Surely you’ve noticed by now that I have a thing for history. I think countries are the same as individual people: It is easier to understand them if you know their personal past; their experiences, their baggage, their most wonderful successes and their greatest failures. Germany has a lot to offer in that department, and not only in the 20th century – although that is usually what everyone focusses on, understandably. And German history of the 20th century can’t be seen better anywhere in the country than in Berlin. Some of the places around allow you to truly understand Germany’s past – if you let them.
Standing freely between Humboldt University’s splendid main building and the German Museum of History, across from the State Opera at Unter den Linden boulevard, there is this fairly small and maybe unspectacular building.
In 18th century Prussia, the city castle of the Prussian kings was not at all far from here, and this was the armory. Today it is the „Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny“ – yes, that is its official name. Very long and technical, very German. Most of us just refer to it as Neue Wache (New Guard House), but the long version should begin to tell you about its function which is much more important.
There are specific memorials that commemorate the Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Roma and Sinti, and the homosexuals. There is a memorial that reminds of the burning of undesired books during the Third Reich, and there are living relics of Nazi architecture such as the Olympic Stadium or the airport in Tempelhof. Neue Wache is much less specific, and instead more inclusive. Here, we commemorate everyone who suffered from National Socialism and any form of tyranny and dictatorship before and after. We try to make amends for what this country has done and for what others have done. We include the victims and the resistance, the well-known heroes and every single footman, all countries, nations and ethnicities in our prayers, whatever that means to every single one of us. Personally I have always found this place to be deeply spiritual.
When you enter the building, it is but one big and almost empty room. In the middle there is a replica of a work by expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz whose work I love deeply. She was considered a degenerate artist herself under the Nazis. The sculpture is called „Mother with her dead son“, and the intensity of it drives tears to my eyes whenever I go there and take a few minutes to think about what this place means. Buried here are also the remains of an unknown soldier and of an unknown concentration camp victim. The writing next to the sculpture says: „To the victims of war and tyranny“. The memorial is very plain, but it does invite you to linger and think about what it is there to remind you of. Take that moment. Calm yourself. And find in yourself the urge to make this world a place where cruelties like these will never happen again. You will go out a changed person if you allow it to happen.
And then there is a second dark chapter in recent German history – and while I feel that the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or „Eastern Germany“, is a very complex matter that is quite usually immensely simplified, there is not much to argue about the end of this „other“ German State which began by the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event may be the greatest triumph, the most joyful moment in modern German history, and it means the world to me personally. If you’ve got time, I highly recommend a visit to te former secret police prison in Hohenschönhausen or to Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Memorial Berlin Wall) at Bernauer Straße. But if you want the immediate experience, if you want to touch and feel history and find a place where you could imagine what it must have been like, you should go to the East Side Gallery.
The East Side Gallery is the longest preserved piece of the Berlin Wall. It starts between U-Bahn stations Warschauer Straße and Schlesisches Tor, line U1, right on the Friedrichshain side of Oberbaumbrücke. The wall was built in 1961 when more and more people started to leave the GDR. Only two months prior to that, the Secretary of the Socialist Party, Walter Ullbricht, had uttered the famous sentence: „Nobody has the intention of building a wall!“ The utter mockery of it…
The official state boarder at this point was actually on the Kreuzberg side of the river, meaning that the Spree river belonged to the GDR, even though the wall excluded it from Eastern Berlin territory – it was part of the so-called death strip. I read that children would sometimes drown on the Western shore because authorities weren’t allowed to help them once they had fallen into the water.
The East Side Gallery is famous because artists from all over the world have contributed to its design. The side of it that faces Friedrichshain district holds incredible artwork that usually has immense political power, the way only street art can. I have recently noticed that it feels a lot like the Zaspa District in Gdansk, Poland with its famous murals. This is why most people come here, and it’s well worth a good look. However, I also recommend you pass through to the river side of the wall and into the death strip and think about the fact that this was no man’s land only 25 years back, that you would have been shot immediately, had you been found on this side of the wall coming from where you just now actually came from – the other side.