Day 13- Former East Berlin (pt. 1)

Inside the Reichstag Dome
March 25th (pt.1)
Today, my goal was to show my sister and daughter the sites in the former East Berlin. As I mentioned in my Day 12 blog post, East Berlin should not be confused with East Germany. All of the city of Berlin was located inside of Communist East Germany. However, Berlin itself was divided into sectors. Unfortunately for the Berliners, fully half of Berlin was given to the Soviets and the other half was split among the Allied Forces.
During the Cold War, when I lived in West Berlin, we could only enter East Berlin with a special pass given special routes and proscribed limitations on where we could travel and how long we could remain in E. Berlin. So much was ‘verboten’ (forbidden) to us, during the Cold War, that it was exciting to be actually living in a flat in the former East during our stay. Besides grocery shopping, we had not actually spent any time sightseeing on this side of the city. Mostly, because as an ‘overplanner’ (according to my daughter), it was not expedient to do so earlier in the week. However, today was the day for our tour of the ‘former East’.


The Reichstag bulding
We started out by parking on the Straße des 17. Juni (17th of June Street) and walking to the Reichstag building. The Reichstag is where the German parliament (the Bundestag) meets. It is a magnificent structure. I love visiting the Reichstag whenever I’m in Berlin. As with most of the older structures in Berlin, it is so large that I could not get a full picture of it, so I borrowed the above one from the wiki commons. The picture below of my daughter on the front steps give you an idea of the scale of this monstrous building.
The words ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ that you see inscribed on the façade means ‘[to] the German people.’
Front steps of the Reichstag building

The Reichstag was in ruins after the Battle of Berlin when the Soviets seized it. It was important to the Soviets that it be captured as a symbol of German might, although the building hadn’t been used since the 1933 Reichstag fire. For those unfamiliar with WWII battles, the Battle of Berlin was the campaign that the Russians fought as an Allied Power to conquer the Nazis in Berlin. One of the iconic pictures from the war is one of the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag. There is some controversy over that picture because the photographer had to doctor it before publishing it, due to the fact that one of the soldiers seems to have two watches on his wrist. The newspaper did not want it to appear as if the soldiers had been looting the city. However, it is a well known fact that the Russian soldiers not only looted but participated in mass rape and murder throughout the city. While I lived in Berlin, the German capital was in Bonn, W. Germnay. Also, the Reichstag had not been fully refurbished. In 1990 after German reunification, Berlin once again became the capital of Germany and the Reichstag was fully refurbed.


Northern hemisphere of Reichstag dome
viewed from outside on the roof

The cupola of the Reichstag — the Reichstag dome–is a sight to behold. The cupola is a large glass dome with a 360 degree view of the city of Berlin. The center of the dome is a mirrored cone. One of the many cool things about the dome (besides its obvious aesthetic beauty) is that when you are standing inside, you can look down below and view the debating chamber of the Bundestag (German Parliament). It was completed in 1999. Although the dome is open to the public, each time I’ve been to Berlin since its construction, there was a long line. In 2002, my two high school buddies and I caught a break and got in during a lull in traffic, only to be rushed out a short while later. A huge and sudden storm hit while we were taking pictures on the roof. Standing on that roof during a gale was at once fearful and exhilarating. It nearly swept us off our feet! The Polizei were yelling at us to get off the roof, and we avoided them as long as we could– even running up inside the dome (possibly the negative affects of being with high school friends). Finally, they corralled us into the glass elevator and down to the lower level.

Breakfast at Käfer Rooftop Restaurant

When I was in Berlin again in 2006 for my high school reunion, the line was so long that I did not get to take my husband up to see the city from the rooftop. Another classmate told me later that the way he and his wife got to the front of the line was to make breakfast reservations in the rooftop restaurant. So, in anticipation of a long line, that is what I did before we arrived for our visit this day. Well, when we got there, there was a huge sign that said the roof was closed. Since we had reservations, we approached the temporary building on site to inquire.  It turns out that now you have to have a reservation not only to eat at the restaurant, but to visit the roof just as a tourist. This had not been the case in the past, but thanks to the terrorist plot uncovered a few months before we arrived, it now is a necessity.

So, we actually didn’t need to eat at the over-priced hoity-toity restaurant just to jump the line. Our plan was to only get a continental breakfast, but even that was quite pricey. The views from the glass- walled restaurant were magnificent though!


