26.5 years ago the Berlin Wall came down.
26 years ago, my friend Eli and I found 3 other Europe-travelers and rented a car for 24-hours to drive from the nation of West Germany into Berlin. (it was EXPENSIVE to rent a car and 24-hours were all we could afford!) My oh my, how things have changed!
Let’s start with some photos from 26 years ago.
Berlin, Then and Now…
…Checkpoint Charlie. Note the western capitalism in old East Berlin!
… Brandenburg Gate. In this photo you can’t see the gleaming US embassy and other brand new buildings!
Berlin Today: Touring, Walking, Biking…
Berlin in July is temperate, friendly.. and flat! Tons of bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and not-too-hot weather make it easy to spend a lot of time enjoying the outside. Of course the inside of the city is terrific too, with opportunities to see everything from automotive design to chocolate landmarks. Yum.
We did a walking tour, we did a biking/eating tour.. the city has a remarkable combination of relevant history and modern character. Our kids learned about World War II and the Nazis .. and then about life behind the Iron Curtain and Communism. We met Turkish immigrants, American ex-pats, and even some native Germans. we ate Currywurst and Doner Kebab. We watched Star Trek: Beyond on the biggest IMAX screen in Europe.
How could you NOT love the place? 🙂
No other place we’ve visited has such an omnipresent historical “monument” as the Berlin Wall. Obviously its functional form is entirely gone, but its presence remains in interesting and powerful ways.
From the Berlin War Memorial– a place where the entirety of one section is left alone, including the tall-western wall, the short eastern-wall.. and the intervening “Death Strip”– to the East Side Gallery of graffiti to the Topographie of Terror museum … the Wall seems to creep in wherever you go and remind you how the city was once divided.
After a LOT of debate about whether it was going to be the right thing for our kids… Kristina and I decided we’d spend a day taking the family to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just outside Berlin.
Unlike Auschwitz (but similar to Dachau), Sachsenhausen wasn’t specifically a extermination-camp whose sole purpose was the murder of its inmates. Instead, the site was used first as an actual prison… meaning some of the inmates were actually released. Furthermore, its proximity to the city made it useful to the Nazis as a propaganda-site to show the Red Cross and other world leaders that they were treating their prisoners well. And after the war ended, the Soviets used it as a prison as well.
Still, many atrocities occurred at Sachsenhausen, with tens-of-thousands of murders taking place. Beyond the Jewish prisoners the camp took a massive toll on Russian prisoners-of-war, who were executed en masse during the war using the “neck shot” method in an area of the camp known as Station Z.
Our kids learned a lot visiting the camp and handled it well. We had decided that after seeing the slave castles in Ghana— where millions of Africans were tortured at the hands of Europeans– that not only could they handle the gravity of the camp but that giving them some sense of the scale and depth of the tragedy would help their overall understanding.
Out on Museum Island
Berlin offered SO MANY educational opportunities.. we needed a number of days to see all the main museums in town, and keep separate-topics separate. (eg. the Wall and Communism versus the Nazis). In fact, Berlin is SO rich in Museums.. they have a whole island dedicated to them!
Here’s a list of the museums we thought were best, in priority order. 🙂
- German History Museum – from the very beginning to today.
- DDR Museum – life in communist East Germany. Who knew they loved nudity so much! (see photo below)
- Berlin Wall Memorial – really get a sense for how the wall worked
- Neues museum – yes, the Germans found LOTS of ancient archeological artifacts. Many, many cool ones are here.
- Jewish museum – incredible building, incredible design, well-told story
- Film & TV museum – German contribution to the art form.. now with Sci Fi exhibit
- HONORABLE MENTION: Pergamon museum, Topographie of Terror, Alte Nationalgalerie, Memorial for the Murdered Jews, etc. etc. etc.
a Detour to Kreuzberg
One of the more interesting neighborhoods in the city is Kreuzberg… kind of the “wild section” of Berlin. We tried a “Detour” self-contained mobile tour, which took us through some rougher parts of the town. Cool to see how squatters and artists have changed the face of the city.
Eating in Berlin: Two words… Currywurst. Donor Kebab.
Last day: Looking into Germany’s Government at the Reichstag
26 years ago when I visited Berlin, the stone columns and facade of the German capitol building (the “Reichstag”) looked exactly the same. But what’s changed? There’s now an incredible glass cupola on top, accessible to the public. Yes.. the German Government put a tourist attraction on the rooftop of their parliament building!
Made of glass, the building and it’s new dome highlight that forever the Germans will provide transparency to the workings of their government. From inside the dome, you can peer downwards through the ceiling into the debating room where the parliament holds its sessions. Totally cool.