Berlin. The capital of Germany and the location of our last day in Europe. There are a lot of mixed feelings writing this post. Personally, I cannot wait to get home to my husband and our 2-year old son. On the other hand, I’m sad that our time as a tour group is coming to a close. With 31 different personalities, I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as group dynamics. But amazingly, we got along so well. Many new connections, friendships, and inside jokes were made, even after hours (and hours and hours) together on the same bus. It probably helped that nobody used the bus bathroom. What an interesting research platform this would be for a sociologist!
At any rate, our last day together began with a bus tour of Berlin. We stopped at a few locations to take photos, but most of the sights were seen through bus windows. Therefore, I have included some in the photo gallery, but wasn’t able to adequately capture all of them.
The biggest takeaway from our tour was that much of the city’s buildings are new, by Europe’s standards. 85% of Berlin’s city center was in ruins after WWII. Most homes and buildings have since been reconstructed, many in an old style to replicate what they looked like prior to the war.
Construction continues today. Everywhere you look, there are cranes and scaffolding. With the collapse of Communism in East Berlin in 1989 (and once the wall fell), it opened up a lot of land for development. Not surprisingly, the Berlin Wall was a focal point of the tour.
More than 100 miles long and constructed of reinforced concrete, the Berlin Wall separated the section of Berlin ruled by the Soviet Union after WWII. Between 1952 and 1961, more than 2.7 million people escaped East Berlin to the west. Communist leaders wanted to keep people in the east, so the wall was built in one night, August 12-13, 1961. Of course, it wasn’t originally made of reinforced concrete–they used whatever materials they had available. But over time, guarded by Soviet soldiers, the wall was constructed and reconstructed, 4 times over.
What we visited was the 4th generation wall, constructed from 1976-1979. A “double” wall was added with a “no-man’s land” strip of land between them. It became known as the “death strip,” since Soviet soldiers, monitoring from 297 watch towers, would shoot anybody trying to cross. In the time the wall existed, more than 135 people were killed trying to cross. West Berliners were allowed into East Berlin (for work or church, primarily) at one of 9 checkpoints, but no East Berliners were allowed to travel to the West. Interestingly, on the west side of the wall, people could walk up to it, add graffiti, touch it, etc. But on the east side, it was painted mostly gray and white and lit 24 hours so soldiers could watch for people. Pedestrians could not cross the road in front of the wall, and cars could not stop or park in front of it. No tall buildings were constructed near the wall to keep the space open for monitoring.
The wall came down with much fanfare on November 9, 1989. The paintings on the east side of the wall, where we visited, were added after the liberation. The most famous painting is the “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.” Many pieces of the wall were sold when it came down and can be found all over the world.
From the wall, we continued the tour into east Berlin and saw many signs of the former Communist rule–wide streets for military parades and similarly constructed homes and apartments. We passed by a few historic churches that had been rebuilt and restored and learned that there are 175 museums in Berlin! Definitely something for everyone.
Near the famous Brandenburg Gate lies Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. New York architect Peter Eisenman won a contest in 1999 to establish a central memorial site for victims of the Holocaust. We took the opportunity to individually wander and explore the 2,711 concrete slabs and reflect on the significance of the memorial and the heartbreaking events that led to it.
The three-hour tour provided so much more information and landmarks, but this post is getting so long already. Find me if you really want the low down on Berlin.
Our group was released for lunch and an afternoon on our own, then regrouped for a farewell dinner in traditional German style. Prost!
Quote of the Day – “If you try to pickpocket me, you’ll get a knife up your you-know-what!” – Father James (holding his plastic toothpick)