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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Walking Through History on Berlin’s Grand Circle

I stood on the roof of the United States embassy in Berlin talking with Greg Delawie, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Germany. From that vantage point, our RIAS Berlin Kommission group enjoyed an impressive view of history; we could see the Brandenburg Gate, the German capital building – the Reichstag – and the lush, green Tiergarten. The area is the heart of Berlin, if not all of Germany, and it is the hub of what I like to call Berlin’s Grand Circle.

My flight landed two days before, early on a Monday morning. But while I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight, I didn’t want to waste any time catching up in my hotel room. So, could I stay awake for 33 hours straight on a sightseeing bender? No problem! A couple of my fellow journalists and I headed out to see some of the town. We had a week to spend in Berlin, but it would be nowhere near enough time to see everything the city had to offer. But I was sure going to make a go of it, particularly on my first day in town.

My hotel room looked across the street to a nicely forested plot of land. Located just beyond the camouflage was the Topography of Terror – a museum which focuses on the Third Reich and its institutions of terror. It is fitting, too, since the space housed the headquarters of the dreaded Gestapo from 1933 to 1945 and the SS High Command after 1939. Several other horrific departments called the area home, but all were demolished under the rain of Allied bombings at the end of World War II. Today the museum and open-air exhibit with a large section of the Berlin Wall attract visitors interested in learning about the history of such atrocities.

Ignorant of the Topography of Terror’s presence at the time, I made the short walk from my hotel to Checkpoint Charlie. It was here that U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off against each other at the height of the Cold War. Today it is overrun with tourists and those who are looking to make a quick couple of bucks, or Euros to be precise. I had seen it before, twelve years prior when I was on the same RIAS fellowship, so I had no desire to linger. Not with so much more to see in Berlin.

I snapped a few photos at Checkpoint Charlie, looked around a little, but did not linger long. I was too intent on heading toward Unter den Linden – the main drag of the grand circle. There is so much historical significance surrounding Unter den Linden that it would take volumes of books to tell it all. I didn’t have time to read such a collection to completely understand where I was or what I was seeing, but I thought I had a good enough base to get me by.

Damn you, presumptions, damn you.

I stood at the base of the Fernsehturm television tower in the center of Alexander Platz. It was here where I thought President John F. Kennedy gave his monumental Ich bin ein Berliner speech in 1963. I later found out it instead took place at the Rathaus Schoneburg in what is now known as John F. Kennedy Platz. Duh. So much for my good base of history. I was now practically back at square one, missing such an important note in my nation’s history.

It was a quick ride down to the Brandenburg Gate, the backdrop to President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall!” I knew that without a doubt, since the gate dominates the backdrop of all of the videos and pictures of Reagan at the podium. Or, so I thought. I felt it best to double check myself later on after having made the horrible Kennedy mistake.

Feeling better about myself and my reaffirmed knowledge, I looked up a few other details. Apparently the Brandenburg Gate, which is the only one remaining of a series of entries to Berlin centuries ago, was commissioned by Prussian King Frederick William II and built from 1788 to 1791. It was built to represent peace, and so it was fitting that President Regan gave his speech at this particular location.

Today peace surrounds the Brandenburg Gate. The busy Pariser Platz, located on the east side of the gate, is a hub of missions to Germany; several embassies are only a short walk from the square and the gate. And all are looking to promote peace and international cooperation through diplomatic means.

A block north of the Brandenburg Gate sits the Reichstag, the German capital building. Twelve years ago, young and fresh-faced, I stood on its steps and looked out upon the mall area in front of the building. It was then a mess of cranes and pink pipes transporting groundwater from construction sites. Today it is a beautiful green surrounded by office buildings lining Berlin’s Spree River.

We had met earlier in the day with Peter Altmaier, the First Parliamentary Secretary (the Chief Whip), to discuss several topics, most particularly the Euro Crisis. Following the off-the-record meeting with Mr. Altmaier, we headed to the Reichstag for a private tour. And I was easily impressed with how much had changed, even though it had been twelve long years since my last visit.

While much had changed on the outside surrounding the Reichstag, inside the building looked much as it did twelve years ago. The Bundestag chambers are naturally lit by a giant cone of mirrors located high above in the building’s glass dome. They gather the sun’s energy and reflect it down into the plenary chambers; it is a fantastically simple system that responsibly saves energy and money for the government.

