Faces … Berlin street art

Kreuzberg, the Berlin neighbourhood famed for multiculturalism and a radical counter culture epitomised by annual May Day riots, is, unsurprisingly, also a hotspot for street art. Rampant gentrification has taken some of the edginess off Kreuzberg’s reputation, but it still retains a gritty underbelly. Exploring the area is fun, especially as it’s home to some very good restaurants. At times it seems like every turn in the street throws up new surprises.

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

It’s a fascinating area, and one that provides an insight into Berlin’s recent past and its inevitable future. A new international crowd had descended upon Kreuzberg, creating much consternation amongst locals. The changing demographics have driven up prices to a point where even hardcore leftists have migrated to nearby Neukölln. It would be fair to say that much of Kreuzberg is now officially bourgeois, even if many rough edges still exist.

A ten minute walk from our new apartment brought us to Mehringplatz, alongside the Landwehr canal and the unofficial border between between Kreuzberg and Mitte. This was once an elegant Baroque ‘circular square’ known as the Belle-Alliance-Platz. It was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and rebuilt as a dreary complex of social housing in what has traditionally been a poor area. Recent improvements have included the addition of some outstanding pieces of street art.

Just north of Mehringplatz, a set of apartment buildings between Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse are resplendent with murals painted by Graco Berlin. Wander through the car park and communal gardens and you’ll come face to face with a couple of dozen portraits of people reflecting the diversity of the area. The ‘faces’ were created by five different street artists but all if them are expressive. It’s not a place that attracts many tourists, so if you visit you’re likely to have this open air gallery to yourself.

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Street art by Graco, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Back in the GDR, remembering a divided city

The classic end of communism comedy, Goodbye Lenin, is critical viewing for anyone moving to Berlin. It was first released in 2003, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with memories of communist rule still ever present. The film charts the final days of the German Democratic Republic through the eyes of a family that represents two conflicting, and conflicted, views of the totalitarian state. The mother of the family, a convinced communist party member; her two children, rebelling against the tedium and repression of GDR society.

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Much of the comedy, and the tragedy, comes from the fact that, after the mother wakes from a coma during which she ‘slept’ through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the family have to find ever more inventive ways to recreate every detail of former GDR life to protect her from a relapse. This sparks a quest to find food, drinks, toiletries and many other items from the former GDR that had all but vanished as Western commodities flooded the market. This involves a near-futile search for a special type of pickled gherkin.

Today, the film remains a poignant reminder of a world that has rapidly disappeared in the 28 years since the reunification of Germany. Communist East Germany existed for only 41 years, and the self-styled socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state” that emerged from the Soviet Occupation Zone at the end of the Second World War, disintegrated with few tears shed. Unless they were tears of joy as the Berlin Wall fell, and thousands of East Germans exercised a sudden and unexpected freedom to travel.

A recent viewing of Goodbye Lenin reminded me to visit the small, informative and fun GDR Museum, which sits opposite the Berliner Dom cathedral in the former eastern part of the city. The museum explores the history of the GDR through personal stories and everyday objects. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of a typical East German apartment from the 1960s. In the living room a TV blares programmes from the era, and is decorated with wonderfully period designs.

Housing was in short supply, and the woefully inefficient centrally planned economy incapable of providing material goods. When new apartments were built they were all identical, choice was a Western decadence. A common East German joke ran that if you woke up in bed and your wife had a new hairstyle, the chances were that you were in the wrong apartment. More seriously, there’s also a listening station as used by the State Security Service, the Stasi, to spy on citizens in their homes.

The museum is fascinating, but small and can get very crowded. That said, I learned a lot, including nuggets of wisdom such as East Germans were the heaviest consumers of alcohol in Europe, some 17 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, presumably to anaesthetise themselves from the reality of daily existence. Then there is naturism, and how being nude in public turned into a subversive political movement – a freedom of expression in a country where there were few other freedoms.

Outside the museum, reminders of the GDR are increasingly scarce – if you discount the regular sightings of Trabant tours. Segments of the Berlin Wall remain, as do the jolly green and red Ampelmännchen road crossings, and some iconic GDR buildings and artworks. We passed statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels en route to the former GDR parliament, in an ironic twist now a business school. Here symbols of the GDR regime have been preserved, and occasionally it’s possible to visit the interior to see stained glass windows as propaganda.

