Rip It Down And Start Again?
I recently watched “Bridge of Spies” and it reminded me that I had promised/threatened to post a travelogue on Berlin while I was there. It’s going to be more of a rant, actually, so if you don’t like it, don’t look at it. Bit like commercial television really.
The question is: how do you rebuild an historic city that has been pretty much completely destroyed in a war? Berlin is a metaphor for all the cities destroyed in all the wars and I only chose it because I’ve been there in the 1970s, 1980s and the 2010s and I find the history fascinating. In this blog I propose to write about what I consider to be interesting things and to start with all of the ‘interesting things’ will be within walking distance of the Apartments at Brandenburger Tor car park. More of that later.
As far as I can see there are three options in rebuilding this city: you clear the rubble and build new, modern structures; you tidy up the surviving buildings and re-use them or you leave them the way they are.
I propose to look at a few examples of what’s remaining of historical interest (to me anyway).
Let’s start with the DDR. If you want to go and see what Berlin was like under the East Germans (from now on I’ll simplify that to ‘Communists’ to avoid having to distinguish between East Germans and Soviets) you should go now. The inner city is being gentrified at an alarming rate but there are still things to be seen. The Communists did not go out of their way to reconstruct Berlin after the war – they largely concerned themselves with tearing up (or down) old Nazi sites, the Reich Chancellery and a selection of cemeteries for example. This means that large sections of the city remained untouched for decades. For example, in the 1970s I did a bus tour into East Berlin (across the Berlin Wall). The young East German woman who provided the commentary on the bus waxed lyrical about how the government was going to build wondrous new sports complexes and government buildings and so on but outside all we could see were vast tracts of fenced off land that had literally not been touched since 1945. There were of course the odd Communist Party buildings which were a bit tarted up but in general the whole place gave an impression of being depressed and depressing. At the end of the tour, the young host had to disembark on the Eastern side and Russian and East German guards – armed with automatic weapons – came on the bus and began checking IDs. They then ran dogs under the bus to check that no desperate, disenchanted East German had decided to do a Cape Fear and defect by hanging on under the bus. When we got through Checkpoint Charlie, the bus driver told us – wryly – that the young host had had to learn her entire 90 minute spiel off by heart to get the tour guide job and that the Bad Guys were in the habit of slipping a fake ‘tourist’ on the bus to check that she wasn’t editorialising. Apparently, she was allowed to see members of her family briefly when she got on the bus in the West.
Here’s an example of the changing of the political guard in Berlin.
The above photo was taken in Behrenstrasse – which runs off Wilhelmstrasse – in 2010. I took the one below almost exactly five years later. Now this large (un)polished image of Lenin was still on this building – and only a few hundred metres from the Brandenburg Gate – twenty-one years after the Wall came down. Check the dates on the photographs.
As late as 2011, you could still find Cyrillic lettering in the foyers of some apartment blocks in central Berlin.
Because the Communists did not do a great deal of rebuilding you can still find old buildings from before the Second World War but you will need to hurry – because the Wall has come down a lot of these places are disappearing. A case in point is the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss-Strasse. Here’s what it looked like five years ago. The buildings on the left hand side of Voss-Strasse (the street the red Mini drives down) had been there since the war (1945). You could still see battle damage on pretty much all of them.
Here’s what it looks like now:
Interestingly, if you look at the very first photo I have posted – the one with the two women with cake tins on their heads in front of the U Bahn entrance – you will see a large building directly behind the entrance. That building – and the U Bahn station itself, but not that entrance – still survives and can be seen on the Wilhelmplatz today. More detail on that building when I get around to the Wilhelmplatz.
So here’s the plan. I intend to post a series of …ummm … posts on touring Berlin with an interest in the history of the place. To start with I am going to suggest places of interest within walking distance of the car park behind the Apartments am Brandenburger Tor. The Apartments am Brandenburger Tor run along Wilhemstrasse from the Adlon Hotel and up Voss-Strasse in a vague U shape. They also wander around various other blocks. Suffice it to say that that whole block bounded by Peter-Behrens-Strasse , Wilhelmstrasse, Voss-Strasse and Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse constituted the lion’s share of the Regierungs Viertel, or Government Quarter from Bismarck’s time to 1945. The current Holocaust Memorial, the car park, the apartments and sundry other structures pretty much made up the Ministry Gardens.
For some reason my posts are appearing in random order therefore I intend to number them so anyone bored enough to be reading this can read them in order.