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:
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.”
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.
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):
The Brandenburger Tor:
What’s left of the Berlin Wall:
And some very lovely churches:
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:
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:
Pretty out-of-the-way churches:
Touristy leftover DDR kitsch like Trabis:
And bears. I think they love bears as much as I do:
(He’s no Knut, but he is still cute).
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