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Today, these leftovers from the former GDR seem almost exotic, and it’s easy to forget the misery and repression that they represent. Near our apartment is an old GDR-era building that has a beautiful mosaic of a dove of peace, a much used and abused symbol of a regime that was anything but peace loving. It sits neglected and largely unnoticed by a main road, a relic like the country it once represented.

The Wannsee Conference, the past overshadows everything

There is nothing about the sleepy and picturesque lakeside hamlet of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin, that prepares you for the fact that this is the place where, in early 1942, the implementation of the systematic annihilation of the European Jews was discussed and agreed. I strolled along tree-lined streets, with occasional glimpses of the glittering waters of the Wannsee between imposing 19th and early 20th century villas, trying to grasp the absurdity of that reality.

On January 20, 1942, fifteen high ranking Nazi officials, who together represented the various military and civilian agencies needed to coordinate the mass extermination of millions of people, came to the villa of a former industrialist to discuss how they would implement the Final Solution. There is still some debate about the timing, but Hitler had given instructions for the Final Solution some months earlier, and everyone around the table that day knew they were discussing what we now know as the Holocaust.

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

Memorial to Jehovah Witnesses, House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin

Memorial to Jehovah Witnesses, House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee, Berlin

Anyone who has watched the excellent and utterly chilling film, Conspiracy, knows that during the Wannsee Conference the discussions were purely bureaucratic. At no time did the attendees explicitly mention that they were agreeing upon the destruction of millions of lives. It wasn’t necessary, the coded language was understood by all. They knew “evacuation to the east” meant mass deportation of Jews to death camps already under construction or in operation in German-occupied Poland.

It’s not a coincidence that only a few months after the meeting gas chambers were installed in places like Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The Wannsee Conference streamlined the smooth running machinery of a genocide that had been planned for years, the preparations for which had started in earnest with the invasion of Russia, and which was an extension of mass killings that were already happening in the east. The meeting took less than ninety minutes.

The infrastructure of the Holocaust was already in place and the Wannsee Conference was held to rubber stamp its full implementation. Even in 1942, when German armies were victorious across Europe, the men in the room were cautious about recording their conversations. Only one copy of the minutes, belonging to the Foreign Ministry’s Martin Luther, was ever found. Although heavily edited, they provided a vital insight into what occurred inside the villa that day.

I found myself reflecting yet again upon the phrase used by Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann: the banality of evil. Eichmann was one of the participants at Wannsee, and would go on to be responsible for the transportation of millions of Jews and others to their deaths as part of the Final Solution. The phrase could easily be applied to the fifteen technocrats sat around a table in 1942 planning genocide. Somehow that makes it all the more troubling.

An hour walking through the house reading about the origins and implementation of the Final Solution left me feeling a little claustrophobic. Outside I walked around the side of the villa into the gardens that overlook the lake. The views are magnificent. Adding to the sense of absurdity, out on the lake people were sailing and having fun, and on the opposite shore sat the Wannsee Lido. A handy information board informed me that the lido had been a centrepiece of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

As I stared out over the water, a quote from the daughter of a Holocaust survivor that I’d read inside the house came back to me, “the past overshadows everything”. That is especially true when you discover the fate of the fifteen people who orchestrated mass murder that winter’s day in 1942. We know Reinhard Heydrich was killed by Czech patriots, that Eichmann escaped to Argentina only to be captured, tried and executed in Israel in 1962. Others, like Rudolf Lange and Alfred Meyer, committed suicide.

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

Wannsee Lido, Berlin

Wannsee Lido, Berlin

Statue of Bismarck, Wannsee, Berlin

Statue of Bismarck, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

House of the Wannsee Conference, Wannsee, Berlin

What, though, about those who survived the war? Otto Hofmann, Head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, was released from prison in 1954 and went on to become a business clerk in Württemberg. He died only in 1982. Gerhard Klopfer who worked for the Nazi Party Chancellery, was released from prison in 1949, worked as a lawyer and lived until 1987. Georg Leibbrandt, responsible for the Occupied Eastern Territories, was released in 1949 and lived openly until 1982, even returning to the United States to continue his studies.

