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Berlin: The sexy city that’s full of quirks and contrasts

08 March 2019 - By John Bishop

Berlin never reached the heights of other imperial capitals in the age of empires. Even today it compares poorly both with other capital cities in Europe and with other German cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne.

As a united country, Germany is young. It only became one country in 1871, after Bismarck’s forces crushed Napoleon III’s armies in the Franco-Prussian War, leading Bavaria, the last remaining independent kingdom to throw its lot in with a Prussian-controlled German Empire.

Reichstag Cupola
Inside the cupola atop the Reichstag, the German
parliament building. Designed by architect
Norman Foster, the glass dome was added to the
building as part of repairs to WWII damage, prior
to parliament returning to Berlin in 1999

Berlin, the capital of Prussia, then became the capital of a united German nation. That regime ended in 1918, less than 50 years compared with the many centuries that other imperial cities had to build their presence and personality.

The conservative and cautious north German Protestants had neither the time nor the inclination to imitate the opulence of Versailles or the decadence of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, or even the style of Buckingham Palace, which was considered a poor outhouse of a place in the 19th century by snobby European royalty.

The second reason is geographical. Berlin is built on a swamp – the name Berlin means ‘little lake’ or ‘swamp’ in Swabian, the language of Slavonic migrants who settled there in the 12th century.

At every building site in the city large pumps are operating constantly to remove water for solid foundations to be put in. There are depth, height and weight restrictions for buildings.

The tour guides tell gullible tourists that the pipes going into almost every building are for beer, or for piping in the custard for the sweet cakes and squares Berliners love to eat.

The hydrology means that there are few skyscrapers and no really eye-catching architecture, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Gherkin and the Shard in London or the Donauturm, the Millennium or Donau City Towers in Vienna.

Berlin has seen a lot of action: Napoleon’s triumphant arrival after defeating the Prussians at the battle of Jena; the Spartacist uprising led by Communist Rosa Luxembourg in 1919; the Nazis book burning in 1933; John Kennedy declaring on 26 June 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner”; Ronald Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate imploring Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “Open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” followed by the smashing down of the wall in November 1989, and in November 2002 Michael Jackson dangling his nine-month-old son out of a window of the top floor of the Adlon Hotel to the horror of the crowd below.

Museums at night

Wellington barrister Chris Chapman is a big fan of the city, and visits regularly. He agrees Berlin does not have the concentrated architectural grandeur of some other European cities.

“One exception to this is the Museuminsel and adjacent area in the former East Berlin. There, in addition to the impressive buildings that are the home to five of Berlin’s leading museums, is the Berliner Dom, the Opera, the Neue Wache containing the Käthe Kollwitz statue Mutter mit Totem Sohn, the Humboldt University and the soon to be completed rebuilt Berliner Schloss,” says Chris.

“Every capital city has museums to awe their visitors offering displays of art and antiquities and Berlin has this sort of museum in abundance. And once a year there is the very popular Lange Nacht der Museen.

Oranienburge Strasse in Berlin
The view down Oranienburge Straße towards the
Fernsehturm, the tallest structure in Germany
and an icon of East Berlin.

“On that day – 31 August this year – from 6pm until the small hours a single €18 ticket will get you into as many museums as you can visit plus the transport in between.”

I am not into such cultural pursuits; instead my highlights were the Spy Museum, the Hitler Bunker and Checkpoint Charlie.

The Spy Museum regards the first instance of spies as the scouts used by the Egyptian Pharaohs in the 15th century BC to detect and report on enemy troop movements.

There is more than a nod in the direction of the cinematic and romantic version of spies, with a display on James Bond, and a collation of spy movies. Berlin was centrepiece in many spy novels and films from the 1950s onwards, including most recently Bridge of Spies.

In spy apparatus my personal favourite is a recording device the CIA developed to attach to a cat which was then to wander around a room full of diplomats recording their conversations. Getting the cat ready, trained and set up cost $15 million, but alas, the cat was accidentally killed by a taxi on its first mission.

At Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors, I was unsurprised to learn that the uniformed guards are not real German soldiers (one of them is Italian). The guard house is a replica, and in real life it was several metres further forward and blocking the cross street.

