To the Heart of Europe — Day 7: Western History

28 May
Daylight reveals more of the scenery outside. Our hotel overlooks the Kleiner Tiergarten, a small dingy park that has a lot more cool shadows than I feel comfortable with, and which has nothing to do with its larger cousin a few blocks away. It should also on no account be confused with the Zoological Garden next door, which is one of Berlin’s main zoos — the other being the Tierpark, which is on the other side of town and has nothing to do with our neighbourhood park as well. The confusing names are the least of my problems as the feeling of melancholia has returned, the euphoria of getting to Berlin in one piece long since washed away by a bad night’s sleep.

We start at the Kurfurstendamm, looking for breakfast as even I am hesitating at the hotel’s €7.90 asking price. The Ku-damm, as some locals call it, is the local shopping street, and back when Berlin was divided into two, it was upheld as the ultimate expression of capitalist Berlin, the blazing three-pointed star of Mercedes Benz at the top of the street a glorious vindication of consumerism. Today, cars still thunder up and down its wide carriageways, while people wander around, confused as to where they should even start first. It certainly feels like a Promised Land for three hungry boys.

Not far down the street is the Europa-Center, Germany’s first large-scale shopping mall. Modelled on American counterparts, the picture-boards there show how it used to boast a beautiful ice-skating rink and Germany’s largest cinema screen. Today, 55 years after its construction, it looks more than a little jaded, and the few shops remaining are all run with a minimum of effort. Still, the architecture is nice, and it has no shortage of restaurants. Spotting the word “Italian”, Dennis immediately disappears, not to be seen again until the evening. Being less of a pasta fanatic, Wilson and I buy crepes from a nearby store while looking amusedly at the central attraction, a beautiful time-keeping device with fluorescent green liquid trickling here and there, flowing steadily into different containers. (I sadly forgot to take a picture, but Google “Clock of Flowing Time” and you’ll be amazed at how impressive the whole thing is.) The clock reaches 11:30, and the whole system suddenly flushes, a whole collection of bulbs suddenly emptying and flowing right back to the top to trickle down all over again. It’s like watching a giant experiment, which certainly appeals to the child in me.

Splitting paths after breakfast, Wilson heads for a day of wandering and wondering while I go for the more touristy “hit as many famous places as I can” option. Walking next door to the Zoological Garden station, I come across two young tourists from Hong Kong, looking for the entrance to the Zoo. The signs above them say “Bahnhof Zoo” and “Zoologischer Garten”, so they probably aren’t very good at basic German. Briefly consider helping them out like the Good Samaritan I obviously am, but then another voice inside me tells me to pipe down…

Anyway, here are the Berlin Zoological Gardens. As with most things in Berlin, it is the oldest surviving one of its kind in Germany, and by far the most famous. When I was a kid, news of Knut the polar bear, who lived in the Zoo for his whole life, would pop up on the local news from time to time, and we’d drop whatever we were doing and coo over little Knut. (There was a lot less to cover locally back then.) Although Knut has since gone to animal paradise, Berlin Zoo still has among its immense collection giraffes, pandas, tuataras, springboks, kangaroos — and a €11 entrance fee. I have no particular obsession with animals, so instead I walk down a tree-lined passageway that goes around the zoo. An overlook provides the eagle-eyed observer with a taste of what they’re missing:

Cross over to the Tiergarten, Germany’s second-largest urban park — the biggest is, of course, the English Garden in Munich, that wild forest which Dennis and I visited on our first day. Walking through the dense lines of vegetation, I notice that unlike its Münchner counterpart, the trees here are orderly and seem much more carefully tended to, and the paths running through it are all intricately plotted. Yes, people still jog through the parks with their dogs, and sit on benches enjoying the sunshine, but it’s still a rare reversal of roles: Berlin, normally the free spirit, has suddenly become the uptight old man here — everything is smooth, carefully crafted… predictable, even.

Down the Straße des 17 Juni and pass the Victory Column, where a golden angel rejoices at the military victories of imperialistic Germany. I dive back into the Tiergarten as I near the former site of the Wall, crossing entire streams and gardens, coming out just opposite the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. In front of me are a bunch of tourists surrounding what appears to be a clear blue plastic wall. Thinking this is yet another example of Berlin’s burgeoning art scene, I take a few jaunty photos. Then my eyes fall on the words “National Socialist”, and suddenly, the air feels a lot heavier.

