Berlin with Dad
A great city is composed of multiple layers of meaning. Analyzing any one of Berlin's layers — its history, culture, art, or politics — yields valuable insight into the nature of the city. Yet, limiting Berlin's meaning to just one layer fails to capture its full character. Rather, it is where the layers overlap that the city's most meaningful moments emerge.
Dad and I took a trip to Berlin in the fall of 2018 to see for ourselves. Our relationship was in a transitional phase at that time. I was 31 years old and shifting towards a life of adult responsibilities. Dad, at 70, was beginning to slow down, but far from slow. He was embracing his retirement years and indulging in his personal interests. Golf occupied most of his time in British Columbia's sunny Kootenay Valley where he lived. As did the various home improvement projects his kids took on in Calgary, for which he always offered advice.
For Dad, slowing down seemed to allow his mind to open up in equal measure. I always knew my Dad to be open-minded, but parental and professional pressures force even the saintliest among us to develop an adaptive tunnel vision, making us more effective at specific task completion. Dad was no exception, and during his adult years — when I was young — I knew him to be focused, mature, and hard-working. It was nice to see old layers of his personality come to the surface again.
An old layer that started to resurface was his interest in Europe. He always maintained a nostalgia for the continent. After all, he was born there, in the Baltic port town of Kiel in late May of 1945. Just a couple of weeks after Germany's surrender in WWII. I remember listening to stories from my Omi about how difficult that time was.
The country was in ruins. Young Germans weren't sure if they should stay to clean up the mess left by the war or leave it all behind for the Americas. Dad's parents — my Omi and Opa — decided to stay, and for seven years tried to rebuild their social, professional, and familial lives from the rubble. I can picture my young Dad playing, as children do, with his brothers Frank and Rainer in bombed-out apartment blocks, oblivious to the catastrophic devastation surrounding them, and equally oblivious to the monumental luck that he and his family survived it all, save their beloved sister Brigitte, who tragically passed from tuberculosis a year earlier at the age of four.
The burden of nation-building turned out to be too much for Omi and Opa, and they decided to leave Europe and start a new life in Canada. Immigrating was feasible from a bureaucratic perspective. Opa was already a Canadian citizen, having been born on a homestead in Northern Alberta, where his parents first immigrated to at the start of the 20th century as part of the Canadian government's western expansion policies. The farm failed, but Opa's Canadian citizenship proved fertile, providing him and his young family access to a new world and a second chance at life. This act of inter-generational citizenship inheritance continued in early 2018 when I used Dad's German citizenship to obtain my German passport.
Berlin, too, played a role in Dad's story. He lived there in the late 1960s when he worked for the American army in his mid-twenties. His role wasn't as provocative as it sounds. Given German was his first language, he acted as a German-English translator during the Cold War period. At this time, America was committed to defeating the U.S.S.R. on economic terms. Berlin's urban landscape became the symbolic battleground for dominance, with the city's two halves continually trying to outdo the other in architectural terms. In the West, the reconstruction of the KaDeWe shopping complex, new skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz, and a refurbished Reichstag. In the East, huge housing blocks, museum renovations, and construction of the svelte Fernsehturm, a telecommunication and observation tower visible all over Berlin. It was an era of regeneration, much needed following a long period of decay.
Now, nearly 50 years later, the city had propelled itself even further from its past and towards modernity. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, young people started flocking again to the city to take advantage of cheap rent and permissive social norms. Old warehouses and apartments were being converted into nightclubs, galleries, and artist communes, turning the city into the global centre point of contemporary culture. Visiting Berlin with Dad provided both of us an opportunity to engage in our interests; Dad, history, and me, contemporary culture. Engaging the city together, then, would be a mechanism through which we could get to know each other better. Through Berlin, I could come to see how my Dad sees the world. We could both inhabit Berlin — its "top" surface layer — but the layer we chose to cue to, and report back to one another, was the layer that refracted through the prism of our unique personalities. Like a keystone, Berlin was the centre point where our perspectives would converge.
