Echoes of the past in Berlin

The Division of Berlin


Berlin felt like a rude departure from the quaint symmetry of Amsterdam. It was a chainlink, punk-rock, and graffiti-washed city that squeezes itself into a suit and tie to present some very nice restaurants and a warm and welcoming citizenry. But deep down it is living a double life and right off the plane, we were onto it. The schizophrenia is heavy and tangible. How did it come to be this way? 


History, of course. When the city was split into two after the Second World War the Soviets dumped their bucket of totalitarian command-and-control economics all over their Eastern half. Under that East German government, life was regimented down to the songs children could sing (or one song, really: socialist propaganda). Kids were forced to take bathroom breaks in groups and no child could stand until all were finished, to promote communal instincts. Their homework was literally to observe and report on their parents for any non-conformist behavior. As one can imagine, fear, distrust, misery, and a nearly lost generation of youth ensued. I say nearly, because we’ll elaborate in a moment.


First, let’s discuss how ludicrous it is for any central government to assume that it knows best for all of it’s citizens, all the time. Touring the DDR museum of East German artifacts it’s made plain and clear that nothing about this economy functioned properly. They manufactured everything themselves, from pants to canned green beans, on strict quotas determined by someone in a high office with no tether to reality. As a result, there was never enough of anything desirable.


Black markets rose up for commonplace things like butter or sewing thread and forced people to live double lives of saying “yes" to the regime’s system but “doing no” by finding ways to get what they needed. Much later when Boris Yeltsin, then Soviet Premiere, visited the United States and toured an average American grocery store he was reported to have remarked (perhaps apocryphally) “If people back home saw this, there would be a revolution.” 


By 1961 people were feeling in droves across the border to escape East Berlin's bleak conditions. Instead of building, say, an economy, the East German Government decided to construct an Anti-Facist Protective Wall  that spanned the city. Their propaganda announced that their people were finally safe from capitalists, even as hundreds of sed citizens were captured or killed trying to escape to the other side. Kennedy was questioned about the wall as it went up  and said something to the effect of “It sucks, but it’s better than a war.” Nearly thirty more years of oppression ensued. 


As youth will do, they flirted with rebellion in East Germany. They listened to rock on pirated radios and wore Levis, the ultimate symbol of capitalism (and interestingly, founded in the USA by early German immigrants). The Ramones were their war cry, long hair was their emblem, and they fought the bleak manufactured propaganda-infused culture that the Stasi peddled. They generated their own deep culture of revolt.


The Western half of the city fared better but not by much, you have to know. People initially fled from he American, the British, and the French controlled quarters of Berlin on the Western side but were slowly coaxed back with lucrative promises and economic incentives. Its population plummeted and while it was never was again vibrant and there were never any picturesque American supermarkets, it trudged on while it’s Eastern counterpart decayed. People continued to try to escape. 


Then one day, the wall came down. The Eastern cadaver of Berlin was was sewn back together with the West and twenty-seven years on this divide is clear as day when you observe the buildings. This living scar is a stark reminder to this recent past.


It is in this state that Eve and I discovered Berlin.  


Berlin itself


This historical recollection aside, I have to admit that I don't feel quite fully qualified to draw deep insights from our experiences in Berlin. After only five days I'm no more an expert than the next tourist and the weight of this city, this country's past, and the climate here compel me proceed simply by laying out our observations and allowing our readers to take what they will from them.

And of course, before going on, thank you Benedict for your kind hospitality, we're so glad we got to see you!



1. It's a city under constant construction. A surprising number of roads are being dug up downtown and detours are frequent occurrences. There were such an astounding number of construction cranes that I felt compelled to lean into this phenomena and start photographing them because I couldn't find a skyline view that they didn't interrupt.


2. Things feel like the future has arrived upon the city suddenly and by force. The Reichstag parliament building for the German government is a 19th century castle on top of which sits a 21st century glass dome, as if some alien invader just parked its spacecraft there. There is division even within the castle’s original four towers: they each represent the four German states that unified in 1871, as if this building was constructed to cement these quarrelsome neighbors together.


