Monday 4 November 2013
After visiting Kreuzberg and the East Side Gallery last time, Alec decided to further explore the more conventional sights of central Berlin. He had found over the years that historic and cultural buildings tend, in general, to be found in old East Berlin while the best hotels, restaurants and shops are generally in the old West. The two parts are separated by the Tiergarten, a large, wooded park, but linked by an S-bahn line between Zoo Station (Zoologischer Garten) and Berlin Main Station (Hauptbahnhof) and beyond in both directions.
Intent on renewing his acquaintance with some of the main sights of eastern Berlin, Alec set off on foot westwards through the fashionable boutiques of Hackeschermarkt and past Monbijou Park, stopping first outside the New Synagogue in Oranienburgerstraße. The striking Moorish-style building, opened by Bismarck in 1866, was damaged during the Nazi era and Second World War, but survived and is today home to a thriving Jewish congregation.
Until services stopped in 1940, the Synagogue saw service by famous rabbis and cantors including Louis Lewandowski, Abraham Geiger, Alfred Jospe, Ignaz Maybaum, and Moshe Nussbaum. Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi worldwide, lectured there. Today the Synagogue’s golden dome can be seen across large parts of central Berlin. Depressingly, it is felt necessary to protect the building with robust bollards on the pavement outside.
Not much further on, Alec arrived at the Tacheles Art House. The Tacheles was built in the early 20th century as a department store, but after the First World War had a varied and murky history, gradually falling into dereliction as short-term users moved in and out under both Nazi and Communist regimes. The former used it for a while as a prison.
After reunification in 1990 the building was taken over until 2012 by a colony of artists, and their presence was still evident when Alec visited in 2013, even though the owners (a bank) had plans for demolition and large-scale redevelopment of the site and surrounding vacant land, now well under way.
Passing by on an earlier visit in 2011 Alec had been caught up in a demonstration to save the building as an Art House. “Berlin is not for Sale” declared leaflets handed out by the demonstrators. There was to be music by performers including Dr Motte, Mz Sunday Luv and Kolnik Polny, among others. Invited speakers included Klaus Wowereit, Social Democrat Mayor of Berlin between 2001 and 2014, and Renate Künast, a leading Green politician. Whether they accepted the invitations Alec never found out, but if they did their support evidently had limited success.
On a few subsequent occasions while Tacheles was still standing Alec poked around inside to see if he could find anything to buy, but decided, unfairly perhaps, that it was all tat. The paintings on the exterior walls, he thought, were graffiti, not art, in contrast to what he had found at the East Side Gallery. But Tacheles shared with the Gallery the distinction of an appearance in the film “Good Bye, Lenin.”
Though the Tacheles Art House is no more, many of Berlin’s dozens of smaller but better-established galleries are to be found in the same neighbourhood in Mitte, for example in streets like Linienstraße. Alec found them well worth a visit, though in the end, when he bought a souvenir painting of the city, it was from a dealer in Schönhauser Allee, a bustling suburban main street some distance away in Prenzlauer Berg.
Rounding the corner from Tacheles, Alec entered Friedrichstraße, one of Berlin’s main and most bustling thoroughfares – a sort of Oxford Street of shops, places of entertainment and rail stations.
Not far down the street stands the Friedrichstadt Palast, an old-fashioned music hall still popular with Berliners and visitors for its traditional live entertainment. The Palast, like the Tacheles, is another institution with a chequered 20th century history to match the city’s and has occupied more than one site in the vicinity since it was opened in the 19th century to stage its theatrical performances, vaudeville, and circuses. Today it is owned by the city-region of Berlin and claims to be the largest of its type in Europe.
The Friedrichstadt Palast’s rival, the Admirals Palast, dating from 1910, is also to be found on Friedrichstraße, some 10-15 minutes’ walk away.
Set back from the main street, and easily missed, is a theatre of a very different sort. The Theater am Shiffbauerdamm is home to the Berliner Ensemble and will forever be associated with the famous 20th century dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Brecht (1898-1956), a Marxist, was the author of well-known plays which are still popular and frequently performed, such as Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Threepenny Opera with the composer Kurt Weill. He founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949.
