I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Berlin twice. The first time was in the early 1980s and the second time in 2018. The transformation was dramatic.
Berlin Before the Fall of the Wall
I visited Berlin in the early 1980s. Berlin was then a divided city. I stayed in the Western zone near the Kurfurstendamm, which at the time was the heart of Berlin. I took a one day bus tour to the East. We crossed through Checkpoint Charlie. The bus was thoroughly searched by East German border guards. In contrast, the American military just let us pass freely.
The West was vibrant with shops, restaurants and people everywhere, In contrast, buildings in the East still showed signs of the bombing it received in the war. There were Soviet style memorials throughout East Berlin.
Our East German guide was openly dispirited and seemed to be reciting a script he was told to speak, especially when he spoke of “warm relations” with the then Soviet Union. At the end of the day, I was glad to be back in the West where I felt free and comfortable.
Berlin in 2018
In 2018, I went back to Berlin to see an undivided, transformed and reinvented Berlin. The German capital is still under construction 73 years after the end of WWII. I stayed near the Kurfurstendamm so I could compare my experience today with the early 1980s. My hotel — Pension Peters — is a small owner-managed hotel, where I felt more like a temporary resident in a nice Berlin neighborhood rather than a tourist.
I saw the transformation of Berlin immediately. The Kurfurstendamm is no longer the center of town. The heart of Berlin today is in the former East, which was a shambles when I was last there. The Kurfurstendamm is now a nice shopping street in lovely Berlin neighborhood called City West but is no longer the heart of the capital.
The Heart of Berlin
Checkpoint Charlie is now nothing more than a tourist attraction with actor guards who, for a few Euros, will pose with you for a nice picture. There’s even a “Checkpoint Charlie” McDonald’s across the street. It certainly no longer inspires fear.
The heart of Berlin is dominated by the Brandenburg Gate and government buildings, including the embassies of the four former occupying powers: the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia.
Berlin is no longer occupied but the former occupiers are nearby as if to say: “We are watching.” Each of the four embassies has a rich history.
The Soviet Union was first of the four major occupiers to move into a post-War embassy in Berlin. The Russian Embassy in Berlin was closed in 1941 when the two countries went to war. Its reconstruction was the first project of the post-war years in the East Berlin. The embassy’s official grand opening was held on the national holiday of the former USSR, on November 7, 1951. It’s Europe’s largest embassy which sends a message all by itself. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became the Russian Embassy. (See also Rick Steves Berlin (p. 105). Avalon Publishing. Kindle Edition. )
The United Kingdom (UK) came next. The UK’s impressive new embassy was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on July 18, 2000.
France occupied its new embassy in October 2002. However, France formally opened it on January 23, 2003. That date was chosen as it was the 40th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between Germany and France, declaring friendship between France and the former West Germany. French President Jacques Chirac presided. Marking the occasion, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Chirac issued a declaration affirming Franco-German friendship and their joint determination to “re-found Europe”.
The United States was the last of the four major occupiers to move into a post-War embassy in Berlin. The history of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin is especially complicated. During WWII, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin was severely damaged by Allied bombing. After the war, the embassy ended up just barely inside East Berlin in divided Berlin’s Soviet zone, straddling the demarcation between the Soviet and American sectors.
The Berlin Wall made the site of the former U.S. Embassy, still owned by the U.S. government, an inaccessible vacant lot. It was part of the security zone separating east and west Berliners. In 1967, the East German government demolished the ruins of the US Embassy building. However, the site became accessible after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. Even so, it remained a vacant lot until the 2004 groundbreaking for construction of a brand new U.S. Embassy. The newly constructed embassy opened on July 4, 2008.
The Brandenburg Gate is nearby. This is the center of Berlin. Since the 18th Century, the Brandenburg Gate has been a site for major historical events and today is an important symbol of the history of Europe and Germany.
Also nearby — and not to be missed — is Germany’s parliament – the Reichstag – which was opened in 1894 and remained in service until 1933, when it was severely damaged after being set on fire. The Reichstag fire occurred one month after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. After World War II, the building fell into disuse; the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (the Volkskammer) met in the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, while the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany (the Bundestag) met in the Bundeshaus in Bonn.
The building was not properly restored until after German reunification on October 3, 1990. And what a glorious restoration it was. The German government chose British architect Norman Foster to lead the effort.
Foster constructed is a large glass dome atop the Reichstag with a 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The debating chamber of the Bundestag, the German parliament, can be seen below. A mirrored cone in the center of the dome directs sunlight into the building, and so that visitors can see the working of the chamber. The dome is open to the public and can be reached by climbing two steel, spiraling ramps that are reminiscent of a double helix. The Dome sends a message that the people are above the government, as was not the case during the Nazi era. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the modern Bundestag. The views are impressive. Entry is free but advance registration is required.
Other Berlin Sites
I also enjoyed visiting:
Hitler’s Bunker (Führerbunker), where Adolf Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war. It’s now an ordinary parking lot. Germany doe not want to create a shrine out the place where Hitler perished.
Topography of Terror (Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Cantre) has interesting exhibits documenting Nazi crimes. During the Nazi era, the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office were located at the site.
The German History Museum for its candid exhibits about Hitler and the Nazis era.
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the site of the main political prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. I found the visit informative and chilling. East Germany went from one form of oppression to another form of oppression. It’s sad, terrifying and once again demonstrates what unchecked power
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial) has almost 3,000 symbolic pillars next to the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Berlin. It was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, who is Jewish. It opened in 2005. Eisenman explains that the “project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time.” The Memorial brings home the magnitude of the Holocaust.
Germany is creatively and thoughtfully reinventing its capital city. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope to return to see more of Berlin and how it evolves once I can safely return.
I don’t have any photos of my visit before the Berlin Wall fell. However, my 2018 photos are on Flickr.