May 28th - June 6th, 1999

It's hard to know what to say about Berlin in 1999. Positioned squarely at the dividing line between eastern and western Europe, for centuries it's been a crucible in which the two cultures combine (sometimes explosively). More so than any other place, Berlin will be the test tube in which the peculiar chemistry that has marked the 20th century will mix, and it will be interesting indeed to see what precipitates.

Even the Berliners themselves don't know what will happen. All they do know is that Berlin itself must change -- it is currently the site of the most building in all of Europe. Construction cranes stand everywhere like giant question marks, asking those below what their efforts may bring. Will it be something totally new, or something new to restore the old building that once stood and was erased by the tides that swept this spot clean?

To top it all off, we were fortunate enough to score a ringside seat at all the goings-on. Claudia, an Iyengar yoga associate of Kathy, was able to find for us a large, rent-free condo in the former East Berlin in the Mitte (pronounced mitt-ah), the hottest and most dynamic portion of this evolving Berlin. It belongs to Hermann, her partner in Yoga Mitte and we were quite pleased to house-sit and explore. Many thanks to them both.

The New Mitte

Our all-night sleeper train dropped us off at the beginning of the first day of Berlin's first heat wave of the year. After meeting Claudia and Hermann and after shaking off the weariness of twelve hours on the train, we set out on this blistering Friday to explore our new neighborhood. Our first stop was the Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral. Heavily damaged by a fire in 1943 after an errant Allied bomb made a direct hit on the main dome, and creamed again during a 1944 bombing run, the Dom has symbolized the state of postwar Berlin. Its rebuilding during the 1970s offered hope to Berliners that the future would bring better days. The restoration of the Dom is first rate, and no one fusses about lost details. The finest of what the Germans can do.




We lingered in the Dom for some time (nothing is cooler on a hot day than a big marble building) and marveled the reformist Protestant icons and sculptures, and the centuries of Prussian history captured in this place. The center photo shows the massive organ upon which Brahms was being played, and to the right the grim reaper writes in the year of death of the first queen of Prussia -- this was part of her funeral casket, again completely restored.

Outside of the Dom, we found the restored Neptune's fountain (best statue of Neptune we saw in Europe) and cooled our hot tourist feet in it. Across from the fountain is the old/new Berlin Rathaus (City Hall), a beautiful brick edifice. And at the south end of the square stood the monument of East German Communism, the Fernsehenturm or TV Tower. We grew to like the tower, as it stood as an unmistakable landmark that could lead us home on our meanderings.



A little bit of a walk through the Tiergarten led us past a few imposing monuments in Berlin. On the left below is the Siegelsäule, or victory column. Built by the French in 1872, it was part of the war reparations imposed by Germany after it defeated France in the war of 1870 -- back when war was a chess match between kings and dukes. On the right is monument built by the Russians to commemorate their conquest of Berlin in 1945. All writing on it is in Russian, and it is patrolled 24 hours a day by guards with machine guns to prevent vandalism. Even the most cynical of Germans would raise an eyebrow when we pointed out that nowhere in all of Germany is there such a monument to commemorate the American efforts in World War II. Salt in the wound is not our way.



The Bundestag

By popular vote the German people decided in the early 1990s to move the capitol of the unified Germany from Bonn back to Berlin, its historic home. The parliament building, the Reichstag, had laid unused for nearly sixty years. Damaged by an arson attack by Hitler's nationalist socialists and by Allied bombing, the building was in dire need of repair. To symbolize the new united and democratic Germany, it was renamed the Bundestag (People's house) and was fitted with a symbol of the new openness in Germany: a open air dome open to the general public. Inside the dome is a cone formed of mirrors. When one is at the top of the cone, one can look into it and see very clearly the inside of the parliament and practically read the papers on the legislators desks. At the bottom, the dome reflects the image of one's self. It serves as a very clear and powerful symbol of the unity of the new Germany and the openness of its government.




Another indication of this new Germany showed itself not through physical objects, but through their absence. Our first weekend in Berlin was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Bundes Republic Deutschland, or of the democratic West Germany. No parades were scheduled, no fireworks lit, no official ceremony of any kind. That is simply because West Germany doesn't exist anymore. Although the government organization came from the west, this united Germany is quite a different beast. Unity is the key here, and as such reminders of the war and the time divided are frowned upon. The new Germany is indeed a amalgamation of east and west, and because the two are so different care is taken to prevent the two from separating again.

West Berlin

Although we spent most of our time in the former East Berlin, we made a few trip to the sections of town that made up West Berlin. In general, we found it nice and new, and a little too consumeristic for our tastes. And just a bit too bland, but that could be because it wasn't quite as exotic as the unfamiliar east. Or it could be that the wild part has shifted to the Mitte. Still, there are plenty of sights: below left is the ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm church, the former center of West Berlin. It's been deliberately left in its bombed out state to serve as a reminder to Germany of what the war brought them. In the center is the Charlottenburg castle, burned to the ground as the Russians sacked Berlin and rebuilt in the 1980s to its former glory. Finally, on the right is Kathy pumping the first antique well we found in Germany that still worked. These once were a hallmark of Berlin, and the west made a point of replacing as many of the destroyed wells as possible.




The scars of war

One doesn't have to scour Berlin to find reminders of the wars of the century. They leap out at you, seemingly from every corner. Especially in the parts of the Mitte that were in East Berlin. So many buildings had little or no maintenance done to them during the communist years and still bear the wounds that two years of carpet bombing bring. Most Germans want these reminders to remain; only the most important of buildings are restored in such a way that you can't tell what they went through. Also, many monuments and libraries are in Berlin documenting the war and what led up to it.

