One last pre-corona trip to the capital
1 April 2020
Berlin is so packed with history, it’s more a matter of what to leave out than what to include when you’re visiting. The Prussian empire, with Frederick the Great as its leading man; the Nazis, whose leading man needs no mention; or the Cold War that split Berlin in two? Over four days, we discovered several interesting tidbits about each of these epochs.
The disappearing horses
Together with my friend Renée, who was visiting from Denver, we began a tour that touched on all three eras. Strolling along the wide expanse of the Unter den Linden boulevard, we lined up next to the tourists gazing up at the Quadriga, the horse-drawn chariot on top of the Brandenburg Gate.
“Napoleon stole the original statue,” I said to Renée, trying not to sound like I’m showing off (because I definitely was).
“They carted it off as war booty to France, but somehow lost all but one horsehead. It was eventually returned and is now on display in the Deutsches Historisches Museum.” We promptly went to see said horsehead, which didn’t look nearly as majestic as the current ones, sitting on the museum floor, severed from his body, chariot buddies and sense of dignity.
You have to laugh at a man who was one of the greatest generals in history, the consummate conqueror of countries, but who lacked the logistical skills to keep track of a huge crate packed with copper horses. I figure the original statue now secretly graces the garden of some French guy’s villa in the Loire Valley. You know who you are, French guy.
But who am I to talk? My home country has similar tales. The Key Bridge in Washington is named after Francis Scott Key, author of the U.S. national anthem, whose house had to be moved to build the structure that now bears his name. When the National Park Service had to dismantle his house to make way for the bridge, they painstakingly loaded the parts into crates for reassembly elsewhere.
And promptly lost the crates.
The case of the missing parliament
Next we took a boat ride down the Spree River. When the Berlin Wall came down and the country reunited, tough decisions had to be made. One of them was what to do with the East German parliament, the Palast der Republik. In view of the repressive history symbolized by this building, the reunited German government chose to raze it to the ground.
This was the lead-up to an amazing decision: The government voted to reconstruct the building that had previously stood there, the Hohenzollern Palace, home to the rulers of Prussia. They actually bulldozed the parliament of former East Germany to rebuild a Prussian palace completely from scratch, based only on paintings and drawings.
Think about that for a moment: The new German government tore down the East German parliament, the building that used to be the seat of its highest ruling body. It wouldn’t be hard to view that as a nasty move. Many East Germans were already smarting at being swallowed up by their western neighbors, even though they knew their own country was bankrupt. It still hurt.
Was this a vindictive move? No. In a sense they were righting a previous wrong. The East Germans had willfully torn down the remains of the bombed Hohenzollern Palace, despite loud protests from historians, West Berliners, and presumably from East Berliners if they had been allowed a voice. Rather than restoring the remains of what was left of one of the most important icons of Prussian glory, they chose to completely erase it from history, replacing it with their own. The symbolism could not be any clearer.
Disavowing previous history was very much in line with typical East German politics. They also washed their hands of any responsibility for the Nazi legacy.
“What? Concentration camps? Mass murder? Oh no – that was those guys!”
How handy to be split in two; it allows you to blame the other half. Not much different from office politics, come to think of it. Having a teammate can be very useful when something goes wrong, especially if you have copied them in on every single e-mail you ever sent on a project that runs into trouble. Not that I speak from experience or anything.
As our boat passed by the reconstructed palace, we saw that it is not an identical copy of the old, but instead incorporates fresh elements: One side breaks completely with tradition. Its modern architectural style hints at the city’s newest museum within, the Alexander von Humboldt Forum, in honor of one of Germany’s great national heroes. He was a famous Prussian who explored and documented many parts of the Americas and whose works are still relevant today.
The missing palace
The boat then chugged past the site of the Montbijou Palace, now Montbijou Park since the palace itself was severely damaged by allied bombing in WWII. It was another one of the historic palaces of the ruling Hohenzollern family. The East Germans, once again under great protest from historians, West Berliners and presumably silent protests from their eastern brethren, chose not to rebuild the palace but tear down the rest, leaving only the name. Sprawling baroque magnificence has been replaced by trees and a playground. Its appeal has decreased for adults, but increased for kids, so between them I guess it’s a draw.
The missing people
Farther downstream, the glass dome of the Bundestag, the German Parliament, came into view. What was now a pleasant boat ride used to be a matter of life or death for some, as the Spree River marked the border between East and West Berlin at this location. Prior to 1991, the boat had to stop on its way westwards while the East German secret police, the Stasi, searched it for possible escapees to the West. The boat was also required to wait for 30 minutes, long enough for any poor schmuck clinging to the bottom of the boat trying to escape to the West to drown. White crosses line the riverbank in memory of those who died in the attempt.
The grim reminder of people drowning in the Spree River on their quest for freedom was the precursor to our final destination in Berlin: the Stasi Museum. This is the former headquarters of the East German secret police, who spied, tapped phones and apartments, interrogated, tortured and incarcerated East German citizens. I recognized the sprawling complex from the news back when the Berlin Wall fell. People gathered outside to protest at the time, knowing that the Stasi kept extensive files on all of their activities. These files are now accessible to the individuals who were targeted, and it’s now a museum whose guides are often former Stasi victims.
“Oh, you want to go deep into the jungle!” smiled the taxi driver when I gave him the address of the museum.
It’s a jungle all right, a communist one, consisting of long boulevards of the sterile blocks of apartments so characteristic of East Berlin. The endless monolithic high-rise buildings stood unchanged, stark reminders of the bygone days when a simple taxi ride from west to east was impossible.
Once inside, our guide pointed to a picture of Karl Marx in a hallway.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“Does anyone know who this is?” he repeated.
I looked around, wondering why no one was volunteering an answer. Could it be that these people didn’t know who this was? Here in former communist East Berlin?
“Karl Marx,” I said finally, slightly annoyed at my fellow tourists. I fixed a steady gaze on the tour guide to underline my superiority.
“And what was he famous for?”
“He invented communism,” I replied, giving the briefest possible explanation. “He wrote Das Kapital,” I added, suddenly realizing that I wasn’t sure what the translation was (it’s just Capital, I discovered, which loses all the pithy ring of the original title).
The next picture on the wall was of another bearded revolutionary, one I did not recognize but who was clearly from the turn of the last century judging by his garb. A woman from Belarus identified him as Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the former Soviet secret police.
“Hhe is still alive in my country,” she said, with a very guttural h. “And I hhate him.”
Totalitarianism is alive and well and living just around the corner.
But that wasn’t the only thing still around from that era, as I was about to find out.
The missing leader
The last head of the Stasi was Erich Mielke, whose office is now open to tourists. Peering at luxury furniture by East German standards felt a bit like being in a time warp, as the style is a throwback to the 1960s.
Then I look up at the ceiling at the 1960s Stasi light fixtures, horrified to discover that they exactly are the same ones my husband and I just saw in a store – and that he was trying to convince me to buy.
That clinched it: No way were we getting Stasi light fixtures.
Our tour of Berlin came to an end, and we boarded the train to Munich. Just four days later, the U.S. president suspended all flights to the U.S. from Europe.
Little did I know, but our train ride was about to launch the start of the coronavirus adventure. But more on that in my next post.