Thursday 5 December 2013
Alec and his classmates from the Goethe Institute found themselves in Wedding. It was a district of Berlin Alec did not know well, even though it was not far from the centre of what had been East Berlin and was adjacent to the Prenzlauer Berg area where he had spent a considerable time on a previous visit.
The reason for their visit was a tour of the Deutsche Welle (DW) studios, part of the cultural programme organised by the Goethe Institute. DW is Germany’s national overseas broadcaster, rather like the BBC World Service. Its journalism, taxpayer-funded but independent of the government, is transmitted through TV, radio and internet services and brings German culture and modern German values to worldwide audiences in 30 languages.
DW also helps non-German speakers to learn the language, not least through its “slowly spoken news” feature (langsam gesprochene Nachrichten) which brings actual news bulletins to listeners six days a week.
Friday 6 December 2013
Alec pulled his fake Russian, fake fur shapka (bought at Marks & Spencer, Newcastle) down over his ears and dug his freezing hands as deep as he could into the pockets of his pretty expensive navy-blue topcoat (bought at Peek & Cloppenburg, Berlin) as he looked down from the road bridge to the rail tracks below.
It was a bleak, desolate scene as one of the first snow showers of winter fell from the leaden skies. Few vehicles and even fewer pedestrians disturbed the silence, and the small group of students of various nationalities and all ages listened to their guide discuss the historic event that had taken place there 24 years earlier. Bornholmerstraße had some claim to be the first crossing point to open between East and West Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989, but it seemed not to receive as much attention as other locations where the Berlin Wall had fallen, either in more dramatic fashion or at more touristy spots.
The lack of activity when Alec visited was perhaps in part due to the fact that 6 December, St Nicholas’ Day, is celebrated in Germany as a sort of early Christmas, though less so in Berlin than further south in Bavaria and neighbouring Austria. Holiday or not, Alec still thought the blighted scene in this dreary inner-urban suburb seemed a thoroughly realistic and appropriate place to remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, especially in the snow. There was nothing romantic about it at all.
Alec had already become familiar with this out-of-the-way part of Berlin because Günter, his host for his three-month stay in the city (part 10), had an allotment – or Schrebergarten – nearby. The Schrebergarten, named after the 19th century physician who introduced the concept to Germany, is designed to enable townspeople to improve their health by getting a taste of the countryside in the city. Unlike British allotments, which are utilitarian and devoted to the production of vegetables, Schrebergarten are for pure pleasure and the growing of flowers.
Günter’s garden, like many, was much larger than its typical British counterparts and was the site of a small wooden building containing a small bed-sit, kitchen, bathroom, and a television. Günter, then in early retirement, spent most of his summers there with his girlfriend, who had the neighbouring garden, returning to his flat in the Mitte district of central Berlin once a week to catch up with his messages and do whatever housekeeping chores were necessary.
As he walked back through the snow that day to Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station to take him to on his short return trip to Weinmeisterstraße and the Goethe Institute, Alec cast his mind back to the first time he had encountered the Berlin Wall, 27 years previously when he had passed through Checkpoint Charlie (Part 2).
Christmas markets have become a common sight in the UK, including at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, but are a much longer tradition in Germany and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, dating back to the late Middle Ages. They abound in stalls selling traditional local dishes and drinks such as mulled wine and seemed to Alec to be a much more appropriate way to mark at St Nicholas’ Day than a visit to the Wall.
He visited several Christmas markets in Berlin during that Advent period, including at the Gendarmenmarkt, where it was almost too crowded to move despite the small entrance fee. He was taken on a tour by Günter and Günter’s girlfriend, whose idea of a local delicacy was half a baguette filled with garlic. One market he did not visit was that at Breitscheidplatz between Zoo station and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in former West Berlin, where on 19 December 2016 a truck bomber killed 12 people.
Monday 9 December 2013
Though Berlin has had a cathedral since the 15th century the current building dates from only 1905. It’s a magnificent building but, Alec thought, unoriginal: with its impressive dome, it reflects the ambition of Kaiser Wilhelm II (he of the First World War) to match St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London. Even the then-existing neo-classical court church by the great Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel was not good enough for Kaiser Bill, and it was demolished in 1893.
Architect Julius Carl Raschdorff had to present the Kaiser with three designs before he was satisfied. The result is a grandiose and opulently decorated cathedral to serve the Protestant community and as a place of entombment for the Hohenzollern dynasty, rulers of Prussia and then Emperors of Germany. Ironically, the last Kaiser was not buried there but, in the Netherlands, where he was exiled after the First World War.
The cathedral was severely damaged in the Second World War. Restoration started in 1975 under the East German regime and was completed 1993, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin has a Roman Catholic Cathedral too. St Hedwig’s stands a few hundred yards from its Protestant counterpart on the opposite of Unter Den Linden. It was built between 1747 and 1787 on the orders of Frederick the Great and was the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation, an indication, Alec though, of the Protestant Frederick’s renowned enlightenment. It was fitting, he also thought, that Frederick’s equestrian statue, stood nearby…
After the Kristallnacht pogroms that took place on the night of 9–10 November 1938, according to the cathedral’s Wikipedia history, Bernhard Lichtenberg, a canon at St Hedwig’s since 1931, prayed publicly for Jews at evening prayer. He was later jailed by the Nazis and died on the way to the concentration camp at Dachau. In 1965, as the Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, his remains were transferred to the crypt at St. Hedwig’s.
In another grim reminder of the Nazi era, in the square just outside the cathedral can be seen a site where books were burned at that time, though it is not prominently displayed; passers-by can see a memorial below ground level through reinforced glass in the paving.
St Hedwig’s was badly damaged in an Allied air raid in 1943 and restored in modernist style by the East German authorities between 1952 and 1963. Since 2018 it has been closed again for renovation.
Join Alec next time when he goes to see the Jewish Museum in Berlin, takes a walk down Karl Marx Allee with a guide who evidently did not remember Stalin kindly, and returns to Museums Island to see another of its spectacular collections!
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign the Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.