Just before our trip to Germany, a massive white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. These white supremacists held Confederate flags, brandished swastikas, and did “Heil Hitler” salutes — yes, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes. In America. In the year 2017. As if that weren’t enough, one of the neo-Nazis rammed his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering one person and injuring dozens of others. And instead of denouncing the rally and stating the obvious — that Nazis are bad — our president said there was “blame on both sides.”
Imagine the irony of going to Germany to escape Nazis.
Meanwhile, in Germany, public displays of Nazi symbols have been banned since the end of World War II. And unlike America, which still inexplicably has Confederate statues, Germany has shown an incredible sensitivity toward the ways in which they commemorate their past.
We noticed this sensitivity in Berlin especially. Having been the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, and then divided for 28 years, hardly any other city has experienced such extreme transformation in the last century. Scattered throughout the city are thought-provoking memorials that directly confront its complex history.
My favorite memorial — in the world, perhaps — is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2005, this Holocaust memorial consists of thousands of gravestone-like pillars. Designed by a Jewish-American architect, it was Germany’s first formal, government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. Using the word “murdered” in the title was a big deal; Germany, as a nation, was officially admitting to a crime. The rectangular pillars stand in rows, creating narrow alleys between them, over a gently sloping ground. The location, near Berlin’s foreign embassies and government buildings, is a statement in itself — it has designated such a large amount of prime real estate to this memorial, while also forcing political leaders from around the world to observe how Germany acknowledges its past.
We went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe twice, and I got near-lost both times. It’s disorienting. The narrow alleyways prevent you from walking through with anyone else. Once you enter, people seem to appear and disappear between the columns. Like death, you have to deal with it alone.
Even Berlin’s parliament building, the famous Reichstag, is a sort of memorial. It was here that Nazis blamed a mysterious fire in 1933 on Communists, allowing Hitler to gain emergency powers and disband the parliament. A glass dome sits on top of the Reichstag, offering a 360-degree view of Berlin from two sloping ramps that spiral inside. The parliamentary chamber can be seen from these ramps through a mirrored cone jutting into the center. The dome, open to the public, symbolizes that the people are above the government, and that government is now transparent and will have no secrets.
While walking around Berlin, we noticed small brass plaques in the sidewalk. Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) is an ongoing memorial that marks the former homes or work locations of Nazi victims. More than 56,000 of these plaques have been installed across Europe, making Stolpersteine the world’s largest decentralized memorial. On each plaque is the name of the victim, and how and where that person died. Each Stolperstein is made of brass so it polishes when someone walks on it. The name stolperstein has multiple meanings. Nazis had an anti-Semitic saying when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone: “A Jew must be buried here.” But in German, stolperstein also means “to stumble across something” or “to find out by chance”. Thus, the term invokes both the anti-Semitic remark of the past and also the stumbled-upon metaphor, as the plaques are not placed prominently and are recognizable only when passing at a close distance. Unlike major memorial sites, which can be easily avoided, Stolpersteine is history that disrupts your everyday life.
Meanwhile, the site of Hitler’s death is almost completely unmarked. Hitler stayed in a bunker in Berlin for two months until he and his wife (of 48 hours) Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945. A week later, war was over. His bunker now lies beneath a parking lot. Germans tread lightly on their past. They refuse to turn Hitler’s stronghold into a tourist attraction, to give neo-Nazis a special place to convene.
World War II is just the tip of Berlin’s fascinating history. After the war, Berlin was divided by the victorious Allied powers. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin, while the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The catch is that Berlin was inconveniently located in the middle of East Germany (DDR) — a hundred miles away from West Germany (BRD). So, West Berlin essentially became a capitalist island in the middle of communist East Germany.
Nearly overnight, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, cutting through the middle of the city, completely encircling West Berlin. This 96-mile-long wall was intended to stop the outward flow of people from East to West. The wall consisted of a 12-foot-high concrete barrier with a rounded, pipe-like top and barbed wire; a death strip; silent alarms; and more than 100 watchtowers. During its 28 years, at least 138 people died trying to escape.
Our apartment was located on Bernauer Straße, the very street along which the Berlin Wall ran. When the wall was erected, people were suddenly separated form their neighbors across the street. Buildings on Bernauer Straße were incorporated into the structure of the wall itself and became known as border houses. Many people in the East tried to escape through these border houses, jumping from roofs and through windows.