It was late November when we arrived in the city. The time of year when a thick, grey cloud continually blankets the North German sky. The leaves on the trees were beginning to fall, providing a kaleidoscope of golden yellow overtop the textured cobblestone streets. The weather was chilly but not too cold. A fleece or flannel with a scarf was sufficient. For Dad, wearing a scarf — a simple scarf — was a radical extension beyond his normal fashion sensibilities. But he was in Europe, and the norms were different here. Not only was it exciting for Dad to push his boundaries, but I imagine he also experienced a sense of belonging by dressing like a Berliner.
"Does this scarf look good on me David?". Dad asked. "Yes, Dad. It looks great". I replied. (It was a scarf).
Our visit began at the historic sites centred around the Brandenburg Gate, Brandenburger Tor in German. The gate is a meaningful starting point due to its relationship with key historical events. Crossing the gate is considered a metaphor signalling a power transition. Napoleon famously crossed in 1806 after defeating the Prussians. From 1814 to 1919, only the royal family and other nobilities were allowed to pass through the central archway. Hitler's motorcade famously drove through the gate in 1936 during the opening ceremonies for the Berlin Olympic games. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall In 1989, the gate was the symbol — as well as the literal pathway — of German reunification. Today, the gate is considered a symbol of European unity and peace, being the main venue in Berlin where citizens gather to protest different human rights abuses around the world. For these reasons, the simple act of crossing through the gate feels like a beeline through history. For a brief moment, you too can share the spatial perspective of world leaders. Dad and I crossed multiple times as the eager students of history we were.
(1) Dad at Brandenburg Gate. (2018). Taken by the author.
A short walk north of the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament since 1894. Like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag played a key role in the power struggles that defined Europe's tumultuous 20th century. In 1933, the building was set on fire by — purportedly — a Dutch Communist agitator. Hitler, who was 4-weeks into his position as Chancellor of Germany, used the event as a pretext to impose sweeping and severe restrictions on civil liberties and pursue "ruthless confrontation" with Communists, altogether securing the Nazi party's near complete control over German political power. The building fell into ruin during the post-war period. Serious reconstruction efforts did not begin until 1961. In 1971, the Reichstag opened again as an exhibition space but did not house the Bundestag — the German parliament — until after German reunification another 20 years later. It was at this time, in the mid-1990s, that the building underwent significant renovations, including the addition of a huge glass dome atop the building designed by British Architect Norman Foster. The building was completely wrapped in white fabric for 14 days by the artist Christo prior to construction. Like a patient in a hospital burn-ward covered in wound dressings, the Reichstag needed to heal from its traumatic past. Today, the building is the second most visited attraction in Germany. The new dome provides tourists with an impressive view of the city, and its reflective interior serves as an embodied metaphor for transparency, clarity, and civilian presence in political decision-making. The building itself can be considered a metaphor for Germany's approach to post-war reconstruction. To erase all evidence of German wrongdoing delegitimizes the legacy of suffering experienced by victims. An honest Germany could never raze the Reichstag. An honest Germany has to reckon with it, and — perhaps — at best, insert a layer of hope within. Inscribed on the frieze is the dedication Dem Deutschen Volke — To the German People.
(2) Dad and David in front of Reichstag. (2018). Taken by the author.
(3) Inside the Dome of the Reichstag. (2018). Taken by the author.
The socio-cultural and psychological relationship Germans hold with the country's past is complex and fraught. Just look at an Anselm Kiefer's painting, rough and beaten, collapsing inwards, with layers and layers of detritus. In Berlin, bullet holes can be seen on the facades of dozens of buildings in Mitte, the city's central neighbourhood. The bombed-out skeleton of Kaiser Wilhelm church in the Kurfüstendamm area in West Berlin was left standing, still tall and imposing, but completely hollow on the inside. You can find demure brass-coated cobblestones called Stolperstein (stumbling stone) in residential streets all over the city with the names of local Jewish residents who became victims of Nazi persecution inscribed on each one. The Berlin wall itself still stands in some areas. In other areas where the wall has been torn down, a thick band of slate-coloured concrete was poured in its place. Each of these design decisions communicates a clear message: we cannot forget that horrors occurred here. The layer of Berlin's traumatic past must remain visible.