3. The city feels more like Moscow than anywhere else I've been. Maybe it's the Kreuzberg neighborhood where we stayed but there was graffiti up and down every wall along every street. This quarter seems dejectedly resigned to it, like it's some voracious plant growth that nobody feels like pruning back anymore. Most of these tags are amateurish silver initials but among them lie rare works of art.

4. Popping up everywhere in Kreuzberg are pockets of poshness where we discovered boutique high-end coffee shops and restaurants. A bearded barista informed us that the Berlin coffee culture is growing. Just a few months ago when they opened, there were only three roasters. Now there are seven. It’s basically Oakland.

5. At the Berlin wall, itself subject to the encroaching vines of endless spray paint, we found the most beautiful works of art cordoned off behind yet more chainlink. The tour guides prefer to call this aerosol-driven phenomena "natural weathering" and about half of the works have undergone restoration. Others are completely covered up behind the growth. Along this walk Slavic - sounding hustlers in ratty jackets hustle tourists with the cliche old "guess which cup the ball is in" game. I took a photo and one such man who, without making eye contact, shouted "you have to ask permission!" I didn't, and left, not wanting to get involved.

6. The Pergamon museum is an utter masterpiece, Church thank you for recommending it! Even this great treasure is subject to it's own overgrowth of scaffolding as it's under renovation. At the end of what will one day be its most promising hall there lies a television screen with a 3D tour of its future contents. But once you enter the building, oh how incredible the mosaic tiled archway of the Ishtar gate of Babylon is! It stands impressively tall and it's only the smallest part of the gate that could be reconstructed within the constraints of the museum's ceiling. Nevertheless, it gives you a jolt as you consider the staggering scale at which these ancient edifices rose up above their desert surroundings.


It was here for the first time that the thought occurred to me that beyond the obvious physical defense that such a walled city offered, it provided even greater value in projecting a ruler's power at a great distance. It could be seen for many miles in every direction. Imagine that you're a bedouin rider who has never heard of a two story building and you stumble out of the great expanse upon a shining blue tiled wall sixty miles long with hundreds of towers ten times the heigh of your camel. Upon the towers are emblazoned symbols of bulls and dragons. You are mostly likely going to think twice before crossing the man in the high tower.

7. Germany seems like a world unto itself and there's no pretense of accommodating English speakers like elsewhere. That being said, everyone we interacted with was very kind. Signs are strictly in german. Maybe it's just a large enough country and language that it can afford to, but nobody was apologetic about not being able to communicate with us. Some taxi drivers tried and were charming, others did not. I suspect the language barrier, here more than anywhere, kept us from interacting with people and asking questions. 


8. The Jewish Museum and Holocaust memorials were the most gripping landmarks we visited. What can I say about them that will fit onto a page? Eve has done a far superior job capturing our experience so I will allow her to present them along with all of the photos. Allow this to serve as a merely a cliff-hanger for Berlin Post Part Zwei. Our journey into this inescapable collective past was equally haunting and powerful and I have never before experienced an artist's ability to imbue such heavy emotion simply through minimalist architectural design. They simply need to be experienced. 


9. As I recall it, this city trip ended at a fancy bar at the SOHO house looking out over skyscrapers downtown. The decor was elegant 1920’s gilded-age chandeliers, oak, and yellowed lighting. Our waiter spoke just enough English and I noticed that his hands trembled as he poured. The waitstaff seemed casual, as if a storm had just passed and everyone’s nervous laughter had subsided into a calm confidence. Eve and I shared a drink and once again, as with so many nights, looking into her eyes I knew that this was the woman I was meant to spend my entire life with and that these were the adventures we were meant to weather together. We breathed deeply and checked tomorrow’s flight on her phone.  

soho house in berlin