Written in the blood

Fanciful analogies between cities and animals often talk of roads as the arteries of a city. The metaphor is deep enough that if I wrote about an arterial road, you would read on without pausing. So, when I see a plaque set into a path in the center of Dortmund, I could think of it as what’s in the blood of the city. And clearly, as you can see in the featured photo, Dortmund has football in its blood. No matter which records get broken, Timo Koneitzka’s achievement will remain unmatched, because, as the plaque says, he scored the first goal ever in the Bundesliga.

We were in Dortmund on a Saturday to meet The Family’s family and friends. The moment we set foot there, we realized by the number of people in yellow jerseys and high spirits, that the other thing which is in the blood of Dortmund (or, at least, of Dortmunders) is beer. It was the day of a Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund, Timo Konietzka’s club, and Bayern Muenchen. Munich is, of course, the giant amongst German clubs, as you can see if you look at the records of the Bundesliga. But Dortmund is no pushover. It is reputed to be just behind Munich in terms of the money it raises, and is one of the most successful clubs in the Liga.

Hopeful vendors stood around selling scarves of the two clubs. While Achim explained the Bundesliga standings (Dortmund’s eternal rival, Schalke 04, stands well above in this year’s league tables) to The Family, I wondered whether there are reversible scarves. No. Club loyalties are too deep. In a little open square with a fair, I found the Dortmund supporters clustered around tables in a pub (photo above). Across the square, another pub was awash in the red of Munich supporters. There is no fraternizing.

Other information is also carried in the blood. A few days before, we’d met someone who went to university in Luebeck. While talking to her about the city, we’d also talked a little bit about the Hanseatic League. My memory of the Hansa was that it included trading towns along the south coast of the Baltic sea: Luebeck, Rostock, Bremen, Hamburg, Gdansk. I didn’t think of Dortmund, Cologne and Osnabrueck as part of the Hansa. When I looked it up later I was flabbergasted by the reach of this medieval trading alliance, both in time (from the 12th century to the 17th) and in geography (from the Baltic inland to Cologne and Berlin). Dortmund turned out to play an important role as a regional capital of the League in the 15th century. Plaques set in roads and pavements are nice ways of reminding people of the history of a city.


The most beautiful square in Berlin

When you read tourist guides to Berlin they tell you that Gendamenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin. The reason, as we gathered, is that it is flanked by two churches with beautiful domes. What you see in the featured photo is the one called the French church. This apparently belonged to the Calvinist French called the Huguenots, some of whom found refuge in Prussia from persecution under Louis XIV of France. The statue in the foreground is that of the German polymath Friedrich von Schiller. The church was built in 1701, the square built in 1773, and the statue erected in 1871. The companion German church, which was undergoing restoration on the day I was there, was built at the same time as the French church. The main difference between the two was the language the service was held in. The Huguenots used French, whereas the Calvinists and Lutherans across the square had their service in German.

The statue of Schiller stands in front of the concert house. When the former National Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1817, it was replaced by this building. It’s not very often that you find the statue of a lioness in front of a building, but this had gender balance: with a lion and a lioness guarding the steps. I was able to trace discussions of gender equality in the Prussian parliament to 1902, but maybe these guardian statues tell us that there was discussion of this issue outside the Landtag before that.

We walked around the square. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by the 1970s. I followed The Family in window shopping, until we came to a chocolate shop on Charlottenstrasse, just behind the square. I think I was the first through the door! It is a great relief to have a box of good chocolates with you on a day when you intend to walk across a city. As soon as we stepped out of the shop we saw that the clear skies of the morning had given way to threatening clouds. I stood in an archway on the street and took the photo of the other side of the French church which you can see in the photo above.

There was a lot of activity on the roof. I’d never seen anyone trying to replace roof tiles on such a steep slope. We watched the activity for a while, without figuring out whether two people walking across ladders was some kind of safety measure. I’d checked the weather in the morning and it had promised a sunny day. As soon as we left the arcade from where we’d watched the work, it began to rain. It was just two blocks till Unter den Linden, but we were pretty damp by the time we turned the corner and walked into a cafe! So much for weather predictions.

