Sunday, 16 August 2015

Visit to Berlin - an exercise in (n)ostalgia

It is impossible to visit Berlin without being prompted to reflect on how a city should remember its past (whilst at the same time allowing its citizens to live their present time); and also being prompted to reflect on the meaning of freedom. As you might aim to visit one particular location, you inevitably encounter others that are full of meaning. I am sure that Zero and I missed much of significance.

In the crypt of the Catholic Cathedral of St Hedwig, located in a square just off the Unter den Linden, there is a chapel with the tomb of Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg. The display case at the right hand side contains a dedication from the Yad Vashem memorial, recognising Fr Lichtenberg as a "righteous among the nations". His story can be found at their site here. Fr Lichtenberg was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is very much on the tourist trail, being just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate. The nature of the field of stelae, and its immediate position in a square surrounded by ordinary life, is such that people interact with it in widely different ways - climbing up, walking among the slabs, taking in the sun lying atop the lower slabs. Towards the outskirts of the city, but I suspect more moving to visit, is the "Gleiss 17" memorial at Grunewald S-Bahn station. This marks the railway platform from which the Jews of Berlin were deported to concentration camps. The edge of the platforms record the date of each transport.

We did come across the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on our way elsewhere, but it is well worth a visit. The remains of the old church, badly damaged during the Second World War, stand alongside a very modern new church; and the closeness of the location to the most prosperous streets of Berlin is thought provoking (Kurfurstendamm is just a couple of blocks away). There is a particular link between the Memorial Church and Coventry Cathedral (and see here), both new buildings being consecrated on the same day. The Memorial Church contains the original "Stalingrad Madonna", which is quite moving to visit in the visual atmosphere created by the stained glass of the modern church. The Church represents a striking symbol of reconciliation in the particular circumstances of the aftermath of the Second World War - but it also prompts a contemporary reflection as to whether, in comparable circumstances now, that attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation prevails over hatred and fear.

It is tempting to say that one cannot escape an encounter with the Berlin Wall during a visit to present day Berlin. I think that is true - but I think there is also a sense in which it is possible to visit Berlin and ignore the Wall. The double row of cobble stones that in many places marks where the wall once stood does not attract much attention. Traffic drives over it in the roads on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, and even at Checkpoint Charlie the precise line of the Wall is almost ignored by visitors to a location that has something of a theme park atmosphere to it. Alexanderplatz, now a busy transport and shopping hub in what used to be East Berlin, through which Zero and I passed regularly during our visit, was the scene just days before the Berlin Wall came down of a huge rally calling for political change in East Germany. The memorial to Peter Fechter, which is just two minutes walk along Zimmerstrasse from Checkpoint Charlie, is visited by very few of those who form a kind of procession from the Unter den Linden down Friedrichstrasse to the former crossing point itself. I left Zero in a nearby bar while I went off to find the memorial, with the aid of a search via my mobile phone. The present day memorial is not the original (see here). The double line of cobble stones marks the position of the Wall when Peter Fechter died in 1962, and the circular slab in the ground the point where he died. The memorial pillar is in what would in 1962 have been West Berlin; the image below is taken from what would have been the death strip on the East Berlin side of the Wall.

Whilst near the centre of Berlin, the Berlin Wall Memorial is not directly in the normal path of tourist visitors. I think it will be to visit on another occasion.

A visit to the Olympic Stadium had a personal interest as well as a historic interest. The stadium is still used by Hertha BSC football club; and, when Zero and I visited, the former Olympic swimming pool was being used by local families, with that unique sound of children playing in water reaching the visitors to the stadium proper. That this resource is still used by the local community rather than being discarded because of its associations with the Nazi regime, suggests a city that has not forgotten its past, but which does wish to live in its present. The stadium underwent a major renovation between 2000 and 2004.

The personal connection came, not from the stadium itself, but from one of the administrative buildings in the Olympic park. This now houses an exhibition relating to the history of German sport, administrative offices supporting German sport and the offices of Hertha BSC football club.  Today it looks like this:

In 1956/57, it looked like this:

Apart from its occupants, the only difference is the stone in front of the flag pole which commemorates the use of the building as the Headquarters of the British Military Government and of the British Garrison in Berlin between 1945 and 1994.

In 1956/57, my mother (far right, in the photo below) was serving as a clerk with the Allied Staff Berlin, whose offices were somewhere at the back of the building. I haven't been able to work out exactly which unit my father (sitting next to mother in the photo) belonged to at this time. 

Our last visit in Berlin was somewhat quirky. The Café Sybille on Karl Marx Allee. Karl Marx Allee really is very sleepy and quiet, though only two U-bahn stops from Alexanderplatz. Café Sybille is a decidedly retro venue, with a small exhibition of the history of the now Karl Marx Allee, AKA Stalin-Allee (before the latter's fall from grace - both the man himself and his statue on this street). There are sufficient English commentaries attached to the displays to make a visit worthwhile, but an ability to read the full German language displays would have been an advantage.

Again, Karl Marx Allee is one of those places in Berlin with a history that is easily missed during a tourist visit. It was the workers building along this street in 1953 who first began the protests that became the 17th June uprising in East Germany - the first uprising against the Communist powers in a satellite country after the Second World War. It was put down with the help of Soviet tanks, after the workers had marched from what is now Karl Marx Allee to the area of the Potsdamer Platz.

Which perhaps exemplifies my first thought in this post - that you cannot visit Berlin without reflecting on the ideas of memory and freedom.

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