Wednesday, 20 August 2014


It's a real double-think being in Berlin. As I strolled around the city, it looked much like any other comfort-able, prosperous city. People looked happy, stylishly dressed, well fed and watered, doing very nicely thank you.

It's only when we went to the historical museums and memorials that I was reminded abruptly of the horrifying events Berliners have had to endure in the not so distant past. It seemed like a parallel universe, another Berlin, a fanciful novel.

But it isn't. The Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War. It all happened here and it was a terrifying contrast to the comfort and prosperity of today. Walking among all those contented people, it's hard to envisage all the wretched clusters of the Unwanted, dragged from their homes and bound for concentration camps. It's hard to envisage all the desperate East Berliners resorting to such extreme methods to escape to the West. And it's hard to imagine the anxiety of being so close to Soviet nuclear missiles.

For those Berliners of my generation, it must be a profound relief to finally be free of all that horror and mayhem and to enjoy a city that is once again at peace and tolerant of a wide range of religions, cultures, ethnicities and sexual tastes.

I have to say though that I was surprised at the lack of gay visibility. Although Berlin has a reputation as a gay Mecca, I saw very little sign of it. The Gay Holocaust Memorial is a pathetic nothing, just a concrete cube containing a video of gay men and women kissing. And in all my travels round the city, I saw only three gay couples openly holding hands, plus a gay men's art gallery and bookshop tucked away in the back streets of Charlottenburg, well away from the city centre. I got the distinct feeling that gays still leave a bad taste in many people's mouths and that discretion and secrecy are still the order of the day. Most disappointing.

But today's Berlin is a lovely city to visit - relaxed, civilised, reeking of good taste and sophistication. With fantastic views from the top of the Reichstag, now beautifully restored after the Nazis set fire to it in 1933. And behind the Reichstag, the sprawling parkland of the Tiergarten. What's not to like?

  • The Typography of Terror
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Story of Berlin (museum)
  • The Berlin Wall Memorial
  • The Stasi Museum
  • The Käthe Kollwitz Museum
  • The Reichstag and Dome
Pic: The Berlin Wall Memorial. One of the remaining sections of the Wall.


Cheerful Monk said...

I was in Berlin for May Day, 1960. It was before the wall, so we (a group from Stanford-in-Germany) saw the parade in East Berlin. We also went to where East Germans were being interviewed and hopefully given permission to move to West Germany.

I met a family with members in both East and West Berlin. We went sightseeing with the West Berliners, and included one of their rare visits to East Berlin. I still remember how nervous they were. At the time I was young with an American passport and realized how lucky I was.

Nick said...

Jean: For those of us who're entirely used to freedom of movement, it's hard to imagine what it's like to be under such restrictions year in, year out.

Bijoux said...

I'm reading 'Margot' right now; a fictional account of Anne Frank's sister. It's good to be reminded that WW2 was not that long ago.

Hope your trip was relaxing, too.

Nick said...

Bijoux: I hadn't heard of "Margot". It sounds like an interesting "what if" scenario.

Yes, there was plenty of relaxing as well as the studious historical bits!

Grannymar said...

I have never managed to get to Berlin, It sounds like a very interesting place and easier to visit these days.

Nick said...

Grannymar: It's a pleasure to walk round Berlin, there's a sense of effortless sophistication wherever you look. And of course there's the gruesome history, shocking but also thought-provoking.

Ursula said...

Why are you "disappointed" by the lack of gay visibility? I am genuinely baffled. It's such an odd thing to say. A bit like if I went to Amsterdam and lamented that there aren't drug dealers and prostitutes milling at every corner.

I am afraid you make the wrong correlation: It is precisely because places like Berlin are so relaxed and integrating that there is little obvious 'visibility'. Not even to keep tourists entertained.


Nick said...