The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.

Free city, Berlin

Our first night in Berlin was cold, wet and blustery. As we walked past St. Mary’s Church towards the Spree, gusts of wind would shake us as we tried to take photos. We’d been warned of a storm, and we later heard that the railways had closed down their service. It was windy enough, but we’ve seen worse because our lives are now marked by extremes of weather. The city hall had closed for the night, but it was nicely lit up. The Family got the featured photo, which shows it looking as red as its name, Red City Hall or Rotes Rathaus, promises. We never saw it looking so red later. We walked around it, and were impressed by the fact that it covered a whole block. But then, Berlin is a free city: its city council is its government. So the mayor’s office, here in the City Hall, is also the seat of Berlin’s government. We later found that the building dates from 1869, and was rebuilt to its original plan in 1956.

The next day we walked past a building where a notice said that the legislature of Berlin sits (photo above). This puzzled us enough that we looked at the government of Berlin as soon as possible after this. The first surprise was that Berlin remained under four power occupation from 1946 right until October 1990! Unified Germany has its seat of government in unified Berlin, although the city itself has its own legislature and executive. The city’s legislature sits in this building: Prussia’s house of representatives from 1899 to 1934 (when the house was dissolved). I didn’t even know about this building although it is extremely close to Potsdamer Platz. When we passed this building we had no idea that it had been used to house the Council of Ministers of East Germany before being given over to Stasi. We also learned too late about the murals and art collection inside. If you do go in, let me know whether you enjoyed it, and whether you recommend that we visit it the next time we are in Berlin.

Spot the art project!

The Family had followed the cold war at a distance. Now, she was busy reading at the wall of history which lines Friedrichstrasse as you approach the site of Checkpoint Charlie from what once was East Germany. This spot is a condensation of that chilly history. If you have lived through those years, even at a distance, your eyes will not be caught by the tourist trap of fake military memorabilia, crumbling pieces of concrete sold as part of the True Wall, or the creperie, KFC and MacDonald’s which are signs of something which was once called the end of history.

While The Family viewed history through the posters which line the road, I fancied that I saw it in the pair (father and son?) in the photo above. The older man looks like he would be old enough to have similar memories of the cold war and its end. The younger one has grown up in a world with new problems. I hope that these also come to a clean end.

As I looked around me, I saw art projects all around. Berlin is built on sand. The water of the Spree percolates into the sandy soil beneath the city and has to be pumped out constantly. The pink pipes which you see in the featured photo carry this water. You could call it an art project, but Berliners think of it as just background.

The building with the funny roof was certainly a much-talked-about architectural project of the late 80s, called by the astoundingly inventive name Checkpoint Charlie Apartments. The design team included Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis and Matthias Sauerbruch. The civil engineer associated with this project was the famous Stefan Polonyi, whose students are even now changing the shapes of structures in Germany. The building on the left was designed by Peter Eisenmann (who also designed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews) as a residential building at the same time.

The art installation really stands out in the middle of the road. It is the light box, of which you see one side in these photos. The face that looks out to the former East Berlin is of an American solider. Looking towards the former West Berlin is the face of a Russian soldier. Both photos were taken in 1994, just before the troops from these two countries finally left Berlin. This is an untitled work by Frank Thiel, commissioned in 1998 by Berlin’s Development Commission.


The vast Alexanderplatz has changed a little since I first visited it more than twenty years ago, but the change is superficial. Then, I’d started walking towards the TV tower (see the last photo below) from the Museuminsel, and reached a windblown square surrounded by grey concrete. My imagination was rife with Doblin’s book named after this square, and in comparison to that, the place looked colourless. I descended to the U-bahn station and left.

