Tuesday Travel Blogging – Berlin

I went to Berlin for the third time this past weekend, and at the risk of sounding like one of those Berlin snobs, I think I’m kind of in love. It’s a fantastic city: Lots of history, lots of energy, and far too much to do in just a few short visits. I’m not sure any other city has had a more significant influence on world politics in the past century, and seeing all the layers of that history in one place is fascinating. Berlin doesn’t provide the greatest photo ops in the world, so my pictures probably won’t do it justice; I’ll try and compensate by adding some more detailed descriptions. To start off with a nice big helping of cheese, The Infamous Berlin Speech that actually makes me a little teary:

Thanks to Matt for sending that to me. Now for the pictures. The Berliner Dom:

Berliner Dom, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

More pictures and commentary below the fold. The full set is here.

The above picture was taken way back in September, when I was in Berlin with my mama (whose eyes are usually open). This time around I went with my lovely friend Justin, and when we visited the Berliner Dom, the building was surrounded by really interesting sculptures. Justin, who is a big art nerd, says that the sculptures are by an artist who sold a very small piece at the recent Christie’s auction for some insane amount of money So it was cool to see such large-scale pieces on the public lawn of a famous and beautiful building.

Berlin is chock-full of memorials, and it does them well. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe (or “the Holocaust memorial” for short) is incredible: The above-ground structure is harrowing and somber; the below-ground exhibition is exceptionally executed and informative, and differentiates itself from many similar memorials.

My favorite memorial in Berlin, though, is the Bibliotek in Bebelplatz, outside of what is now the law library of Humboldt University. The memorial commemorates the 1933 Nazi book-burning in that same square, where 20,000 works of literature — many rare, some original, all offensive to the Nazis’ nationalist politics — were set aflame. The memorial itself is below the ground, covered with a translucent pane — and it’s just a room of empty bookshelves. When you look down, you see your reflection in the glass. A plaque a few feet away includes a quote penned in 1820 by Heinrich Heine, a writer who attended Humboldt University and whose works were burned in the square more than 100 years after he wrote the words that now memorialize an event foreshadowing one of the greatest atrocities in world history. The Heine quote reads, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Book-burning memorial, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

Another stand-out memorial is the Neue Wache, which has memorialized a lot in its day — it began as a guardhouse for Prussian soldiers; then it was the Memorial for the Fallen of the War (WWI); during the DDR regime it was changed to the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism; after reunification, it was again changed to the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny (in my opinion it’s a bit small for a memorial to all the victims of war and tyranny, but at least they tried). There’s a sculpture inside of a mother holding her dead son; the artist herself lost a son in WWI.

Neue Wache, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

Finally, there’s an interesting memorial to the people killed by Russian and DDR soldiers during a protest in East Germany in 1953. The protest happened outside of the DDR headquarters — a building which was built during the Nazi era to house the offices of some of the most important members of the administration. It went largely undamaged during the war, and so the DDR government decided to move in. They put up a large-scale mural detailing the benefits of a socialist society; the mural was covered by construction when I visited, so I couldn’t see it, but an image is here. When unarmed workers staged a protest in 1953 opposing increased production targets, the instructions came from Moscow to open fire on the crowd. Hundreds of people were killed. Fifty years later, the mural remains on the wall of the building, but a parallel piece runs along the ground outside, matching the mural exactly in size and length — except this one features a large photograph taken on the day of the protest, to illustrate the very real and very harsh realities of the socialist state in contrast to the painted ideal.

Of course there are also the major tourist sites, like the Berliner Dom above the fold. There’s the Reichstag (Parliament):

Reichstag, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

The Brandenburger Tor:

Brandenburger Tor, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

What’s left of the Berlin Wall:

Berlin wall, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

And some very lovely churches:

Church, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

There are two churches in this square that are almost identical. The first was built at the command of Freidrich the Great, who was so dedicated to religious tolerance that he built a Catholic church for French immigrants, during a time when Berlin was fiercely Protestant and the two religious groups had a nasty habit of killing each other all across Europe. Services were even held in French. The second church was built when the locals complained that they wanted a church, too. I don’t remember which one this is.

The one tourist attraction I wasn’t too hot about in Berlin was the Jewish Museum. As I wrote above, I was thoroughly impressed by the Holocaust Memorial and the museum/exhibition below it, so I had reasonably high expectations for a museum that boasted to give the history of Europe’s Jewish population. To its credit, the building was beautifully constructed; for example, the windows:

