A city of two tales

We all tell ourselves stories about who we are, based on how we interpret what we have experienced in our lives. Cities tell themselves stories as well, I think. And Berlin seems to remain two tales of a city once divided, but always changing when it can, creating a third tale in the process, one that is still being written and which will perhaps never be finished.

In the Eastern part of the city, many of the old street names are still there. Karl-Marx-Allee is still a wide boulevard stretching out from the city centre, a testament to the period after the war before Stalinist architecture (and his name – it was Stalinallee for a while) was replaced by pure functionality, the high rise blocks we still associate with the old Eastern bloc. Heroes of socialism are still remembered. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are just two of the home-grown variety, but South American revolutionaries and artists also have their place:


Personally, I am glad these names have remained, they are part of the history of the city, the country, and indeed of some of the titanic struggles of the 20th century.

And you cannot think of Berlin without the occupying forces stationed there for over forty years after the war. They have left their mark in more than Checkpoint Charlie. In the Eastern part of the city, there is a huge war memorial with around seven thousand Soviet soldiers buried there, the whole construct a story in itself.


At the entrance (right at the back of the picture above – this is a big memorial), there is a kneeling soldier on either side, a father and son, representing the two generations who fought in that war.

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Along both sides are large stone tableaux narrating the story the Soviets told themselves about the war, with a collection of sayings from Lenin and Stalin (the latter interestingly not removed when his ‘cult of personality’ was denounced by his successors), in German on one side and Russian on the other side. Brave Soviet soldiers defending their homeland, defending freedom, overcoming the tyranny of fascism, that is the message we are to take away.


And towering over everything is the soldier with a child in one hand, a sword in the other, and a crushed swastika under his foot. If you are going to symbology as part of your propaganda, do it on a massive scale, that seems to have been the approach taken.


…and the detail of the statue:


This was where school children came to be taught history, where East German leaders came to pay homage to the army that had paid their price of their freedom. Needless to say (but just to give a little balance to the story the Soviets were telling in this memorial) there was no mention of the horrors inflicted on the German population when the Soviet army was moving through former German territories, or the extremes their barbarity reached when they finally conquered Berlin, most of it meted out on the women and children left there.

The other tale that is still represented by a physical memory is the whole Cold War that ensued. This time we move across the city to the far West, in the hills of Gruneberg forest. Did you ever wonder what happened to all the rubble of the city that had been Berlin before the war? It ended up here. An entire mountain was created out of the rubble, now covered in grass and trees and meandering paths. And a CIA listening station was built on the top of it, making use of the flatness of the surrounding territory and the relative proximity of West Berlin to the Soviet Union.


After the Wall came down, there was no longer the same need for this military complex and the towers and buildings started to fall apart.


There are now rooms where the old ceiling panels are stacked neatly in rows, although for what purpose other than a deep-seated need for Prussian order escapes me. The domes at the top of the towers are fascinating. You need a torch (mobile phone came in handy) to get to the top because there is no lighting in the narrow, pitch black, stairwells that eventually take you up to the top. But when you get there you suddenly notice that every sound you make reverberates around for seconds afterwards, even with parts of the original domes torn off. The acoustics are almost unnatural.

But this is Berlin, so anything that you aren’t keeping a close eye on is likely to change before you notice it. And this is the other tale of the city. This former secret (apart from the fact you can see it for miles away) installation has been transformed. There is now art everywhere, and not just in the two floors of street art:


In was there in the form of old cars…


…chairs and the odd bath tub (and I’m pretty sure the CIA did not paint that tower pink)…


…and pretty much any space on a wall that was previously uncovered…


This one was across one half of the largest and tallest dome – it was so large I could only capture part of it:


This is what happens when a group of people in Berlin get together with an idea and get hold of something which nobody else wanted any more. It is just as much a part of the history of the city than the formal memorials and, to my mind, a much better representation of the city that I know.

And I will leave you with the wisdom which was offered to us:


One Commentto A city of two tales

  1. Jonathan says:

    Wow. What a great post. It makes me want to get to see this side of Berlin.

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