Examples of what we saw include (clockwise from top left) a photo in the library of the German antiwar resistance showing how pervasive Nazi support was -- these are Roman Catholic priests and bishops saluting Hitler. Next is a shrapnel crater found in an office building in the old East Berlin, and the next photo shows damage to the solid rock facade and columns of a West Berlin government office. Finally, this memorial to the dead children of the war is placed prominently downtown on Unter die Linden street, the old main thoroughfare.





It also happened that the oldest cemetery in all of Berlin was two blocks from where we stayed. In one corner of the cemetery, we found seven or eight of these flat headstones (below right) that listed the names of over 500 people killed during April and May of 1945, and then went on to state that over a thousand others without names were buried beside them in this mass grave.



The East Side Art Gallery

Berlin ten years after the wall fell is a funny place. You ask people what the biggest difference is now that West isn't separated from the East, and they tell you that there's a lot more traffic now! You have to look hard to even find a section of the Berlin Wall -- in the spontaneous orgy of destruction that marked the end of Soviet control over East Germany, nearly every meter of the wall was hammered to pieces. Only in an old industrial area between the Spree river and Holzmarkt street and north of the Oberbaumbrücke is the last remaining section of the wall. Berliners call it the East Side Art Gallery, and it contains much of the fading street art that once covered the length of the wall.





Alongside the nearly three kilometers of the wall were a number of favorite paintings we remember from the Cold War era. The one of the car crashing through the wall is interesting, as the type of car is an old East German Trabat, a very dirty two stroke communist creation. The Germans are doing everything they can to get the last remaining Trabats off of the road; they even offer 2000DM (about $1100) to owners to sell them for scrap! The photo on the bottom right is the newly reopened bridge, the Oberbaumbrücke, that was destroyed during World War II and just recently restored to its 19th century glory.

Anarchy in Germany

The end of World War II and the advent of the cold war set created a number of very interesting factors and positioned them for eventual collision. Virtually every building in Berlin was destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. East Germany banned private ownership of property and confiscated every building for the state. The blockade of West Berlin and the building of the wall drove away the rich and most businesses. In order to keep West Berlin populated, West Germany paid every resident of West Berlin a sizable stipend. West Germany would even suspend its mandatory military service for those who lived in West Berlin. West Berlin during the Cold War became the place to go for the fringe of German society. In East Berlin, those in the party hierarchy shunned the city center and area surrounding West Berlin. It became a very poor neighborhood, full of empty buildings and people living on the margins.

Then the wall fell. Those who didn't fit into Western society were free to mix with those who didn't fit in the Eastern. A modern day land rush to occupy all the empty buildings in the former East Berlin led to neighborhoods full of squatters who had simply moved into a building and changed the locks. These neighborhoods were full of people who didn't trust society, no matter what its flavor, and in these neighborhoods bred the anti-establishment movement that colors German political life today.

Below left is an example of a building on Oranienburger street that to this day is still occupied by squatters This half-bombed out building, owned by the Finance ministry, is currently controlled by the Tacheles, a post-industrial artist commune that offers an outlet for anti-establishment expression in Berlin. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can pay 1DM for unfettered access to most of the artists' lofts and view their creations. Below right is a few pieces from an offshoot gallery, Werkschau, that specializes in the sort of appocalyptic/industrial art that was so popular in the 1980s in San Francisco and now finds expression in America's Burning Man festival.

The building itself is interesting in that there has been a protracted legal battle to take it from the Tacheles. When the wall fell, the courts decided that the original owners of all properties confiscated by the East German government should get those properties back -- in this case, the Finance Ministry. They would love to raze the building and build a new office complex in its place. The city of Berlin has declared the building unsafe (after all, it is half-missing!). But the Tacheles are tough and shrewd, pointing out that the building is still standing 54 years after being "destroyed", and they are pulling out all the stops in order to remain. Given German law, and the soft spot they have for artists, they may just do it. We hope so.





The Tacheles aren't the only squatters still in Berlin. The bottom left photo shows a typical anarchist community building, with graffiti railing against the police and military, and in the bottom right photo one politico urges Germans to "sabotage the German War machine!" It's a slogan that resonates with many Germans. They've experienced first hand the ugly side of war, and the pacifist movement is very strong. Currently, the Green Party is enjoying its first term at the head of a coalition government, and has suffered from its support of NATO's efforts in the Balkans. Many Germans look at the prosperity of their two neighboring German-speaking countries, Switzerland and Austria, and wonder if some variation of their sort of political and military neutrality might be the best path for Germany. If the Greens fail, there isn't a much of an appetite to move back to the conservative politics of the past, so we may see Germany continue to move left and towards neutrality.

Yoga Mitte

One of the delights of Berlin's new Mitte is the scores of new and exciting shops that are becoming established there. Our friend, Claudia, is pleased to be in the fifth year of her first yoga studio called "Yoga Mitte." Claudia and her partner, Hermann, offer a range of Iyengar Yoga classes for the beginner and advanced student. If you find yourself in Berlin and want to work on your physical well being, drop on by.



Thanks Again!

Many, many thanks to Claudia and her life mate, Gudrun, for making our stay in Berlin both memorable and enjoyable. Double thanks to Hermann the German for allowing us to house-sit his condo while he was vacationing in New York City. We wound up over three weeks of travel in Germany and didn't have to pay for a single night of lodging! Sorry we can't show you a better photo of Hermann, but we were only able to chat with him for about ten minutes as he showed us the ins and outs of the condo before he ran off for a full day of pre-trip tasks -- this photo is of him doing a back bend at some Yoga gathering.



Also, many thanks to Dr. Helga Hieckel, the Optometrist who treated Jim for free for a nasty case of pink-eye he somehow caught wandering around West Berlin. She made his first non-USA, all German doctor visit non-threatening and enjoyable.

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