Windows, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

But the content of the museum was… lacking. And sometimes even tasteless. There was very little actual history or information beyond “Jews were persecuted.” Which obviously is an important part of the history of European Jews, but it would have been nice to learn how, exactly, they were persecuted, beyond the Crusades, being blamed for the plague and killed in the Holocaust — my Jewish history is less than impeccable, but I’m relatively certain that specifics are available, and that European Jews faced greater and subtler persecution than those three events (not that those three events are insignificant of course — far from it — but this is a huge museum and I would have liked to learn more). The museum also didn’t have a whole lot of positive things to say about European Jewish communities. There are so many rich and diverse Jewish cultural traditions that I was really disappointed not to see much about them or their evolution on this continent. I was also a bit taken aback by some displays which I’ll charitably describe as “questionable.” For example: After a lot of talk about how European Jews are persecuted, there was a life-sized cut-out of a little Jewish boy — and you could go behind it and put your face through a hole, and ostensibly someone could take your picture as a Jewish kid. It’s kinda like the Body Builder and Bikini Girl cut-outs that you can put your face through in family-friendly beach towns everywhere. It just felt a little too Jersey Shore to be appropriate in an otherwise somber museum. They did a similar thing with a moustache mirror — European Jewish men apparently have moustaches, and so you can look at yourself in the mirror and see what you would look like with such a moustache. And then there was the Friends yarmulke. I’m not doing a particularly good job of pinpointing exactly what’s wrong with these exhibits, and it is a Jewish museum and so European Jews should certainly decide for themselves what goes into it. But something about some of the exhibits just felt… wrong. And I’ll admit I was disappointed by the museum’s content, especially after how impressed I was by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. They did, however, have some interesting information on Jewish feminists.

My other favorite Berlin things:


Gallery, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

Pretty out-of-the-way churches:

Berlin, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

Touristy leftover DDR kitsch like Trabis:

Trabi, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

And bears. I think they love bears as much as I do:

Jill and the bear, originally uploaded by JillNic83.

(He’s no Knut, but he is still cute).

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14 comments for “Tuesday Travel Blogging – Berlin

  1. November 27, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    That bear has…a hole in it?

  2. stnemmoc
    November 27, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    A hole in his heart where God used to be.

  3. November 27, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    Oh god, this brings back memories. I miss Berlin: particularily the food and public transit.

  4. C. Diane
    November 27, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I’m going there for Christmas, and I can’t wait. I’m in it for the Weihnachtsmaerkte.

    After I spent a whole 3 days there while I was studying abroad in the mid-90s, and didn’t see anywhere near everything, I wanted to go back. And now that I’m gainfully employed, I am.

    Even if I harbor a less-than-secret desire to move there.

  5. Ele
    November 27, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    I think you would like a tour of the synagogues of Prague — each of the six or so buildings is devoted to a different aspect of the life of Czech Jews, from religious rituals to mementos from concentration camps. The Maysel Sinagogue in particular has the exhibition about the persecution of Jews in medieval and modern-ish times.

  6. November 27, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    I didn’t get to see much of Berlin, but i think it had the coolest graffiti I had ever seen.

  7. November 27, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    Ele, I am dying to go to Prague. I don’t think I’m going to make it this trip, but next time I’m in Europe it’s at the top of my list. And I will definitely keep that suggestion in mind.

  8. ataralas
    November 27, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    I am in love with Berlin. My best friend currently lives there, so I get to go visit him sometimes, when I get shuffled off to Germany for work.

    I think my favorite memorial in the “omg” category is the Treptower Soviet War Memorial. It’s proof that “subtle” cannot be found in the Soviet Architect’s Handbook.

  9. stickler
    November 28, 2007 at 2:27 am

    Two things:

    The artist whose sculpture you saw in the Neue Wache is Käthe Kollwitz, who lost a son in the First World War, and then lost a grandson in the Second. She’s a famous pacifist, artist, and activist, and has a beautiful square in Prenzlauer Berg named after her: Käthe-Kollwitz Platz (U2 Senefelder Platz).

    Also: the medieval crest of the city of Berlin has, since the 1200s, featured the motif of the rampant bear. Thus, Berlin’s mascot has always been the bear. Thus, the big bear with the hole in his chest.

  10. November 28, 2007 at 2:31 am

    The food is low-price, the rents are very cheap, and with a little luck, you don’t have to speak the funny language that sounds like something nasty in the drain. It’s OK if you’re a city person. Come to think of it, that’s probably a fair assessment: “It’s a city.”

  11. Blunderbuss
    November 28, 2007 at 7:13 am

    Man, I sounded like a moron while reading this post – “Oooooh.” “Woooww.” “Woah.” “Aahn.” “OOH!” “Ooh, neat.” “Hunh.” “OOOOH!!”

    If I go there, I swear I will polaroid that place to death.

  12. November 28, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Berlin — my favourite city in the universe. A friend’s organising a conference on feminism and science over there early next year, which sounds awesome. I love the city’s DIY culture, underneath all its staid imperialism.

  13. Lora
    December 1, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Ooh, Berlin is my favorite city evah! I was there for New Year’s over a week a couple of years ago and I loved it. (Though I almost froze to death!) The food, the amazing museums at Museum Island, and the incredible energy that comes from each of the neighborhoods!

    I just adore that city, and so want to live there one day.

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