The Berlin story

As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.



One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

Explore posts in the same categories: history, photography


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6 Comments on “The Berlin story”

  1. V.H Says:

    Lovely photos.
    Me, I’d crop the doorway to near the frame of the door on the left and to the panel on the right. The railing isn’t really saying anything nor is the tree. But I really like the juxtaposition of the church and the spire behind it. And isn’t there a building in Brussels very much like that cathedral.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    If you believe the Report which looks at cultural indicators in 12 of the world’s largest metro areas you have:
    Highest number of national museums: Shanghai (27); Paris (24); Berlin (18)
    Highest number of other museums: London (162); Berlin (140); New York (126)
    In any case, yes these pictures tell Berlin’s story, none better than the Brandenburg Gate one, the most recognisable landmark, I particularly like the reflection of the columns on the pavement and the dark cloud, still heavy with rain..this is really when B&W photography is at its most dramatic.
    I also like the Reichstag one for its old print almost romantic (in the German tradition of the concept) allure…
    Like V.H. I would have also cropped the last one, leaving a bit of the railing though, it is not true that it is not saying anything, it echoes the arch, the main design feature of the door..
    History never ends until it is done.

  3. James Says:

    Beautiful photos as usual and very informative too! I’m an Irish PhD student who has the good fortune to currently be living in Berlin, so these sites are very familiar to me but I must admit to not knowing their history so well.

    I’m sure you are aware of the extraordinary weight of history that falls on that date, 9 November. 9 November 1988 was the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 65th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, the 70th anniversary of the transition from the 2nd Reich to the Weimar Republic and of course the “fall” of the wall followed exactly one year later.

    You might also be interested in the city’s plans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mauerfall this year:

  4. Eddie Says:

    Berlin has been one of my favourite cities. It is good that there is frequent Air Berlin service from Stanstead airport to Berlin now. I visited the divided city, went through the Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin in 1977. It was the time to see the Brandenberg Gate, and some of the landmarks in the then West and East Berlins. The Reichstag was then crying to be visited and to be recognised as the capital then was Bonn.

    Then I had the opportunity to present a paper in a conference in the Technical University of Dresden (TUD). I wanted visit the places that Len Deighton wrote in his “The Funeral in Berlin” novel and John Le Carre’s ” The Spy Who came From the Cold” novel.

    The atmosphere in West Berlin then was palpable with having a hostile neighbour nearby. I would not say from my experience that the Est Berliners or my colleagues at the TUD in general were unhappy. They had a high standard of education, and Dr Merkel, then a high caiibre nuclear scientist was an example

    The shift of the capital to Berlin meant these landmarks acquired new significance. The City is worth a long visit to see them as well as the new landmark like Berlin Central Station

    A visit to the Technical University of Berlin (TUB) (from where one can see the Reichstag) and Humboldt University is well worth it if an opportunity arrives for attending a conference/ a meeting to savour the importance of this city in another angle; the emergence of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (the Strathcyde U has a copy of its constituent unit) and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ( one scientist in this cluster has won the Nobel Prize recently) signifies the new stride Germany has taken.

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