The gray concrete structures are now dressed in neon, and surrounded by young people doing exactly what they always do in Germany. On reunification, the property around Alexanderplatz remained in the hands of the East German company Treuhand. Kaufhof bought up GDR’s retail company Centrum-Warenhaus, and part of the deal was its property in Alexanderplatz. This is the building you see in the photo above. Redesigned by Paul Kleihues, it dominates the north-western corner of the plaza. We walked past the spray from the communist-era fountain to get to it, feeling too cold to take a photo. Diagonally opposite is a multistoried Saturn shop. I had forgotten my gorilla pod, and had marked this down as the place to buy one.

We walked past the clock showing time around the world to look at the buildings across the road. There was the Alexa, a large modern departmental store (featured photo). A little further down was the ministry of education (photo below), with its restored Walter Womacka mural from the time this area was still part of East Berlin. Next to this tower is the shallow dome of the Berlin conference center. Both were made by Hermann Henselmann. We turned back into the windy square. The storm was on us. A light rain had begun to fall. It was time to move on.

Alexanderplatz was built in the 19th century. By 1882 the S-bahn station had come into existence. You can see this as the horizontal tubular structure in the photo below. The U-bahn was built in 1913. The square has been reconceived thrice. Once in 1928, an architectural competition was held to build a new square for a metropolis. The de-facto winner was the influential architect Peter Behrens. Only two of his buildings were finished before the global crisis of the 1930s brought the development to a halt. Photos taken immediately after the was show that the two, Berolinahaus and Alexanderhaus (the buildings on the left edge of the featured photo), were heavily damaged during the war. They were reconstructed later.

Photos from that period also show that the S-bahn station was badly damaged. It seems that during the Battle of Berlin, a Soviet T-34 tank drove into the underground tunnel since it did not recognize the entrance to the train line in time. This may have given rise to rumours of Soviet tanks trying to outflank German defenders by driving through tunnels. The war damage was not repaired for a while. Then, in 1964, the DDR made everything over again, in the shape that you see it in now. In 1993 there was yet another architectural competition, and the winning design would replace everything here by ten high rises. These have not got off the ground yet.

For architectural sarcasm you could do worse than read this or this. A little search led me to an interesting article on the maze of unfinished construction below Alex.

Two unknowns

While exploring the RAW Gelaende, I passed these two commemorative tablets. I did not recognize either name, but the dates of their deaths and the word “murdered” instead of “died” told me that they were not friends of the Nazis. One does not have to search hard to find more about them. Both are well-known.

Franz Stenzer was elected to the German parliament in 1932, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and sent to Dachau where he was shot. He had served in the German navy during the First World War, after which he joined the railway workshop in Munich and became a member of the German communist party in 1919. The RAW (railway workshops) in Warschauer Strasse was named after him.

Ernst Thalmann was even more famous. He served in the German army’s artillery division during the First World War, received multiple decorations, and became a member of the Social Democratic party in 1917. He was elected to the Hamburg Parliament, became a member of the German communist party in 1919, and strongly influenced the policy of the party. In 1925 and 1932 he stood for election as the President of Germany and lost both times to von Hindenberg. He was arrested in 1933, spent 11 years in solitary confinement, was transferred to Buchenwald, where he was shot.

After reading all this, I was not surprised that they were commemorated in a workshop in the erstwhile East Germany. What surprised me was that even now someone takes the trouble to lay flowers at the tablets, and cleans them from time to time. But as I read more about the political changes in Germany, propelled largely by its eastern parts, this surprises me less and less. After the euphoria of reunification in 1989 I had wondered what would happen if the economic disparity between the two halves of Germany did not disappear quickly. It is now clear that the result is no different from what is happening across the western world: a turn towards populist fascism, and a nostalgia for times which were never good, but seem better the further they recede in memory.

The squeaky clean cars parked next to the graffiti in the grounds of the old workshop somehow seem to make the same point about two Germanys which have still not managed to completely come together.

