Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)
Germany in Mind
Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.
Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)
The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.
It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.
I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.
These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.
Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.
And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.
First Impressions of Berlin
You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.
The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.
It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.
There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.
Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.
You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.
Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.
The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.
Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.
I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.
A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport
You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.
This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.
Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.
Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.
Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!
I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.
If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.
Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.
Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).
This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.
Monuments of Life
I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).
Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.
The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.
The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.
The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.
Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.
Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.
(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)
In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.
Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.
From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.
The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.
The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.
I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.
Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.
The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain.
The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.
It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.
The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.
The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).
The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.
The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.
At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.
Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.
It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.
In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.