Mein Herr

Fayes T Kantawala went to Berlin and felt the darkness of history

Mein Herr
Given that I lost and found my wallet within a few hours of landing in Stockholm, I was grateful when the rest of my time in that city passed fairly uneventfully. It’s a calm place: sweet, placid, cozy and comfortable. The city is filled with beautifully designed coffee houses and pubs, all welcome respites from the cold autumnal breezes one can already feel in the streets. It being late September, with kids back in school and tourists back at work, I found myself the only person at places like the Museum of the Antiquities. Like everything else in Stockholm, it was modest but inviting. I went to more museums (shipwrecks and meatballs are big crowd-pleasers) and after three days meandering around the cobble-stone streets and glittering waterfronts, the city confirmed what so many people have told me about Scandinavian towns, which is that they are best experienced by hanging around rather than powering through a list of sights.

Incidentally, this was the exact same advice that I had been given about Berlin, my next destination. I’d never been to Berlin before, mostly by choice. The city was a confluence of so many different things in my mind - and indeed in the popular imagination of the world at large - that it always seemed too hardcore a place to visit just for a weekend. The Prussian Empire, World War One, the cabaret-loving 20s, the Nazis, World War II, the Holocaust, the division of Germany, the Cold War, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Reunification, Immigration. And that’s Berlin’s baggage from just the last century.

Berlin, 1920s

Since the 1990s Berlin’s reputation has shifted from Hollywood villain-central to being an inclusive, progressive capital. A sort of gritty alternative to the rest of frosted Western Europe. Here you’ll find world-class museums and cutting-edge art galleries competing for attention with an infamously dark nightlife. My favorite part of Berlin’s modern history came from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin trilogy set in the 1920s — indeed, it was a vestige of this light, bubbly permissive decade I was hoping to find on my visit here.

I was staying in Mitte, which is close to the center of town, and after dropping my bags off I took a long walk around to situate myself. Be warned, Berlin is not a pretty city. It’s just not. There are few of the decorative balconies, romantic bridges and cobblestone streets that make up other Euro capitals. Most of that was bombed away during the wars and in its place rose utilitarian buildings and communist architecture, the kind of Brutalist structures that look like depression cast in concrete. The streets are wide but often empty no matter the time (the exception to this are some of the touristy places). Walk through block after empty block and you might eventually come across a packed bar or restaurant filled with laughter and music, and then it all becomes silent again.

I took lots of walks around the city and during all of them I felt a palpable heaviness. Maybe I was projecting my own assumptions onto the place, but, you know, I don’t think so. The city has a weight to it. You can feel it, the greyness, the history of the city - of the German nation, really -  enshrined on every road, on every building, in every neighborhood. It weighs down on you as you walk past an older building and suddenly chance on a brass placard outside with the names of Jewish residents who were sent to death camps. It startles you as you buy coffee and look up to see a sign next to the remnants of the Berlin Wall marking the place where dozens were shot dead trying to cross it. Its darkness can weigh on you as you scour the landscape to find something, anything, from before the mid-twentieth century but to no avail. Even the street lights are somehow severe.
You walk past an older building and suddenly chance on a brass placard with the names of Jewish residents who were sent to death camps

Most early art historians were German, and the result is that the national museums boast some of the best examples of classical antiquities in the world. I went to the Pergamon Museum, famous for its  assembled recreations of classical structures. There you will find the soaring blue Gates of Ishtar from ancient Babylon, and a thirty-foot high marketplace entrance from Roman times. Sadly, vast portions of the museum are closed for renovation through 2019, including much of its Greek galleries and very excellent Islamic wing, but it’s a nice way to pass the grey afternoons.

I also went to the Topography of Terror, a free museum built on the remains of the Nazi SS wing headquarters that is about as terrifying an experience as its name suggests. (It also has some of the last remaining fragments of the Wall.) The museum essentially documents the rise of the Nazi party and the crimes of the German state during WW2. It illustrates in exacting, lucid, unflinching detail the rise-to-power of the Nazis, how the country’s institutional safeguards were dismantled to make way for the horrors that were going to unfold. It is a harrowing experience to read about, particularly in the ghost of the building where it all began, not least because so many of those tactics seem so familiar to modern-day politics around the globe.

There are of course some wonderful, lively places in the city that don’t revolve around genocide and death. Warm-scented beer gardens, chic designer shops nestled in the graffitied alleyways behind apartment buildings, sprawling arthouse cinemas next to handsome garden promenades. I have some friends in Berlin and with them I was able to see some of the cozier places you’d only go to with locals. They too were quick to agree that the city is best discovered over time. And I agree, because Time is the one thing that you keep finding — in not always pleasant ways — in that city.

Write to