I was always a geography girl over history, but oh how I wished I’d paid more attention and realised the study of the globe could be done through the study of history.
History educates us to mistakes of the past; it warns us of failed compassion and growing greed when basic human rights are violated, generally, in the name of protection… supposed protection of our rights… but always with one eye on gain and with a petulant right to take whatever we need to maintain a position of luxury and dominance in the world.
Maybe it was my lack of interest, or maybe we’re just not encouraged to think creatively about history. All I remember about history lessons at school was that it was all about war, that it was boring and that Anne Frank wrote a diary. I knew that Hitler was an egotistical and clearly insane man, where Jewish people weren’t part of his super race plan of world domination. I knew that in the end he was defeated by the allied forces, Britain, France, America and Russia and that they saved our liberty, grace and standard of life as a result.
I know that England v Germany is always a big football game and that we generally lose (apart from that 5-1 game). But I never thought about what happened after we won the war. I never thought that for every winner there is a loser. I never thought about the German people. We know nowadays how a movement takes hold and sweeps everybody along in it’s path, even alternative movements, like the green movement demand conformance or risk being ostracised.
Just like the Jew’s didn’t ask or deserve to be persecuted, neither did the German masses invite or approve of their persecution. Look at what happened in Cambodia, you didn’t even have to stand against the party to be ‘disappeared’, you just had to have an education.
It took a trip to Berlin, a city ripped in two by the divvying up of post war; one for me, one for you, one for you and nothing for you. This is the Russian sector, this is the British sector, this is the French sector and this is the American sector. German sector, what German sector. Everything you’ve ever known as your identity undermined because you were forced to follow an over zealous, ethnic cleansing obsessed leader who was probably only doing it because he had a small man, small…. moustache complex and they didn’t have Porsche’s in those days.
Step forward 16 years and whilst most of the West were enjoying an advent of new freedom of expression in the swinging sixties a city in the east of Germany was feeling the cold of the iron curtain. Stopping the filtration of revolutionary ideas and preventing the defection of traitors to the democratic West they ripped out some of the building that managed to survive the prolific bombing during the war (London came off a lot better) and built a wall through the middle of the city. Nobody gets out, nobody gets in. Control, tick. Problem solved, tick. Oppression, tick.
But don’t think it’s all roses on the other side of the wall, you may have the freedom associated with democratic rule, but you’re just a tiny blip of democracy in an entirely Soviet ruled east, the DDR. Testing their Iron Grip the Soviets cut off food supply and West Berliners relied on food drops from allied planes. They survived, the East survived and finally in 1989, the Soviet grip faltered and the people on both sides rose up, bringing the wall down.
Finally in 1994, after the allied powers agreed to abrogate their rights and responsibilities for Germany, reunifying Berlin in 1990, the last of the allied troops left Berlin. That’s just 2 years before I started my GCSE’s and I still can’t believe this all this happening in my lifetime. Whilst I was going through the delights of being a teenager and taking my first trips into the town centre with my friends, going to Piano lessons and going on our first family holidays abroad; other teenagers didn’t even have the luxury of going to the other side of town to visit their grandmother, not in the third world, just round the European corner.
What could have been a lack of identity instead has fuelled an amazing strength of character; fuelling an overwhelming desire to correct the misdoings of those that went before, to challenge the perception of the people and to creatively inspire the future.
Ich bin ein Berliner, as President Kennedy famously proclaimed to endorse his solidarity with West Germany and make a statement to the un-oustable East German leadership. If I hadn’t flunked my GCSE German with a D, I’d certainly consider making it official with Berlin and not just a flirtation.
The whole place has a vibrancy that’s palatable, an energy that is undeniably that of a city, but completely relaxed. It doesn’t brag about it’s gifts, it’s not competitively desiring to be the best city in the world; it just is itself, in a nonchalant, non-judgemental, quietly confident, comfortable way.
It has all the best bits of London, without any of the bad!
Sixty odd years on and Berlin is still repairing it’s architectural heritage, using modern technology to regrow rather than sticking on a band aid to protect it from the ailments. Where new skin can’t be encouraged to grow, they use all their German efficiency and technical proficiency to merge the old with the new and graft on shiny, glass and steel.
With humility and shame there are landmarks left so that future generations don’t forget to respect their fellow man and revel in how the differences colour his life.
Whilst every part was my favourite, the East side gallery where parts of the wall were relocated, displaying the emotions and voice of the people on a canvas more poignant than ever you’ll see really captured my solidarity and compassion.
I will be eternally grateful for having been given the opportunity to explore this amazing city and it’s lesson of ying and yang. My trip was obviously enhanced by having a wonderful tour guide in my India travel buddy Melanie and a warm welcome from her family but regardless this magnificent city can’t fail to invite and impress you. Put Berlin at the top of your list, get yourself a welcome card, put your walking shoes on and fill those boots with bread you previously only dreamed of, pretzels, cheese, cheese pretzels, pretzels with cheese and pfuffilinger, a type of mushroom with a name that can’t fail to make you smile at it’s totally silliness.
Feel oppressed and isolated wandering around the Jewish monument; strain your neck trying to take in all that modern design and construction has to offer in Potsdammer Platz; get vertigo looking down on West Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom; get lost wandering the lanes of Hackesche Hofe; get inspired by modern art and photography at the Hamburger Bahnhof gallery; stroll down the Unter den Linden; shield the sunlight from your eyes looking up at Victory abreast her steads on the Brandenburg Tor; see the tribes collecting and coexisting in Alexanderplatz; visit Checkpoint Charlie; have a drink, explore the music shops and have some world food in Berlin’s much less try to hard version of Shoreditch, feel domineered by the Reichstag and then wave hello to Angela Merkel before jumping on a train at the sleek Haupt Bahnhof and going home for some more bread and cheese.
Auf Wiedersen Berlin, in the words of your former neighbour, who defected to warmer climes, I’ll be back.