Berlin, July 2-4, 2010

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July 10th 2010
Published: July 10th 2010
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Once upon a time, a country with a proud patriotic past and a history of military might found itself in serious economic difficulties largely as a result of a war of its own choosing. It turned to a charismatic right wing politician who promised to lead them back to military strength and to control the economy without raising taxes. Teaching of students in the schools was converted to ideological ends, and books that were felt to be subversive were not only banned but burned. Homosexuals, foreigners, and persons of the wrong religious persuasion were persecuted. When the economy and other matters did not go as promised, the problems were blamed on “enemies” and fear of those enemies was systematically used to keep the populace under control.

The country was Germany, the politician was Adolf Hitler, and the time was 1933. After his election, Hitler made Berlin the capital of his Third Reich. That choice resulted in its near total destruction by 1945.

Berlin is a young city as European cities go, founded “only” in the 13th century by the union of two small communities on opposite banks of the Spree (pronounced “Shpray”) River. It grew slowly until about 1440,
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Protestant cathedral
when the Hohenzollerns made it the headquarters of the Brandenburg electorate, then subsequently the capital of the Prussian kingdom and later the German empire. Berlin was devastated by the very destructive Thirty Years’ War, going to about 6000 population. The Great Elector invited refuges in so that he could re-populate the city, and the influx of Huguenots from France resulted in significant changes in the city character as they ballooned to about 20% of the population.

In 1918 the monarchy was abolished following World War I. The Weimar Republic was the first democracy and began in Weimar, but quickly returned the seat of government to Berlin. There it remained until Berlin was divided by the Potsdam Agreement that divided Germany after World War II. The agreement re-set the eastern border of Germany at the Oder-Neisse river line, effectively reducing its size by about 25%, with all Germans in the former area occupied by Germany in 1937 forced to leave. The area of th former Germany east of the Oder_Neisse line became part of Poland, which had lost land its own eastern border. The eastern border of Germany was not officially set until the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany in 1990.

West Berlin, with its British, French, and American sectors (don’t ask my why France got a sector), became effectively an island within East Germany. For a time, the GDR closed the highways leading into West Berlin through East Germany, leading to the famous Berlin Airlift. When it became clear that the western powers were willing to continue to support West Berlin as long as necessary, the roads and railways were re-opened. Later, however, faced with rising numbers of defections, particularly among the young and best educated, East Germany closed travel between East and West Berlin on August 13, 1961. They erected a large concrete wall with a “killing field” between the wall and the city. While the wall remained in place, about 5000 people tried to cross it to freedom, and about 143 died in the attempt.

In 1963 John Kennedy visited West Berlin and famously announced “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Unfortunately, German grammar was not his strong point. The correct thing to say would have been “Ich bin Berliner”, meaning I am a Berlin citizen. When he said “Ich bin ein Berliner’, he was actually saying he was a kind of donut. So much for off-the-cuff remarks in a foreign language.

In November 1989 the GDR announced that it was going to allow people to cross the borders once again, leading to the reunification of Germany 11 months later. The reunification was not without its problems. Apparently there was endless wrangling over the choice of the man on the traffic lights showing it is okay to cross the street, with the one from East Berlin winning out (and it is more appealing).

So while Berlin is a relatively young city in European terms, it has certainly seen its share of history. Virtually our entire visit took place in the Mitte area, which was almost completely in the former East Berlin. It is this area that contains most of the museums and other significant sights. The Brandenburg Gate, symbol of Berlin, sits on the border between the former East Berlin and West Berlin. Despite the widespread destruction during World War II, none of that is visible now.

Berlin was “sin city” in the 1920’s, and retains a certain irreverence and lack of regimentation which is somewhat uncharacteristic of Germany. I was last in southern Germany about 3 years ago, and things there may have changed, but it is clear that northern Germany, particularly Berlin, has much more of a “punk” edge to it than the southern Germany of three years ago. I suspect this is more related to locale than time, although I could be wrong.

The greatest Berlin museums are on the Museuminsel, an island in the Spree which is devoted exclusively to museums. We decided to visit the Neues Museum, which contains smaller works of antiquity, such as the bust of Nefertiti, and the Pergamon Museum, which contains larger pieces such as the massive Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Many of these relics were stolen from their countries of origin, although others were legitimately purchased. This brings particular irony to the frequent signage pointing out things that were “stolen” by Russia after World War II.

One of the more poignant sights in Berlin is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Memorial church) which has deliberately left in a condition of near destruction as a memorial to the dangers of war. The new church which has been built in an adjacent location used the glass from the stained glass windows in its own construction. Another notable sight was Humboldt University, whose alumni and professors have included luminaries from many fields, including theology (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), physics (Albert Einstein, Max Born, James Franck, Max von Laue, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, Wilhelm Wien, Werner Heisenberg, all Nobel Prize winners), medicine (Robert Koch, Paul Ehrlich, Werner Forßman, Albrecht Kossel, all Nobel winners, as well as Rudolf Virchow), authors W.E.B Dubois (Porgy and Bess), Heinrich Heine, Theodor Mommsen, the Brothers Grimm, chemists (Hermann Emil Fischer, Fritz Haber, Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, Richard Willstätter, all Nobelists), philosophers (Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engles), and musicians (Felix Mendelssohn). I have not done any comparisons, but I assume that resume would put it among the foremost universities in the world.

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