The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

By Talia Silverstein

Today our adventures in Berlin took us through some of the city’s most famous historical sites. Our tour guide, Kathinka Minthe, walked us through many parts of the city, teaching us about the history, social discourse, and controversy that each place held. We started at the Reichstag Building, home to the German Parliament and finished at Museum Island where we saw Angela Merkel’s home. We visited the Brandenburg Gate, walked through Tiergarten, and explored The Memorial for the Murdered Jews. We walked along Hannah Arendt Straße to get to the site of Hitler’s old bunker, now a parking lot, and later saw Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, a section of the old Berlin wall. Around the corner was the Topographie of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie,  the site of a historic standoff. We wrapped up at the site of the infamous book burning, across the street from the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. The focus of our tour was to examine the ways in which these historical landmarks allowed us to discuss some of the “hidden” women of Berlin’s intricate history.

One of the topics discussed was remembering history without memorializing all of it. When you visit Germany, the first thing many American visitors think about are the sites where World War II, Nazis, and Hitler stood not so long ago. This horrific history is something every German citizen acknowledges and learns about, but many of the actual sites that had been part of the war are now new or renovated. The historical relevance of the war is not lost on people today. As Michael Stewart writes in Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma, “I came to feel that for many people, the memory of the entire war was condensed into a few images that were normally kept deep in the shadows of the cave, illuminated occasionally and incandescently before being enveloped gain in the penumbra of the past.” While this is a history that Berlin wants to make sure to remember, when it comes to memorializing an atrocity it is hard to find “positive” ways to do this. It seems to me that the people of Berlin are in a constant struggle between remembering and acknowledging atrocities without glorifying those who committed them. We cannot forget the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, but at the same time, Berlin must be able to grow and develop. The people of Berlin have made the conscious decision to memorialize some and destroy others. The sites most often destroyed were those with ties to the Nazi party to deter neo-Nazis from using the places as a pilgrimage sites.

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

A surreal moment during our tour was when we visited Checkpoint Charlie. None of the historical or original buildings are there at all. What remains are tourist-oriented museums designed to attract. The streets are full of stereotypical USSR and fake communist propaganda for sale. It was a space flooded with tourists hoping to see a piece of history. In the middle of the street a fake USSR checkpoint hut stands for people to take pictures with, of course only if they are willing to pay a fee. The line to take pictures by the hut stretched over a block and almost every tourist held in hand some piece of fake propaganda or were adorned in Cold War uniform replicas. It seemed like a cheesy a commodification not only of a difficult history, but also of the German/Soviet. Watching people capitalize on the hardships of millions left a pit in my stomach.

Further, the little proof we saw of accomplished women was hard to find and are usually newer and smaller. For example, during our tour on Tuesday, Carolyn Gammon showed us that the women’s wing in Humboldt University was only a tiny hallway. To build on this today, we learned about Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Her art depicts poverty, hunger, and working-class struggles. She was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, and had a small museum in her honor. We would’ve visited but, like a lot of Berlin, it was unfortunately closed for renovations. Another famous Berliner, Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher, has a street named after her. The last woman we saw at the Topographie of Terror was Stella Kubler, a Jewish convert to Christianity turned catcher, who went underground rounding up hidden Jews for the Gestapo. She was an open anti-Semite and was eventually charged with war crimes.

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Reflecting on the absence of women’s history, they truly are hidden. With a critical eye, you can begin to uncover the stories of these powerful and notable women. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti write in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom, “Internal contradictions, incompleteness, and obstinacy characterize the work of Rosa Luxemburg as well as that of Hannah Arendt […] Due to their respective Jewish and Jewish-Polish origins, their gender (which they hardly ever mentioned and when they did, only in private) and the prevailing historical-political situation, both women were strangers in a world whose imposing list of identifications they flatly refused.” As a Jewish woman who has grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, I can’t help but to recognize the importance of remembering this history.  As Stewart writes, “Rather than focus on the means of ‘forgetting’, ‘obliterating’, and ‘downplaying’ the past’ I focus on the ways in which, despite Gypsy ‘presentist’ rhetoric, the past is ‘remembered’ among Gypsy populations.” Until now, I have never understood the struggle for those who it so closely surrounds to be able to escape this history in order to be recognized as more than it.


Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Talia Silverstein is a rising sophomore from Port Washington, NY. She is planning on majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and double minoring in Political Science and Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She is passionate about her photography, drawing, and poetry. During her time at CC, she hopes to have more opportunities like this class that allow her to travel, explore, and participate in hands on learning. While in Berlin, she plans on getting lost as much as possible unless it makes her late to class.

