The Distant Thunder of the 20th Century – Thoughts upon Returning from Berlin, Germany

The 20th century was a test bed for big ideas – fascism, communism, the atomic bomb.

— P.J. O’Rourke

At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, tourists smile and take selfies on a cool, sunny day. The air is still, and around me are gleaming new buildings housing embassies, cafes and an art academy. One would never guess that, over the course of the previous century, soldiers would twice march off to war through this gate and a regime would build a wall here to divide Berlin in two.

German soldiers march off to World War 1 through the Brandenburg Gate in 1914
Most of Berlin, including the Brandenburg Gate, was badly damaged during World War 2
The Berlin Wall blocked access to the Brandenburg gate for 28 years. The gate was in the “death strip” between East and West Berlin, meaning one could be shot for trying to cross the border here

Berlin is a city where a traveler can witness the relics of the 20th century’s dueling fires of fascism and communism and the dousing waters of democracy. A simple turn down a street reveals a wall riddled with bullets from the apocalyptic Battle of Berlin, blocky Stalinist apartment buildings or a memorial to victims of two forms of dictatorship.

The Reichstag, today the home of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, offers the best view of the evidence of these ideological battles. The building itself is pockmarked with shrapnel holes from Soviet guns fired in April, 1945 by soldiers fulfilling Josef Stalin’s order to capture the Reichstag as a symbol of victory. Etched in the bricks on the southern side of the roof are the Russian words АСТРАХАНЬ МАКАРОВ (Astrakhan Makarov), the name of a Soviet soldier and his hometown. There is still Soviet graffiti on many walls inside the Reichstag.

The Reichstag today. In 1933, a Dutch Communist allegedly started a fire here that helped Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party seize power. Stalin insisted on its capture during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The words “Dem Deutschen Volke” mean “for the German people.” The German government installed them to raise flagging moral during World War 1
You can just make out the Cyrillic letters etched in the brick
Soviet graffiti still adorns the walls inside of a part of the Reichstag where press conferences are given. If you can read Russian, apparently you should wash your mouth out with soap
A great video about the Soviet capture of the Reichstag and the famous picture of the raising of the red flag above it

Look east from the roof and you see the yellow Axel Springer building in the Kreuzberg district. In 1966, Axel Springer, a German journalist and staunch anti-Communist, built his company’s West Berlin headquarters right on the wall to be a symbol of freedom of the press for East Berliners. In response, the Communist East German government erected six apartment buildings to block the view of the Axel Springer building. If you lived in those apartments, no window faced toward the west. Only a city uniquely divided between two competing systems could produce such a geographical oddity.

The contrasting image of freedom of thought with oppression

Look west and beyond the golden Victory Tower of Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, is a structure called Teufelsberg that resembles a golf ball on a tee. The Americans built Teufelsberg on West Berlin’s highest point to eavesdrop on communications in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The structure plays a central role in “The Same Sky,” a Netflix miniseries about an East German agent who crosses into West Berlin to seduce and then steal secrets from a woman who works at Teufelsberg. Much to my disappointment, there is no second season of “The Same Sky.” The director should read this blog.

The views from the Reichstag were simply breathtaking.

Teufelsberg beyond the Victory Tower in Tiergarten

Descend from the Reichstag and your journey through the 20th century doesn’t end. Near the Brandenburg Gate along Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s main avenues, is the Soviet War Memorial. Built from the stonework of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, the soldier’s outstretched arm represents the defeat of Hitler and the Nazi regime by the Soviet Union. The Soviets actually built the memorial in what later became the British sector in West Berlin, so during the period of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union would barricade the area to have regular memorial ceremonies. For a country that lost 27 million people to the Nazi invasion, the Soviet’s choice of building material is not surprising.

Look how the soldier’s left arm is lowered, signifying the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany
Two Soviet T-34 tanks sit on either side of the memorial.

