So you’re setting up a promotional shoot for a German railway. You got all the uniforms pressed and prepared. By dammit, you’re one uniform and hat short. Not to worry, you’re sure you saw something in an old cupboard in the basement. The cupboard with ‘Gestapo’ on the front, whatever that is. It’ll have to do…
Normally when travelling by myself, I land at the airport with nothing more than a Lonely Planet guidebook and a completely open agenda. I had just two full days in Berlin though, so I planned more carefully. I didn’t have a day or so to orientate myself to my surroundings. I planned an itinerary and booked the required tickets. First up was a walking tour, booked through Viator with Discover Berlin. A four hour march past all the key sites in Berlin’s history. The first part focused on pre 20th century Berlin. The latter part on the World War and Cold War. The guide was enthusiastic and interesting, which helps.
I returned to one of the locations the next day. A very nondescript car park, just a few hundred metres from the Reichstag. It’s a car park because its difficult to build on this spot. Underneath lies the Fuhrerbunker, where Hitler made his last stand. There is a sign explaining the location and describing the layout of the bunker, 8 metres below the surface. This only went up in 2006, in time for the World Cup.You can’t access the bunker today. Over the years there have been efforts to destroy it and/or fill it in with concrete. There’s a fascinating collection of photographs by Rober Conrad, who disguised himself as a construction worker in 1987 and went down into the bunker to document what remained.
It’s a place worthy of sitting for a while. To picture the scene, seventy years ago. The Nazi regime was in its death throes, but Adolf Hitler still strolled this patch of ground from time to time. Have you seen the film Downfall? It’s a masterpiece, well worth a couple of hours of your time. It’s based entirely on the last days and hours of the regime, covering the moment that Hitler finally did the right thing and put a bullet through his brain.
Historians have placed the pit where the bodies of Mr and Mrs Hitler were partially burned to be by the first parking sign in this photo. The irony of this being a wheelchair accessible parking space is not lost on me. The only way to make it a more appropriate parking space would be if it were reserved for black, gay, Jewish wheel chair users. Dr Goebbels has it worse. They built the Monument to Murdered Jews over his bunker. Karma.
Everything possible has been done by the authorities to make this site uninteresting and devoid of stand out features. To remove the blemish of the Third Reich from the streets of the city. To say that they have attempted to whitewash history or pretend it didn’t happen is going too far and is unfair. This is a complicated and touchy subject.
The German language is a pretty blunt instrument of communication. The vocabulary is direct and to the point. So I hope the natives won’t object that I utilize that straightforward approach in my opening description of Berlin – the Ugly City. If Paris is the city of light, then Berlin is the city of darkness. A largely brutalist expression of architecture in both the east and west parts of the city. Although, for obvious reasons, more so in the east. But Berlin is about function rather than finery or frivolity. So that’s okay. And whilst giants of literature and science have plied their trade here, most visitors come for the history, not the culture. That is certainly why I visited this week.
It’s a history dominated by a single man, and the evidence of his existence is etched into every square metre of the city centre. Although you’ll see only a few sign posts acknowledging that fact. The architecture is the first giveaway. The modern concrete blocks, laid down in the 50s, 60s and 70s to fill the holes made by tens of thousands of tons of British and US high explosives, dropped from the skies, day and night, for several years. With the additional destruction of the Soviet attack, the Battle of Berlin, thrown in for good measure. The end result was something of a modern version of Carthage.
Here and there, an older building survives. Or rather, was restored. But they still bear the scars of war. Magnificent columns riddled with bullet holes. Monuments so blackened from the soot of fires that cleaning them is not possible. Then there is the Reichstag, the crowning glory of German reunification, risen from the ashes of 1945, but with constant reminders of the buildings violent history. Photograph displays throughout the interior show the story of the Reichstag. Russian graffiti has been preserved. Then there is that magnificent dome on top, the contrast between the old and the new.
The history that visitors come to see doesn’t end in 1945, of course. In the eastern half of the city, the swastika was simply replaced with the hammer and sickle, the war changed from world to cold, and an oppressive and brutal leadership carried on the work of their predecessors. Most of the key sites in Berlin lie in the eastern half. What was until 25 odd years ago, the capital of East Germany. Architecturally, an even bigger mess than the western side. I think it is fair to say that the city is yet to fully recover from either the World War or Cold War, both physically and mentally.
Berlin can also claim to be the birthplace of modern political correctness. The art of conversation without offence. Given the very delicate nature of the city’s history, it is not surprising that this is so. How to discuss the finer points of the Gestapo and Stasi without upsetting anyone? There are laws outlawing holocaust denial and use of Nazi symbols. Like a recovering alcoholic, there is the fear that just one sip from the forbidden cup will see Berlin swathed in fascist emblems once more.
I pre-booked a tour of the Reichstag. We were guided round by a grandfatherly figure with as monotone a voice as you will ever hear, and a habit of finishing ever sentence with ‘ya’. He was informative. But he did something that I didn’t hear from any other German during my short stay. When talking about the war, he used we and us, rather than they and them. Germans instead of Nazis. I noticed it, but whether anyone else did I cannot say. But he left his feelings open to interpretation by doing so. When reading signs or listening to Germans on the subject of the war, there seems to be a deliberate effort at disassociation. And I can’t say that I blame them.
Click here to see my Berlin album on Flickr.
There are a fair few ‘informal’ street markets specialising in antiques, bric a brac, junk and plain old rubbish. Some of which desperately needs to be placed unceremoniously in a rubbish bin. There’s a fairly famous one in Zona Rosa, and another in the rather iffy Lagunilla market in Tepito. I regularly go to the Alvaro Obregon market for a wander, but today I turned away from that one and went in a different direction. Only to come across another market just a couple of blocks away. This one running around the four sides of a public park.
You can almost always find some funky stuff at these markets. Old Atari 2600 consoles with games. Old paintings, books and magazine. Flea ridden sofas. Tables and chairs that are being feasted upon by woodworm. Phones from the ’60’s. Watches, glasses, spoons, medals, stamps, coins, posters, sunglasses, toys, rugs….the assortment of stuff that finds its way to market never ceases to amaze me.
But there are two types of ‘antique’ that always fascinate me. Firstly, the amount of Nazi memorabilia. Its just not something you come across that much in the UK. World War 2 and Hitler’s Nazi party were and are a distant and bizarre turn of events in a world far removed for most Mexicans. Nazi helmets are not a rare sight on motorcyclists. And today I came across a mint condition Adolf doll, in box. I was almost tempted to buy it, just as a sort of strange and unusual momento from my Mexican adventure.
There’s also a plethora of old cameras. Really old cameras. Of all sorts of makes. Kodak, Zenit, Pentax, Canon, Yashica cameras. Some of which may still work. Others which may not. However, even if you find one in the former category, they make require a film that’s no longer made. I am really tempted to take a punt on one of these ancient cameras one day, if I can get a fair price on it. Just to see if I can get it to work, and to see what sort of photos I can get out of it. One day….