The city looks just like any other when the plane makes circumvolutory moves above it, trembling with the anticipation of the imminent landing. You step on the land glad to be able to stretch your legs after a two hours’ flight. The air is brisk and the coldness of the night wraps around you as you make your way to border control. Dies ist die Hauptstadt. Wir sind der Zeitung. You read the ad for the Berliner Morgenpost over your head and you decide that your German is not quite non-existent as you wait patiently in line for your turn to smile in front of the first German official you’ve ever seen.
There are four checking points, but only two of them are staffed – it’s a small airport after all. Your turn comes – the policeman looks at you with his deep blue eyes. That moment of doubt – will he say anything? Will he swiftly determine it’s actually you under all that hair that you didn’t have when you had your passport renewed? A fringe can make you unrecognizable, mind you. There is a tag saying Polizei on his left shoulder. He lets you through without a word, just a barely perceptive move of the head to let you know you have to go right. As you step away from the checkpoint, the well-lit, shiny airport embraces you. You are in Berlin.
The spectre of the past
A trip in Berlin starts just like any other. You wake up the first morning and go to the nearest travel center to get your hands on a city pass that allows you to see the best museums at a lower price, and best, without queuing. Not that there are queues in autumn, but you go anyway because it’s kind of a rite of passage before discovering the wonders of a city. With the pass in your hand and the well-researched itinerary you worked half a day at home for in the other, you head to the first site. Even though you have done this multiple times, you get a feeling that this time is going to be different. And you’re right.
The spectre of the past is looming at every corner in Berlin, and not in a good way. You don’t really need a degree in history to sense that the horrors of the World War II and the abysmal communist regime have imprinted so powerfully in the heart of the city that it’s impossible to ignore them. Every image you see has a story, often a gloomy one. Everything you capture with the lens of your camera has been reconstructed. There is nothing in Berlin that sits on the same place, in the same form, as it did 100 years ago. The museums, the Reichstag, the parks, the shops – everything is reincarnated from ruins that succumbed choking with the smoke of bombs or under the tracks of Russian tanks. You step into the stunning building of the Neues Museum only to marvel at the way they reconstructed it by leaving the walls untouched, to tell a visually haunting story of destruction and dereliction. Moving further, you learn that what you see is a mere fraction from the treasures that once adorned the rooms – the rest is in Russia, so you’d better visit the guys who won the war if you want to see the rest of Schliemann’ treasure.
An urban memorial
The streets of Berlin often take you to unexpected places, and the feeling you’re walking through a massive graveyard is inescapable. Passing by the US Embassy on your way to Potsdamer Platz, you set eyes on an eerie collection of stones that resemble graves so much you immediately get the point, even if you don’t know what they are. It’s after dark, and bunches of kids sit on the stones, some with drinks in their hands. Maybe they are blissfully unaware of the significance of the place, and given the lack of benches in the area, who could blame them for finding a cosy place to sit? The stones are actually the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Over 2,000 slabs of stones occupy a large portion of the Friedrichstadt area south of Brandenburg Gate, and somehow they don’t seem out of place at all, fitting in perfectly with the modern soul of the city.
The Most Feared Address in Berlin
If there is only one place you have time to visit in Berlin, forget the Dome and the Pergamon. Instead, head over Niederkirchnerstraße 8, an address that instilled utmost fear during the war. The former site of the Gestapo secret police and the Reich Main Security Office is now home to a documentation center and remembrance place, The Topography of Terror, a painstakingly rendering of the horrors of the war and Holocaust.
A visit here is guaranteed to send you into tumult as you walk mesmerized through the labyrinth of photos and texts that reveal the crimes of the Nazis in such fine detail that the angst that penetrates your being will accompany you for days, like the shadow of an unthinkable not-so-distant past. When you get out in a couple of hours, you will see Berlin, and the world, in a completely different light, one that you hope will never get shadowed by such horror ever again.