June 17, 2016   //   International   //   By Michael Burge

This past weekend I had the privilege of traveling to Berlin, Germany’s capital. You can imagine that going to any European city is exciting, but for a history geek like me this was a city I was looking forward to more than the rest.  Berlin is a quick two hour train ride from Hamburg covering 179 miles. For reference, it has taken me two hours plus to drive 25 miles from the suburbs to downtown Chicago depending on the day, so when I say quick, I mean quick.

To actually be in the historic city of Berlin versus reading about it in 7th grade history class was something special.  I had a hotel in the Mitte (middle) district which is where most of the historical sights are located, and what better way to see most of these than to participate in a seven hour walking tour.  Luckily I was in a group of all English speaking people so it allowed for more of a relaxed tour experience.  My tour guide opened up with an astonishing fact as she pointed to all of the construction cranes overlooking the city; after the war only 20% of Berlin remained standing. This was incredibly hard for me to imagine.  As she told us this, we passed our first destination which was one of the places that had remained standing in East Berlin. The walls were still riddled with bullet holes and other destruction from the war. The fact that this building is in East Berlin emphasizes they are decades behind the western side in the restoration effort.  As the tour continued we started to see many restored historical sites such as the Berlin Synagogue, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral, Humboldt University (sight of the 1933 book burning), The Reichstag (Parliament Building). There is something that is very impressive about European architecture that nothing in the US even comes close to.

Another quite fascinating fact is the divide between West and East Berlin.  Ironically enough, more of the Berlin wall is located in the US than in Berlin itself.  Luckily I was able to see a large portion of the wall still standing.  To me the wall itself seemed underwhelming, standing about 12 feet tall and a little over a foot wide. However, the “Death Strips” which were 100 yard gravel or sand pits with no cover from a fence to the wall speaks for itself. None of these strips remain as buildings have now been built over the former areas.  The wall still has a large impact in the city, even areas where it was torn down there is a cobblestone path outlining where the wall once stood.

One of the more interesting observations I have made during my stay here is where most people either individually or as a group try to move and forget about bad moments in the past, the Germans completely accept it as part of their history.  This is made prevalent in the numerous memorials that have been built for the War, Holocaust, and East Berlin occupation. The constant reminder of the past and mindset has a large impact on how Germany now approaches global situations, such as the Syrian refugee crisis.

My only regret about going to Berlin was only being there two days, I felt like I needed at least a week to try and learn everything I wanted to.  I am hoping if I get another free weekend I will be able to go back and see more sights.  In the meantime, this upcoming weekend I will be heading to Amsterdam and am looking forward to seeing the history and culture of the Netherlands.