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Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Berlin, Germany

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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.

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