This stretch of blue, as it turns out, is the Memorial to the Victims of Nazi Euthanasia Killings, commemorating more than 275,000 people killed because of mental illnesses and birth defects that made them unworthy citizens of the great Aryan empire. Although the translation isn’t that up to scratch, it still gives a sense of the terrors that people back then were subjected to — illegal experiments, horrifying procedures, and even mass killings of innocent children. It’s a jolting introduction to Berlin’s dark past: up till then, the architecture and people suggested that this was just another European city: a little more austere, yes, but for all intents and purposes. Here, Berlin begins to distinguish itself as the city at the heart of evil in the 1930s and 40s, and once that lens is in place, there’s no way you can forget it again.

At Potsdamer Platz by lunchtime. A bustling traffic junction, Potsdamer Platz is also the commercial hub of Berlin, with corporations like Daimler, Sony and German Railways setting up headquarters within shooting distance of each other. The Sony Centre is a marvel of modern architecture, a sunlit square bordered by endless underground malls and topped by an amazing sculpture that looks like a wheel from a paddle-steamer. The early afternoon sun shines through the paddles, lightly illuminating the people passing by, while the fountain nearby rhythmically patters away. A short distance away, a strip of brick on the floor shows how the Berlin Wall — or as the East Berlin authorities called it, the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” — used to run right through the square. The perfect spot, then, for what is probably the quaintest museum in Berlin.

I’ll be honest, I had no idea that the German Spy Museum even existed until a friend mentioned it on her Instagram while I was in Munich. Being a place where the Western world clashed with its Soviet counterpart, Berlin has had a pretty colourful history of espionage, with both sides trying to gain the upper hand in intelligence and information. The museum, which opened just a couple of years ago, is a recapitulation of that shady aspect of German history. It’s a very informative place, and — surprisingly for a museum — very tongue-in-cheek, as it basically contains every single stereotype you can imagine for a spy museum: entry is gained through waving your ticket — or your “spy pass” — at a set of revolving doors, and the language used throughout the exhibits all like to pretend that you’re being inducted into a secret society of spies. Meanwhile, the exhibits are all very hands-on, with things like radio ciphers and rotor encryptors sitting side-by-side with more traditional encoders. But the centrepiece of the entire museum, the thing everyone is queuing up to try, is the laser maze, a pastiche of the insanely (and needlessly) complicated ones you often see in movies.

I’m not physically agile at the best of times, so I choose the easiest level. A forest of lasers criss-crosses the room, and my two-minute countdown begins. I start sliding on the floor, crawling past the first few lasers with plenty of room to spare. I’m no Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I manage some parody of a lithe spy in an espionage thriller, twisting my way past a couple of them with debatable grace. I’m halfway through and am just feeling pretty amazed at myself when I notice a laser beam inching towards my thigh. Unable to move without hitting five hundred other lasers, the whole thing goes bust almost immediately. I skip out of the maze feeling pretty pleased with myself: honestly, I was just elated that I’d even gotten that far.

Down under Potsdamer Platz, a veritable carnival of cuisines awaits, with Berliner, Scandinavian and Japanese restaurants all fighting for my attention. I haven’t had Asian since I arrived in Europe, so this time I decide to embrace my Asian identity and have a stir-fry. I think back to the couple from Hong Kong I met this morning. Had they found their way to the Zoo? What were they doing right now: feeding the animals, falling into the crocodile enclosure? Despite my stern commands to get a grip, the loneliness is inching up on me again. When you’re in such an expansive, modern metropolis as Berlin, it’s quite the experience to meet people who speak your language, and yet seem so far away.

Lunch over, I follow the strip of brick that denotes the Wall’s former location down Stresemannstraße, named after Weimar Germany’s most successful foreign minister. Turning left into a sidestreet, the strip suddenly disappears, replaced by actual pieces of the wall — and a very, very sombre building.

The name “Topography of Terror” might vaguely suggest some chamber of horrors at a wax museum, but this vaguely enticing name does not betray the scale of the horrors to be found here. The museum stands on the ruins of the Reich Security Office, the headquarters of Hitler’s feared SS secret police, and it was from here that the ideas for the single biggest genocide in human history were carried out. Political prisoners of the Third Reich were regularly held and tortured here, often followed by execution. There aren’t many candidates for “centre of evil” here in Berlin, but this is definitely on the list. The fact that the Berlin Wall also used to run through this street only adds to the overall depression you feel about this place.