(4) Wir schöpften die Finsternis leer, wir fanden das wort, das den Sommer heraufkam: Blume. (2012). Anselm Kiefer.
Perhaps no other piece of architecture in Berlin embodies the principles of historic reckoning than the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the architect Peter Eisenman, and located just a block south of the Brandenburg Gate and adjacent to the Tiergarten, the memorial looks like an abandoned construction site at first glance. Thousands of gray concrete pillars, about two by six feet wide, rise from the ground in a tight grid form across a full square city block. The pillars appear sturdy, with clean right angles and smooth surfaces. Enough — ostensibly — to support a new steel-and-glass skyscraper. But the majority of these pillars rest at angles just off pure-perpendicular, producing a subtle but noticeable instability. They are different heights, too. Some are short, below knee height, while others are taller than a person.
The site is completely accessible to pedestrians. Each void between rows of pillars provides an opportunity to enter in the form of a direct path from what appears to be one end of the city block to the other.
Walking into the field of pillars seemed harmless. Most are below knee height and do not block sightlines to the street or familiar landmarks. Yet, gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pillars grow taller as one explores deeper into the site. At the same time, the ground below starts to gradually slope downwards. In the middle of the field, the pillars are now high enough to completely block the sun and the view of the surrounding urban context, making it seem as though you've lost contact with the outside world.
Dad and I lost each other in the middle of the field. I remember feeling a sense of unease and apprehension. I couldn't make sense of where I was in the grid or what direction I was facing. I felt completely "othered" by the architecture and did not regain a sense of stability until surfacing on the other end of the memorial.
This sense of "othering" is in fact the intention of this piece of architecture. The architect — Eisenman — simulates "otherness" by manipulating sightlines, verticality, confinedness, mobility, and other architectural conditions. In so doing, he simulates the experience of Jewish individuals during times of persecution — their loss of stability, awareness, freedom of movement, and feelings of otherness. The architecture generalizes our subjectivities. Between the past and the present. Between different visitors. And between my Dad and me.
(5) Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. (2018). Taken by the author.
Since the end of WWII, German politicians regularly adopted pacifist positions on issues of foreign policy, advocating for dialogue over conflict. Dad, too, was a pacifist. "In the fullness of time", my Dad would say. I remember hearing it often, usually when I was experiencing some personal challenge I thought I couldn't resolve. I had a tendency to overthink my issues when I was young. Dad, calm-eyed arms folded, would listen and reply "David, in the fullness of time".
And he was right. About a lot of things. About time — its fullness — and how it offered an unforced mechanism for conflict resolution. It worked for our personality differences, which sometimes lacked overlap. I wasn't close with my Dad when I was young. I didn't understand him. I don't think he understood me, either. His lexicon included the stock market, business valuations, and German auto manufacturers. Mine were trending in a different direction, towards philosophy, psychology, the arts, and architecture. Eventually, we found layers of overlap, but it took time. It took acknowledging that total overlap was impossible. We were different people. It also took honesty. Meaningful layers — however complex or traumatic — cannot be hidden. They must be woven into a person's present-tense personality. Not necessarily highlighted, but never invisible.
Our visit to the Memorial was finished and we made our way back through the Brandenburg Gate towards Unter den Linden.
"Under the lights". I confidently quipped. "No". Dad replied. "Under the Linden trees".