South of the Soviet War Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial is moving – purposefully meant to disorient visitors with ascending and descending paths through gray slabs, it made me reflect on what I can do to stand against racism and advance equality in the world. A mournful place to honor such senseless suffering.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe once sat in the death strip of the Berlin Wall. Underground is a musuem with the names of 3 million Jews who died in the Holocaust
The designer of the memorial intentionally made it disorienting. It is quite a mournful place

Further east on Unter den Linden and across from Bebelplatz where Nazi book burnings took place is the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse). I recognized the Neue Wache from videos in which three East German soldiers participated in a regular changing of the guard. Used for Nazi celebrations, the East German government turned the Neue Wache into a memorial against fascism and militarism. Inside was an eternal flame and the remains of an unknown soldier and a Nazi concentration camp victim. After reunification in 1990, the Neue Wache became the Federal Republic’s memorial to victims of war and dictatorship. It is quite a solemn place in which I could feel the weight of history.

The Neue Wache was badly damaged during World War 2. Repairs of bullet and shrapnel damage is still visible on the exterior
East Germany turned the Neue Wache into its memorial for militarism and fascism. Inside was an eternal flame as well as the remains of an unknown solider and a victim of the Nazi concentration camps
Today the Neue Wache serves as the Federal Republic of Germany’s memorial to war and dictatorship
A video of the changing of the guard in 1988 before the wall came down. I was 3 years old that year

Go to northern Berlin along Bernauerstrasse and you will find the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial includes a preserved section of the wall in which sits the “death strip,” a sandy area between the inner and outer wall overseen by a guard tower and spotlights to help spot escapees. In 1961, after thousands of East Germans fled oppression and lack of opportunity for a better life the west, the Communists closed the border and built the wall to imprison East Germans in their own country. On Bernauerstrasse, the houses were in the east, but the street was in the west, so someone from the east could just walk out the door into the west. When the East Germans sealed the exits of the buildings, people jumped out of windows here to escape to the west, some dying in the process. The East Germans thus bricked up the windows and eventually tore the houses down. After reunification, the basements of these houses were excavated and are now part of the memorial. I could feel the panic of the people urgently trying to get to freedom.

A section of the wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial. This part of the wall faced West Berlin
A preserved section of the “death strip” at the Berlin Wall Memorial. The Berlin Wall was actually two walls, an inner wall facing east and an outer wall facing west. Within the death strip the regime placed deterrents to escape: watch towers, spotlights, electric fencing, mines, tank traps, dogs and patrolling soldiers ordered to shoot any escapees. Even if you made it past the death strip, tubing at the top of the outer wall made climbing over it practically impossible
Photo courtesy of the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauerstrasse
Imagine the government building a wall to divide you from the other side of your neighborhood. That’s what happened in Berlin in 1961

Although the Communist regime tore down the houses along Bernauerstrasse, the Church of Reconciliation remained and was later trapped inside the death strip. To improve soldiers’ view of the death strip in 1985, the year I was born, the East Germans demolished the church. Today, a small chapel sits where the church once stood.

The demolition of the Church of Reconciliation in 1985
An excavated section of the Church of Reconciliation
The Chapel of Reconciliation, which now sits on the site of where the church once stood

If you want to escape the relics of communism, get on the metro to old West Berlin and you will find the west’s island of capitalism behind the iron curtain, a street known as Kurfürstendamm. On Kurfürtstendamm, known as Ku’Damm by the locals, shops, restaurants and bars lined the streets to showcase capitalist superiority. While the street is modern, its most famous landmark is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, built in 1891 and badly damaged in an air raid in 1943. My Dad and I had an excellent Turkish meal on Ku’Damm – Turkish immigrants came in large numbers to Germany starting in the 1960’s and represent one of Germany’s largest minority communities.

The damaged Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church serves as a reminder of the horrors of war

Even by my hotel the journey through the 20th century did not stop. A few blocks south on Friedrichstrasse is Checkpoint Charlie, an old border crossing between East and West Berlin that in 1961 became the site of a famous tank standoff after the construction of the Berlin Wall. In 1945, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany and the city of Berlin into four zones of occupation and guaranteed reciprocal access for military personnel and civilians to each zone . Upon construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the East Germans attempted to block the Western Allies’ access to East Berlin, prompting a show of force at Checkpoint Charlie by Soviet and American tanks. One shot could have started World War 3, but cooler heads prevailed.