Enjoying breakfast on the rooftop

After breakfast we took pictures from every direction of the Berlin cityscape.  Then we climbed up to the top of the inside of the dome. The dome is accessed via ramps that are in the form of a double-helix. The dome is supposed to symbolize the fact that the people are above the government, unlike under the National Socialist Party. Thus, they are free to look down and see their parliamentary body at work.

After leaving the Reichstag, we walked across the street and past the place where the Wall used to run right along the back of the Reichstag separating it from former East Berlin. Since the Fall of the Wall (November 10, 1989), the memorialization of its former presence is marked by a row of cobblestones in tourist areas. This cobblestone only indicates where the outer wall once stood– except at Potsdamer Platz, where both walls are marked to give tourists an idea of the size of the death strip (no man’s land) here.


Brandenburg Gate- East side

We crossed over the ‘Wall’ cobblestones and walked over to the Brandenburg Gate– actually, we walked to a gift shop in the building adjoining the Gate. I try to hit every tourist shop I can when I’m in town, because although most carry all the same items, some have unique items that I cannot find in any other shop. Today I was looking for Berlin track jackets for my three boys– I had bought one in 2006 for one son and he had worn holes in it. After scoring some Haribo gummi bears (for my daughter and I) and Haribo cola gummis for my sis, we walked through the Brandenburg Gate into the former East. When we lived in Berlin, no one could even approach the Brandenburg Gate, it was surrounded by barriers. When I came in 2002, it was being refurbed, so we could not walk through, but we were able to get to the front side by means of side streets. When my husband came back with me in 2006 it was no longer open to street traffic as it had been after the Fall of the Wall, but now only accessible by foot.

The Brandenburg Gate Quadriga

As with the Potsdam Brandenburg Gate, this was a former city gate.  An impressive sculpture, the Quadriga, sits atop what has become an important symbol of Berlin–the Brandenburg Gate.  As with many of the older buildings in Berlin (and Potsdam), which take their design from classical antiquity–the Gate is based on a Greek design. It was inspired by the Proplyaea, which was the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. Frederick Wilhelm II commissioned it as a symbol of peace. Thus, the charioteer was originally Eirene, goddess of peace.

When Napolean conquered Prussia in 1806 he took the Quadriga to Paris. When the Prussians defeated Napolean only eight years later, the Quadriga was returned to its rightful place atop the Gate. Eirene was reinterpreted as Victoria and her wreath of oak leaves included a new Prussian symbol of power: the Iron Cross. The Quadriga faces East, however, when we lived in the West, I remember hearing rumors that it had been facing West but that the Soviets turned it towards their side. There was also a rumors that one of the horse heads was real… Neither of these are true, but there is one of the original Quadriga sculpted horse heads in the Märkischen Museum. This is because the original Quadriga was damaged so badly during the war that it had to be reconstructed.

Cold War Brandenburg Gate blocked off  on west side
photo courtesy James Miller, Berlin Brat

During the Cold War, the Brandenberg Gate stood at the division between East and West Berlin. So, as you pass through the Brandenberg Gate, you are in the former East side of the city. As I mentioned in my Day 12: Potsdam blog post, I believe the Soviets got the best half of Berlin (architecturally and artistically).

Among so many gems on the east side, is the grand boulevard ‘Unter den Linden.’ It actually ends here at the Brandenburg Gate, but begins just under a mile further east in front of what  used to be the State Palace (Stadtschloss). Unter den Linden means ‘under the linden trees’ (lime trees in British English). Although we could not freely visit this area during the Cold War, it is one of my favorite places in Berlin (actually, I have a lot of favorite places in Berlin). As its name indicates, it is lined with trees. In the summer its incredibly beautiful and– especially at this end– filled with tourists. This is because this part of Unter den Linden not only ends at the Gate, but  opens out into a plaza in front of the gate called Pariser Platz.

The famous Adlon Hotel

This plaza is famous as the location of the renowned Adlon Hotel . Many famous people were entertained here before the war including Marlene Deitrich, Josephine Baker and Herbert Hoover. If you are familiar with the Broadway play Cabaret (set in 1931 Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party), the main character mentions the Adlon. More recently it became famous as the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby from the balcony. The upper floor has a highly secure area where President Bush (as well as other heads of state) would stay during his visits. One of my close friends who lives in Berlin, has run into Will Smith while he was at the Adlon.