My first of many mini-lessons in the German language from Dad. While I may not have recognized their name, Linden trees play an important role in my German nostalgia repertoire. I can recall the sweet, honey-lemon smell of the moist, crumbly, and syrupy Linden cake served at Omi's house at Christmas time, often with tea or coffee and an unbelievable selection of Lebkuchen, Honigkuchen, and Pfefferkuchen — little German cookies spiced with cinnamon, ginger, anise, and chocolate. The fragrance of the Linden trees on Unter den Linden provides a sweet counterpoint to Berlin's notoriously musky sewage system, a result of the swamp the city is built upon.
About half a block from the Brandenburg gate on Unter den Linden is the Russian Embassy. A massive and imposing building, the Russian Embassy was built just after WWII to affirm Soviet clout. Today it is the largest embassy in Europe and is as imposing as ever with tinted windows and a locked front gate. Just one block beyond the Russian Embassy is Friedrichstraße, one of Mitte's main streets. Turn south on Friedrichstraße and you will find the capitalist counterargument to the Russian Embassy. The street is filled with upscale residential apartments, luxury shopping stores, and the Jean Nouvel designed Galeries Lafayette. On the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße is Checkpoint Charlie, the former key Berlin-Wall crossing point during the Cold War. Once a highly contentious location, Checkpoint Charlie is now a museum that memorializes West Berlin's victory over the East.
Two blocks past Friedrichstraße on Unter den Linden is Bebelplatz. It was here where the Nazis held their infamous book-burning ceremony on May 10th, 1933. The event symbolized the fascist ethos present in the Nazi party. Books by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein were burnt, along with the entire library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft — the Institute for Sex Research — a private research institute led by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld that was the first to campaign for equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in society. This idea, along with those of Mann, Marx, and Einstein, was set ablaze by the Nazis, but found sanctuary in American institutions when their authors fled across the Atlantic as intellectual refugees. Today, the book burning at Bebelplatz is a reminder of the power of ideas, as well as of the lengths detractors will go to extinguish them.
(6) Gendarmenmarkt. (2018). Taken by the author.
Our short walk so far revealed a stable truth about Berlin; the city's urban landscape is a rich repository of information, full of historic, political, and cultural cues. Dad was transfixed. I remember he was so engaged in observing the urban landscape around him. It was as if he was reading a dense novel that referenced elements of his own life narrative. It made me happy to see him so engaged. We ended our day at a neighbourhood Bierhaus, with plenty to reflect upon as we ate our bratwurst and drank our beer.
(7) Bratwurst mit Kartoffel, Sauerkraut, und Bier. (2018). Taken by the author.
Our second day began at Alexanderplatz, a large public square at the foot of the Fernsehturm in East Berlin. The urban landscape in this part of the city feels considerably different than areas in West Berlin. The buildings surrounding Alexanderplatz are massive, monolithic slabs of homogeneous concrete. There is little differentiation or ornamentation. They embody the socialist ethos. Karl-Marx-Allee starts at the southeast corner of Alexanderplatz and acts as the Soviet counterpoint to Unter den Linden. In North America, great efforts have been made to scrub communist ideas and intellectuals from history. You just don't see the names of Marx or Engels woven in anywhere on the urban landscape in the U.S. or Canada. In East Berlin, communist intellectuals are celebrated, and in the case of Marx, awarded one of the grandest boulevards in the city. Walking this street towards the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain feels surreal. It's like entering an uncanny valley. The architecture is all real, but different enough from its Western counterparts that it feels synthetic. The walk reminded me of the power our context plays in anchoring an implicit sense of familiarity and — by extension — a sense of self. We continued down to the East Side Gallery, an outdoor space where a large section of the Berlin Wall was left standing. It's now covered in graffiti, but not the meaningless kind. The graffiti here portrays messages of hope and liberation.
(8) Dad at The East Side Gallery. (2018). Taken by the author.
A short walk north from Karl-Marx-Allee is the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Despite being situated in East Berlin, much of Prenzlauer Berg was spared from the raze and redevelop strategy applied to the majority of the rest of East Berlin. Instead, the buildings here, which were largely been built during the Wilhelmine period (1890-1918), were left standing, having been recognized for their historic significance and quality of construction. It was in Prenzlauer Berg that I saw my Dad at his most comfortable. I could tell he found the neighourhood familiar.
