Feb 2, 2009

Travel - Berlin;A walk under the lime trees


Strolling down one unique boulevard you can discover Berlin’s dramatic and turbulent history, both ancient and contemporary.

p>As we stroll beneath the lime trees, the bullet marks on granite walls are only one of the many symbols we encounter of the hate, hurt and destruction that plagued this beautiful city…


Photo: Ennapadam S. Krishnamoorthy

Majestic: The Dom through the lime trees.

An afternoon stolen unexpectedly from a medical conference that ended early sets me free in one of the most exciting cities in the world — Berlin! A city with a dramatic history, both ancient and contemporary, like no other! I am therefore deli ghted to see a brochure that advertises the Berlin walks; a number of guided walking tours, themed to tickle your particular passions. I choose “Discover Berlin” and am soon en route to Hackescher Markt, formerly a poverty-stricken area that attracted the dredges of society, now a rather romantic avant garde district, with a number of attractive pubs, cafes and restaurants. Our walk begins at 3 p.m., as several of us from around the world link up with our guide outside the underground station: a charming lady with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Berlin, a city she clearly loves passionately, and we soon find out why.

The earliest recorded settlement in the swamp that was to become Berlin was in the 13th century. Many a tribe settled here from then on and over the centuries Berlin became a major hub of trade, linked as it was through a range of waterways that crisscross Europe. It was the Prussian empire which, by conquering much of northeastern Europe and making Berlin its capital, laid the foundation for this great city becoming the centre of Europe. This distinction it held until the 19th century, and briefly regained again in the 20th, only to become notorious as the centre for Hitler’s axis of evil. There are many structures in Berlin that speak of its hoary past; the great dome of the cathedral (the Dom), known to be the largest protestant church in Germany and among the largest in Europe; the palaces of the Prussian kings, now museums of great beauty and importance; and of course the Brandenburg gate, built as a symbol of peace, and transformed over centuries into a symbol of victory, exemplifying rather ironically the city’s history of violent tribulations.

Walk through history

The unique nature of historic Berlin is that one only has to walk down a single boulevard to capture its vast essence. Not London, nor New York, Rome, Athens, Tokyo or Delhi offers one this unique privilege. So how does one capture the essence of historic Berlin by walking down one street? The street I am referring to is not any ordinary street. Unter den Linden (Under the Lime Trees) is a four-lane boulevard with space for at least three more lanes flanking it on both sides; a very wide street indeed. The street has running down its middle and in many places on either side, beautiful lime trees with leaves in a profusion of colours: green, yellow, gold, and burnished copper, depending on the tree, and on the season. The trees that currently flank this boulevard are not old at all, having been planted in the 1950s, in the post-war years, after the original trees were destroyed either by bombing or cutting down for firewood during the harsh war winters. “Why the lime tree?” I ask our guide, and understand from her reaction that I have succeeded in putting the proverbial foot in my mouth. The colours, of course, and the smell of freshness in the air, in spring, are just some of the several virtues of the “linden” that she goes on to extol.

We enter this majestic boulevard near the Dom, which can be spotted for miles and from the top of which, one can, even today, enjoy a majestic view of the city. We walk past the beautiful park that it faces and that it shares with the National Museum of Art. Across the boulevard from these two beautiful ancient structures, we spot four ugly concrete columns, the remnants of an East German office block, and a reminder of those sordid post-war years when Berlin was split into two with a larger “East” encircling a smaller “West”. The Red Army’s attempt to bring about boring ubiquity is also preserved through an adjacent, decidedly ugly, 1960s office block, the centrepiece of which is a beautiful and ancient balcony from which the Prussian Kings and later the Fuhrer would greet the populace. As we stroll beneath the lime trees, the bullet marks on granite walls are only one of the many symbols we encounter of the hate, hurt and destruction that plagued this beautiful city for three quarters of a century. The pathos of destruction is also depicted in the elegant yet simple memorial to lost lives that the Federal Republic of Germany has established to honour the victims of war and tyranny, the “Neue Wache”. Set in an unpretentious atrium with a circular opening on the roof that allows access to the natural elements, the beautiful bronze sculpture of a mother brooding over her child is powerful symbolism indeed, epitomising a particularly dark period in modern history. Less is indeed sometimes more!

We stroll past the famed Humbolt University where the Brothers Grimm and Karl Marx were educated and where Max Plank and Albert Einstein taught before the Second World War. That this university remains, even today, a hotbed of intellectual thought is revealed by the profusion of literature displayed for sale outside. The university, housed in a former royal palace, is not by any means the oldest in Germany; it, however, has the distinction of being the first to open its doors to people from across the social spectrum, making education free to all, a truly “public” enterprise as early as the 19th century. Facing the university on the other side of the boulevard is the famous square, home of the infamous bonfire in the 1970s, in which many thousand valuable books were destroyed, part of the intellectual oppression perpetuated by the East German Government in the post-war years. The square faces the National Library the façade of which is now being painstakingly restored. At its centre, on the floor, is a Perspex Glass square, through which one can spot underground a well lit library, with empty bookshelves, testimony to the belief (in rough translation) “you may burn our books, but the knowledge they communicate lives with us forever”— yet another example of quietly powerful symbolism.

We pass the Russian embassy with its ornate door, and chance upon another unique vestige of modern history, of spies, of intrigue, and of daring escapes from East German oppression. The division of Berlin after the war had led to a peculiar situation, where many underground stations in the East had to be crossed by those who were travelling to different parts of West Berlin, on the underground trains. To enable such travel by West Germans, without the risk of its citizens escaping to the West, the East German Government closed access to many stations, allowing the trains to pass through without stopping, creating many ghost stations, the staple diet of spy stories. The Unter Den Linden underground station inaugurated by Hitler for the Berlin Olympics is one of the many such “ghost stations” that dotted East Berlin in the post-war years. The station which now functions like any other is preserved well, just as it was over 50 years ago.

An era of grace

As we approach the end of this majestic boulevard, we spot the Hotel Adlon, now the Adlon Kempinski, lovingly restored to its former glory. As we stop to catch our breath on the benches that dot this square, I close my eyes and am transported to another era of grace and majesty, when the hotel received Prussian royalty as guests; of Hitler and his companion Eva being escorted out after a regimental ball; of German and Russian soldiers goose-stepping past, in parade; of glamour, glory, grace and colour with few parallels. I also meditate on the tremendous sorrow that every stone and wall here echoes: the evil that the Third Reich perpetuated as it attempted to conquer the world; of lives lost unnecessarily, merely to satiate the ego of war mongers over centuries; of the Allied bombings that destroyed the very city they were liberating; of untold suffering that humanity in this region witnessed for a century, until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gripped by this tapestry of events in modern history, both ugly and beautiful, I marvel at the resilience of the human race, symbolised by the magnificent redevelopment of this modern world city.

Our walk “Unter den Linden” ends at the Brandenburg gate, a lively and resonating square with a range of colourful activities that symbolise current German consciousness; one that is culturally open, environmentally aware; filled with sensitivity and humanistic empathy. Beyond it are more lime trees, and the Reichstag, the modern glass walled German Parliament building designed by the British architect Norman Foster. Beyond it also, on the street, is a pattern of stones, depicting the course of the Berlin Wall, one of modern history’s most powerful symbols of human oppression. As our walk continues in an exploration beyond the lime trees, through the modern tombstone memorial to the suffering of the Jews, to Checkpoint Charlie, I find myself hoping and praying that history of this kind, does not, ever, repeat itself.

The writer is senior consultant, The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS, Chennai.

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