It was with growing incredulity that I read and re-read the information on the fortunes of the men who had sat in the very place I now stood and planned genocide. Truly eye-opening.

And I know one thing more … a visit to Sachsenhausen

In 1995, Andrzej Szczypiorski, a survivor of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, said, profoundly, “And I know one thing more – that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged.” His words are engraved as part of the memorial to those who suffered those fates at Sachsenhausen.

Only a short distance from Berlin, a visit to Sachsenhausen is oddly reassuring that, not only are those who died commemorated, but that the past won’t be easily forgotten. At a time of growing right wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe, that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and Sachsenhausen is a stark reminder of the depths of depravity of which humanity is capable. It’s all the more striking for the fact that the camp sits in picturesque countryside on the edge of a pleasant town, as it did 70-years ago.

Entrance to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Entrance to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Soviet-era memorial, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Soviet-era memorial, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Watchtower, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Watchtower, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Crematorium, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Crematorium, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

In all honesty, even today it’s a shocking contrast to walk through pleasant suburban streets then to find yourself at the entrance gates to a Nazi Concentration Camp. Only after walking from the train station was I able to fully appreciate that the many horrors perpetuated here took place within a few hundred yards of family homes, people tended their gardens, children played nearby, and normal lives went on unperturbed. The camp gates, like those at Auschwitz, carry the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

I’d imagined the camp isolated from society, but Sachsenhausen wasn’t only located on the fringe of a town, it was a Nazi showpiece. In the 1930s the Nazi authorities brought foreign observers and journalists to Sachsenhausen to admire their handiwork. True, most visitors didn’t see the whole camp and weren’t privy to the worst depravities that took place, but some saw through the facade. Many didn’t though, and lent credibility to Nazi claims that it was just a model and modern ‘re-education’ camp.

The suffering endured by more than 200,000 people interned at the camp between 1936 and its liberation in 1945 is heart wrenching. Tens of thousands died of disease, starvation, forced labor and medical experiments, or were the victims of systematic extermination. It’s hard to read about the medical experiments inflicted on prisoners, including with mustard gas and hepatitis experiments on Jewish children. The camp was also notorious for its ‘shoe testing‘ punishment detail, with prisoners forced to walk up to 40km a day around a track carrying heavy loads.

Few survived more than a few weeks of such punishment. Perhaps the most diabolical act came in 1941, when at least 10,000 soviet prisoners, many of them Jewish, were murdered by shooting and gassing. It was at Sachsenhausen that gas experiments took place, the most lethal were adopted throughout the entire camp system. This is where the Nazis trained camp commanders, and it acted as a testing ground for other terrors. A gas chamber was built here in 1942, as was a special area for executing prisoners by shooting or hanging.

Prisoners of many nationalities were interned and murdered in Sachsenhausen. This included one hundred Dutch resistance fighters, seven British Commandos captured wearing uniforms but not treated as prisoners of war, and Norwegian opponents of Nazi occupation. As the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe took place, the number of prisoners from those countries increased. There was a special Jewish section in the camp, although many Jews were sent to be murdered at death camps elsewhere.

As the Red Army approached Sachsenhausen in 1945, some 33,000 prisoners were forced onto a death march. Many thousands died of exhaustion, starvation or were shot. Only 18,000 survived to be liberated. When Russian and Polish troops arrived at the camp itself, only around 3,000 inmates remained to be liberated. In total, less than a tenth of the number who passed through the camp. It would be nice to report that this was the end of the horrors of Sachsenhausen.

Execution trench, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Execution trench, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Crematorium, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Crematorium, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Soviet-era memorial, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Soviet-era memorial, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Memorial to victims of the Soviets, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Memorial to victims of the Soviets, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sadly, it wasn’t long before the Soviet secret police reopened the camp. It would house 60,000 prisoners over the next five years, including former Nazis, German soldiers, anti-Communists and Soviet soldiers who had been captured in the war and were now considered traitors. Terrible things happened under Russian control, but only when the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 were the mass graves of Soviet victims discovered.

Visiting a place where such suffering happened isn’t comfortable, but I’m increasingly certain of the necessity to not only commemorate and understand how these things were allowed to happen, but to try to make a human connection to the people who suffered such horrors. Those who don’t understand their history may not be doomed to repeat the failures of the past, but why take the chance?

