In my research schedule, the big cities are the daunting hurdles. Berlin is not only big, it’s changing fast, and I am personally committed to having a great chapter on it in my book. Compared with Berlin, Munich is now stale strudel…flat beer. Berlin is it. It’s not only emerging…it’s cheap. And for anyone into 20th-century tumult, Berlin puts you in hog heaven.
I have a powerful image of Hitler and his right-hand man, Albert Speer (his architect), poring over plans for postwar Berlin…built up in a way to make Paris look quaint. Of course, by 1945, the city was in ruins, Hitler was identified by his dental records, and Speer was in jail writing his memoirs (“Inside the Third Reich,” which provided me with my best Third Reich images).
With my last few visits, I get this queasy feeling that Speer’s vision is coming true. The latest example: the massive new Hauptbahnhof (central train station) — the only one in Europe with major lines merging at right angles. Toss in 80 stores and local subway lines — and it’s a city in itself.
The other strong feeling I get in Berlin is that it’s a victory celebration for capitalism. Like Romans keeping a few vanquished barbarians in cages for locals to spit at, capitalism and the West flaunt victory in Berlin. Slices of the Berlin Wall hang like scalps at the gate to the Sony Center (at Potsdamer Platz, the biggest office park I’ve ever been in).
A sleek SAS Radisson hotel now stands on the place where the old leading hotel of East Berlin once stood. I remember staying there during the Cold War, and a West German 5-Mark coin changed on the black market would get me drinks all night. Now five euros is lucky to get me a beer, and the lobby of the Radisson hosts an eight-story-tall exotic fish tank the size of a grain silo with an elevator zipping scenically right up the middle. Next door, a little DDR Museum is filled with mostly East German tourists rummaging through the nostalgia on display from dreary life under communism.
Across the street, statues of Marx and Lenin (nicknamed “the Pensioners” by locals) look wistfully at the local Space Needle-type TV tower East Berlin built under communism. The best thing locals could say about it back then was, “It’s so tall that if it falls, we’ll have an elevator to freedom.”
The victory party rages on at Checkpoint Charlie. With every visit, I remember my spooky 1971 visit — when tour buses were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.
Thirty-six years later, Checkpoint Charlie is a capitalist freak show. Lowlife characters sell fake bits of the wall, WWII-vintage gas masks, and DDR medals. Two actors dress as American soldiers posing for tourists between big American flags and among sandbags at the rebuilt checkpoint — like the goofy centurions at the Roman Colosseum. Across the street at “Snack Point Charlie,” someone sipping a Coke said, “When serious turns to kitsch, you know it’s over.”
Brandenburg Gate faces Pariser Platz — the ultimate address in Berlin. It’s a poignant place. Within about 100 yards you have: the vast new “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”; a memorial to the first victims of Hitler (96 men, the German equivalent of congressmen, who spoke out in the name of democracy against his rule in the early 1930s and ended up some of the first killed in his concentration camps); the new American Embassy (still under construction, with such high security that visitors will enter through a tunnel via a park across a busy highway); a big Starbucks; one of the “ghost” subway stations that went unused through the Cold War — now looking like a 1930s time warp; the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby (according to local guides, the sight of greatest interest for most American tourists); the glass dome capping the bombed-out Reichstag (capitol building) where on the rooftop on May Day 1945 Russian troops quelled a furious Nazi last stand; and hills nearby created entirely of the rubble of a city bombed nearly flat 60 years ago.
The newest addition to the neighborhood is a Kennedy museum filled with JFK lore, such as the handwritten note he referred to with the phonetics for his famous Berlin speech. As I read his note, I could hear his voice: “eesh been ein Bear-lee-ner.”
Thinking of the amazing story of Berlin — Speer’s vision, Hitler’s burning body, the last stand on the rooftop, the communists, the heroic American airlift, Kennedy’s speech, Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, the challenge of reunification, and the gleaming city visitors marvel at today, I hopped into a cab.
I asked the driver if he was a Berliner. When he turned to me, I realized he was Turkish. He said, “I’ve lived here 31 years. If Kennedy, after one day, could say ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ — then I guess I can say I am a Berliner, too.”