It was to be my first time in Germany and the only reasonable place to start was Berlin, the capital where so much had come to pass, where history had been made time and again. Symbols of this illustrious past were scattered across the place and one felt the significance of each in the life of this great city. Chief among these was the Brandenburg gate, which stood to represent peace and unity not just in this city but throughout Germany itself. During the cold war it had represented disunity and was closed with east and west either side of it, allowing none to pass. Once Germany had reunified it took on a new meaning and came instead to symbolise this union.
Another building synonymous with Germany is the Reichstag, the national parliament where the decree to wage WW2 was passed. Perhaps as a result, this iconic edifice has been the target of bombing and arson across the last century. A dome overlooking the city has been built into it but viewing this had required booking in advance so I elected to visit other notable monuments instead.
Among these was the Berliner Dom, a cathedral church that assumes a baroque style and is the largest of any kind across Berlin, easily towering above 100m. It is located on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island, where many world famous Museums can be found. Of these the Altes, Neues and Pergamon museums most stand out. The Altes showcases Ancient Greek and Roman culture, the Neues sheds light on Prehistoric and Protohistoric life, while the Pergamon displays Persian and Babylonian exhibits. Of these the Ishtar Gate, which used to lead into the city of Babylon, is perhaps the most striking. Here it leads into the Persian exhibit but many had passed through it into that famous city.
The Zoologister Garten claims to have the most species of any zoo throughout Europe. It was easily one of the largest I have been to though it was perhaps more impressive for its design than for the animals themselves, half of which were inside and out of sight. Nonetheless it was interesting to see those that were on display, though the thought that people controlled the lives of these creatures bothered me a little, if only for the contradiction. Our cousins especially made me think, those apes that are unfathomably stronger than us yet remain subjugated to our intellect. What power are we really justified in holding over them? Put us in the enclosure with one and that would be it for us. Our intelligence only helps because it shows us how to avoid them, to keep them at a distance. Thinking on this and having walked around the path to my content, I went to the aquarium but only succeeded in reaching it a minute past closing time.
I left shortly after to go back to my hotel by the river, and strolled along it, taking in the view. Situated at intervals across the river were bridges under which boats were travelling intermittently. Around the river bed were foliage and trees populated the other side of the river, obscuring the city beyond. Near my hotel was a building the precise purpose of which I remain ignorant. An indication as to what it was may have been provided by the unfurled flags stood up outside. Besides the German flag was the familiar symbol of the European union that has become even more pertinent in recent times, especially for those of us from the UK, of which I am numbered.
It is regrettable that imaginary lines should be drawn between places so that walls can be taken to exist. For my part, I see no point in divorcing from the EU beyond the satiation of the fragile egos of nationalists, who are fundamentally the same as racists in their us-versus-them mentality. Of course, pride in a nation is the only recourse for those without their own achievements, who need to identify with something without to overcome this inward lack. Their insistence on defending the faults of their country, to vote for an independence that is empty, is all that is left to them. Taken to the extreme this feeling of being the better group leads to genocide, a lesson that has seemingly not been learned from this country’s past. Thinking about the needless division that was to come, I realised the mistake had not been made yet. That, for now, the whole of Europe remained open to me without my being an ‘outsider’. This bittersweet revelation was my consolation.
The next day I visited Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque palace commisioned to be built by the wife of the elector of the district around the 18th Century, and after whom it was named. Beyond it was the palace gardens and an even more extensive park with rivers. There was also a lake by the way, with a path one could walk alongside it by. The views I was afforded across the lake were striking and walking around the place I found even better vantage points on bridges over the rivers intersecting the park. I explored the palaces garden as far as I could and was impressed by the many imperious buildings dotted about the place. To think this used to be someone’s summer residence seemed absurd, but reality often is.
Soon, I found myself walking down Unter den Linden, the main road of Berlin, which literally translates as ‘under the linden trees’. Along it were many notable monuments and buildings worth seeing. Among these was a sculpture of Frederick the Great, the king that had overseen the development of this boulevard so that it became what it is today. Also along the road was Humboldt University, named after Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher that specialised in linguistics. It is the oldest and most highly regarded university in all of Germany. A war memorial to all the victims of war also stood out and, though it was erected as far back as 1816, it nevertheless foreshadowed what came in the last century.
Though the world wars will always put people in mind of Germany, more recently the division within the country was a topic of great interest to the rest of the world. The separation of East and West Germany finally came to an end in 1990, though not without struggle. The Berlin Wall then stands as a reminder of a unity that was hard to come by. The public were invited to paint across it with the result being a variety of murals relating to ideas of freedom, solidarity and peace. There is such a wide range of these, some more meaningful than others, that you are compelled to recognise that this is a city that is now united, and which will continue to have influence in the future, now that they have understood their past. With this in mind I thought seeking out the new Germany would be a suitable note on which to end the trip.
Postdamer Platz is known for the architectural marvels. The skyscrapers are perhaps the best example of what modern Berlin is like. The Sony centre, a massive, spiralling dome has one of the most celebrated and unique designs of any building in all of Germany. By day it is filled with people visiting its many restaurants and cafes. At night it lights up in a range of colours, becoming visible from a distance in its luminence.
Berlin continues to hold a lasting fascination for many people, by some for its history, but more and more for what it presently conveys. Being the capital and the location of the country’s parliament it represents a hotseat of discourse for wider Germany and even Europe. It is then a major and lively city filled with affable people seemingly obsessed with cycling, some of the best beer around, and museums that celebrate the history of the world.