Berlin. My favorite city. But I think it may be time to say goodbye. The first time we went to Berlin was May of 1979. The West Germans were trying Ostpolitik, but the Cold War was still on. The Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan by the end of the year, and Poland would impose martial law two years later.
We were on a three-week driving trip of Germany – or should I say, Germanys. In addition to Munich, Heidelberg, and the Rhine, we wanted to see the Luther sites, like Wittenberg and Eisenach, so we had to go into East Germany. But first, we went to Berlin. In West Berlin (or Westberlin, as the East Germans called it), we went to the Wall and looked at the Brandenburg Gate on the other side.
Checkpoint Charlie was where non-Germans could cross into East Berlin. It took its name from the Allied checkpoint located there: Checkpoint C – or “Charlie” to the military. Checkpoint Charlie was also where Russian and American tanks faced each other down in October of 1961, a confrontation that some think was even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church had been bombed during World War II. Only the tower survived. But instead of rebuilding the old church, they left the tower and built a new church next to it. Much as the British did in Coventry.2
We crossed into East Berlin, at Checkpoint Charlie, for a day. After having paid for our visa, and exchanged the required number of West German D-Marks for an equal number of East German Marks (not the world’s best exchange rate, to say the least), we went to the Pergamon Museum3, St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche), and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (St.-Hedwig-Kathedrale).
One of our more memorable moments came as were leaving West Berlin. Since we were driving into East Germany, we got the full-blown East German vehicle and luggage check. What seemed to interest the guards most was the Star Trek comic book I had bought. It was in German, and they called it pornography. (Either that or they wanted to read it themselves.)
We returned to West Berlin three years later. Once again, we drove - because we wanted to go back to East Germany, too. (As I said at the time, going to East Germany was not a vacation; it was an education.)
In Berlin, we went to the Bauhaus Museum and KaDeWe, Kaufhaus des Westens, a store whose name, Department Store of the West, in English, said more than just where it was located. After it re-opened in 1950, KaDeWe became a symbol of the economic boom in West Germany and the prosperity of West Berlin over that of the East. By the 1960s, it represented, along with Checkpoint Charlie, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and the Wall itself, what the Cold War was about.
I walked along the Wall and rode one of the U-Bahns that went under East Berlin, passing through some of the famous “ghost stations” (stations that were closed by the East German government for fear that people would use them to try to escape to the West).
Near Bernauer Strasse, where in 1961 an East German soldier had jumped across rolls of barbed wire as the Wall was being built, I took a picture of the Church of Reconciliation. The church was stuck between the inner and outer sections of the Wall. The Wall, you see, was not a single thing. It included both an inner wall and an outer wall, with dogs, anti-vehicle trenches, "Czech hedgehogs," and more in between the two walls, all designed to stop anybody from trying to escape. The church was in the no-man’s land between the two walls. Three years later, it was blown up by the East German government, as somehow a danger to its security – or at least to the line of sight of guards trying to shoot would-be escapees.
We also went to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic. It wasn’t easy to get to the Philharmonie, where the Philharmonic played, in 1982. The Philharmonie and the neighboring New National Gallery (Neue Nationalegalerie, the only public building in Berlin designed by Mies Van der Rohe) were off by themselves, near the Wall and next to a wasteland that had been Potsdamer Platz before the war. There was no U-Bahn to the Philharmonie. You had to take a bus or a taxi to get there because it was, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere.
We had driven to Berlin on one of the designated access routes from West Germany. As long as you stayed on that road, you weren’t really in East Germany; you were just driving through it. When we left West Berlin, however, we were going into East Germany, so we got the East German check over once again. This time they looked at the Rosenthal brochures we had and, seeing from our passports that we had been in East Germany three years before, told us we should have known not to have them. We were carefully checked again when we left East Germany. In fact, the check by the East Germans, when we were leaving, was much more thorough than the check by the Czechoslovakians as we entered their country. I guess the Czechoslovakian guards figured that, if we were okay to leave East Germany, we were fine to enter Czechoslovakia.
It was twelve years before we got back to Berlin. It was our 25th wedding anniversary in 1994, so we took a three-week grand tour of Europe with our children. First stop was, of course, Berlin. By July of 1994, the Wall had been gone for four and one-half years, and it was hard to see where it had been, though sometimes you could tell by looking for empty stretches of land in the middle of the city or clusters of construction cranes. While things were changing, many things were still the same. When we took our kids to Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, there was still a dingy feel to the area. The Wall was gone, but development had not yet come.
