Berlin is possibly one of Europe’s most intriguing cities. A city that, in the last one hundred years alone, has seen Europe’s most aggressive dictator, been divided in four and had an attempted communist takeover, but a city that today is at the heart of the shared European marketplace as the capital of Europe’s richest and most powerful nation.
Berlin’s mayor described the city as ‘poor but sexy’. Germany’s capital doesn’t have the financial clout of London or Frankfurt, nor the romantic connotations of Rome and Paris, but today it can be labelled as progressive, vibrant and international. The city’s multicultural vibe is mirrored by its eclectic mix of architecture. From the modern Fernsehturm (TV tower) to the Victory Column built to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War, every building in Berlin looks as though it has a fascinating story to tell. The city is not just architecturally rich; Berlin’s importance in modern history is reflected in its rich literary history, too. Modern classics like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, which tells the breathtaking story of one man’s resistance to the Nazis, and Christopher Isherwood’s fictionalised autobiography Goodbye to Berlin, are among many worth mentioning.
Young people are undoubtedly at the heart of this bustling city today. Berlin’s refreshingly liberal atmosphere and variety of cultural attractions mean it is largely considered one of the best cities in the world for students. With 85,000 of them and far cheaper rent than other major European cities, Berlin certainly has a lot to offer. When I visited Berlin I was lucky enough to experience the city’s nightlife, which continues well into the early hours of the morning, just as another demographic of the city heads out to work. On the last night I was there we headed out to a club called Cookies (the vegetarian restaurant upstairs is called Cream) which had a tech house dance floor and a reggae room, and a mini chapel where you can ‘marry’ your friends. Upon leaving the club we bundled onto Unter den Linden to see the Brandenburg Gate in its full glory at five o’clock in the morning. It is difficult to explain the profound effect this experience had on all of us; seeing the city’s most famous tourist attraction deserted, illuminated by white light, standing there so peacefully. The gate is an eternal symbol of Berlin: from Napoleon to Hitler to Kennedy’s ‘I am a Berliner’, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has witnessed some of the most significant events in modern history.
The essence of Berlin is encapsulated in the awe-inspiring Holocaust Memorial in the city centre, a 4.7 acre stone monument designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold. The monument was designed not to remember a specific event in particular, but rather to recall the horrors of genocide as a whole. It consists of almost three thousand grey concrete blocks and has become a part of Berlin’s collective memory. The monument connects the former East German apartment blocks with the former West German Tiergarten. It therefore not only represents a link between the past and the present but also a more tangible link of the two formerly divided city halves. It serves an intriguing double-purpose: it commemorates the past and at the same time is a symbol of a united, diverse and penitent Berlin, or in a wider sense Germany as a whole.
It would be impossible for a city that has seen so much horror in the past century not to be scarred by its history, particularly when for so many it is within living memory. I stayed on the outskirts of the city with a lady in her sixties, who became upset when talking about the Berlin Wall and the effects it had on her life. Her mother lived in the east of Berlin while she remained in the west, and when access was blocked completely between the two sides she did not see her mother for years. These experiences haunt the city and while the events of the twenty-first century are still remembered by those alive today, Berlin will retain the scars of a past age.