A whirlwind visit to Copenhagen

I’ve just returned from a week spent not quite in Copenhagen. I could see the city from my hotel room on the 18th floor of a conference centre a couple of kilometres from the heart of the city, but Copenhagen itself remained tantalisingly out of reach. I was eager to have some time to explore a city that I last visited in 1988. A thirty year gap between visits is way too long for a city that is renowned as being one of Europe’s most liveable, and which comes with an enviable cultural life and a world-class reputation for good food.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, DenmarkSeafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Nordics, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Nordics, Copenhagen, Denmark

This comes with a singular and notorious downside: the cost of living. Arriving late at night I checked the in-room dining options, a burst of hollow laughter rang out of me at the prospect of ordering a €23 cheese burger. I don’t care how good Danish medical, education or social welfare systems might be, or that Copenhagen is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable cities, any country that has taxes so high as to produce a €23 burger clearly has issues to work through.

When I finally had the opportunity to escape to the city, all that remained to me was an afternoon. The sunny weather of the previous few days had turned to wind and cloud with a threat of rain. Winter was in the air and I regretted not having the sense to bring gloves with me. Still, it was invigorating to wander through the historic centre, which is small enough to allow you to get a feel for the city, and gave me plenty of reasons why a return visit shouldn’t wait another thirty years.

The metro deposited me in Kongens Nytorv, an attractive square surrounded by stylish buildings, including the Royal Danish Theatre. The square is currently a building site, so I made my way to one of Copenhagen’s most famous sights, Nyhavn. Probably the most photographed area of town, Nyhavn is both surprisingly small and wonderfully pretty. The picturesque canal is lined with brightly coloured houses (now cafes, shops and restaurants) and historic sailing boats.

It may be the epicentre of tourism in the city, but it’s well worth a visit. If for no other reason than when he was living here, Hans Christian Andersen wrote several of his most famous works, including The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus and The Princess and the Pea. The houses date to the 1680s and, on another day, I’d have been tempted to hop on a boat tour around the city’s waterways. You can cross over the water here to Christiania, or Freetown as the more whimsically delusional call it.

I visited Christiania in 1988. It had a strongly alternative peace and love culture then, but everything I’ve read about it recently makes it seem like it’s become an anarcho-drug haven. Perhaps I should have visited to see it with my own eyes, but I just find that stuff tedious, and it’s not like Berlin is short of anarcho-drug culture. Instead, I headed to the complex of 18th-century rococo palaces surrounding the Amalienborg square, dominated by a statue of King Frederik V riding a horse.

A pleasant walk along the nearby waterfront brings you to one of Copenhagen’s iconic sights, Den Lille Havfrue or The Little Mermaid. Based on the story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, I only remembered the sense of disappointment from my first sighting of it all those years ago – like the Mona Lisa, it’s smaller than its reputation would lead you to believe. Close to the shore, it’s easy to reach from land and has been a victim of vandalism and political protest as a consequence. In 1964, it was beheaded. No one knows why.

The view to Copenhagen, Denmark

The view to Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

King's Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark

King’s Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

I headed back through Kastellet, a remarkably well preserved 17th-century fortress, and then to Nyboder, a district of 17th and 18th century naval barracks. The distinctive rows of yellow houses reminded me of Almshouses, many seemed to be undergoing renovation or rebuilding. A short walk brought me to the King’s Garden park. This is a city of parks, but this one is home to a remarkable 17th century Dutch Renaissance-style castle, and formerly the favoured home of King Christian IV, Rosenborg Slot.

As I strolled the sun disappeared behind gathering clouds and with it the temperature took a nosedive. Time to find somewhere warm to while away an hour or two before going to the airport. I’d passed a cosy-looking gastro-pub in Nyboder and made my way back to sample some Danish micro-brewery beers. It seemed like a good way to end my almost visit to Copenhagen.

Three Wise Monkeys … Berlin street art

The weather in Berlin has been so good we’ve been doing very little beyond exploring various neighbourhoods. Recently we spent a lazy day wandering the fascinating streets of Kruezberg, where we spotted a group of people staring up at a building. There is something hardwired in human nature that attracts random strangers to odd scenes like this, a deep-seated voyeurism and need to know. Almost unconsciously, we found ourselves drawn to investigate what was mysteriously holding their attention.