Not everything from this era is tragic. West Germany and East Germany had different styles of pedestrian traffic lights. West Germany had the generic human figure, while East Germany had perky little Ampelmännchen, a male figure wearing a hat. The Ampelmännchen was a beloved symbol of the East and was woven into children’s cartoons and comic strips. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, newly unified Germany sought to rid itself of the vestiges of the East–including its Ampelmännchen. But people were outraged, and a group successfully lobbied the government for Ampelmännchen’s preservation. Since then, you can find these in both sides of Berlin.
I’ve spent a lot of time going over Berlin in the 20th century, but this city is so much more than its past. Anthony may have fallen in love with Berlin for its history, but I fell in love with Berlin for its energy and resilience. Berlin is famous for being Europe’s cheapest capital. Because it’s affordable, it attracts a young, international crowd, and because it’s youthful, there’s a lot of creativity here. Munich feels passé compared to Berlin.
It’s incredibly easy to navigate; the same transit ticket can be used for its many modes of transportation, such as its U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (above-ground rail), tram, and bus systems. And you don’t even need to speak German to survive here; apparently Berliners are so eager to learn English that they’d rather practice their English with you than hear you speak German.
Germany does so many things better than America does, whether it’s offering extensive public transportation, providing universal healthcare, having some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, or guaranteeing free education. But in Berlin specifically, it’s apparent that Germany is also much better at grappling with its history. In America, neo-Nazis claim that removing Confederate statues is “erasing our history” — even though most of these statues were erected in the mid-20th century, long after the Civil War — because apparently we learn all our history from tacky sculptures of dead, slave-owning white men who fought against America. Germany could definitely teach us a thing or two.
Tips for future travelers:
Book a history tour with Brewer’s Berlin Tours. These 6-hour walking tours are led by passionate history buffs who will make Berlin’s intimidating history more accessible and a lot funnier than just reading about it.
Eat dessert at Fassbender & Rausch, Europe’s biggest chocolate store. This family-owned business has been making chocolate for 150 years. We loved its elegant cafe that we went there twice. The downstairs shop has giant models of Berlin landmarks made of chocolate.
Check out the DDR Museum, an interactive museum that offers an unbiased look into former East Germany. In America, we only like to learn the negative aspects of communism, but this museum highlights the truth about life in the DDR. For example, 90% of East German women held jobs (compared to only 50% of West German women), and divorce and abortions were legal, giving East German women way more rights than in the West.
Consider staying in Prenzlauerberg. I’ve compared “Pberg” to both Park Slope and the West Village. This charming neighborhood was once a haven for artists and bohemians, but now it’s full of young families and great restaurants.
Don’t just eat German food. While we never got sick of sausages in the other German cities, we were thrilled to be back in a cosmopolitan city — which means you can find every cuisine here. We had vegan Vietnamese on our first night, Lebanese our second night, dim sum on our third night, and so on. Of course, you can’t come to Berlin without trying currywurst. Created in Berlin after World War II, this cheap dish was invented when a fast-food cook got her hands on some curry and Worcester sauce from British troops stationed here. She grilled pork sausage, cut it up, then smothered it in curry sauce. Eat these with a toothpick or small wooden fork, with some fries on the side.
Take a guided tour of the Reichstag building, which is the only way to walk up the dome. To do this, you’ll need to register in advance, and the Bundestag will vet you before accepting your reservation. Bring your passport with you!
Unsurprisingly, my favorite tour we took in Berlin was a 3-hour food tour with Bite Berlin. Our guide led us through Berlin and provided seven generous food samples: buttered pretzels, currywurst, buletten (meatballs), Vietnamese bao burgers, one of the best cinnamon rolls of my life (I loved it so much, we went back the next morning), cakes, and East Berlin sparkling wine. It was a delicious way to learn more about Berlin’s cultural and immigrant history. One of the most mind-blowing facts we learned in Berlin was that, during the Cold War, West Berlin accepted South Vietnamese refugees while East Berlin invited North Vietnamese workers to help build infrastructure (including the wall). There was a Vietnam for each side!