"I could have been living here David". He would say.
(9) Dad in Prenzlauer Berg. (2018). Taken by the author.
He must have been reflecting on the complete lack of control he had over the decision to immigrate to Canada — a decision that completely changed the trajectory of his life. Sometimes major life events are arbitrary.
I could tell why he was feeling nostalgic. The streets of Prenzlauer Berg are quaint and inviting. Young families with baby strollers greeted each other as they strolled the cobblestone streets. Corner cafés served hot coffees to clientele, bundled up in their always fashionable Berlin attire. Dad and I landed on a famous Currywurst stall called Konnopke's Imbiss, which opened nearly a hundred years ago in 1930. We ate our Currywurst and drank our Bier. Dad's eyes were always wide open, taking in the urban theatre being acted out around him.
(10) Dad at Konnopke's Imbiss. (2018). Taken by the author.
For our third day, we decided to explore Berlin's contemporary cultural scene. While unique when compared to other major cities, a survey of Berlin's history reveals the city has always been a cultural powerhouse. For much of the 1920s, Berlin was world-renown for its cultural contributions. This included design (e.g., the Bauhaus), literature (e.g., Bruno Döblin), film (e.g., Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich), painting (e.g., George Grosz), theatre (e.g., Bertolt Brecht), and cultural criticism (e.g., Walter Benjamin). These advances all came to an abrupt end in 1933 when the Nazis came into power. Cultural productions were viewed as decadent and socially disruptive by the Nazis and were significantly curtailed through police raids and enforced closures. So began a long period of cultural decay.
It wasn't until the 1990s that Berlin's cultural scene began to grow again. Berlin needed to heal after the long Cold War. Culture can help in the healing process by providing a mechanism through which past traumas can be reconstituted and transformed into ethical principles. Culture is cheap, too; technically free, in its purest form.
The former East Berlin neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln are the centre point of its contemporary cultural scene. Dad was happy to accompany me as I explored these areas. We walked down Kottbusser Straße and onto Hermannstraße and admired the young and fashionable crowd. We visited a contemporary art museum that, to our surprise, Dad happened to enjoy more than I did. We also stopped by a massive neighbourhood church. The type that doesn't make it into the tourist's top-ten attractions list, but is nonetheless astounding for a North American. The building was like a shot of pure nostalgia for Dad. We ended our day at one of the many effortlessly cool restaurants that populate the area.
(11). Dad outside Neukölln Church. (2018). Taken by the author.
Our fourth day in Berlin started differently than the previous three. Dad woke up with a toothache and decided to visit a dentist instead of exploring. I didn't mind, as the city offered me plenty to do on my own. We went our separate ways.
I returned home in the evening to find Dad relaxed and at ease eating some cold cuts and drinking a beer.
"David, I had the most wonderful experience". He said.
"I went to the dentist and nobody spoke English. I had to speak to them in German, but it worked! They fixed my tooth. And the whole time they were asking me about my history. They were surprised a tourist could speak such good German. I told them I was born here, and that I was visiting again with my son. They were so happy to know I had returned. It was nice. It felt like I was part of their community".
And he was. He was a part of their community. Just as is inscribed on the frieze of the Reischtag — Dem Deutschen Volke — to the German People. Him and I.
A great city is composed of multiple layers of meaning. In Berlin, it's at the overlaps between the layers of history, culture, art, architecture, and politics where the city's most meaningful moments emerge.
Dad and I visited Berlin to explore the city's layers. We visited Berlin to uncover the city’s historic layer, and to discover how it overlaps with its contemporary layer. Moreover, we visited Berlin to discover layers of overlaps between the two of us. I will continue to visit Berlin. I will continue to visit to find new overlaps — more meaningful than ever — now that the city holds a layer of memories of my father.