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The “Alternative City” Tour

By Blaise Yafcak

Boros

Boros Bunker

On Friday afternoon, we met Rob, the tour guide, at the Brandenburg Gate and embarked on an “Alternative City” tour of Berlin. Rob started us off with a brief history of Berlin. He told us that the Berlin Wall went up around West Berlin and that the mayor wanted people to move to West Berlin because the city was poor. So, the mayor enacted a law eliminating national service if you lived in West Berlin, which attracted “the punks and artists.” After the wall came down, many people moved from the West to the East because it was cheaper to live in the latter.

Stencil Art

XOOOOX Stencil Art at Boros Bunker

After this introduction, we got on the U-Bahn and began our tour of street art and gentrification. We began in the neighborhood of Mitte, a “punky” neighborhood, according to our tour guide. The first building we looked at was one that had been a Nazi air raid shelter during World War II. The bunker then became a make-shift prison during the time of de-Nazification, and then ended up in the East when the wall went up. The building was then used as a storage facility for dried and exotic fruit, primarily bananas. The building changed hands many times, and eventually, many years later, it was rented out for techno parties—patrons of the club said that the building still smelled of bananas. About ten years ago, a man named Christian Boros purchased the bunker, built his house on the roof, and used the bunker to house his personal art collection. Visitors can now come and view Boros’ art collection in the old bunker.On the outside walls of the bunker, we got our first introduction to Berlin street art. According to Rob, Berlin was a breeding ground for street art since the city boasted the longest wall in the world (actually, the Great Wall of China measured over 5,000 miles in length, while the Berlin Wall was only about 70 miles). Nonetheless, Berlin does have quite the collection of street art or “guerrilla” art, as Rob called it. One prominent artist, Mr. Six, has taken it upon himself to paint yellow sixes on the corners of as many buildings as he can. There were many theories as to why he painted the number six: six means failing in the German school system, so he may paint the number on broken down buildings that are failing; six also sounds a bit like sex (haha!). However, Mr. Six finally provided an explanation as to why he has chosen the number six—he wants to make the internet faster. As of now, Mr. Six has painted over three quarters of a million sixes on buildings, and has been arrested over seven hundred times.

Astronaut

Astronaut / Cosmonaut by Victor Ash in Kreuzberg

Rob then showed us what gentrification looks like in Berlin in the form of a small courtyard in the center of a building filled with cafes and shops and a small park. He took this chance to briefly explain some of Berlin’s laws: in Berlin, if you occupy a building for more than three months, you own said building; prostitution legal here; and when it’s hot, Berliners head to parks in East Berlin and take all their clothes off. It was unclear whether this was truly legal or not, much like smoking in public spaces. Apparently, there is a ban on smoking in outdoor restaurants and similar spaces; however, such places still provide ashtrays at tables, and it’s hard to sit outside and not get a face full of smoke from the Berliner sitting at the next table over. Street art is also illegal in Berlin. There is a maximum penalty of three years in prison for creating street art, but more likely, the artists are simply fined and ordered to remove the art. There is an anti-street art team comprised of 21 individuals who go around the city and paint over street art. However, they paint over the art in random colors that do not match the original color of the building, making a convenient frame for the next batch of street art.

Rob then introduced us to the “stumbling stones.” These are small bronze colored stones set in the cobblestones in front of buildings. The stones were created in the 1990s by an artist named Gunter Demnig as a way to commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Demnig believes that a person is only forgotten once their name is forgotten, so these stones are ways of keeping the names alive. The stones are placed in the ground outside of houses where victims of the Holocaust resided, and state their name and brief information about when the person lived in the building.

Babies

Street Art by BLU

We then moved on to the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, where we saw more street art, including a large painted astronaut and BLU’s mural of a baby made of babies eating a baby. Apparently, the latter is meant to represent the world coming together, but it looks more sinister than that.

The tour finished at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall, located just over the river on the East side of Berlin. This portion of the wall is heavily decorated, as artists were invited to come decorate the wall and are still doing so. The art changes every few months, and is currently quite colorful. We, then, got some ice cream after our 3.5 hour tour, and then headed home to rest.

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Blaise IIIBlaise is a rising senior at Colorado College studying Biology and Feminist and Gender Studies. She likes road trips, coffee, and Harry Potter.