It was difficult to believe that more than a decade-and-a-half has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the almost complete removal of the Wall in the city center and most obvious traces of the former Soviet occupation erased, it was difficult to imagine just how isolated West Berlin was from the rest of Europe during the Cold War. West Berlin was an island of freedom, cut away from the rest of the city and surrounded on all sides by East Germany. The isolation of West Berlin was demonstrated very early in the days after World War II as the Soviets tried to starve her into submission to the East. But, due to the heroic efforts of the massive Berlin Airlift that successfully brought needed provisions, West Berlin survived and stood as a symbol of Western resolve against Soviet influence. That resolve was tested many times, especially during the tense days of the Wall's construction when American and Russian tanks stared each other down.
Living in such tension left a great impact on West Berliners. People I knew who lived there during the Cold War described them as being very rebellious. They described them as having a propensity to dress in punk clothing, wear their hair in psychedelic colors, and party all hours of the day. Meanwhile, West Berlin was being built up as a showcase city to the East Germans. It developed a very cosmopolitan character, rebuilt and refashioned into a modern city with great shopping and cultural events. Granted, the center of gravity in Berlin shifted eastward once the city's primary attractions along the Unter den Linden were reopened in 2002, but much of the commerce still remained in the West.
This travelogue chapter mostly draws from my June 2002 trip when I covered the vast majority of the city. Quite a lot has changed. Back then, the point of entry for train travel to West Berlin was the Zoologischer Garten station, but for the World Cup 2006 the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (a single main train station for the city) was to be completed in the former East Berlin. The Zoologischer Garten station was next to the huge Berlin Zoo, the massive Tiergarten, and Berlin's main shopping district that including Budapester Strasse shown in the first photo. The shopping zone was almost completely modern, with the only remaining relic from the Second World War was the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, whose lone standing tower ruin stood out from the surrounding modernity.
We toured several of the shopping centers, each of which had something unique about it. The Europa Center had a particularly interesting liquid-driven clock -- a self-contained series of glass tubes containing a fluorescent green liquid that was poured into a sequence of levers and devices. The largest tubes contained markers that indicated the time. There were several other shopping centers that had inner courtyards with cafes and weird modern sculptures. Fancy modern architecture was commonplace, too, for those into that sort of thing.
We preferred the greener parts of the former West, anyhow. Together, the Berlin Zoo and Tiergarten comprised one of Europe's largest downtown greeneries. The Tiergarten was a massive open park with trails, canals, and various memorials scattered throughout. It was a very pleasant place to take a walk or run. In the center of the Tiergarten stood the Siegessaeule, or "Tower of Victory", shown in the second photo. This Tower sat in the middle of a major traffic circle on the main road with one road ending at the Brandenburg Gate where the Wall once blocked away. The traffic circle had numerous side roads. One went towards the Spree River and the Schloss Bellevue, which was a very picturesque palace serving as a government office. Visitors reached the Siegessaeule through four underground passages at the outside of the traffic circle, which was also flanked by specific memorials to Roon, Bismarck, Moltke and others.
Closer to the Brandenburg Gate were a various other memorials, perhaps the most impressive was shown in the third photo, the Sowietisches Ehremal that memorialized a number of Soviets killed in World War II. Each pillar, front and back, had names engraved underneath the Soviet symbols for infantry, armor, etc. When I walked around the back, I found a second building containing a full map of all the war memorials (Allied, Soviet, and otherwise) in the city. I was unable to find such a map on any of the tour books I skimmed. There were also aerial and ground photos of Berlin immediately after the Second World War... the level of devastation boggled my mind. I was also amazed how quickly it was all rebuilt.
In the British sector at the far west lay two points of interest. The fourth photo shows the Schloss Charlottenburg, a beautiful palace ground that housed several museums, a large garden, a belvedere tea house, a mausoleum, and a pleasant walking park carved around several artificial canals off the Spree River. The tour inside the palace was fabulous, and the garden was in full bloom at the time and very enjoyable to walk through.
The other attraction was further out to the west, but still in Charlottenburg -- the Olympische Stadion, or Olympic Stadium. This was the site of the 1936 "Hitler" Olympics where Jesse Owens earned his greatest fame. In 2002, it was undergoing completion reconstruction as the cranes showed. It re-opened in 2004 in preparation for hosting the final match of the 2006 World Cup Finals.
West Berlin had a number of cultural attractions as well, theaters, the Deutsche Oper, the Messe (convention center -- although it is one of the ugliest buildings around). Even before the wall came down, West Berlin was a full weekend's worth of activity by itself, and that's something that hasn't changed even though it was no longer an 'island'.
Trips taken 13-14 April 2001 and 29-30 June 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002, 2004 Tom Galvin