Post image for Home Exchange Berlin 2011:  Exploring 20th Century History

Home Exchange Berlin 2011: Exploring 20th Century History

by John Mensinger on February 13, 2012

Most tourists visit Berlin in the normal way. One advantage of home exchange is you get to know your partners and their friends and neighbors. Our home was in what had been East Berlin. Our hosts grew up in East Germany. We spent time with their friends. Their stories add an individual perspective to the broad sweep of history.

Berlin is an exhibition of Germany’s 20th century experience. 25% of the city was destroyed by World War II. During the Cold War the city was divided by the Berlin Wall, which was the ugly poster child for the Iron Curtain. The Communist regime destroyed large parts of the city, to build the wall and to construct their socialist utopia. The newest buildings showcase reunited Berlin’s role as Capital of Europe’s largest and most important country.

Neighborhoods in Western Berlin tend to be posh and tidy: their Eastern equivalents are grittier and uneven, though benefitting from a process of constant improvement and reconstruction. Western Berlin is reminiscent of many European cities, leafy streets with four and five story buildings, shops on the ground floor, apartments above. There are neighborhoods like this in the Eastern part of the city but there are also huge sections bearing testimony to socialist urban design, tall apartment blocks surrounded by green lawns and parking lots. You can walk or cycle along Karl Marx Allee, a showpiece street for East Germany with massive modern buildings, slightly classical, the style known as wedding cake architecture. The Moscow restaurant still sports an Aeroflot Airlines sign.

You should also visit the Tiergarten or Treptower Park, both of which have WW II memorials to the Soviet Army. You can cycle the path of the Berlin Wall, which is marked by a special row of paving stones in the city center. One large section of the wall, known as the Eastside Gallery, is painted with art work. My favorite panel has a sign “You are now entering the Japanese sector.” There are many museums to visit that document the communist era including:
The Berlin Wall Museum
DDR Museum
The Museum for German Parliamentary Democracy (In the Deutscher Dom, Gendarmenmarkt)

The East German Secret Police, the STASI, were notorious for their cruel efficiency. To get a feel for their work and life in East Berlin see the movie The Lives of Others or visit the Stasi Museum.

For an interesting conversation ask any East German about where they were the night the Berlin Wall fell.

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