Berlin is not an exciting city — but at the same time, you’d be hard stretched to find a city that’s nicer than Berlin — or indeed, a city with more modern history than fair Berlin. Berlin was completely leveled in World War 2 by the Allies, and for some 30 years after that it was split down the middle by ideological differences — and the Berlin Wall. Berlin was the front line of the Cold War, the Wall acting as the DMZ between the Commies and the Merkins; if the Cold War was ever going to ignite into World War 3, it would’ve been in Berlin, with the firing of a single stray tank shell across Checkpoint Charlie.
Today, Berlin is very new — there are very few buildings more than 50 years old, and even monuments like the Reichstag and the Brandenberg Gate have been massively re-built using new stone — and blanketed in wide open spaces. Apparently the city was originally meant to hold 7.5 million people, but after the War it was only re-built to house 4.5 million people; thus the big squares, broad roads, parks and memorials — lots and lots of memorials.
Germans are so guilty about the World Wars, so depressingly guilty. It’s in the past! Let it go! It wasn’t your fault. Imagine what America would be like if everyone footed the (psychological) bill for their ancestors’ misdeeds. If anything, the Nazis — and Hitler — showed us the incredible danger of populist politics and cults of personality, but beyond that we really should let it lie. Still, this guilt has resulted in some fantastic, museum-like memorials, so it’s not all bad.
The Holocaust Memorial (or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to give its proper, but oddly antisemitic name) is truly something to behold. It occupies 4.7 acres of prime, the-Reichstag-is-within-spitting-distance real estate. The memorial has no name plates, no dates, no numbers: it’s simply 2,711 grey concrete slabs of varying heights on an uneven, cobbled floor. The designer, Peter Eisenman, has never spoken about the significance or meaning of the memorial — and really, it’s better that way. Walking amongst the pillars you are invited to create your own meanings and experience your own emotions, rather than those dictated by some priggish plaque. Are the blocks tombstones? Or long lines of train carriages? The tall legs of adults, or perhaps skyscrapers? Who knows.
It’s worth visiting Berlin just to walk around the Holocaust Memorial.
The other main memorial that I visited was the Sachsenhousen concentration camp, one of the first camps of its kind, and built as an archetypal template for the thousands of other concentration camps that would plague Nazi Germany for more than a decade. What many people don’t realize is that the Nazis started really, really early. They didn’t begin with the Holocaust death camps — they worked they way up, starting with concentration camps in 1933! To cut a long story short, the Nazis blamed the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 on the Communists. They used this as an excuse to detain the Communists as enemies of the Nationalist-Socialist regime — and thus the first concentration camp, Dachau, designed to house some 5,000 prisoners, was born.
This is where it all started going wrong. The Nazis lied: it wasn’t only Communists that would be imprisoned at Dachau. Jews, criminals, gypsies, the mentally ill, and homosexuals were all incarcerated and turned into slave labor. More concentration camps continued to pop up over the following years — and looking back, we now know that this was mainly to fuel the creation of the massive Nazi wehrmact, but of course it must’ve massively helped the regime keep control, too. It wasn’t until the Nazi dictatorship enacted the Final Solution in 1942 that the extermination camps would be set up and millions of Jews systematically slaughtered.
Anyway… enough about that…