Another so-called palace, but an immensely sad one – the Palace of Tears – lies just across the River Spree from the Berliner Ensemble and, next to Friedrichstraße Station and across Friedrichstraße from the Admirals Palast. It was here, after the erection of the Berlin Wall, that passengers allowed to travel from east to west on the S-bahn had their papers checked and said their tearful farewells to families, not knowing when, if ever, they would see them again. Today’s travellers can see an exhibition of sad photographs and other memorabilia from that time.
Friedrichstraße Station is one of the busiest on the network, where several east-west S-bahn lines cross their north-south counterparts. Anyone spending much time in Berlin and dependent on public transport is bound to become familiar with the multi-level station, its shops, and eateries.
Just over the road is one of Berlin’s best-known shops. Dussmann, opened in 1997, specialising in cultural sales such as books, CDs, and DVDs. It was here that Alec later bought the DVD “Claiming the Space” on underground art production in East Germany under the Communist regime.
From Dussmann it is just a short walk for the point where Friedrichstraße crosses Unter Den Linden, and Alec stopped for coffee and a chance to look up and down the famous boulevard at the wealth of historical, architectural, and cultural sights. To the right (westwards) his view was eventually cut off by the Brandenburg Gate and to the left his line of sight petered out to a less clearly defined limit around Berlin Cathedral.
The sights of Unter Den Linden, the city’s grandest, most historic, and significant boulevard, were worth a day on their own and would have to wait for another time. Crossing from the northern to southern sections of Friedrichstraße, Alec noticed a subtle change in the character of the street. Fashionable shops became more evident; Alec noticed a Galeries Lafayette. The street had become East Berlin’s nearest equivalent to the west’s Kurfürstendamm, though still so different in many ways – far from the multi-lane, wide-pavemented, tree-lined boulevard of its counterpart, with its street cafes and elegant strollers.
The up-market shopping came to an end when Alec reached Checkpoint Charlie, bringing back memories of the day he had first passed through it 27 years previously, during the Cold War, as recounted in Part 2. Today it was a busy attraction, with visitors wandering freely about, but little less interesting for that. Charlie’s story was told in black-and-white photographic displays with long, informative captions. The display makes clear what a depressing place and time it was then: American and Soviet soldiers and tanks could be seen confronting each other; Soviet leaders were shown visiting their fiefdom – grim, grey, elderly men wrapped against the cold in long, heavy coats and pork pie hats. The bleak reality is made clearer by the fact that the photographs from that time are in black and white.
Leaving Friedrichstraße, Alec made the short walk eastwards to Gendarmenmarkt, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture and a centrepiece of Berlin culture. Once again, Alec recalled seeing it briefly during his day tour of East Berlin in 1986.
The Gendarmenmarkt is closely associated with Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg-Prussia (the Great Elector) who ruled from 1640 to 1688 and did much to restore his country from the ravages of the Thirty Years War. A Calvinist, he invited thousands of French Huguenots to settle in Berlin after they fled the persecution of Louis XIV of France in 1685; many of them soldiers, they settled in what is now the Gendarmenmarkt area – hence the square’s French name.
Two large, domed churches, similar in outward appearance, face each other across the square. The French Church was built by the Huguenots in the early years of the 18th century and the German Church by the Lutherans a few years later. The French Church is now used for chamber concerts and the German is home to a historical exhibition.
On the west side of the square stands the Konzerthaus, built originally as a theatre following the Napoleonic Wars by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, perhaps Berlin’s most famous architect. It was badly damaged during the Second World War and reopened as a concert hall and home to the Konzerthaus Orchestra in 1984. In the centre of the Gendarmenmarkt stands a statue of the dramatist and poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), introduced in Part 6.
Join Alec next time as he considers the art condemned by the Nazis as degenerate and visits a concentration camp as well as, on the brighter side, visits two of the five world-class museums and galleries on Museums Island.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.