Ich Bin Ein Berliner
When John F. Kennedy spoke the famous words “ich bin ein Berliner” he had the
best of intentions, but probably wasn’t quite aware of what he was saying. In
German that word “Berliner” is used less to describe the people of the city of
Berlin than as a name for a kind of local sweet snack. The Berlin crowd
perfectly well understood that the US president was attempting to show
solidarity with them as inhabitants of a divided city, despite the fact he’d
apparently said “I am a doughnut!”
Comedy aside, Berlin was indeed a divided city, from the late
1940s to the early 1990s. Lying deep in the heart of what was then East
Germany, the western half of the city was occupied by the American, British and
French forces of NATO. During these years Berlin was split in half by the
imposing physical barrier of the Berlin Wall, a high and heavily fortified
structure aimed at preventing the oppressed citizens of East Germany escaping
to ‘the West’. Despite the presence of the Wall, many did escape – but many
also died in the attempt, shot by border guards.
One of the most remarkable things about modern Berlin is just
how fast all this has changed. The Wall only came down in 1989, but today there
barely remains a trace of its former 30-mile length. There are still some
sections that you can look at, though these have been heavily chipped away by
souvenir hunters. The famous Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse is also
still more-or-less intact, and there is a museum nearby where you can find out
more about this most famous of Iron Curtain crossing points.
Apart from these small mementoes of the communist past, you
would be hard pressed to think that Berlin has been anything other than what it
is – a bustling, lively, friendly city – for decades. In fact, Berlin has had
one of the most turbulent histories of any word city in the past hundred years.
Almost completely destroyed at the end of the Second World War, then divided
for half a century, it’s a miracle that Berlin has become the fantastic city it
is today so quickly.
A lot of this can be put down to the determination and ambition
of the city’s residents. They’ve always had big ideas – something you can
appreciate in the center of town, as you explore Unter den Linden and the
Brandenburg Gate. The former, whose name literally means ‘Under the Lime Trees’
is a long boulevard that led to the palace of the Kings of Prussia, in the days
before Germany was a unified state and Berlin was the capital of the Kingdom of
Prussia. The wide and stately boulevard leads right up to the Brandenburg Gate
– the five-arched symbol of Berlin which, with its mighty Doric columns, has
withstood everything history has thrown at it.
One historical Berlin building that’s been given a modern and
exciting twist is the Reichstag. For many years this palace was the seat of the
German parliament of the same name – until it burned down under mysterious
circumstances in 1933, triggering the rise to power of the Nazis. It was
rebuilt, only to be badly damaged during the war, after which the government of
West Germany moved out to Bonn, far to the west of Berlin. In recent years, the
Reichstag has once again become a seat of German democracy, this time in the
form of the Bundestag, the modern German parliament.
The Reichstag building is well worth looking around, not least
because it has recently undergone some exciting refurbishments. In the past,
whenever the building has been burned out or bombed the first thing to suffer
has been the huge cupola that sits on top. In many ways, the repeated
destruction of the cupola can been see as a metaphor for Germany’s upheavals
over the past century. Recently the cupola has been rebuilt, entirely in glass,
to a design by the English architect Sir Norman Foster. The new cupola has
become possibly the biggest tourist draw in Berlin. The view from the
observation deck encompasses nearly the whole city, and it’s possible to look
through the glass down into the parliament chamber below. An ingenious
motorized shading mechanism circles the inside of the dome, ensuring that
sunlight never blinds those on the floor below. At night, the cupola is lit up,
illuminating the whole Reichstag area in a warm orange light.
Berlin is a city that’s worth visiting simply to renew your
faith in human beings’ ability to regenerate themselves. It’s one of those
cities, you feel, that will always stand and always ultimately thrive, no
matter what happens to it. If JFK really had been a Berliner, he would have
been a proud man indeed.