It turned out that this was a guided tour of Berlin street art, and they were looking at one of the city’s most famous pieces. Inspired by the Cold War-era Space Race, Victor Ash’s Astronaut Cosmonaut has been adorning the side of a Kruezberg house for over a decade. I imagine there might have been some disappointed street art tourists, since part of this massive piece of stencil-work was covered by a banner strung across the building and announcing a protest march.

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

See no evil, Speak no evil and Hear no evil, street art, Berlin, Germany

See no evil, Speak no evil and Hear no evil, street art, Berlin, Germany

Elephant playing with a balloon by Jadore Tong, Street art, Berlin, Germany

Elephant playing with a balloon by Jadore Tong, Street art, Berlin, Germany

Astronaut Cosmonaut, street art, Berlin, Germany

Astronaut Cosmonaut, street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

It seemed to fit with the counter-culture Kruezberg backdrop. It turns out that street art tours are big business, because a little further along the street was another tour group looking at another wall. Across the road yet another group was doing the same. If aliens landed in Kreuzberg on the average weekend day they might get a confused view of what humanity did with its spare time. Mind you, any aliens that landed on earth these days would probably flee back whence they came.

We hadn’t intended to do our own unguided street art tour, but fate would have it that wherever we wandered there were some interesting works scattered around. Not far from the Astronaut Cosmonaut was a large piece by Belgian street artist Roa, who I’ve now come across in streets as far apart as Perth in Western Australia, Antwerp in his native Belgium, and Buenos Aires in Argentina. He gets around, and this collection of semi-dead looking animals ‘hanging’ from a rooftop was one of the less pleasant I’ve seen.

There’s a lot of street art of varying degrees of artistic merit in and around the slightly sketchy Kottbusser Tor area, where on a hot Saturday a large gang of Berlin’s ‘dogs on strings tribe’ were drinking beer. We made our way along Ritterstrasse where we were stopped in our tracks by a massive triptych of the three wise monkeys – or at least of (sadly former) President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and Dictator-in-Chief Vald Putin – doing their very best see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil pose.

We came across several pieces by the artist, XOOOOX, each piece adorned with Xs and Os. Always of glamorous women, they’re statements about the superficiality of the fashion and beauty industry, and can be found pretty much everywhere across the city, with many examples in Kreuzberg. It was a fun day meandering through the streets, I’m sure we missed a lot of pieces by not going on a tour, but we can revisit almost any time we like. Almost back home, we made a couple of final exciting discoveries.

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

ROA, street art, Berlin, Germany

ROA, street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

xoooox street art, Berlin, Germany

xoooox street art, Berlin, Germany

A squat we came upon not far from where we live, had the rather disturbing image of a masturbating sabre-waving Nazi being sucked into a vortex. Hot on his heels is a man holding a Mercedes Benz car ornament. I have a feeling this represents the final days of the military-industrial-capitalist complex. Not the most subtle, and arresting for all the wrong reasons, but their point is inescapable. No pun intended. Thankfully, nearby is a massive painting of an elephant holding a balloon of planet earth in its trunk. Perfect for chasing away the mental images of onanism.

Winter is coming, Berlin’s Festival of Lights

The days are shortening, the nights getting longer, tree leaves are changing colour and the temperature is … well, as it happens, the temperature is going up. It’s been well into the mid-20ºC for much of the past week which, in case anyone needed a refresher on climate science, is in mid-October in northern Europe. We should be dusting off winter coats and pulling on gloves, instead I’ve been wearing flip flops and applying sun block. I’ll probably live to regret saying this when winter finally arrives, but it’s like a recipe that’s missing the most important ingredient: the cold.

Brandenburger Tor, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Brandenburger Tor, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Tiger, Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Tiger, Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Europe is for Lovers, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Europe is for Lovers, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Thankfully, you only need darkness to have a festival that’s intended to chase away the winter blues, and Berlin’s Festival of Lights certainly does that. The warm weather has made for a party atmosphere as thousands of people have poured onto Berlin’s streets to wander the festival routes. Some of the city’s most iconic buildings like the Berliner Dom, Brandenburger Tor and Berliner Fernsehturm, amongst dozens of others, have been repurposed as canvasses for light projections.

