Berlin is less elegant than it is vibrant. It’s still possible to recognize what was once the East, if for no other reason than that much of the ugly Soviet architecture stands out. And where pre-war buildings have survived, some are still pockmarked by artillery shells. But all in all, 24 years after the fall of the Wall, the city feels pretty integrated, and it’s hard to imagine that there was a time you couldn’t cross over the Fridrichsstrasse without passports and armed guards—and then only if you were not German.
While the Wall is largely no longer visible, it cannot completely escape its legacy. Berlin feels like a city in a state of perpetual self-examination and re-creation. Everywhere you look, there are cranes looming—either restoring the old– or building something new. After years of being exiled from the rest of Germany, Berlin once again became the country’s capital after the fall of the Wall. The new government needed a new home. It built the modern Reichstag right into the old one in an incredible job of architectural fusion. The views of Berlin from the magnificent glass dome are spectacular, explaining why it is the second most visited attraction in Germany.
To get an insight into the darker aspects of Berlin and Germany’s past, there are at least two must-see museums. One is the Topography of Terror in the Niederkirchnerstrasse. Built adjacent to the old SS and Gestapo headquarters– and behind a lonely remnant of the Wall–this museum offers a brutally honest look at the role Germany played in its rise to fascism and into the Nazi era. In the present exhibition, Zwischen den Zeilen, the photographs shocked even those of us who thought we’d seen it all. I was with friends who, like me, found it difficult to process some of the exhibits. Goebbels, Goerring, Mengele, Hess—most of the Nazi’s top leadership are captured in photographs, laughing, smoking and chatting in the foreground, no care in the world, as emaciated Jews work in the camps or are executed in the background. You can’t help but wonder whether other cultures would be as willing as the Germans to air their dirtiest linen in so public a manner. But this is a culture that has been forced to, and been willing to, confront its past.
The other must-see museum is the Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. It’s focused on telling the story of the Jews throughout history, not just of their brutal treatment under the Nazis. But there is poignancy in having this museum stand in the very heart of Hitler’s Third Reich. The son of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind designed a building that is as much a visceral experience as a place to exhibit artifacts and art. It’s an eerie monument, a testament to the power of architecture to evoke emotion. A walk through the Garden of Exile leaves you completely disoriented and off balance. Go when you have the time to appreciate it. It’s not a museum to jam into a busy day.