We also took them to some of our West Berlin favorites, such as KaDeWe (in the food halls on the sixth floor, you can get some of the best Münchner weisswurst outside of Bavaria) and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. But this time, we could go to east Berlin without a visa or having to exchange real West German money for the play money of East Germany.
It was on this trip that one of my favorite travel moments happened. We took the S-Bahn to the Unter den Linden station, near the Brandenburg Gate.4 The station had been closed by the East German government while the Wall was up; apparently, it was too close to the border. In any case, the station was open now, and as we walked up the stairs from the platform (the S-Bahn was underground at this point), I saw the Brandenburg Gate – with no Wall around it and people walking through it. And cars and buses driving through it, too. Tears came to my eyes. I had seen the Brandenburg Gate before, in 1979 and 1982, with the Wall keeping westerners away and East German guards keeping their own people away. Seeing it that day brought the fall of the Wall, and the freedom it meant, home to me in a very personal way.
However, while the Wall was down, Potsdamer Platz was still empty. Like the area around Checkpoint Charlie, development had not yet come. The Brandenburg Gate still stood by itself, too, though now there was a little plaque near it that proclaimed: “The Once and Future Site of the U.S. Embassy Berlin.”
Driving through eastern Germany, it was much the same. Things were still dreary, but properties seemed better kept up, and every once in a while you would see a flash of color, like a red Lego sign above a toy store, in an otherwise drab, gray village.
It would be another decade before we returned to Berlin. We were visiting our daughter in Paris, where she was going to college. She had to take a school trip for a few days, so we had time on our hands in Paris. Naturally, we flew to Berlin. We arrived on November 11, just two days after the fifteenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. There wasn’t much of a formal celebration, however, so we made up one of our own. We visited the Chapel of Reconciliation, which had been built in 2000 on the site of the church that the East Germans had blown up in 1985.
We took the S-Bahn and a bus to Glienicke Bridge (Glienicker Brücke, in German), where spies and dissidents were exchanged during the Cold War. The first exchange, in 1962, involved U.S. pilot Gary Francis Powers and Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel. The last included Soviet human rights campaigner Anatoly Shcharansky.5 In 2004, there was no sign commemorating its role in history, but we knew what had happened there and that was enough.6
We also went to the Airlift (Luftbrücke) Memorial, near the old Tempelhof Airport. The memorial is complemented by a matching one at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt. Its three spines represent the three air corridors used during the Airlift.
The story of the Airlift is amazing. In 1948, the Soviet Union blocked the western land routes to Berlin. In response, and just three years after the Allies had defeated the Germans in a war that lasted almost six years for the British, the U.S. and Britain operated an around-the-clock airlift to supply West Berlin with everything it needed to survive, from food to coal. The Airlift lasted fifteen months and turned enemies into fast friends. It may have been the biggest defeat the Soviets suffered in the Cold War until the Wall itself came down in 1989.
Most amazing, however, was Potsdamer Platz. What had been between the walls and next to the Wall before 1989, and was still an empty field in 1994, was now filled with buildings. Offices, hotels, stores. Everything. The Philharmonie, which had been almost in the middle of nowhere in 1982, was now in the middle of everything. One memory of the old Potsdamer Platz remained. Down a side street there was a solitary East German guard tower. Before November 9, 1989, it had stood by the Wall, with emptiness on one side of it and guns and guard dogs on the other. It still had a lonely feel to it, but now it was lonely in a crowd.
Perhaps my favorite building at Potsdamer Platz, other than the Philharmonie, is the Sony Center, designed by Helmut Jahn. It consists of a semi-circular building surrounding a huge open plaza, with a tent-like glass roof floating over it. It is beautiful, especially in the winter with the snow coming through the openings in the roof.7
It wasn’t as long until we came back again. My wife found a great airfare and, knowing what I would say, asked if I wanted to go to Berlin in May of 2009. We didn’t realize it, but we arrived in the middle of a huge party for the 60th anniversary of the Federal Republic. We were even able to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, at the Brandenburg Gate.
It seemed like every time we came back to Berlin there was something new. It in 1994 it was the Wall being gone and McDonald’s in the east. In 2004, it was the Jewish Museum and Potsdamer Platz. This time it was a new main train station (the Hauptbahnhof)8, which opened for the World Cup in 2006, and the Holocaust Memorial, built right next to the Brandenburg Gate. One thing I will say about Germany. With things like the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial (and more), it does an admirable job in admitting what it has done wrong. If other countries could do even half as good a job of it, the world might be a better place.
