Stories of Berlin

01:24, Jan 21 2014

As I've mentioned before, I am - and always have been - a nerd.

Whereas when I was younger, I wanted to distance myself from that (then) most nose-wrinkling of adjectives, bookish. Now I've learned to embrace it.

(I come in handy at a pub quiz).

So visiting the city of Berlin - with Marx's words "whoever possesses Berlin possesses Germany, and whoever controls Germany controls Europe" ringing in my dorky ears - has always been high on my European to-do.

But rather than just running through everything I learned in fifth form, I was reminded during my time there that while it's easy to flit aimlessly from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, a city is made more interesting by the stories you hear.

Even the spots swarmed by fellow Canon-toting loopys take on greater meaning: I left Berlin seeing Pariser Platz, for instance, as a succession of "up yours".


Take the horse-led chariot atop Berlin's famous gate.

After successfully storming the city in the early 1800s, Napoleon took a bit of a shine, pinched it and carted it back to Paris. A few years later, the Prussians defeated the French and returned it to Berlin, this time changing its design to include the iron cross as a symbol of Prussian dominance, and changing the goddess from the goddess of peace to the goddess of victory.

Then there's the rather pointed placement of both the French and American embassies in Pariser Platz: if that's not a big two-fingered salute, I don't know what is.

Standing in front of Humboldt University, you'd obviously take a look at the memorial commemorating the infamous book-burning by the Nazis. But you probably wouldn't know that, at the outbreak of World War II, Berlin was the home of some of the most celebrated thinkers of Europe - at the time, there were more German Nobel laureates than from any other country.

If you visited the former site of the Reichstag, a crumbling section of the wall still lining the street, you might do so not knowing the story of 18-year-old Peter Fechter.

He and a friend discovered a building in the middle of the city, which backed onto the "death strip", the fortified inner wall, and they decided to make a break for it - in broad daylight.

His friend made it over; he did not. He became entangled in the barbed wire atop the wall, and after being shot fell onto the ground on the East German side. He lay in agony for over an hour, his screams attracting a huge crowd of people on the other side of the wall, before he bled to death.

When a soldier picked up his lifeless body and carried him back to East Berlin, he was followed by the futile jeers of those who had been unable to help.

The Holocaust memorial, officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, was made all the more poignant when thinking about the meaning behind the irregular slabs of concrete jutting out of the ground and pointing towards the sky.

Walking through them oftentimes felt oppressive; looking at the subtle differences in their shapes and size made me think of the individuality of every person they represented, despite the brutality of a regime that saw them as a uniform menace.

The higgledy-piggledy building on a nondescript street in Kreuzberg might look like . . . well, at best, a mish-mash of building materials tacked together [cabinet doors, laminate flooring] or, at worst, an eyesore.

During the construction of the Wall, to save money, the East German authorities ignored a bend in the border, leaving behind a small slice of land. A Turkish immigrant named Osman Kalin saw the patch of land become a bit of a tip; he decided to turn it into a garden, and made himself cosy, building the tree-house across from his apartment as, maybe, the German version of a man shed.

The East Germans allowed it - he was a victim of capitalism, unable to provide for his family without having to resort to growing his own veg, after all; the West Germans couldn't do anything about it as it was outside their jurisdiction.

After reunification, though, the new government wanted to use the land to build a road - tree-house be damned.

But Mr Kalin wouldn't budge.

He cemented everything - even the outdoor furniture - to the ground. It turned out the land actually belonged to a nearby Church, which meant nothing could be demolished without its consent.

The treehouse and garden are still there. So's the cement.

The small brass plaques that dot the city's footpaths are engraved with the names of the former residents of each building, victims of the Nazis.

The plaques were inlaid into the ground, so that in order to view them, you have to bow your head.

Berlin is a city of huge historical importance.

Its stories say so.

Images: Top: Alana Dixon in Berlin. For more images click here

The Southland Times