To pose with the “guards” for a photo costs €3; a visitor can choose which officers hat to wear: Russian, American, British, French, but they do salute authentically.

The wall

Around the area are some excellent photographic accounts of the wall going up and coming down. Built from 1961 onwards and constantly strengthened until its demise from 1989, the Berlin Wall was 96km long and went around the city as well as across it dividing East from West, thus locking West Berlin into East Germany. Almost all of it is now gone.

All up, 136 people were killed trying to cross it. But there were 5,075 successful crossings, mostly in the first two years, and about 500 of those were East German border guards.

The souvenir shops have pieces of broken concrete “from the Wall” nicely mounted on wooden plinths for display as a reminder.

In the former East German side of the city there are murals depicting happy peasants and workers led by the intelligentsia all toiling for socialism. One example of “socialist realism” erected in 1952 was negated by the 1953 uprising against Communist rule which was brutally crushed.

The Hitler Bunker is long gone, but the tour guides all know where it was, and you can stand on the site in a small carpark outside a rather ordinary apartment block to hear the story of what happened at the end of the Third Reich in April/May 1945.

Oliver Hartwich, the head of the Wellington-based think tank the New Zealand Initiative, is German but not from Berlin. He says Berlin is the least German of all German cities and is different in other ways too.

“The thing that makes Berlin different from, say, Hamburg or Munich is its size, which, in turn, enables the formation of scenes and sub-scenes that no other German city managed to develop.” That’s certainly true in the high and low culture of the arts and the creative industries, leading one critic to comment that Berlin was a retirement home for the creatives in their mid-30s.

“The other factor about Berlin was that after World War II, it got used to subsidies and transfers,” says Oliver. “The East German government wanted to make it its shop window, whereas for the West it was case of showing solidarity with the city,” says Oliver.

“In both cases, Berlin got used to receiving money for being, well, Berlin. And after unification, that mindset didn’t change.

“Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin in the early 2000s, coined a wonderful phrase when he described Berlin’s self-image as “poor but sexy”. What other mayor of a global city would say that?

“So, Berliners are today resigned to the fact that their city is largely dysfunctional. It is bankrupt. But it is sexy, international, cosmopolitan and somehow cool. I certainly love it, though I would never want to live there.”

City of contradictions

In Berlin, tourism is the number one industry, with the arts coming in second. Construction is third, and government is fourth. The long delays and massive cost overruns in building the city’s new airport belie the country’s reputation for efficiency. This is a city of quirks and contradictions.

Under Communism, East Berlin pioneered the use of symbols of people walking or waiting inside green and red traffic lights. The man in the green symbol resembled Erich Honneker, the long-time head of the Communist Party in East Germany, a person of stocky peasant origin.

When unification occurred, Berliners overturned a plan to get rid of the East German lights and replace them with the Western German variant. The East German version is still used throughout the now united city.

A place of German curry sausages
Currywurst – Bratwurst with curry sauce,
served with fries – is a specialty of Berlin
(and very delicious).

And only in Berlin will you find rabid fans of a late-night pick me up after drinking, called currywurst. It’s a grilled sausage (usually beef or veal mixed with pork), in a tomato-based onion and curry sauce, onto which curry powder is shaken to taste.

Try it at your own risk, but don’t scorn it: locals love it. There’s even a museum devoted to currywurst.

The city’s Holocaust Memorial is also memorable. Built in 2003-05 to a design by American architect Peter Eisenman, who has yet to explain its rationale, the memorial consists of 2,711 rectangular blocks of concrete, each of a different size from knee height to above one’s head, arranged on a 19,000 sq m block south of the Brandenburg Gate.

Each block was sprayed with anti-graffiti paint, made by a company called Degesch, a subsidiary of the much larger Degussa company.

In World War II Degussa made Zyklon B, the gas used in the death camps.

The Berlin authorities knew all this at the time the contract was awarded, and when it was revealed, a fierce public row erupted. One outcome was that Degussa now cleans and refreshes the paint each year for free.


John Bishop john@johnbishop.co.nz is a travel writer and business mentor.

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Last updated on the 8th March 2019