Since it had been fifteen years since we were last there, we went back to the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which was now also called the Mauermuseum (Wall Museum). While the museum itself was feeling a little tired, the area around Checkpoint Charlie was not. Development had come, and included a pair of faux soldiers, one American, one Soviet, standing outside a replica of the original Allied checkpoint building.
For the first time, we took a cruise on the River Spree and the Landwehrkanal. It gave us a chance to see some of the new architecture in Berlin, as well as buildings like the Shell-Haus9 along the Landwehrkanal in the Tiergarten district. And because Germans are always German, after the cruise, an older gentleman came up to me and complained that I kept popping up and down in front of his wife to take pictures (on a boat that was at most a quarter full).
As always when I got to Berlin, I looked for Cold War sites I had not seen. A brochure put out by the U-Bahn mentioned that, on the night of November 9, 1989, the first opening of the Wall was at Bornholmer Strasse, so I went. There was only a small stone with a plaque on it and a quote by Willy Brandt – and a very large open area where cars and trucks were stopped to be inspected. Still, it was neat to be there and know it was where the Wall first fell.
I also went to the Allied Museum, which tells the story of the Western Allies in Berlin from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War. It is located on the site of an old U.S. base in Dahlem, in southwest Berlin. The museum has the original 1960s guardhouse from Checkpoint Charlie, a British Hastings plane used during the Airlift, and pieces of the Wall. Appropriately, the museum is located on Clayallee.10
By 2009, Berlin was starting to embrace its East German side – or at least profit from it. In Mitte, in the center of Berlin, there was the DDR Museum, providing, according to its website, a “hands-on experience” of “life in the first Socialist state on German soil”. Maybe, but I think Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, i.e., the Stasi prison in Berlin (which we finally visited in 2014), is where you can really see what East Germany was about.
In 2004, we had to travel to a little store on a side street in east Berlin to get a couple of souvenirs of the GDR, a Sandmännchen Christmas ornament and an Ampelmann tee shirt.11 By 2009, they were all over Berlin. Ampelmann now even has his own stores.
Somewhat amazingly (or perhaps not amazingly, knowing us), we returned to Berlin, with our daughter and son, who were now grown, just a year and a half later. While we mostly came for the Christmas markets (we went to Munich and Nuremberg, too), there is always so much to do in Berlin, especially new and different.
In 1979 (or maybe 1982, I don’t remember), my wife and I saw Nefertiti in the West Berlin Egyptian Museum, across the street from the Charlottenburg Palace. While East Berlin had Museum Island, West Berlin had the queen. But now she had returned to her original home in a restored Neues Museum on Museum Island, and we went to see her again.
When we were all in Berlin in 1994, we went to the Reichstag. At that point, it was just used for the German History Museum. The next year, though, Christo wrapped it, and after he was done, it was restored. In 2010, we went back to the Reichstag for a fascinating tour. (Fortunately, we had signed up for the special English language tour, which I highly recommend, because regular visits to the building were being restricted for security concerns.)
We also went to the newly-opened Documentation Center at the Topography of Terror. A new building had been built on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, with permanent exhibitions focusing on Germany during the Nazi era (with descriptions in both German and English).
In addition to new things, there are always so many older things that you never got to before. My daughter and went to the Hufeisensiedlung housing development in Neukölln. The Hufeisensiedlung development was built from 1925 to 1933. While not on most tours of Berlin, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a milestone of modern urban housing planning. It was especially beautiful in the December snow.
But you can never go to Berlin without seeing Cold War sites, too. We all went to Bornholmer Strasse. There was now a proper memorial there, it having been built for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November of 2009. The stone with the Willy Brandt plaque was still there, though it had been moved, and it took me a while to find it. My daughter and I went to the Airlift Memorial, and my son and daughter and I went to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometer stretch of the Berlin Wall (the inner wall) on which over 100 artists painted their reactions to the fall of the Wall in 1990. When my wife and I saw it in May of 2009, it needed work (nobody expected the paintings to be there that long), but it too was restored for the 20th anniversary.
We also stopped at the Peter Fechter memorial on Zimmerstrasse12 and the Fathers of the Unity, busts of Helmut Kohl, George H.W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev, outside the headquarters of the Axel Springer company, next to where the Wall was and down the street from Checkpoint Charlie. (Axel Springer had moved the headquarters of his publishing company to Berlin in the 1960s and purposely built his headquarters next to the Wall.)