It might sound like a bad pun, but having massive, building-sized projections really has illuminated the cityscape. There are around 150 different projections in various parts of town, representing artists from 25 countries. Many are clustered around Museum Island, Potsdammer Platz and Alexanderplatz, making it relatively easy to see quite a lot of them with minimal effort. The walking routes are several kilometres long and to see all the projections would require a few days.

The most impressive grouping was around Bebelplatz, where St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Hotel de Rome, Opera House and Law Faculty buildings link up with Humboldt University across the Unter den Linden. They are wonderfully lit and, in what I imagine is a symbolic gesture, they bring light to the place where in 1933 around 40,000 people watched as the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books. There’s an underground library with empty shelves and a glass roof that commemorates a very dark period in history.

We walked, or rather shuffled along with huge numbers of spectators, from Bebelplatz to the top of Museum Island where projections light up some of the museum buildings along the River Spree. In the distance the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm were brilliantly aglow. We joined throngs of people heading into James-Simon Park where a tree provided the canvas for an odd projection of Mickey Mouse, before passing the cathedral and heading into Alexanderplatz where St. Mary’s Church was also lit up.

In the other direction, the area around Potsdamer Platz is filled with projections, and hosted the World Championship of Projection Mapping, where artists compete by projecting their animations onto the Kollhoff Tower. It was pretty impressive, but not as stunning as the giant tiger projected onto the Potsdamer Platz 5 building, which was absolutely brilliant. There was a projection onto the ground near the S-Bahn station, but a demonstration earlier in the day meant there was a massive police presence and their vans were parked on it.

On our way there we passed the memorial site of the 1953 demonstrations against the Communist authorities, which proudly proclaimed European unity with the message ‘Europe is for Lovers’. This is what we’ll lose when the ridiculous Brexit finally proves to the world how stupid the British can be. The highlight for many is a short walk from Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburger Tor, which draws massive crowds. To be honest, it’s hard to have favourites, the whole thing is spectacular.

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Museum Island, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Museum Island, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Which explains why visitor numbers topped the 2 million mark last year. That number is likely to be higher this year thanks to the unseasonably hot weather, and that many people can’t be wrong.

The chilling Cold War history on the streets of Berlin

Last week, Berlin celebrated the 28th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. The day is marked with a public holiday and, while it was nice to have a day off work, all I could think about was just how little time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited the city and paved the way for national reunification. I found myself recalling my first visit to the city in 1989. Cold War hostilities still existed, the Berlin Wall seemed like a permanent fixture, and passing through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin was like a scene from a movie.

The anniversary celebrations culminated with live music and a crescendo of fireworks, but seemed quite subdued given the momentous nature of the occasion. I guess there might be a sense of wanting to move on from the past, and it’s probably no coincidence that Berlin’s Festival of Lights starts where reunification celebrations end. A thumbing of Berlin’s collective nose at the darkness of decades of division. Yet, the city’s daily life is lived with near constant reminders of its Cold War history.

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

'Balancing Act' sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

‘Balancing Act’ sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Our apartment is built in what was known as the ‘death strip’, a strip of land behind the Berlin Wall that was filled with electronic devices and watched over by three hundred observation towers. Attempting to cross these formidable ‘defences’ cost at least 138 Berliners their lives, and maybe it is in their memory that the city has not only retained sections of the Wall, but has marked its entire 155km length as a permanent memorial – I often see people ‘walking the wall’, map in hand.

It’s fairly common to find yourself in an ordinary area of the city and to suddenly be confronted by segments of the wall. A version of ‘the banality of evil’, to steal Hannah Arendt’s phrase. Recently while walking along the Spree close to the Reichstag, we passed through the Invalidenfriedhof, a former German military cemetery. The wall sliced through here with little regard for the living, or the dead. A watch tower stands in memory of Gunter Litfin, the first person to be killed trying to escape to the West.

That was in 1961, and the Wall would stand for another 38 years. The Wall though, is only one reminder of the Cold War. Walk under the Brandenburger Tor down the main avenue of the Tiergarten, and you’ll soon reach the impressive Soviet War Memorial, which also doubles as a mass grave for over 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle for Berlin. The massive statue of a Russian soldier that looks down on the Tiergarten is flanked by two T34 tanks, alleged to be the first tanks to enter the city in 1945.

