communist states streamed across these borders. The Communist regime in East Germany lost it’s military, moral and governing authority and on November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached by the ordinary citizens of West and East Berlin, border guards put down their arms and the flood of people crossed over the once impenetrable barrier.

Paul at the wall with Kerry

It took another year for the border to open completely. In September 1990, the former Allies signed an Agreement “The Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.” When the Allies gave up their rights and responsibilities for Germany and Berlin, Germany became a unified country in October 1990. However, Helmut Kohl, then the West German Federal Chancellor, was under no illusions that Germany had been reunited because the Superpowers had agreed that it was time to change the game – George Bush (Sr.) and Gorbachev wrote the new chapter in the history of Germany and Europe.

Between 1989 and 1990 many people from the old East Berlin crossed the border but they had no money. Their own currency was worthless so they were unable to buy German Marks (DM). We heard a story about the flood of people that came over the old border in June 1990 who were given ‘Welcome money’ by the West German government. Everyone who crossed the border with a valid East German ID card received DM 100. The joyful emotional reunification of a city, families and neighbourhoods still brings tears to the eyes of those story-tellers who experienced it.
The central government of Germany was moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1992 and work began on rebuilding the Reichstag and a new Germany. As we walked around central Berlin the evidence of the Wall was everywhere in exhibitions and art installations and on the ground as you walked around there was a line of bricks (two bricks wide) marking the location of the Wall.

Berlin Wall

We went into Berlin by boat – following a delightful waterway – the River Spree. We moored just for one night between the Friedrichstrasse station and the rejuvenated government office buildings.

Spree River
The development of restaurants, theatres, and even beaches along the riverbank lighten the atmosphere and gave us a sense of the new Berlin. There was massive amount of building going on around the city, as the skyline was full of construction cranes.

We walked by the Brandenburg Gate – now book-ended by the US and French Embassies. The British and Russian Embassies were just around the corner and the Canadian Embassy was down the street in Potsdamer Platz . Nearby however was the monument to the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe that was both massive and sombre.

holocaust memorial 1

Potsdamer Platz was the face of the new slick sophisticated Germany – incredible buildings, up market offices, banks shopping and restaurants etc. The art galleries like the Bauhaus still full of bullet holes, while other galleries, Cathedrals, churches and the new Synagogue were fully restored or rebuilt. This was a happening place.

Potsdamer Platz

There were lots of tourists in Berlin (I am sure everyone of them took a river tour as I have never seen so many tour boats), I heard lots of languages spoken and it seemed a socially diverse place. There was lots of theatre and cultural stuff advertised but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to take it in. The lightshow at the Reichstag looked amazing but it was late and we are all getting older so we go to bed early!! We had a meal at Vietnamese restaurant and saw a variety of ethnically different places to eat. (Quite a few North Vietnamese had settled in East Berlin after the Vietnam War).
Spree beachers

We spent time reflecting on the city and its history – it was an interesting topic of conversation and silence between the three of us.

cranes

We left our mooring on the Spree River and headed north back to the lake country – where we had some more adventures. The weather was still quite warm (30C) and we often had rain in the afternoon. The days in the Land of 1000 Lakes were not as emotional but still full of a variety of experiences.

Martin’s impressions of Berlin were a little less verbose but still explosive, he will give you his own experiences – keep reading.

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