A sign by the entrance — nothing more than a simple fence — notes “please maintain respect for the victims of Nazi oppression”. Once inside you walk down into the ruins of the headquarters’ cellars, now thankfully all empty shells exposed to the open air, and read a history of Berlin in the 1930s: how the most liberal society in the world slowly but surely got taken over by a fascist regime, and how, in the space of just five years, Berliners would go from smashing their heads on cocaine to smashing Jewish shop windows. A highlight of these exhibits (if one may call it that) is the power of Joseph Goebbels’ state propaganda machine: as the head of the Berlin branch of the party, his access to loads of resources meant he could manipulate the Germans to his will. He never really succeeded in Berlin — it was too well-connected to the world for that — but his reach throughout the country was astonishingly thorough.

The tourists here are mostly people of Asian descent: I catch a lot of Cantonese-speaking tourists walking about, commenting on the problems of Nazism and occasionally relating it to their parents’ recollections of the Sino-Japanese War back home. I’m not sure whether we really should be comparing these things — who’s to say your suffering is worse than mine or not? — but it does remind me that World War II was truly the first global incident where people were linked together in the grief of one common event. This was a war that stretched over FOUR continents. People on all the battlefronts knew death, even if they were lucky enough not to experience it themselves. And it changed the way we humans look at war, more as this destructive terrible thing than as a glorified way of asserting national pride.

One only wonders if it could all go the other way again. One wonders — but one also worries.

Walk down to Checkpoint Charlie, the classic border crossing between West and East Berlin, so frequently mentioned in Cold War literature, yet now (perhaps fortunately) a shade of its former self. Tourists still mob the checkpoint, lining up to have their pictures taken with men in uniforms, participating in a historical charade. Turning away and striking up Friedrichstraße, I arrive at the Museum of Post and Communication, or at least that’s what my rudimentary knowledge of German tells me it is. It’s strange how un-English this museum is: it’s just a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, surely a tourist hotspot, yet the boards here are all in German and I think it’s safe to say that I’m the only English speaker in the entire building (and yes, that includes the staff). Granted, my guesswork is good when it comes to German, but it’s still not a very visitor-friendly place — and perhaps that’s why the entire museum is completely devoid of tourists.

Which is a shame, because when you get over the initial touristy unfriendliness, it’s a delightful place. Not only are the exhibits simple and easy to understand, but the whole place is exceptionally well-designed and there are multiple pieces that are very Instagrammable, not that I really know what that means. The vault, for example, is eerily lit and has floor-to-ceiling tubes scattered everywhere, making it look like a steel jungle. The wide, expansive atrium has robots bumbling across the floor (okay, there are only two, but in my defence they’re VERY cute). My favourite is a small pneumatic tube system installed on the second floor, as a demonstration of the wider system that used to span the whole width of Berlin. I run back and forth across the two terminals, frantically coming up with new messages for the tube to send out. Well, I am the only visitor in the whole museum.

Meet up back at Potsdamer Platz with the boys for dinner. Wilson and I are eager to try the classic Berliner dish currywurst, which turns out to be basically just a sausage with curry powder and ketchup sprinkled liberally on top — a bit too liberally, in the case of this restaurant. Dennis, on the other hand, opts for safety and sushi… and then realises too late that sushi in Berlin isn’t quite the same experience as that you find in Hong Kong. He never really gets over the shock, and neither does his wallet.

Up Ebertstraße and past the Holocaust Memorial to the crowning glory of the whole day. The Reichstag has been through a lot in its short 125-year history: set on fire by a Communist goaded by the Nazis, strafed by the Soviets while retaking Berlin, then left neglected as a ruin for years while the parliaments of both Germanys met somewhere a lot more comfy. When the Germans eventually decided that they wanted Berlin to be their capital after all, they commissioned Norman Foster to do them a dome as part of the repairs. Opened in 1999, it’s now the second-most visited attraction in Germany (what is it with Berlin and second-best attractions?), and we’re now here to join the flock.

I’ve planned it so that we arrive just as the sun is beginning to set: no point being on top of the world without having a sunset thrown in. This being the German parliament, a lot of precautions are taken to make sure we aren’t taking in anything dangerous: layers of checks and division into groups, during which Wilson’s water bottle is temporarily confiscated (small note, but Wilson has gotten frisked more times than the other two of us combined — does he just ooze danger?). Even when we’re safely inside the building, there are loads of guards standing around, just so we don’t do anything silly.