Since we were in Berlin at Christmas, it seemed appropriate to go to a Christmas Eve service at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. We figured that, while the service would be in German, the songs, or at least the tunes, would be familiar. Unfortunately, we arrived at the church only five minutes before the service was to start, and there were no seats. However, just before the service started, a man in a black robe came up to those of us standing in the back of the church. He guided us to the front of the church and motioned for us to sit on the steps around the altar. Truly, as it is said in Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (“Ich bin ein Gast gewesen, and ihr habt mich beherbert” in German).
We also went to a Berlin Philharmonic concert. I strongly recommend going to a concert in Philharmonie hall there when you are in Berlin. Not only is the music great, but the design and the space is magnificent. It is, I think, the best concert hall I have ever been in.
One other thing, which I recommend in any place you visit: go to a sporting event. My son and I had hoped to see Hertha Berlin, the Bundesliga team that plays in the Olympic Stadium. (We had visited the Olympic Stadium in 1994.) But they were not in town so we ventured into eastern Berlin to see 1.FC Union Berlin, a Bundesliga 2 team. It was great, and a wonderful way to get to experience the real city, as opposed to just the touristy part. On S-Bahn on the way to the game, fans dressed in Union scarves and hats (it was winter after all) were getting ready for the game by drinking beer. Throughout the game, they sang the Union hymn. After the Union victory, it was a happy ride back.
My wife and I returned to Berlin for the seventh time in November of 2014, for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. It was my wife’s idea again (bless her). As always, there were so many things to do, this time especially in connection with the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Berlin had done little for the 15th anniversary in 2004, but they made up for it in 2009.13 In 2014, they went all out. In the center of the city, where the wall had been, they installed a fifteen-kilometer “wall” of lighted balloons, the Light Border (Lichtgrenze), running from Bornholmer Strasse in the north to Oberbaumbrücke in the southeast. Along the Light Border, there were movie screens showing films about the Wall and display boards telling peoples’ stories of the Wall.
It being Berlin, there were new things to see, too. At the Friedrichstrasse train station, there was the Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast). It was where visitors from the West would arrive and leave from when going to East Berlin; thus its name. While it told a story we already knew, it was still moving.
We were lucky enough to be able to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony again, this time by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting, at the Philharmonie.
We also finally made it to the main Stasi prison in Berlin, Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, going on a guided tour by a former prisoner of the East German regime. Near Hohenschönhausen was Mies van der Rohe’s Lemke House. They did not have guided tours, but you could walk around this little gem.
We returned to Dahlem, too. When we went there in 1982 and even 1994, it was to see the museums that West Berlin had established to match those in the East. With reunification, the big museums reunited, too, though usually not in Dahlem (other museums took their places). We went to a small museum, in a picturesque neighborhood, for artists of the Brücke.
And I finally got back to Olympic Stadium. This time Hertha Berlin was playing at home. It was fascinating to see how they had renovated the 1936 Olympic Stadium for the 2006 World Cup. On the outside, it looked much the same as when my son and I saw it in 1994 (and probably like it did in 1936), but it was new on the inside. It was not, however, all that good for watching football (i.e., soccer). The running track around the field put the game too far from the seats, and you didn’t feel a part of the action. (The 2-nil score in favor of the visitors didn’t help much, either.)
One comment on the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Berlin focused on the ”Peaceful Revolution” and on the people of East Germany taking to the streets to stand up against the Communist dictatorship. Which they did, and they deserve to be honored for it. But the fall of the Wall was also about those who fought against that dictatorship from the outside, helping maintain the freedom of West Berlin during 40+ years of Communist harassment and pressure and 28 years of a nasty, ugly Wall. People who fed an entire city by air for a year. People who sent troops to defend the city when it was surrounded by an enemy committed to its defeat. And the people who, once the Wall fell, helped the people of Germany and Berlin reunite peacefully and with the freedom to choose for themselves their place in the world.
As we walked around Berlin for the last time in 2014, I realized that the Berlin I first visited was fading away. Over the 35 years since we first went there, Berlin has changed as much, if not more, than any other city in the world. From an island of freedom in the middle of a Communist sea, it has become the new, lively, energetic city it is today.
When I think of Berlin, I think of the Ku'damm and KaDeWe, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and Checkpoint Charlie. They are still there, but many things have changed. Instead of being the main transportation hub, Bahnhof Zoo is now just another S-Bahn stop. While KaDeWe will always be KaDeWe, Friedrichstrasse is where many of the latest stores are.14 The newest clubs are in abandoned warehouses in the east. And galleries are all over Prenzlauer Berg.