This memorial sat in British controlled West Berlin and, when I visited in 1989, Soviet soldiers stood at attention guarding the site. It’s an impressive memorial to the utterly gobsmacking Soviet sacrifices made in the Battle for Berlin: 80,000 Soviet soldiers died capturing the city, to which must be added tens of thousands of German soldiers and civilians who also died. The mass grave sits a few hundred meters from the Reichstag.

As impressive as it is though, the memorial pales in significance to the enormous Soviet memorial and mass grave in Treptower Park. We recently visited this interesting bit of Berlin, walking through Gorlitzer Park and along the Spree on a hot day to reach what surely must be Berlin’s most impressive memorial to the victory of Soviet arms over Nazism. A huge statue of a Soviet soldier rests his sword on a crushed swastika while cradling a German girl in his protective arms.

The irony of which would not be lost on the millions (literally) of German women and girls who were subject to mass rape and deprivation at the hands of their ‘liberators’. This statue, like its Tiergarten twin, is an effective piece of propaganda, the reality behind which is far more terrifying: Soviet soldiers, having witnessed Nazi atrocities in the East and fed a daily diet of anti-German hate, ran amok, committing atrocities in return. It is a history that has been largely ignored, some have even tried to justify it.

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

That Germany, and Berlin, has retained all these symbols of its own historic crimes, and those visited upon it, for the 28 years since reunification, shows a maturity and bravery that I doubt many other nations would exhibit. There are far right politicians who want to get rid of these and other reminders of the past. That they remain is something to be celebrated.

Prussian opulence at Charlottenburg’s Schloss

Charlottenburg may be one of the more underrated and misunderstood of all Berlin’s many neighbourhoods. When we first arrived we spent a hot and sweaty six weeks (the summer was brutal) in an apartment in Charlottenburg, while looking for a permanent place to live. Charlottenburg is a large district with a wide range of social and economic disparities, yet the general perception is of a middle-class, verging on suburban, area that’s unlikely to ever cut sufficient mustard to be one of Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods.

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

During the Cold War the area around the Zoologischer Garten marked the boundary of Charlottenburg. Controlled by the Allies, it became the nightlife epicentre of West Berlin, a fun-loving rebuke to po-faced communists on the other side of the ideological divide a few hundred metres away. Even though this bit of the district was never truly representative of the larger area, the inevitable decline that came following the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have coloured people’s ideas of the whole area.

That said, if you want cutting-edge nightlife and an edgy artistic scene, this is probably not the place to be. Charlottenburg, at least parts of it, provides an insight into a more elegant version of Berlin that’s sometimes hard to find elsewhere. Close to the S-Bahn station you’ll find tree-lined streets with a decent number of original buildings spared destruction during the Second World War. There are good restaurants, boutiques, a smattering of museums and galleries, and plenty of antique shops.

It’s a relaxed area which at first gives little hint of its royal history. Walk along the River Spree though, and you’ll unearth one of the gems of Berlin’s Prussian past: the Schloss Charlottenburg. Built as a summer retreat for Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Frederick I, in 1699, the palace is a baroque and rococo architectural glory, inside and out. There are extensive landscaped gardens that sought to rival the finest in Europe, and which house a mausoleum to the Hohenzollern dynasty.

The House of Hohenzollern began life as fairly insignificant Black Forest nobility but, over an 800-year period, would become one of the most powerful families in Europe, claiming the title of Kings of Prussia before going on to unify Germany as Emperors. The household that gave birth to Frederick the Great only lost its grip on power with defeat in the First World War, and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Or Kaiser Bill as he was known to British soldiers on the Somme.

There’s a fascinating 3-D film showing the building’s evolution from summer house, to an immense palace designed by the finest architects of the period. It was intended to rival Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The film also shows the near-total destruction of the palace from Allied air raids and Soviet artillery in the Second World War. Parts of Schloss Charlottenburg were reduced to little more than a shell, but decades of careful reconstruction have restored much of its former glory

The exterior is pretty dramatic and, if our experience was anything to go by, a popular spot for newlyweds to have their photographs taken. You can enter the gardens for free but to visit the interior costs a fairly hefty €17, plus another couple of euros for the privilege of taking photos. It’s probably overpriced to be honest and, bizarrely, it’s cheaper for a family of four to visit than for two adults. Alas, there are real gems inside that you won’t get to see otherwise.

