Memory plays an important role in Berlin. It serves a dual purpose: to remind us of the past, and to prevent that past from happening again. It is embedded in the foundations of the city, where brand new bars and cafés exist alongside buildings that have survived two world wars. Monuments and memorials are scattered across the skyline. And on the streets, a double line of bricks mark where a wall once divided the world.
We arrived in Berlin on Wednesday night, amidst a freezing torrent of snow and rain, dazed and exhausted after the long flight from Perth. Berlin was our first stop on our long journey to Gallipoli, and it seemed like an appropriate choice.
Berlin occupies a unique position in the history of the twentieth century. No other city helped to shape the events of that century – and was subsequently shaped by the events – than Berlin. It was here in the heartland of Europe that the feuds and alliances that inflamed the First World War were formed. And it was here, in the decade after that war, as Germany struggled to repay its debt, that the foundations of the next war were also laid. Berlin still bears the scars of the Nazi occupation of Germany – in many ways, it defines what the city has become. For almost thirty years, between 1961 and 1989, Berlin was the physical manifestation of the divide between East and West, as the two sides faced each other, sabres rattling, over the wall. And when that wall came down and Germany was reunified, Berlin was finally able to achieve the prosperity that it long deserved.
As students of history, it was easy for Garreth and I to lose ourselves in the past of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag building. Checkpoint Charlie. The Holocaust Memorial. The East Side Gallery. Everywhere we looked, history was beckoning. And since the reason for our trip is indelibly linked with that history, we felt an obligation to explore these sights and contextualise those events. Gallipoli is still far away, but the reason why Australia went to war can be traced right here to Berlin.
There’s no escaping Berlin’s past. It follows you around whether you want it to or not. It’s the big things – the imposing stretch of the East Side Gallery, or the field of rectangular monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial. But it’s also the small things. Shrapnel damage to statues. Old facades showing through fresh paint. Those eastern industrial districts that still don’t have the affluence of the former West.
But after a few days, the sheer number of memorials and museums we had visited began to blur into one. We were always looking into the past, always seeing Berlin through the lens of history, rather than focusing on the city that currently stands. I am reminded of a city from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one that is always looking backwards, never forwards, one that is entrenched so deeply in its own history that the present has ceased to have meaning.
It was with great effort that we pulled ourselves away from the tourist traps and tried to seek out Berlin of today. It wasn’t hard to find. It was visible in the back streets of Friedrichshain, where a blooming art movement has sprung up around the host of small bars and clubs. It was visible in the enormous number of cranes that dotted the horizon, the number of streets that had been cut open to lay new U-Bahn tracks. And it was visible in the people we saw – the smiling football fans on the train, the bartender at the Easter Markets.
Perhaps that’s the greatest thing about this city – no matter how dark the past, new memories are being made every day. And it this wild melange of old and new that shapes Berlin for a new century.