Living Underground in West Berlin
Berlin is a city that has always fascinated me in a way few other cities have: I’ve always thought that history can teach us so much about the way we humans have adapted to our world at different stages of our evolution, and during the 20th
century Berlin held centre stage.
My posts on Berlin so far have covered places connected with its historical core, World War II and East Berlin, but very little about the former West Berlin – and so I thought it was about time to rectify that, and so I’m starting off at a museum in Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s most famous street.
The Story of Berlin is a privately run attraction which promotes itself as an interactive museum, with 23 rooms describing the history of Berlin. The emphasis is on multimedia technology, and although there were parts of it that I quite enjoyed, I have to say that I was mostly underwhelmed – so why am I bothering to write about it you might wonder.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church - Berlin's Memorial to Peace
In its attempt to atone for the horrors inflicted on the world by the Nazis, Berlin has gone out of its way to confront its past with monuments of what it sees as reconciliation. For example, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
covers an area in the centre of the city which was used by the Nazi war machine, but it would be easy to forget that the German people also suffered from the horrors of war. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Breitscheidplatz goes some way towards rectifying that by remembering what Berliners had to endure too, but it also acts as a memorial to peace for everyone.
THE OLD CHURCH
The memorial actually consists of two churches, and it’s only natural that I start with the original one that was built in memory of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The foundation stone was laid four years after he died on what would have been his 94th birthday (22nd March 1891). This monumental church had a spire that rose to a height of 113m (371ft) and was able to accommodate a congregation of 2,000 people. It also boasted an entrance with some superb mosaics that made a connection between the ‘throne and the altar’.
On the night of 23rd November 1943 allied air raids caused extensive damage to the landmark church including the spire. A post-war assessment of the ruins led to a decision to keep what was left as a symbol of peace, but it took several attempts before the final plan was accepted by the people of Berlin. Initially, it was suggested that what was left of the spire should be torn down, but Berliners saw it as the ‘Heart of Berlin’ and so a compromise was reached where its height was reduced to 71m (233ft), prompting Berliners to call it “Der Hohle Zahn”, meaning The Hollow Tooth
Bernauer Strasse and the Berlin Wall Memorial
Anyone interested in finding out what life was like living with the Berlin Wall should come to Bernauer Strasse. The street was right on the dividing line between East and West and is now part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, an open-air exhibition (if that’s the right word) which includes a Memorial, Reconciliation Church, Documentation Centre and 80 metres of the Wall.
Before the end of World War II, the whole length of Bernauer Strasse, was the border line between the districts of Wedding and Mitte, and consequently when the city was carved up by the victors at the end of the war, the street became part of the border between East and West Berlin.
Although Wedding found itself in the Western French sector and Mitte in the Eastern Soviet sector, there was no physical barrier between the two, and people were free to travel anywhere within the city. There was however, a vast difference between how people lived in their respective sectors. The Western side of the city was not only more affluent, but it also had luxury shops, restaurants and entertainment venues for people to spend their money in – and East Berliners wanted to spend what cash they had in West Berlin; and as time went on, a steady trickle of people started to leave East Berlin for a better life across the border.
The 1945 Potsdam Agreement had left Berlin wholly located within the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and once people were in West Berlin, they could then travel out of the city – and out of the Eastern Bloc. The trickle of people from East to West turned into a flood and by 1961 it was reckoned that more than 3 million East Germans had left the GDR via Berlin.
To stop this hemorrhaging of people to the West, the GDR authorities decided to build a physical barrier, a barrier which over time became more and more difficult to penetrate – and there was no better example of how the Berlin Wall divided the city than Bernauer Strasse.
East Side Gallery and Oberbaum Bridge
The section of the Berlin Wall that still remains between the Oberbaum Bridge and the Ostbahnhof on Muhlenstrasse is the longest open air art gallery in the world. In German it’s called the Kunstmeile, which in English translates as Art Mile.
The East-West border along here during the Cold War was the River Spree and this segment of the wall on the Eastern side was never subjected to the graffiti that was associated with the Western side. As if to make amends, when the wall came down this section was preserved and handed over as a blank canvas to artists from around the world to create this unique wall of art. Over a hundred murals were painted by artists from twenty-one different countries; some had political statements, some were artistic, and some were just mind-bending offerings.
These paintings were originally done in 1990, but by the time I first saw them back in 2003 they were well past their sell-by date and the area was a bit different to what it is now. In 2009 the artists were invited back to re-paint their originals. One of the iconic images was Dmitri Vrubel’s painting My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, a painting of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, locked in a fraternal kiss. The picture below shows how it appeared in 2013.
This museum, designed by the world famous Polish-American architect, Daniel Libeskind, is a mixture of both old and new. Entry is through the former Collegienhaus, a fine Baroque building which dates back to 1733-1735, but I suspect most people are anxious to see Libeskind’s modern addition.
Anybody who is familiar with his work won’t be disappointed. He challenges traditional architectural form with titanium-zinc and concrete designs that will also challenge your mind as to whether it fits in with the subject matter of the museum. Whatever you think of his ideas they are undeniably different. Like any so-called great artists of the modern era, his interpretation of what he wanted to portray has been worked out in his own mind and it’s no good me trying to explain it all. Some of his ideas I could understand, but others were pretty well lost on me.