Berlin – Out of the Chrysalis (Many Times)

Berlin – Out of the Chrysalis (Many Times)

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My first visit to Berlin was in 1981 at the height of the Cold War. Back then, we were travelling by train all the way from Paris to Moscow, stopping in Bonn, West Berlin and Warsaw along the way. Truncated and traumatised, Berlin had already lost its glory as well as its capital city status to provincial Bonn. The Berlin Wall dominated the West Berlin skyline and psyche. Checkpoint Charlie could well lay claim to being more photogenic than Marlene Dietrich. I remember gaping at those sentry towers with their smartly-dressed, rifle-toting East German guards. We gazed wistfully at Brandenberg Gate from across the Wall on the West Berlin side, having been refused a visa to visit East Berlin. We had to settle for rectangular frames of East Berlin served up through our train window as it pulled out of Frederichstrasse station and chugged its way towards Warsaw.

Bouncing back

Since then, I have visited Berlin several times and have been struck by the resilience of this city. During my last visit early this year, I marvelled at how a once marginalised and effete Berlin has tenaciously clawed its way back to vibrancy. Today it is replete with shops, cafes, bars and casinos, but also with magnificent museums, art galleries and a very youthful population that has made Berlin truly a happening European city. The capital has moved back to Berlin, the Reichstag has been rebuilt, albeit in the shape of a washing machine drum, the museums are being upgraded and renovated, new hotels have sprung up everywhere and there is bustling activity all around. From the 28th floor of my hotel at Alexanderplatz, in Mitte, I have a bird’s eye view of monument-studded and historic East Berlin. But try referring to Mitte as East Berlin and you come up against righteous indignation! Today’s Berliners do not take kindly to divisive references to their beloved city.

Alexanderplatz, named after the Tsar Alexander I who visited Berlin in 1805, crowned itself with glory on November 4, 1989 when it hosted a restive throng of 7,00,000 West Berliners rallying against the communist regime in German Democratic Republic . Four days later, the Wall came tumbling down, heralding the end of the Cold War era.

A stroll along Unter den Linden, Berlin’s grand boulevard, serves up most of its sights along its 1.5 km route and ends in the mother of all Berlin landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate. The 365- meter TV tower with its revolving restaurant may soar over the steeples of the adjacent Marienkirche, a brick church built in 1270, but it is not a patch on the quiet elegance of the latter. Across the church is the ornate Neptune Fountain, symbolising the four lifelines of Germany, the rivers Rhine, Elbe, Oder and Weichsel. But it is the river Spree that meanders across Berlin and is spanned by several elegant bridges.

Scene of action

As I walk towards the neo-Renaissance Berliner Dom, a majestic church across the road from the fountain, I am surprised to find hundreds of police vehicles of all shapes and sizes. It is as though the entire German police force has converged here at the Dom. There is a cordon, but if you’re a worshipper at the church, you’re allowed to pass through. Later I learn that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the European Union. Several meetings, celebrations and fireworks have been organised to commemorate the event. Naturally, Unter den Linden hosts most of these. Berlin these days is busy hosting representatives of the E.U. who gather here to draw up a new E.U. constitution under German stewardship.

If you’re not impressed by the sculpture-studded Dom, wait until you cross the elegant bridge into Museumsinsel or the Island of Museums in the Spree river. It houses several remarkable museums, but if there is one museum anywhere in Europe that you just cannot afford to miss, it is the Pergamon in Berlin. Non-descript from outside, its contents are truly drop-dead gorgeous. You’re greeted by a parade of classic Greek, Babylonian, Roman, Islamic and Arabic shrines and structures painstakingly transported brick by brick, mosaic by little mosaic from their original locations and reassembled faithfully here in life-size models. The Pergamon Altar from Asia Minor is a 120 metre high marble frieze of gods battling demons. The Babylon room features Nebuchadnezzar II’s Ishar Gate in exquisite cobalt blue and ochre tiles, transported all the way from what is today’s Iraq. The sense of unease over priceless oriental treasures finding their way to distant Germany is tempered somewhat by the consolation that the Ishar Gate may perhaps not have survived the war in Iraq today, even if it did survive into the 21st Century. Won’t we rather have the Bamiyan Buddhas, even if only in a foreign museum than lose them to vandals and mindless terrorists? I wish we didn’t have to ask such questions.

Remains of another era

Checkpoint Charlie is next on my itinerary. It was the main gateway for non-Germans during the Cold War. “You’re now leaving the American sector” warns a notice in a reconstructed barrack where a lone guard, presumably a Yankee, still holds aloft the American flag. I take the U-bahn from Frederichstrasse and head towards Ku’damm, Berlin’s commercial district with its bombed-out church roof. The church was shelled by Allied bombings and has been left in that state as a memorial. I saunter across to Berlin Zoo where the entire German and European media seems to have landed en masse to catch a glimpse of Knut, the polar bear cub born in captivity. Knut seems to be in no hurry to end his nap even as cameras and satellite dishes on TV vans parked nearby wait with bated breath to capture his slightest movement. Knut is on the front pages of all German newspapers. He also dominates TV news channels.

The next day, I am back at Unter den Linden, this time at the Humboldt University which sprawls on both sides of the boulevard and is fronted by roadside bookstalls. It couldn’t have asked for more illustrious alumni or faculty. Marx and Engels studied here, the Brothers Grimm and Einstein taught in this illustrious university. There is a pantheon look-alike in the square, but the star attraction is Bebelplatz, the first official Nazi book-burning frenzy in 1933 that destroyed virtually all the treasures in the university library. A poignant memorial in the form of empty book shelves built below ground commemorates the mindless destruction. In the adjacent Neue Wasche, a statue of a mother with her dead son on her lap brings back memories of the ineluctable tragedy of wars.

Tragic history

Schlossplatz is my next destination. For over 500 years upto 1951, the grand Prussian palace stood in this spot, but was destroyed by the East German government. Today, the only surviving structure is the triumphal arch built to proclaim the German Socialist Republic in 1918. As you saunter further down, you’re greeted by Brandenburg Gate, the most beautiful of Berlin city’s 18 gates. On top of the edifice is the Quadriga statue, a winged goddess of victory piloting a horse-drawn chariot. I pass and repass under the magnificent portal savouring the freedom that had once been denied to a whole generation of Germans.

(Published in The Hindu dated May 20, 2007)

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