Eventually, though, having been thoroughly checked and stared at, we’re let onto the podium the dome rests on, and allowed to move on our own. The three of us immediately pounce to the outer fringes of the platform: the sun is hanging low, tinging everything a deep rich gold, and as is by now customary for us, we three go mad on the photography. We take shots of everything: the sky, the building we’re on, the buildings around us, the sky again. A huge German flag flaps in the wind, mere metres from where I’m standing, and that gets a couple dozen from the other boys. Berlin in the twilight is awesome, a modern jungle of glass and steel that still somehow looks effortlessly majestic, and I can’t resist on filling my phone with visions of the city, visions that catalogue its coloured past — black and red in the annals of history, yet now, at this moment, golden and simply lovely.

Meanwhile, Dennis and Wilson, having obviously taken a leaf from my book, are experimenting with silhouettes and angles. Eventually Dennis allows me to use his camera for a bit and I return the favours for him. He’s already a handsome man, but in the golden sunshine he looks positively radiant.

Entering the dome, the audio guide starts going on its own and the smooth dulcet tones of the narrator begins telling me what I might see from the top of the building. Despite the many details and the slow pace, it’s an oddly compelling guide. And that’s more than just a figure of speech: the man in your earphones orders you, quite without warning, to take stock of your surroundings in a tone that brooks no disagreement. “Let us stop for a moment and look at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt,” it says, and you immediately screech to a halt. You patiently listen to it talk about this latest building which has appeared before you, until it goes “now continue walking up the ramp,” at which point your legs immediately obey.

It’s sunset, so there’s already a layer of ambience to the whole structure, but I have a feeling that the Reichstag dome would still look pretty without it. The walkways form a double helix: two steel spirals folding around each other, the silhouettes of visitors forming little vertical specks against the light. Behind them, the buildings of Berlin rise, each carrying their own distinctive outline, all a delight to behold and to identify. Above and below us the central pillar stands, reaching towards the opening in the sky, splintering and transforming into a transparent roof below. I can see the debating chamber from here: although the Bundestag (the parliament itself) is not in session, it still gives you a kind of thrill to see the empty seats of power below. It’s here that Germany’s laws are planned and executed, here that politicians discuss things that will affect the lives of millions.

I’ve been to a lot of places on this trip, so I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before about Neuschwanstein or the Dancing House or a thousand other buildings, but still: this is it. This is the most beautiful place I’ve been on this trip. Everything else just pales to nothing in comparison. Just then, a voice breaks through my thoughts. “Let us stop here and look at the design of…” I halt so suddenly, Dennis almost crashes right into me.

End our day at the Brandenburg Gate, the one thing everybody visits when they’re in Berlin. It stands at the end of an axis created by the Strasse des 17 Juni, the avenue I walked down earlier this morning while walking through the Tierpark. Hitler used to organize mass parades where troops would march down the boulevard, guarded from behind by the angel on the Victory Column, and end up right here to the adoration of a public. Nowadays, it’s more a symbol of German reunification of freedom, as the wall used to run just behind the Gate. It’s the centre and most prestigious part of Berlin, flanked by multiple embassies and hotels, and surely also the most commercialised part of the city. In broad daylight, of course, it’s just another arch with loads of advertisers and souvenir shops in the way, but in the twilight, illuminated from underneath by blinding yellow lights, the winged chariot on top of the arch springs to life. The angels and the horses charge towards you, engulfing you with the might of the German myth, and you can almost hear the roar of the crowds 80 years past as they cheer for a leader, dancing his way towards destruction.

Not too far down the Pariser Platz, near the U-Bahn station, there’s a busker who’s singing a tune while grinning like the happiest man on Earth. It takes me a while to figure out that he’s murdering the hell out of “Let It Be”. Dennis feeds him a 50-cent for his originality, at which point he grins even more widely and begins to butcher Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You”. Feeling guilty for not rewarding this display of cheerfulness, I cave and give him something too.

Back at the hotel, Dennis and Wilson have decided that a perfect day is capped by a full-on concert. For half an hour the room echoes to the sound of their duets as they scream Cantopop at the top of their lungs. What they don’t know is that I’m already blocking them out and playing “Maybe I’m Amazed” at full volume.

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