Some cities display definitive character. The Big Apple is the city that never sleeps. London a haven of history and finance. Toronto is a foodie paradise. Hong Kong feels like the fastest city in the world (perhaps Shanghai deserves that moniker now). Paris and Venice tentatively cling to the moniker of romantic (threatened by a prevalence of refugees and refuse respectively). Berlin struck us as sincere.
Berlin’s citizens and the national government seem ever aware that they are making amends for the greatest crime of the twentieth century - the tyranny of Hitler and the Third Reich. Unter den Linden (Under the Linden Trees), the east-west avenue through the heart of Berlin running from the Bundestag at its western end to Alexanderplatz in the east, is flanked by governmental and cultural buildings such as ministries, embassies, Humboldt University and museums. Some buildings housed the rulers of first Prussia and then Germany from the seventeenth century onwards, culminating in the tumultuous Weimar Republic, followed by Naziism, and lastly a divided Germany symbolized by the Berlin Wall. Since 1990 a reunited Germany came to reinhabit the grand Reichstag Building outside the Brandenburg Gate.
If you had inhabited Berlin at any time in the last century life would have been tumultuous: Bismarck, Hitler, Soviet division, E-W reunification, all of these were characterized by severe societal stress. You are probably familiar with Checkpoint Charlie, fabled in spy stories, as east and west spied on each other during the Cold War.
The Berlin Wall came to symbolize Soviet repression and the heroic attempts of many brave souls who risked their lives for freedom — the freedoms that we now take for granted: freedom to say what you think, freedom of movement and travel, the freedom to choose your field of studies, your type of work, where you live, and freedom of self expression. Berliners are very conscious of a past when this was not so and are determined to retain these freedoms.
The most gruesome era of Berlin’s history however was the Jewish holocaust: Hitler’s attempt to exterminate a complete race of people. Hitler’s deputies drew up lists of Jews in every European country and methodically rounded them up from towns and villages - men, women, children, the elderly and infirm - and carted them to death camps in Central Europe. The Nazis murdered 11 million defenceless citizens in cold blood including gypsies, East Europeans, and those who spoke up against Hitler. Six million of these victims were Jews.
Today there are many exhibits in Berlin, such as the Deutsches Historisches Museum, dedicated to the terror of Hitler. Hitler systematically destroyed German Democracy by inciting bloodthirsty rebels to take to the streets. They found Hitler ‘refreshingly bold’ and willing to fly in the face of the establishment. Hitler employed lies, bluster and deceit with the philosophy that if you keep repeating a lie the masses will come to believe it. He was power loving and won votes by exploiting fear.
Today the Federal Republic of Germany strongly advocates for citizen’s rights, ever aware of the dangers of tyrants and fascism. This openness to the people is symbolized by the glass dome of the Bundestag and found in the daily experience of freedom on the streets of the capital.
When a nation has lost something precious and then regained it, that nation no longer takes what is precious for granted. Freedom from tyranny, oppression and fear are the gifts of democracies where the rights of all are respected. Berlin today is earnest to ensure that Germany does not lose that freedom again.