Its the 9th of November. Twenty five years ago, on this day, impassioned Berliners were tearing down the Berlin Wall, a unique monument that is testimony to the fears and political struggles of the 20th century. A monument built to avoid war at all costs at a point when major Western powers had been bled dry by consequent World Wars (Read if you are curious about why it was built).
With the fall of the wall that “made the Cold War concrete”, it seemed that socialism had been defeated too. To the world at large, the fall of the Wall has been presented as a celebratory event, one that brought together Germans. A victory for democracy that some perhaps erroneously painted as a thumbs up for capitalism as well. For others though, it was an event that happened far too late as they mourned those who had fallen in the struggle.
We tried to imagine what all of this felt like for Berliners earlier this year when we spent a week of a near perfect summer tramping around the fascinating city. Our visit to the Berlin Wall, in particular, was poignant and despite our silly tourist grins, we were contemplative for the rest of the day.
Reliving in my head that wonderful day and the crazy discussions we had. Try condensing the history of the WWII into a story for a 6 year old!
Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.
To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.
We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.
More pics of The Wall ahead…
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.
We took the train from Amsterdam to Berlin earlier this month. While the change of staff from the friendly Dutch to the slightly brusque German crew is noticeable, the scenery outside isn’t immediately very different. It takes a while for the oh-so-flat Dutch scenery to transform into the rolling countryside around the Rhine. But Udai’s observation was on the ball when he started pointing out the growing number of houses with solar panels on the roofs. Soon he was showing us homes and barns and storage sheds with their entire roofs covered in solar panels!
I made a mental note that day (12th June) to look up the solar energy achievements of Germany but it slipped my mind. However, I read today that at about the same time as we were excitedly pointing out all those solar panels to each other and telling Aadyaa what solar was all about, Germany had set three national records related to solar energy! Over 50% of the country’s energy needs are now met by solar. Mind blowing indeed, especially for a nation not abundant in sunshine. Can we in India imagine the potential here?
Probing deeper, I gather that Germany’s solar capacity is largely installed on residential and commercial rooftops rather than at industrial facilities. However, from a policy perspective, I understand that the nation’s heavy subsidization of solar and wind energy while cutting back on nuclear energy production has meant both extremely high power tariffs and increased carbon emissions owing to more usage of coal and gas. Everything has a flip side, I suppose!