A bombed out church

The Family suggested that we should go for a walk along Ku’damm. It was past time for a coffee and cake, but maybe the right time for an aperitif. So we took the U-bahn. When you get out on the road the first thing that you notice is the bombed out remains of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, next to the glowing blue box of the new church (photo below). We decided to walk in there.

It was time for a service in the new church, so we went into the memorial to the war. The church was built in 1895 by the Kaiser Wilhelm II in honour of his grandfather, Wilhelm I. It was bombed in 1943, and further damaged by occupation forces after the war. It has been restored since I saw it at the end of the last century, in the year 2000. I learnt that Charles Gray, a pilot in the bombing raid which destroyed the church, was one of the first contributors to a call for funds to repair the crumbling ruin, while retaining it bombed out shape as a reminder of the war.

I had a very clear memory of Plexiglas and metal housing around the church, made to preserve its damaged shape. This seems to have disappeared. I didn’t remember the mosaics inside. It is possible that when I came here earlier they were covered up. But, as you can see from the photos here, they are well worth a visit. Large portions of the mosaics have been restored.

We admired the mosaics, and then walked around one end of the nave which contained a little exhibit about the history of the church, the war, and the restoration. You can see many such stories throughout Germany, and they serve as appropriate reminders against wars. Anti-war sentiments run very deep in Germany, as a result.

The large mosaic of St. George on the floor was hard to photograph because of the number of visitors. I waited patiently until there was a moment when all feet had left the space, and I could take a photo. You can see the blue light of the new church reflecting off the floor. It is a small space, but we were happy with our visit as we walked off into the night to look for a place where one could have a quiet drink before dinner.

Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”

A relic and a memorial

The storm had passed when we got off the tram at Bernauer Strasse. A beautiful green laws stretches along the road on one side of it. The grass was wet with rain but the green was very inviting. I stepped out on it and took photos. On one side was a line of houses bordered by a low concrete wall (featured photo). On the other side was a line of high steel rods (photo below). This was what remains of the Berlin wall. The strip of lawn was the death strip between them.

Remnants of the outer wall at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

What legitimacy can a government have when it removes the right to live from some of its own citizens? One would have thought that this question need not be asked again in the post-Nazi era. But as The Family and I walked through this long memorial, we were surrounded by historical echoes of that question asked again.

A few steps ahead we came to one of Berlin’s famous pieces of street art. This was the result of a competition run by Xi-Design, who executed the winning design submitted by Marcus Haas. I love the easter egg: the map of Berlin hidden inside the steak. Like all street art, time has overtaken it. This was finished just over a year back (in September 2016) and the bottom of the wall is now a palimpsest of paintings.

Personal memorials at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

There was documentation on the history of the wall in panels at intervals. You could also listen to people of the area speaking about the wall, and how it affected their lives. We came across a stretch of unbroken wall: as much of an eyesore as it used to be (next to the steak mural above). We walked on, past the Reconciliation Church, and to the remnants of the wall at the Sophien parish cemetery. In the middle of the green here is a series of free-standing weathered steel cubbyholes, each a memorial to someone who died trying to cross the wall (photo above). One of these held some flowers. There are still people around who remember individuals.

Memorial plaque in the pavement of Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

We walked on to the very end, at the remnant of the Nordbahnhof and then turned to walk back. Along the pavement we noticed little plaques. Each of them is embedded on the Western side of the former border near where an escape attempt was made. The plaques gave a date and said whether or not the attempt was successful.

The wall at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

The Berlin Wall Memorial was not there when we last came to Berlin almost a dozen years ago. Not having lived in Germany in the years of division, The Family looked at the historical information in detail. I read along with her and discovered much that I did not know in any detail. The Wall is gone now, and a whole new generation has grown up in its absence. You can see them reclaiming this once-forsaken ground with graffiti like the one in the photo above. It appears again and again over Berlin in incongruous places. So refreshing, I thought.