From Potsdamer Platz we walked through the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which is a controversial structure in terms of both concept and design – controversial mostly because no one really understands it.
The monument is composed of two thousand seven hundred and eleven rectangular concrete blocks laid out in a grid formation. No explanations, no names and no dedications, a sort of graveyard full of stones without inscriptions. I suppose it might be conceived as a memorial to lost people.
According to the architect the blocks are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly once orderly system that momentarily lost touch with human reason.
Several people have had a shot at trying to provide a more definitive explanation but I find none of them absolutely convincing. Personally I found the memorial rather bizarre and difficult to comprehend but I suppose it is a memorial to a period in history that is impossible to comprehend. Perhaps then that is exactly the point of it, we look at it and wonder ‘how on earth did that happen?’
To my mind a completely pointless memorial and a waste of valuable commercial urban space, much better to erect a vertical column and rent off the land and send the profits to the families who suffered because of the Holocaust.
From the Memorial it was just a short stroll to the Brandenburg Gate which is without doubt the most iconic symbol of Berlin. I found it a rather underwhelming, I was expecting something like the the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but I have to say that at only half the height it is nowhere near as impressive. So we walked a while along the Unter den Linden, a wide leafy boulevard and one of the most famous streets in Berlin and after a drink at a pavement café returned to the gate passing the uneasy neighbours of the Russian and the American Embassy buildings and crossed a busy road into Berlin’s premier park and green space, The Tiergarten.
I confess that by this time that I was becoming disappointed with Berlin and I suddenly realised why this was. Berlin has no history. The entire city by necessity is modern, it has only been rebuilt over the last seventy-five years so is quite contemporary and lacks charm. There are no grand palaces, cathedrals, stately homes or castles because they have all been swept away. Even the trams are brand-spanking new. A lot of central and eastern European cities continue to preserve fifty year old vehicles but not so in Berlin.
It is as though Germany doesn’t want to recognise its short and unhappy history which after all has included a belligerent monarchy, a failed republic and a totalitarian dictator. Not really surprising then that Germany looks mostly to the future. In 2003 in a television poll German viewers bypassed Otto Von Bismarck and voted post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as the greatest German of all time. Hands up anyone who has heard of Konrad Adenauer? It would be like voting John major as the Greatest Briton. Reformation Monk Martin Luther came second, with communist philosopher Karl Marx third.
So we walked now past the Reichstag which is perhaps the grandest building in all of Berlin and then west through the Tiergarten which was once a forest but it was cut down for firewood during the immediate post war period and has now been replanted as a very fine public park.
Another feature that I noticed that makes Berlin stand out against other grand European cities is that it has very few statues; it is that history thing again, Berlin can’t very well have statues of Kaiser Wilhelm II or Adolf Hitler because they were both responsible for unleashing hell in Europe. I understand that there is a statue of the greatest German, Konrad Adenauer but this is some way out of the city centre and we didn’t get to see it. It seems that they are not so proud of him either.
Midway along the Tiergarten we did eventually come across a famous monument, the Berlin Victory Column, commissioned in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War and later dedicated also to victory in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. It is indeed a grand column that soars into the sky and at the very top stands a golden statue of the Roman God Victory.
Nearby we found a statue of a man that I was expecting to find – Otto Von Bismarck, the architect of modern Germany who was responsible for the creation of the country in 1871 following the defeat of France in a short-sharp war, the sort of quick victory Germany expected again in 1914. The sort of victory, it has to be said, that Great Britain also anticipated. A grand statue but not on prominent display but instead tucked discreetly inside a corner of the Tiergarten adjacent to the Victory Column.
I would have really expected Bismarck to have been voted the ‘Greatest German’ but it seems that for many he is too closely associated with establishing a Teutonic military regime based on Prussian aggression which led directly to two European villains, two World Wars and the biggest battleship ever in the German Navy.
After walking the entire length of the Tiergarten we returned by a different path and made our way back to Alexanderplatz where we finished our thirteen mike walk with a well earned beer close to our hotel.
Even after all that walking Richard still had the strength to fetch the beers…