Although I was reluctant in early life to go to Germany, duty, conventions, tourism and daughter Stephanie all called. By now I have been to Berlin 10 to 15 times.
It has become one of my favorite cities. In particular, I love its “wide open” spaces (one-third of the city is green space), the determination and hard-charging attitude of the people and its general modern spirit of gusto teeming with approximately 4.5 million people in its metro area. Come with me for a brief history and tour. …
Of course, Berlin was damaged in World War II, not as severely as Dresden or Frankfort, but now rebuilt and thriving, even surviving with renewed vigor the communist division of 1945 to 1991 (but all foreign troops not withdrawn until 1994) with its fatigue and drabness. Mostly it was rebuilt with American, Arab States, Russian, Japanese and Chinese money.
The Berlin Wall, built by the Russians to keep Germans in East Berlin, fell in 1989. Berlin is proud once again t be the capital city of all Germany since 1999. (See “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall,” Morning News, July 3, 2018.)
Germania attracted Roman attention about 100 B.C. with later famous excursions and conquest by Julius Caesar and Augustus. But the Romans were interested in the natural resources, in access to water, in a northern land buffer for Italy, in trade routes and for country retreats. Besides, they really didn’t want large gathering of peoples, and so they developed no large cities.
The Germans were at first pleased with Roman influence and embraced the Romans, moving south and joining the Roman legions. As Roman influence waned, the Germans fought among themselves, against the Romans and against their western neighbors to form the Franks, or Franco-Germanic peoples, with influence waxing and waning between local and regional leaders.
In the 800s, some regional capital cities were built mainly for trade, as the economies were still basically agrarian. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was able to gather many French/German tribes together into what was called the “Holy Roman Empire,” or as he preferred “The Empire of the Franks and the Lombards.” Over the years he found himself fighting not the Roman Empire but rather the Roman Church. Eventually, Slavic tribes from the east also mixed in with the Saxons and Franks to the west. Even today many towns in the eastern part of Germany have Slavish names.
Berlin began as a city in the 1200s with the combination of Spandau, Koepenick and Cölln nestling themselves along the banks of the Spree River. It became the center for the Elector of Brandenburg in 1415 and was reinforced by the Hohenzollern family to become the center of their Elector government that eventually became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701. Incredibly, the family ruled until 1918 (longevity akin to the Medici in Florence, Italy). The family began building projects, including Berlin (the City) Palace in 1451.
The Lutheran revolution disturbed the city, but by 1539, the city and the government was solidly Lutheran. The Thirty Years War devastated Berlin. The war can be simplified and portrayed as partly Catholic vs. Protestant, partly a German civil war and partly Northern Europe vs. Southern Europe. It was finally ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The war destroyed approximately one-third of Berlin, and it lost roughly half of its population to death and emigration.
Curiously, in order to rebuild Berlin, the Elector Frederick William issued the 1685 Proclamation of Potsdam to encourage immigration to Berlin of Huguenots from all over Europe to avoid Catholic persecution, and by 1700, 30% of the city was French, plus other immigrants from Bohemia, Poland and Salzburg.
Rebuilt and successful again by 1701, Berlin was named the new capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. Frederick III of Brandenburg declared himself then to be the new king, Frederick I of Prussia. The Berlin land area was increased with amalgamation with Freiderichasweder, Freidrichastadt and Dorotheesnstadt.
By 1740, the city was successful enough to be considered the center of the Enlightenment (think Immanuel Kant and later, German Higher Criticism. The city birthed the critical race theory philosophy from 1927 to 1937 and attracted temporary military occupation by Russia (Seven Years War, 1762) and Napoleon (1806). The industrial revolution cemented Berlin as the most important German city, and in 1871, it was named the capital of all Germany.
Both the architecture and economy of Berlin flourished after the two World Wars. The whole country is proud of its government center, the Reichstag, and its cultural achievements in the arts, theater and architecture. The population zoomed to approximately 4 million and, despite political turmoil, Berlin became ever richer as a tourist center and the physical spirit of the Roaring ’20s (see the movie, “Cabaret,” and the novel series, “The Berlin Stations” by David Downing) stretching into the ’30s.
Albert Einstein of Berlin won a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.
The Berlin economy now is dominated by the service sector, with roughly 84% of all companies doing business in services. Important economic sectors include life sciences, transportation, information and communication technologies, media and music, advertising and design, biotechnology, environmental services, construction, e-commerce, retail, hotel business and medical engineering.
Begin your Berlin tour at the Brandenburg Gate, built in the 1700s to mark the road to Brandenburg, now one of Europe’s most famous architectural landmarks. To one side is the Reichstag with the Bundestag (Parliament) with both old and new buildings, some of modern, striking glass and the others surviving the Nazis. To the other is a solemn Memorial to the Holocaust (the Memorial to the Killed Jews of Europe) with solid stone coffin-like blocks, all in different sizes. Smile as the children climb over them, unaware of the dreadful events of the 1930-1940s.