But, despite the ingenuity of today, there is a constant reminder in the Reichstag of yesterday. Soviet graffiti can be found in the halls surrounding the Bundestag chambers. It was left by the capturing forces at the end of World War II and has remained preserved as a reminder of past atrocities. Such reminders are everywhere in Berlin, too. Berliners are constantly bombarded, for better or worse, about their role in history – both in World War II and the Cold War – so that they may learn to be better global leaders in the future.

One such reminder sits just a few blocks south of the Reichstag on the south side of the U.S. embassy building. It was not visible from where we stood on the roof, but I walked passed and through it several times during my stay in Berlin. And finally, on my last day in town, I entered the information center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to learn more.

It happened, therefore in can
happen again: this is the core
of what we have to say.

~ Primo Levi
I had no desire to enter the information center, but I felt an obligation to do so. Twelve years ago, on my prior RIAS Berlin Kommission trip, we toured Buchenwald Concentration Camp (above). It is located on the outskirts of the picturesque city of Weimar, making it all that much more unfathomable that such atrocities could occur; certainly not near such a beautiful city and most definitely not in such a lovely area. Yet, I looked them straight in the face that day and left a changed person. And I, quite plainly, didn’t know what would change if I entered the halls of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Change never seems to come easily, particularly for me. I left the information center, again with a sick feeling in my stomach. When I left Buchenwald, freely exiting beneath a sign that essentially says “Everyone Gets What He Deserves,” I was physically ill. I remained that way for two days, holed up in my hotel room unable to participate in any of the group’s activities. This time, I left angered that such horrors could knowingly and even permissibly occur.

I sat on one of the 2,711 stones which make up the memorial, looking over to the Reichstag, trying to figure out the meaning behind their construction. I knew it was written on a nearby post, I had taken a picture of it, but I wanted to think for myself. But, I couldn’t think. I could only feel. And what I felt was a cold, uncaring uneasiness amongst a symmetrical order of stelae. Later, back in the United States, I looked it up to see if I could discover the artists’ intent, and that is apparently what he was striving to achieve.

I imagine designer Peter Eisenman succeeds in creating this feeling for the majority of the approximately 500,000 people who visit the 19,000-meter-squared site each year, although it obviously failed with some. I was sickened by the sight of people, generally young kids, hopping on top of the stelae as though they were playing a game, so I left for Potsdamer Platz. I had passed through the square several times during my week in Berlin, but I wanted to spend a few final moments in one of the busiest spots in Berlin before leaving the next day for Dresden.

A small Berlin Wall exhibit is located near the entrance to the Potsdamer Banhof, a train station servicing what is now a bustling communications and business area. During the Cold War, though, the area was exactly the opposite. The Wall divided the intersection in two, thus killing any and all activities that once made the area so great. I knew this prior to my arrival, having accurately recalled this piece of history, and purposefully located the cobblestones which run throughout Berlin marking the path of the Wall.

Investment returned to the area surrounding Potsdamer Platz following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification of Germany in 1990. It was on the 21st anniversary of this day when I returned to Potsdamer Platz. Seeing how it has changed over the years and how reunification is celebrated – with a concert and fair surrounding the Brandenburg Gate – made me believe that all we had learned during this week in Berlin about the Euro Crisis was accurate and that Germany would be the cornerstone to any sort of recovery. After all, it was because of the reunification of Germany that the Euro first came about.

Our RIAS Berlin Kommission group was repeatedly told throughout our daily organized meetings that the French government proposed the Euro currency as part of the German reunification as a way to bring the country’s governments together and help prevent any further wars on the European continent. This hasn’t completely worked since there are still problems in many countries to the east, but it is a great step forward. The Euro Crisis, despite its vast negative economical impact, seems to solidify this point, too, since it proves that, even under duress, two countries that have fought for centuries can peacefully lead the way forward to a positive solution.
I could see the progress and the steps being taken from atop the U.S. embassy, as well as on my multiple walks along Berlin’s Grand Circle. It is quite astonishing, too, since Berlin, even Germany as a whole, has come so far since the end of the Cold War. As I looked out across Pariser Platz, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Tiergarten, and on to the Reichstag, I felt hope for the future in the midst of an economic crisis. Berlin, which is constantly reminded of past horrors through monuments and memorials throughout the city, is taking the positive steps forward to lead as they learn from the past.

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