The changes witnessed by this city since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the year before we first lived in Germany, and our most recent visit in September 2012 is hard to express in words. The eastern half of the city continues to undergo an enormous transformation from nearly inhospitable Stalin-era flats to the most modern apartment complexes in the country. Berlin is the second most populous city in Europe and it is a youthful city. When compared with other German cities, 16% of the city’s inhabitants are less than 30, nearly 36% more than the national average.
A magnificent architectural achievement, Berlin’s Hbf’s glass enclosed, multi-level and highly efficient structure is the showcase of Deutsche Bahn (DB), the world’s second-largest transport company. The company formed after re-unification and moved from its headquarters in Frankfurt am Main to Potsdamer Platz in 1996. Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, built on the site of the former Lehrter Bahnhof railway station, opened in May 2006 and forms the centrepiece of Berlin’s new railway network. The glass structure is influenced by both French Renaissance architecture and Neo-Renaissance styles, and was built over a ten-year period. What is a magnificent and impressive visual is the station’s lobby. This area is framed by two curved structures, each 14 m in height, designed to convey the station’s importance as a crossing point between Europe, linking West and East.
The Reichstag is the seat of the German Parliament and one of Berlin’s most historic landmarks. It is a few hundred meters near the Brandenburger Gate and, during “former times,” was located right next to the Berlin Wall. The NeoRennaissance building was built over a span of 10 years, from 1884 to 1894, with reparation money from France after its defeat by Prussia in 1871. Wilhelm II added the buildings inscription, ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ (To the German People) in 1916, with bronze letters cast from seized French cannons. The Dom was burnt, believed to be by Communists, in the early 1930s which, in turn, helped to solidify Hitler’s political party, the NSDAP. As one expects, the building was extensively damaged by the Soviets at the end of WWII. It is possible to visit the Reichstag’s interior, the current German capital building, especially the Glass Dome that overlies the plenary hall. But, one needs to know that every visitor is subjected to a security clearance, and you must provide your passport and details of your stay in Germany at least one day before you plan on a visit. Since 911, such precautions have been taken worldwide.
A former city gate and one of Germany’s best known landmarks of reunification, the Brandenburg Tor was rebuilt in the late 18th Century as a neoclassical triumphal arch, and is the only remaining Berlin city gate. It was build by Frederick Wilhelm II as an entrance to Unter den Linden as a monument to peace, and the structure you visit today hasn’t changed appreciable since it was first constructed in 1791. During “former times,” it was part of the Berlin Wall. The sandstone structure is composed of 12 Doric columns that create five portals, stands 20 m high at its center, and is decorated with reliefs and sculptures based on the exploits of Heracles. The quadriga statue, recast from the original molds in 1957-1958, depicts the goddess of victory bearing a symbol of peace. Once the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Tor came to symbolize a divided Germany. When we first visited the site in 1992, just after the Wall came down, the gate still was floored by dirt with little restoration of the surrounding area. Today, Unter den Linden is a vibrant, fully restored (2000-2002), and beautiful new part of the city.
May 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II. On that occassion, the city of Berlin dedicated the Holocaust Memorial–Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas (the Monument to the Murdered Jews in Europe)–to commemorate the murder of six million Jews at the hands of Hitler and his forces. The design, both praised and reviled, is only a few blocks from the Brandenburg Gate and a short distance from where Hitler’s bunker is buried. The memorial is composed of 2711 gray stones, devoid of markings, arranged in linear rows. Each five-sided slab, reminiscent of a coffin, is slightly different than its neighbor, either in size, orientation, or elevation, imparting an undulatory, wave-like pattern to the site. This is reinforced by an undulatory landscape, designed by Eisenman, the architect, to create a feeling of groundlessness and instability. We found that a sense of disorientation to the grounds. There is no set direction through which you walk, because all paths lead to the same conclusion.
The Siegessäule, or Victory Column, is a monument located opposite to the Brandenburg Tor and in the middle of the city’s Tiergarten. The Tiergarten, a 200 hectare Royal hunting estate, was turned into a park in the 1830s. It was erected between 1864 and 1873 in celebration of Germany’s victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War. Originally constructed with 4 cannon-draped tiers directly in front of the Reichstag, it now stands at 67m in its current location after an additional column was added by the Nazi government during the second World War.
The monument is crowned by a bronze statue of the goddess Victoria. The goddess, gilded in gold leaf, is 8.3m tall, weighs 35 tons, and was added after further Prussian victories in wars against Austria and France. Victoria’s face is based on the sculptor’s daughter and known, in Berliner lore, as the Goldelse (Golden Else). The column is considered an example of allegorical representations linking German traditional mythological symbols to its imperial days. To get to the monument you must walk through a pedestrian underpass, as any attempt to cross the rotary above ground is tenuous, at best. The underground Berlin experience is well worth the few minutes to arrive at the column, and the view from its top is unsurpassed in this Phoenix of a city.