Thursday, October 25, 2012


Slightly edited version of internal ramblings jotted down while sitting with a beer at the Weihenstephaner Restaurant, Hackescher Markt, immediately after a five-hour walking tour of Berlin on Tuesday 9 October 2012.

Berlin is exploding my mind.
Ich bin ein Berliner!

I arrived Sunday evening, am staying on the north-east fringe of town - and a large town it is - and didn't really feel it yesterday. All I did yesterday though, was visit the nice but relatively pitiful Oktoberfest set up in Alexanderplatz (comparison aside, it's actually kinda cool) and went up the TV Tower where I finally started to get my bearings. You can study maps all you like but it's not until you've been in and around the city for at least a day or two that it starts to make sense. And perhaps even then, without contextual knowledge of history and culture, this place wouldn't be so flash. Yesterday I walked right past Lustgarten, barely giving it a glance.

Today I did a walking tour. It was five hours of cultural and historical sights and information. A barrage of thought-provoking information bites, one after another for five hours. It was full on. Possibly the best paid tourist experience I've had. Today, back at Lustgarten with a little knowledge, the same space affected me deeply.

Yesterday I wondered whether Berlin would meet my expectations. Today I declare it my favourite of all the cities I've visited! One I could really see myself spending an extended period of time in. I love Germany overall, but this city has so much to offer.

New York makes you feel like you are at the centre of the world, Berlin feels like the centre of modern human history. New York's appeal is largely built on ego. Berlin's is based on culture, counter-culture, history, revolution, misery, and tough lessons that they've taken head on. My country could learn a lot about dealing with shameful history from Berlin and Germany generally.

There is such contrast and diversity in the history and place of this city. So much to think about.
How would modern Australia treat 'wall jumping' asylum seekers?

One place, one city that has been a leader in tolerance, was home to the greatest intolerance and human rights abuses of living memory, was bombed to pieces, ripped in half as part of a conflict not it's own, and came out the other side - finally - as one of the most vibrant, accepting and open cities on the planet.

The Mayor is openly homosexual - surely one of very few in the world - in a city where homosexuals were executed 70 years ago. My tour guide was an Israeli artist who moved to Berlin because it allowed her greater freedom of expression than her homeland. The same Berlin that was the capital of a country that executed six million Jews is now more accepting of some of them than Israel. Shocking, amazing, disappointing, fantastic.

Were the decades of pain and suffering necessary to make the city what it is? No doubt tourism thrives on atrocious historical events, but not culture, right? Why have the people of Berlin progressed so rapidly on respect for others while we in the lucky country languish in the struggle to shift - to open - supressed conservative minds. Perhaps drastic events are necessary for rapid change - sometimes for the worse, as post-World War I Berlin showed - but surely we can progress without suffering. Why does it often take a wall to drive people to seek to move beyond the ground its on.

This man. Is my hero
Berlin is what it is - something great - because of its past. Who's to say what it might otherwise have been? Or more the point, it is the city it is because of how the people of Berlin responded to their circumstances: accepting the past, learning from it and moving forward.

At one point on the walking tour we stopped by a memorial for a man who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. The guide wondered aloud, "if he has assassinated Hitler, maybe we would have avoided these atrocities."

It was a pertinent, thought-provoking and troubling. An ordinary man, an attempted murderer, presented as a hero. Yes, I felt a ping of admiration for him. He could have saved millions of lives and spared decades of misery for Germans, particularly of the east. Or maybe it would have made little difference. The Nazis were more than Hitler. Maybe things would have escalated. Maybe all hell would have broken lose. Assassinations tend to start more wars than they end. Who knows?

I'm opposed to the death penalty and certainly people taking justice into their own hands, so it was difficult to reconcile my feelings. If he'd been successful, maybe we'd view him differently - after all, Hitler would have died with far less blood on his hands and no one would ever have known the lengths to which he was prepared to go for his vision and to win the war.

As I said, I felt some admiration towards and sympathy for this man - admittedly given the full and subsequent context of Hitler's life - and disappointment that he had failed like so many others did, before I realised I was perhaps being hypocritical and now I'm not really sure.

Truth is it's complex. I dare say he was a decent man with well-intentioned - even admirable and courageous - motives who tried to do something that was morally questionable. I think questioning the morality of such action is the only way to promote and maintain a civil society. Can you bring back civility with uncivil action? Or is it better to die standing by your values no matter what? It's easy to stand by your morals when you're not the one doing the dying I guess.

That was just one of many complex questions Berlin has thrown at me today

No city has ever made me think so much about the complexities in humanity. Complexities too often glossed over or shoved into a convenient pigeon-hole.

Here the contrasts and complexities are - more than anywhere I've ever been - set free and promoted. By government, but mostly, and somewhat passively, through art.

I get it now. I understand why so many artists come here.

This city makes you think, question, explore - if you're willing to take the journey.

JFK was right, we're all Berliners (not doughnuts), it's the world's city of human struggle. This place has seen it all and has something to teach every person on the planet.


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