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

These include the exquisite porcelain room, filled with Chinese and Japanese porcelain pieces, a reminder that in the 18th century, porcelain was one of the most valuable commodities available. So much so, it was known as ‘white gold’, and was subject to the frenzied attentions of royalty and alchemists alike. Augustus II of Saxony, one of many avid German collectors, founded the legendary Meissen porcelain factory and tried to capture the market in European porcelain.

There are other grand ball rooms and dinning rooms to explore, but the interior feels a little sterile. It didn’t help that it was hot and stuffy inside, and we were glad to get back outside to wander around the gardens. At least the mausoleum was cool.

Moving to Berlin: the search for Utopia

There’s no doubt Berlin is a fantastic city, but there are times when it appears more a shimmering mirage than a city of concrete, air pollution and of flesh and blood humans being. Gushing tales about the city could make you believe it existed only as fantasy – whether it’s digital nomads living the dream in cutting-edge startups, the razor sharp arts scene, the dazzling hedonistic nightlife or the hipster-filled fashion world. This is the funky, creative and youthful Berlin carefully crafted into the stuff of marketing legend.

As I cycle to work – albeit under the Brandenburg Tor, past the Reichstag, through the Tiergarten and along the Spree – it’s not always easy to reconcile the idea of Berlin as some sort of 21st century Utopia with the work-a-day city I see each morning at 8am. After reading too many travel guides it’s possible to imagine it as a modern-day City of the Sun, Tommaso Campanella’s 17th century fictional city that is a temple of learning, where there is an equal division of labour and all people are treated with dignity.

Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany

East German art, Berlin, Germany

East German art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

I studied Campanella’s philosophical work at university and his vision of Utopia, like the dozen or so other fictional works I read on utopias, ultimately leads to a dystopian vision of humanity’s future. Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Berlin you can tell you’re not living in Utopia by the complexity of the recycling rules. In the abstract, German recycling is utopian. It covers almost every commodity known to humanity and should benefit the planet. Yet, like all utopian imaginings, it has quickly become my own personal dystopia.

You need a PhD in bloody-mindedness to understand the recycling rules. I’ve counted seven different colours of recycling bin that, even with a two-sided colour-coded A4 leaflet, I still can’t work out. Some of them are even different shapes. It’s complicated enough to need an app to guide you. God-forbid you put your recycling in the wrong bin. The seventh circle of Hell is reserved for people who do that. If the tourist schtick is to be believed, this is the “anything goes” city. Just make sure it goes in the correct colour-coded receptacle.

I’m also pretty sure that in Utopia the service would be better, and even occasionally delivered with a smile. It’s cliche to knock Berlin’s service culture, but experience has taught me to recalibrate expectations. We’ve had good experiences in restaurants but the reality is that bad tempered and wildly inefficient service is commonplace. You may be handing over your hard-earned cash, but don’t think for one minute that it pays for anything more than thinly veiled contempt in some places.

Your hard-earned cash will also need to be carried in its physical form, because Berlin, like much of Germany, is only just getting around to recognising credit and debit cards as an acceptable form of payment for services and goods. The Berlin ‘walk of shame’ is attempting to pay with a card and then having to search nearby streets to find an ATM. This seems crazy in one of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy nations on earth. It’s the polar opposite of the Netherlands, where some shops don’t accept cash.

Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany

David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany

David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany

Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany

World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

These small frustrations aside, the unnaturally good weather has allowed us to get out and explore the city. There is much that makes Berlin a fascinating and wonderful place to live, whether riverside walks along the Spree, fantastic food in intriguing areas like Kreuzberg, a multitude of open spaces like the former Tempelhof airport, or the daily comings and goings of Germany’s political capital – the city centre was in lockdown for the recent visit of Turkey’s President Erdogan, making my cycle to work a nightmare.

Almost everywhere you go you find yourself bumping up against Berlin’s history. We recently found ourselves standing in front of the grave of the Red Baron – First World War fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen. His headstone, still bullet-riddled from the Second World War comes with a backdrop of pieces of the Berlin Wall, which cut a swathe through the cemetery. A short walk away is a memorial to the first person to be killed attempting escape to the West. In Berlin, the ghosts of its own dystopian past are all around.