Fortunately, my university in Nijmegen gave us a week off for Carnival, just like Loyola; so a few friends and I decided to rent a car and road trip to Berlin (about a six hour drive from Nijmegen).
Needless to say, as four girls driving along the German interstate in a bright pink car, we got quite a lot of attention drawn to us – lots of people pointing and laughing or waving from their cars and even a trucker telling us to eat carrots rather than chips.
One thing I have learned being over here is how quickly American schools skim over the Cold War Era. Everyone in Europe seems to have a much better understanding and knowledge of the subject, but all the Americans seem to be learning the majority of the facts while visiting Berlin (which is odd considering America and Russia were the two main players in that war). Of course, in Berlin, the effects of the Cold War are still very integrated in the culture of the city.
I think Berlin may have a better water meter than NOLA.
Berlin is a very complex and historically-centered city, so therefore, telling you everything you need to know would take ages and would probably produce a book, so here’s a shortened (but still substantial – I urge you to read this post all the way through!) list of the most interesting things I found in Berlin.
1. The Berlin Wall was built in one night.
Before the wall, there was very little to keep East Berliners (part of the Soviet Union) from escaping into West Berlin (the part managed by the Americans, French, and British). There were rumors of the Soviets trying to reinforce the divide more dramatically, but the Soviets kept denying that anything was going to change. One night, everyone in Berlin went to sleep wall-less and woke up with a barbed-wire fence surrounding all of West Berlin, thus making it an island in the middle of Soviet-controlled Germany.
The wall was then redone over time to provide the maximum deterrence of escaping from East to West Berlin. In the final version of the wall, there was actually an inner and outer wall with an area in between known as “No Man’s Land.”
In No Man’s Land, there was a bit of “cushion room” between the walls to make it even harder for people to escape simply by jumping the fence. This area was covered in barbed-wire, motion detectors, anti-tank trenches (so tanks were unable to drive through), guard towers, incredibly bright stadium-like lights, ferocious guard dogs, military and police personnel patrolling at all hours, and even a sanded area that was kept perfectly smooth so the guards could see any footprints. Needless to say, these Soviets meant business and it’s no surprise that this strip of “No Man’s Land” got the nickname, “Death Strip.”
2. The longest portion of the Berlin Wall still standing has become the East Side Gallery.
The East Side Gallery is a collection of murals done by artists that were asked to paint pieces relating to the effects of the wall. Defacing the wall in any way is completely illegal and the city does repairs on the wall every few years to keep these murals looking perfect. (A funny side note – apparently some tourists mistake these repairs as the city trying to reinstate the wall)
It takes quite a bit of time to walk this chunk of wall, and a majority of the pieces are incredibly moving. On this subject, I think pictures tell the story better than words.
No more wars. No more walls. A united world.
3. Berlin is hip.
Walking around Berlin, you notice a lot of graffiti – street art as Berliners call it – and we even took an alternative city tour about this underground artist culture. As in most cities, street art is illegal in Berlin, although walking around, you wouldn’t believe it. Most artists make prints to paste on the wall like posters so that if they are caught while graffitiing, they will just have to take the piece down and get a slap on the wrist rather than be arrested. For some of the bigger street art pieces, artists will actually hire actors to stand around in work uniforms with clipboards and such while they stand on the scaffolding, painting a mural on the side of a building so that it looks like a commissioned piece to any passing police officers.
4. The Berlin Wall was not actually scheduled to come down on November 9, 1989.
The decision was made to open the borders between East and West Berlin three hours before a press conference later that day. An hour and a half before the conference, the information was sent to the spokesperson for East Germany and he began prepping immediately.
At the press conference, all the attention was on the Berlin Wall and why the borders had not yet been opened. After responding that the decision had just been made to open borders between the two parts of Berlin, the next logical question was, “When?” The spokesman looked down at his papers, couldn’t find a date, so he guessed, “As of now.”
Needless to say at that point, the press conference was over and both East and West Berliners rushed to the wall. As flustered border guards – who had heard the announcement over the radio at the same time as citizens (and who were probably thinking, “Oh crap, I’m unemployed.”) – tried to hold off the crowds, they decided to ease the pressure and let a few people pass. Of course, this is a poor decision in any crowd control and people from both sides rushed to each other. Thus, the end of the Berlin Wall.
5. Subtle memorials make the most impact.
There are 56 memorials dedicated to 56 different groups persecuted by the Nazi’s in Berlin, but the most simplistic display is quite possibly the best tribute and remembrance of those killed in World War II.
Around the old Jewish Quarter of Berlin (a neighborhood known as Mitte) all of the sidewalks are cobblestone. At the entrance to a majority of the buildings in this area, there are golden plaques the size and shape of the cobblestone placed in front of the homes or businesses where Jewish families were removed and sent to concentration camps. Each of these plaques has the name of the family and where they were sent.
The reason these plaques stand out is because they are not very noticeable until you trip on them. They are slightly raised so that when you walk down the street, you’re bound to trip on at least one (thus, they get their name, “The Tripping Stones”), drawing attention to your feet, and therefore the plaque, reminding you of this horrible event on a daily basis.
The memorial for the burned books outside Humboldt University (where 29 Nobel Peace Prize winners have attended school, including Freud and Einstein) is so subtle that a visitor not on a city tour would most likely never know it existed. There is a little window in the cobblestone street that looks into a room full of empty bookshelves to represent all the books by blacklisted authors destroyed by the Nazi’s.
6. Tacheles – It looks a little scary, smells horrible, but is actually pretty cool.
The Tacheles is an old Jewish department store in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin that was badly bombed in the war. Over the years, it was used for many things – even as a base for the Gestapo during WWII, where they would torture French prisoners of war on the top floor and keep records of their work in the basement; At the end of WWII, they flooded the basement to ruin their records, which is said to be the cause for the horrible smell still lingering inside – but now it is used as a place for artist studio space. The entire thing is completely covered in graffiti and there is even a movie theater, pub, and concert space inside.