My favorite part of Checkpoint Charlie is the McDonald’s that now sits at the doorstep of what was once-Communist East Berlin
Before 1990, signs demarcated the various sectors of the city. This one at Checkpoint Charlie is the symbol of another era
The showdown between U.S. and Soviet tanks was the closest the two sides came to going to war. Following talks, the East Germans restored the Western Allies’ access to East Berlin
A home movie that shows Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate and the Soviet War Memorial in the 1980’s

My favorite part of visiting Checkpoint Charlie was going to the new TimeRide exhibit around the corner on Zimmerstrasse where I used virtual reality glasses to see what East Berlin looked like before the wall fell. An East German woman virtually accompanies you on the journey to describe what you’re seeing and what life was like in East Germany. When I put on my glasses, I was on a bus heading through the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing into East Berlin. The woman talked about how she had never been to West Berlin before 1989 and then proceeded to show me what the old East Berlin looked like. She excitedly pointed out the Young Pioneers, East Germany’s version of the Boy Scouts, crossing the street as well as the restoration work at Gendarmenmarkt, a square where a concert house and two famous churches sit. It was breathtaking how different the city was – I felt tense as the East German border guards checked the virtual driver’s papers and allowed us to pass through. Tempted to take pictures various times, I had to remind myself that I was in virtual reality! I highly recommend TimeRide’s tour, but be sure to buy your tickets online as it’s cheaper than buying them in person!

Gendarmenmarkt today. The Deutscher Dom sits in the background while the Konzerthaus sits to the right. These buildings were badly damaged in World War 2, but the East German government restored them over time

All while you visit these spectacular sights in Berlin, the Fernsehturm, Berlin’s Television Tower, stairs down at you. Built between 1965 and 1969 by the East German government, the tower was supposed to represent the great achievements of communism. Today the tower has a revolving restaurant with great food and beer and a 360-degree observation deck with spectacular views of the city. Before I got on the elevator to go up, I was looking at pictures of its construction displayed in the shop below. One of the attendants joked with me that, “Oh, that was just yesterday.” I fortuitously had a picture in my phone of Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s first Communist leader, eating lunch at the restaurant back in the 1960’s, so I showed him the picture and responded, “then he must be eating up there right now!” He laughed, told me he grew up in East Germany and said that his father took him to the tower just after its construction. I asked him what he thought when the regime removed travel restrictions on November 9th, 1989, thus negating the need for the Berlin Wall. He showed me the goosebumps on his arms and said he went to West Berlin for the first time in his life. Moments like this remind me that history is a tapestry of stories from simple people trying to get by.

The Fernsehturm in eastern Berlin is visible from most parts of the city
The Sphere Restaurant at the Fernsehturm. Downstairs is the 360-degree observation deck. The views of Berlin are spectacular
When the light reflects off the Fernsehturm, it forms a cross, which many dubbed “The Pope’s Revenge” against the Communist East German regime
A fantastic short video of the history of the Berlin Wall

Berlin made me excited and, at times, moved me to tears. I could feel the waters of the past rushing over me everywhere I went. Berlin is now a vibrant and young city that, while it works to understand and honor its past, looks confidently to the future. Its scars serve as reminders of the pain inflicted by racism, authoritarianism and war. The only question wracking my brain now is when do my Nikes pound Berlin’s historic pavement once again? I confidently reply, “soon.”

This post is dedicated to Otto and Elise Hampel, subjects of the Netflix film “Alone in Berlin.”

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke

2 thoughts on “The Distant Thunder of the 20th Century – Thoughts upon Returning from Berlin, Germany

  1. Wow wonderful blog. Love how you weaved history through telling your travel in Berlin! I’m taking a trip to Germany for my 30th since I was born there and definitely helped give me a refresher course in history. Can’t wait to do some more reading and for my own German adventures. Great blog Steven!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Jam! I’m so glad you liked it. I’ve got a few more posts coming by the end of the year! Let me know what you think of Germany! It is an amazing place


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