Back when Facebook was The Facebook and was cool and not evil and was only something people at cool colleges could use and not something used to spy on everyone, it was a trendy thing to play around with the Relationship Status feature. I was in a fake Facebook relationship for several months. Girls (it was almost always two girls, likely in a sorority, and likely from ‘Chicago’), would try to be cheeky and say that ‘It’s Complicated’ with one of their other girl friends. I’m nearly certain that the ‘It’s Complicated’ option has never been used to describe an actual relationship.
As my Ryanair flight was taking off from Berlin’s Schonefeld Airport, and I thought back to everything I had walked past, and seen and heard, and read, and walked past again the previous 4 days, one thought just kept coming back to me: It’s complicated. I guess this means Facebook won, as even though I’m no longer counted among their monthly active users, the best way I can describe what I felt about the capital of Germany was the same way that two sorority sisters felt about themselves back in the mid-aughts. Welcome to 2018.
Berlin feels the most American of all the European cities I’ve been in – that is, it feels the newest. The streets aren’t lined with buildings from the 1600s; the architecture doesn’t have a direct tie back to King George. Within 15 minutes of walking to the Zoologischer Garten station in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin, I noticed how American it felt. Wide roads, tall buildings – I could have been walking the streets of Dallas or Denver at that moment (I’ve never been to Dallas). Then I looked at all the names of the shops and remembered that the only German I know is guten tag and auf wiederhesen. Helpful words, to be sure, except I don’t remember which one means ‘good day’ and which one means ‘good bye’.
The tour we took on the first day was the Third Reich walking tour (shouts to Taylor at Insider Tour). I’m not going to spoil the tour and talk about all the things we saw or learned, because you should really pony up the 14 Euro and do it yourself. It’s well worth it (it helped that it was 25ºC and sunny); you see tons of important historical landmarks and refresh your high school and college history knowledge, while also learning several new tidbits and historical anecdotes that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. You also get to stand 10 meters above where Hitler shot himself, so there’s that.
What struck me most about the tour though, was how open the city and government were to their past. In America, you don’t often hear people use the word Nazi. And when you do, it’s almost always some sort of slur – a name to call someone who you really despise (although to be fair, recently, there are lots of rallies with literal Nazis. And I’m not just talking about Trump’s campaign rallies). But here we were, a group of tourists from all over the world – New Zealand, America, Ireland, Israel, Australia – and our guide was openly referring to Nazis, talking about what they did and what they stood for, and how it impacted history. At one point, we were standing directly across the street from the Mall of Berlin and discussing the trains that ran throughout Europe to shuttle the Jewish people to the concentration camps.
This is one part of what makes present day Berlin complicated. An unguided visitor to the city could could look at that building and marvel in its architectural beauty and then find out afterwards that same building was a logistical hub for planning the murder of 6 million Jewish people. The building isn’t there as a monument – there are no monuments of Hitler, Goebbels, or any of the Nazi leaders (there’s a lesson for you there, America). Instead there are only monuments and memorials to the victims – the Jewish people murdered, the homosexuals murdered, and rebels like Georg Elser who failed in his assassination attempt on Hitler. The monuments are threaded into the city so that it is impossible for anyone, from tourists to locals just trying to get a currywurst, to ignore what happened.
While there currently is and has previously been numerous efforts to try and wash away this history, to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened, it’s a testament to the City of Berlin, and the people of Berlin, that these monuments have been erected, and have stayed in place, and continue to remind people of what happened, and what can happen, when evil is allowed to triumph (another lesson for you there, America).
The second ingredient in Berlin’s cocktail of complication, is the post-World War II history. After the Soviets captured the city in May of 1945, the western powers moved in about 6 weeks later. By that time, the Soviets had already erected 4 monuments across the city, and destroyed power and water sources in the western parts of the city. They took Berlin, and effectively called dibs on the eastern part of the city. In the years that followed, as tensions grew higher and divisions grew wider between the Soviets and the western powers (the U.S., the U.K., and France), the Berlin Wall was constructed to stop people flowing from Communist East Berlin into West Berlin. By the time the wall was constructed, about 20% of the population from East Berlin had fled west.
There are still parts of the wall standing throughout the city. Our Third Reich tour ended at the Topography of Terror, which not only gives a timeline/overview of the rise of the Nazi party, and is the former location of the headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, but also has almost a full city blocks length of the wall standing on it. For those familiar with Instagram photos, this is not the Berlin Wall of your Insta feed. This is the actual wall, with original graffiti still intact – this historical wall. To get to the Instagram wall, we must hop on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn and head to the East Side Gallery.
My first thought when exiting Warschauer Strasse station was that the area felt very hipster-ish. We were suddenly in an area with more exposed brick, more tattoos, and if the weather had been a bit different, there would have undoubtedly been a lot more flannel.
It’s here at that you will find some of the best and most famous artwork in the city. The famous ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’ painting by Dmitri Vrubel resides, which recreates a photograph taken in 1979 and depicts Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locking lips. I had seen this before and it was definitely the most popular one for people to get their picture taken in front of, but I absolutely had to Google who the people were that were kissing.
The length of the East Side Gallery, about 1.3km (not quite a mile), can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours to walk. Besides the various pieces of art that cover the wall (and there are lots of different works), it allows for reflection on what living in Berlin would have been like, and just how strange it would have been to live in a city divided by a wall – to say nothing of the political and humanitarian issues that plagued the time period. Look out your window, there’s the wall. Turn the corner, there’s the wall. The fact that the wall only came down relatively recently – we’re not talking about the pyramids or the ruins of a castle or something – makes it that much more amazing how Berlin has turned into a thriving city today. The physical barrier between east and west did not create a figurative barrier to 21st century success.
That 21st century success is the third and final ingredient into what makes Berlin a complicated place. Whether enjoying the free wifi in Potsdamer Platz, walking around and shopping in Charlottenburg, or dining out in Mitte, the modernity of the surroundings can almost make you forget the monuments you saw earlier in the day, or the history you learned about on the tour the day before. And then, just as you finish off your Starbucks smoothie and get ready to buy that handbag at Michael Kors, you pass by a building that still has bullet holes in it from World War II.
These are contradictions that are found throughout the city, and yet, because of the way the history is woven right in the middle of it all, it doesn’t feel lost or cheapened. The juxtaposition of modern amenities and relics of two different wars, all from within the last 100 years, create a city and an experience that can only be described as It’s Complicated.