The British Embassy in Berlin

Before the war, this area had been the location of the US and British embassies, among others. Today, several embassies are again located here. The new US Embassy (reconstructed from 2006-2008 for security reasons) is sandwiched between the Gate and the Adlon and is connected to the hotel. On the other side of the Adlon (also adjoining it) is the British Embassy.  Ironically, the Adlon survived the war, but was gutted by fire on May 2, 1945 set accidentally by drunken Soviet soldiers. This was only a few days before VE Day.

Back to why I love Unter den Linden– it’s a wide avenue with many historic buildings located all along its length. Also, it’s a great place to eat street food, sit on a bench and people watch. There are many street vendors located near Pariser Platz.  On our first day here, we ate currywurst and the vendor was a young German who was extremely excited to see  Americans, especially black Americans since he was jammin’ to Tupac. I know he was disappointed when we had to admit that none of us listened to Tupac.

Statue of Frederick the Great

Okay, so after walking through the Gate, we did what all the tourists do– headed to every gift shop within the next 2 blocks (on both sides of the Linden). Hey, we’re women! Oh, and to top it off, there’s a Starbucks right next to the gate across the street from the Adlon. It feels that it, along with all the shops in this area, are a blatant mockery of what this side of the Gate once represented. Every time I’ve passed it, I hope I will see some famous guest from the Adlon sipping coffee. I do have a friend from high school who works at the Adlon, so we stopped by to say hello, but he had not come in to work yet.

After finding a great purse with ‘Berlin’ printed all over it, and some beautiful hand-carved wooden nativity sets, we continued east down Unter den Linden. One of the sites along the way is the impressive Statue of Frederick the Great in the middle of the avenue. As I mentioned and pictured in my Day 12- Postdam blog post, there is a smaller version of this statue in front of the Orangerie at Sanssouci Park.


Bebelplatz Book Burning Memorial

Once we passed the statue, we headed to our right (south) and came to Bebelplatz. Bebelplatz is another famous square in East Berlin (there are lots of platzes in Berlin!). This was the site of the famous Nazi book burning on the night of May 10, 1933.

My picture to the right is not easy to see because despite the cold, it was really sunny the day we were there. The reason the book burning occurred here is that the Humboldt University Library building looks out onto this square on one side. The memorial is a plate glass fitted into the surrounding cobblestones– allowing you to see the empty bookcases in the library’s lower level. A better picture can be found here. In English, the words ‘Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people.’ are engraved at this memorial. If you’re standing in Bebelplatz and look across Unter den Linden, you will see the main Humboldt University building. Humboldt University has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any university in the world– forty to be exact! Albert Einstein taught at Humboldt, but eventually had to remain in the US (where he had been guest teaching) due to the rise of the Nazi Party. Sadly, his writings were targeted for the book burnings, because they were labeled ‘Jewish intellectualism.’


St. Hedwig’s Cathedral at Bebelplatz

The other two sides of the square are bounded by the State Opera  building and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation). Frederick the Great who was known for his religious tolerance for all faiths–an unusual trait at the time–gave permission for it to be built here. For history buffs, remember that the Protestant Reformation began in Germany with Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. This means it was 200 years before the first Catholic church was built in Prussia!

Of further note concerning this location and Nazi atrocities is its tie to Kristallnacht.  Bernard Lichtenberg, a priest at  St. Hedwig’s prayed publicly for the Jews in the evening prayer concerning their treatment during the Kristallnacht campaign. A few years later, in 1942 Lichtenberg went so far as to write a letter to the Reich’s Chief Physician warning him that the Lord’s judgment would come upon him and the German people for the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish people, specifically the euthanasia program (part of the Final Solution). For his ‘incorrigle’ ways, he was tried and imprisoned and sent to Dachau concentration camp. Mercifully, he died on the train in transit to the camp.

This was another long day of sightseeing, so this day’s post has two parts. Part 2 will be about the rest of our ‘former East Berlin’ sightseeing and includes the famous Alexanderplatz as seen in the Bourne Supremacy. Actually, there are a lot of Berlin sites in that movie, even the Munich, Amsterdam, Naples and Moscow scenes are actually shot in Berlin! That’s why the Supremacy is my favorite of the three movies. Berlin is a very popular film making location. It was especially popular during the Cold War for its reputation as the center of spy and espionage activity. When I was in high school many students would skip class to get paid to pose as extras. As a matter of fact, my daughter and I observed a movie being shot on the street of one of my friends while we were there!
Next Blog Post:  Former East Berlin (pt. 2)