As Berlin Faces Its Difficult History Head-On, 'Hard Not To Be Stunned' As A Visitor

May 22, 2014

Germany's capital city of Berlin is one of the most international cities in Europe.

“There’s a large Turkish community here. There’s an increasingly large Italian community here,” KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley said while traveling in Berlin himself. “It’s where East meets West – halfway between Portugal and Moscow. Today, I was sitting in a cafe, and you could hear all the different languages of Europe being spoken.”

Once a foreboding security station and the only crossing between East and West Berlin, this reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie is now a popular tourist attraction.
Once a foreboding security station and the only crossing between East and West Berlin, this reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie is now a popular tourist attraction.
Credit Roger Wollstadt / Flickr

If you’re visiting, plan on seeing remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall, as well as Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing from West Berlin into East Berlin. Museum Island is home to five museums, including the Pergamon Museum. And then there’s the Reichstag, home to the German Parliament. If you want to go, you’ll have to preregister.

“It takes a bit of work to get in there,” Brumley said. “They have a café up on top of the Reichstag that has a view over Berlin.”

Ignoring The War

Berlin is full of German and European history, and its buildings serve as a timeline of sorts. Brumley describes a modern shopping center next to an older baroque building, which is next to another structure still peppered with machine gun spray from when the Soviets entered the city.

That building peppered with machine gun fire represents perhaps the darkest chapter in Berlin’s — and Germany’s — history: World War II.

“It’s a massively embarrassing part of German history,” said Gabriel Fawcett, a historian who has led tours of Berlin for 14 years.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, nobody talked about it. Fawcett mentions some friends who were teens in the 1950s. They never heard anything about World War II or the Nazis until their regular history teacher fell ill, and a substitute showed up to teach the class.

“This woman was Jewish and she’d survived the war in England, and she came back in the '50s and started telling German schoolchildren about what happened with Hitler,” he said. “None of these children were ever told about WWII and the Nazis at home. That generation of Germans just preferred to work hard … and just pretend that the war hadn’t happened.”

Dealing With The Past

But that started to change with a new generation of Germans who came of age in the late 1960s, says Fawcett. They took on the responsibility of acknowledging their own nation’s history in a way their parents wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

The 2,711 rectangular stones of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial are meant to evoke tombstones and serve as a somber reminder of horrors from the not-too-distant past.
The 2,711 rectangular stones of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial are meant to evoke tombstones and serve as a somber reminder of horrors from the not-too-distant past.
Credit Gero Breloer / AP Photo

And since the 1980s, he says, Germany has begun to make World War II not just a memory, but the overriding memory of German history.

“This city has made monuments out of not the things it’s proud of, but the things that it’s not proud of,” Fawcett said. “No other nation as far as I know has done that. And it’s an experiment.”

Visitors can arrange for tours, or go on their own to places like Berlin's Holocaust Memorial (officially, the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe") and the Jüdisches Museum.

‘Beyond Dramatic’

Expect a sober, straightforward tone from the World War II history you’ll encounter in Berlin. That’s on purpose — an effort not to offend. For many people, the war isn’t just a chapter in history, but a very real part of their family’s experience and a lasting source of deep trauma.

Fawcett says avoiding the sensational, dramatized version of the war helps visitors understand the seriousness of what happened.

“Because the events are beyond dramatic, it’s hard for visitors to Berlin not to be stunned by what they’re seeing, even when confronted with sober, honest, German self-flagellation, which is really what is going on, at least in Berlin,” Fawcett said. “The immediacy, the intimacy of these stories with the lives of my visitors is a feeling of walking through history. They say when you go through Rome, you’re walking through history. But this is 2,000 years ago. The history people are confronted with in Berlin is at the very least the history they saw on television as they grew up.”

Fawcett says he sees constant looks of recognition, surprise, shock and engagement with visitors to Berlin.

“Look, this isn’t Paris,” he said. “We don’t wander around and look at the beautiful buildings, although there are parts of Berlin that are beautiful. But there’s something authentic and something very real about coming here which has never exhausted my fascination in 14 years of being a guide in Berlin.”