Berlin: Ghosts of Christmas Past

18 December 2012
11:00 PM
Berlin, Germany

In the depths of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

In the depths of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

My Dear Piece of Home,

I like Berlin. The architecture is grandiose without the frills of excess, stately in its simplicity.

But everyone who walks through Berlin is struck time and time again by a ghost the city cannot exorcise. A ghost the city consciously decides not to forget, lest it resurrect said ghost from beyond the grave.

In the present day, we can appreciate the greatness of Prussia: its architectural legacy of copper neoclassical domes (made green like the statue of liberty with time), its impressive leadership and expansion, its vibrant culture…

The iconic Brandenburg Gate.

The iconic Brandenburg Gate.

Berliner Dom by the River Spree.

Berliner Dom by the River Spree.

But after the Second World War, the legacy of Prussia was inextricable from militarism. Prussia became the hated father whose blood gave life to an even more hated son: Nazis Germany. And thus traces of Prussia were eradicated by those who came to occupy Berlin after Germany’s defeat. The Soviets completely destroyed the grand Prussian palace, save for one sliver of a balcony face from which Germany was declared a socialist state.

Most of our day was consumed by a free, tip-based walking tour of Berlin. I was completely unprepared to find myself walking alongside the Berlin Wall, staring at the former headquarters of the Third Reich Luftwaffe-turned tax building, navigating through a powerful Holocaust memorial maze, and standing above the Führerbunker where Hitler killed himself with cyanide and a bullet. While marveling at the grand Prussian opera house and beautiful building-turned Humboldt University Law School, our reverie was interrupted by a plaque marking the book burning which happened right in the very same square.

We toss around “Hitler” and “Nazi” without too much of a second thought, I’ve been reading about the occupation of Berlin in my LSE International History of the Cold War Courses… but… today in Berlin I felt these histories to be freshly alive and yet not the character of Germany today. You cannot walk a block in the center of Berlin without walking past a memorial to those who died, those who were killed, those who willingly gave their lives, those who suffered, those who were defeated, those who fought for a better future, or for those intangible things which were lost.

The Neue Wache (the New Guard House) which became the catch-all memorial for all those who suffered in the 20th century. After a war or a new occupying power passed through Berlin, this memorial would be dedicated to another group of victims... until eventually it collectively represented all those who suffered in the conflicts of the 20th century.

The Neue Wache (the New Guard House) which became the catch-all memorial for all those who suffered in the 20th century. After a war or a new occupying power passed through Berlin, this memorial would be dedicated to another group of victims… until eventually it collectively represented all those who suffered in the conflicts of the 20th century.

The ghosts of Nazi Germany seem, like Mercutio’s ghost, to be just “a little way over our heads.” But that is not to say that these ghosts orchestrate the activities of Berlin any longer. Germany seems determined to remember—not to revive and not to repeat. In the gray of the day and the gray of the buildings, my friends and I have had a wonderful winter experience. Despite the cold, we warmed ourselves with a meal of currywurst and fries at Konnokpe’s Imbiss under an overpass bridge. For the first time all eight girls in our group were together, sharing a warm meal and laughing loudly.

Currywurst and fries. Looks like the Germans have mayo with their fries as well.

Currywurst and fries. Looks like the Germans have mayo with their fries as well.

After dinner we enjoyed ourselves at the Christmas market in Alexanderplatz (Berlin has many Christmas markets). Wooden stalls lined with evergreen and Christmas lights while classic Christmas tunes jingled in the background (“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…”) First order of business was mulled wine, or glühwein. Think of vin chaud, hot wine, but much smoother, less fruity, and with a slight sugary sweetness. Warm, smooth, and absolutely delicious. We complemented our warm wine with roasted chestnuts and various combinations of powdered sugar donuts, crêpes, and waffles.

Glühwein in a Christmas Market Mug. At Alexanderplatz Christmas Market.

Glühwein in a Christmas Market Mug. At Alexanderplatz Christmas Market.

A "Berliner": powdered jelly doughnut. At Alexanderplatz Christmas market.

A “Berliner”: powdered jelly doughnut. At Alexanderplatz Christmas market.

We ended our day with our stomachs and hearts filled with the warmth of food, good company, and the welcoming hospitality of Berliners. I do hope that Berlin will continue in the forward direction of remembrance—harnessing the power of what is past to educate our progeny and build anew–instead of being chained down by legacy to regret, or worse, to repeat.

Tomorrow we’re off on an early start to our second day in Berlin.

Gute nacht.

Love,

JJS

PS Did I say Berlin wasn’t cold? Today I had to wear three pairs of socks and my feet were still a bit chilly…

5 responses to “Berlin: Ghosts of Christmas Past

    • Really wish you were here!! Yes the gluhwein was sooo goood. I’m beginning to understand why cultures in cold countries love their alcohol. Miss you 😦

    • Indeed! Looks like I should have found your site before coming to Berlin. It looks fantastic! Hopefully I’ll be able to consult it the next time I get to go to Berlin! Happy Christmas!

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