Berlin has enabled bronze bricks/pavers throughout the city to mark the addresses of all exported Jews from the Holocaust. Basically, part of the same complex are monuments to the Berlin Wall with slabs still standing and preserved with appropriate text. Curiously, the new American embassy is RIGHT THERE, too, but deliberately across the line in the old east or at least straddling the two old sectors. And along some side streets, mounds of grass along the route of the Wall built up to its old height, now are playgrounds for children and picnic spots. And within just a block or so is the old Checkpoint Charlie (guarded crossing between East and West), now with volunteer actors and several private museums, all great for pictures.
Just along the canal behind the Brandenburg Gate looms the old Berlin City Palace, now a great museum of both art and lost kingdoms. Nearby looms the Dom Berlin, the old, still magnificent Catholic Church, but no longer Catholic, of course, basically a museum piece with marvelous and amazing interior art and architecture.
Further along this direction opens the old Center of the East German Government, now much changed, some buildings taken down, but with dour architecture reflecting a dour and oppressive regime, now past. By the way, the hotels in the old east sector are great and a bit cheaper than in the west. (I prefer, don’t laugh, Best Western and Dorint.)
Now turn back to the opposite side of the Bundestag, across the great park (the Tiergarten), a huge collection of high quality museums: the Bauhaus, the Musical Instruments, Haus Der Kultrum, KPM, the Berlin State Museums (5), the Collectors Rooms, the Film Museum and the Science Center. Set aside at least two days for these visits. Go to Museum Island on the north end of Spree Island, for even more museums; the Berlin State Museums (6), the Humbolt Box and the Islam Museum.
You really can’t miss the area of the Charlottenburg Castle: the Abyuss, the Berlin State Museums (4), the Brohan, the Photography Museum, the Villa Oppenheim, the Palace, Das Verborgene, the Kerunik and the Museum of Architecture. We also love the Train Museum.
Now if you really like to walk, go back to the gate and trek the Great Park toward the magnificent Column to Victory; feel free to wander among the adjoining shrubs and forest. Free yourself. Relax. Somewhere within the forest is also Europe’s most famous and important zoo. It’s easy to see the landmark Berlin Radio tower along the way. But you also can use the marvelous public transport tram and subway system (called the U-train and the S-train).
My teenaged boys loved the new City ExpoCenter (the Messe Berlin), particularly after I fell asleep, but so did I, even by day, with great stores, restaurants, several dramatic office towers and a few more museums. The Convention Center is also here, and once I almost talked my way, with some old tickets, into the famous International Film Festival, passing through two levels of guards, but I was thwarted at the very doors themselves. Oh, well. I got to watch some famous people pass by.
Keep this paragraph a secret, please. But it’s “neat” that you can visit the old Gestapo and KGB/Stasi offices. For a while the old Russian paperwork was actually left in place. Well, not all of it. Now it is secured in vaults. These old offices are only six blocks apart. But the west did discover the unfortunate end of Raoul Wallenberg through the old files. I also like the Russian Memorial Park in Treptower Park with fascinating stonework, some history of the USSR and Russia and memorials, including to their unknown soldier and a striking statue of a weeping, comforting “Mother Russia. The Russians suffered 7,000 dead and 80,000 wounded in the Battle of Berlin. All of this despite their evil treatment of Wallenberg.
I love German food, even those dishes turned aside by most Americans. Be sure to visit any neighborhood restaurant you wish. They are all excellent, but my usual compulsive memory fails me on the names. Typical of the well-organized German, many restaurants have tourist sections, some with rooms or areas where they only use English menus (but beware, the prices are often higher on the English menus. Do not ask for English menus. German words are mostly “English like”). Some restaurants even have rooms just for schnitzel.
The Germans still love beer, although their white wines can be excellent, and wine is rising in popularity. You can buy draft beer in huge steins or even tall pipes that loom over your table. There are restaurants that they call “gartens” that serve only beer, or only wine, along with some food, often schnitzel or brats with spatzle or bread. These places are great in warm weather with large outdoor serving areas, but they more common in southwest Germany rather than Berlin.
And save one day for Potsdam. We remember it for the Potsdam Conference and the Church of Peace. Potsdam was the old capital of the German Empire, once mighty and rich, ruling much of Europe since about 200 years before World War II. The palaces are magnificent, gathered around a central plaza and almost overwhelming, particularly the Sanssouci.
Take two pairs of shoes and lots of film or camera chips.
Auf Wiedersehen … for now.
Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife, Shirley, moved to Florence in 1980. Dr. Imbeau with Dr. Joseph Moyer opened the Allergy Asthma and Sinus Center in 1996, now one of the largest allergy practices in South Carolina. You can reach him at email@example.com or via stephenaimbeau.com.