This is not to say Berlin is not still fantastic. It is; it’s a wonderful place. Culture. Restaurants. Museums. Galleries. Clubs. History. Outdoors activities. Currywurst. So many things to see and do and be part of. But Berlin is also different than it was. Better certainly, but still different. While for me Berlin will always be the place where we won the Cold War, that is more than 25 years ago.
So maybe it is not goodbye to Berlin, but just goodbye to the Berlin of my memory. The Berlin of the Cold War. The Berlin of which John F. Kennedy said:
“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’15 Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ …
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words – ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”
Berlin, West Berlin, was truly a special city in the battle of freedom against tyranny. That city is mostly gone now. While it is still there in historical monuments, Berlin is a different city now. A united city, a world city, a city like other cities, but even better. And so, instead of goodbye to Berlin, it’s hello to a new Berlin, a better Berlin. A Berlin that is constantly changing and is always worth going to - again.16
1 See Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (2012).
2 At both churches there were mentions of the other church, and people from each country helped build the new church in the other country.
3 This was before people worried so much about European countries “stealing” the cultural heritage of people elsewhere in the world. However, given what the Islamic State is doing in the Middle East, and the Taliban did in the Afghanistan, maybe moving some of these things to Europe and America wasn’t such a bad idea.
4 The U-Bahn and S-Bahn are among the best examples of how Berlin has changed over the years. When we went to Berlin in 1979 and 1982, there were both U-Bahns and S-Bahns, but you just took the U-Bahns. While the S-Bahn routes were on maps, it was the U-Bahns that were highlighted. At that point, the S-Bahns were still run by the East German government (even in West Berlin), and ever since the Wall went up, many West Berliners (and tourists) boycotted the S-Bahns. In 1983, West Berlin, in effect, bought the S-Bahn in the West and started to rehabilitate it. With reunification, the lines were connected again. But it has been an ongoing process, with routes being changed all the time. For us, for example, the routes even changed from our visit in May of 2009 to our trip December of 2010. And the Unter den Linden stop that I mention here is now called Brandenburger Tor,
5 When he got to Israel, he changed his name to Natan Sharansky. In 1995, he was elected to the Israeli Knesset. In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom
6 This was, obviously, long before “Bridge of Spies.”
7 Being from Illinois, the Sony Center feels familiar, which is logical since Helmut Jahn also designed the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. The one difference between the Sony Center and Thompson Center is that the Sony Center’s central plaza is open-air, while the Thompson Center’s is enclosed. The Thompson Center was built ten years before the Sony Center. I like to think the success of the Sony Center is at least in part a result of what Helmut Jahn learned from the problems of the Thompson Center.
8 Replacing Lehrter Bahnhof.
9 Shell House was opened in 1932. It was one of the first steel-framed structures in Berlin. With its wave-like façade, it is considered the masterpiece of architect Frank Fahrenkamp.
10 General Lucius Clay commanded U.S. forces in Germany, including West Berlin, during the Airlift. To show that German-American cooperation did not start with the Airlift, however, on the walk from the Oskar-Helene-Heim U-Bahn stop to the museum, I came upon a statue of what seemed to be an American Revolutionary War soldier. What is a statue of George Washington doing in Berlin, I thought. Until I got to the statue and saw it was, of course, Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben.
11 Sandmännchen is a German bedtime story character. Before the Wall came down, West Germany and East Germany each had its own Sandmännchen. West Germany’s Sandmännchen TV show ended in 1991. The East German version, however, is still shown today in repeats on German television. The Ampelmann (or Amperlmännchen) character was designed for East German pedestrian traffic light signals. When Germany united, he was replaced by the standard West German figure. Starting in the mid-1990s, however, protests for his return started. Ampelmann became almost a mascot for the Ostaglie movement. By 2005, Ampelmann was back in Berlin, even in western Berlin.
12 In 1962, Peter Fechter, an 18-year old East German bricklayer, attempted to escape. He was shot by East German border guards as he tried to climb the Wall. He fell back on the East Berlin side. His cries for help were ignored by the East German guards. Since he was on the east side of the border, the West Berlin guards could do nothing. He died after about an hour, at which point, the East German border guards came and got his body.
13 Some of the commentators said that the Germans did not feel comfortable celebrating as a nation until the World Cup, which they hosted in 2006.
14 Including one of only four Galeries Lafayette stores outside of France.
15 “I am a Roman citizen.”
16 I wrote the thoughts that became this article as we were leaving Berlin in 2014. I have since edited and added to them. If you haven’t been to Berlin, I hope you go soon. If you have been, go again.
UPDATE (3/26/16 10:10 am): Corrected several typos.