Ich bin ein Berliner

Just back from a whirlwind trip to Berlin. The reason was son Mark’s desire to see a Pearl Jam concert (about which more later). I got to tag along for the event but we also fitted in a six-hour guided walking tour, visits to five museums and galleries, several excellent meals and a few Pilsners over four days.

I had naively thought that the Berlin Wall was some short barricade with Checkpoint Charlie in the middle. In fact, it ran 143 kilometres with a parallel wall the better to see escapees. And flee they did, by tunnel and zipline. In many places portions of the wall remain as a reminder of the attempts by regimes to keep citizens in line and others out. Today Checkpoint Charlie is fake; for a two euro fee you can have your picture taken with two bored warriors.

A more compelling sight was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The city-block sized sculpture contains some 2,700 concrete slabs that range from coffin-sized rectangles at the edges to fifteen-foot tall plinths in the middle where the sunken cobble-stone walkways lie well below street level. There’s no sign and no names, just an eerie feeling as you tread further and further into the maze while your former surroundings disappear from sight.

The memorial is not the only public admission of communal guilt. Elsewhere, a series of panels details the rise and fall of Hitler in all his evil. There are also small bronze plaques being installed on the sidewalks outside the houses of Jews who were deported, never to be seen again.

Behind the contemporary architecture and restored buildings still showing artillery damage, however, there is modern-day trouble. When the Berlin Wall was erected after the war, big German companies such as Seimens and AEG moved elsewhere. When the wall fell in 1989, they did not come back. Unemployment in the city is 13 per cent, almost twice the national rate.

But Berlin is also a lively, dynamic place that looks forward as well as back. It was Fashion Week so the city was abuzz with models and makeup artists. And there was always a motorcade speeding by with some politician, hat in hand, calling on Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ironic, isn’t it, when the loser becomes the leader.

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