Ursula: Oh, you're just being deliberately provocative again. I think you know exactly what I mean. Are you seriously equating gays with drug dealers and prostitutes? A very odd idea. And how is gay invisibility any different from say, female invisibility or black invisibility? It's not a question of entertaining tourists, it's about people being free to express their identity without censorship. It's about people not having to always watch what they do and say because it's not "normal".

Nick said...

Ursula: I would say gay visibility in Berlin is no higher than in Northern Ireland, which is a highly religious and homophobic country.

Nick said...

Ursula: Compare the present-day to the 1920s and 1930s when Berlin's gay scene was huge, with around 40 gay bars in the Nollendorfplatz area alone. And compare it to San Francisco with its well-known gay district, the Castro, and gays everywhere you look.

Ursula said...

You still haven't answered my question why the gay scene is of such interest to you. Neither did I equate gays with drug dealers and prostitutes. I was talking about the expectations that 'tourists' have. A bit like going to China and expecting to find your dog in the soup. I know what I am talking about: The innocent abroad. Oh dear, Nick. Not everyone in Sicily is a Mafiosi or the daughter of one. Not every gentleman in London does wear a bowler hat.

As to your example of San Fran: It is precisely that Ghetto mentality of so many countries: Keep the black in the Bronx, keep the gays in designated areas in SF. And then the 'tourist' cruises these areas as if the 'spectacle' were laid on for them.

One thing you may not understand about Germans: They are not in your face. Which reminds me, apropos your 'Mecca for gays': A friend of mine (of Irish/Trinidadian extraction), gay, thought Berlin indeed paradise. Not because he wanted to fuck his way round the city (for that he is too refined - literally) but because there is no segregation.

Still, to put your mind to rest I shall contact some of my many contacts who have lived in Berlin for many many many years - immersed in the culture as it were - and find out what they think about the "gay scene", independently of whether they themselves are gay or not.

So, back to the beginning: Where does your inordinate interest in gays come from?


Nick said...

Ursula: I shall be very interested in your Berlin soundings and whether they reflect my impressions or not!

I wouldn't say my interest in gays is "inordinate". I take an interest simply because gays have been treated so badly for so many years - and still are in many countries. And my thoughts were also prompted by the tiny and half-hidden gay holocaust memorial in the Tiergarten.

We didn't go to the Castro for the "spectacle", we went there because we were told it had a relaxed, laid-back feeling - which it did.

Our experience of Berliners was certainly that they weren't in your face, which we appreciated.

If your gay friend felt there was no segregation, that's good to hear, though I still wonder why gays were so invisible compared to all the canoodling straight couples.

Rummuser said...

On 9th November 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, I was in Frankfurt and saw the effect on West Germans who would watch it on TV and come out on the streets to exclaim to their neighbours. I was advised not to go to Berlin at that time but I went again to Germany in 1993 and was able to visit Berlin. Your experiences are more recent but I found the Berliner more friendly than the rest of the country of then!

Secret Agent Woman said...

I was gong to comment then got distracted by the odd argument in the commentary.

Nick said...

Ramana: That must have been quite an experience, being there when the wall came down. I wouldn't know about Germans generally as we were only in Berlin.

Agent: Oh, you shouldn't be distracted by that. Ursula and I are old sparring partners from way back. No hard feelings on either side. What's so odd about it anyway?

Jenny Woolf said...

I find Berlin a most fascinating city. I wonder if you made it to the DDR museum - it was full of people exclaiming nostalgically when I went there but it was also really interesting.

Nick said...

Jenny: Funnily enough, that was one museum we didn't visit. It was very close to our hotel in Karl-Liebknecht-Straße but we were told it was very touristy so we gave it a miss. We got very fond of the old East German "fat pedestrian" signals though.

Secret Agent Woman said...

Eh, I think I'll just keep my own counsel on that.

Keith Smith said...

I'm one of the lucky people, or possibly unlucky, to have personally witnessed the building of the wall in 1961, and again in 1989 when it came down. I was in the British Army in 1961 as a National Serviceman and stationed in Berlin on guard duties.

One day I could walk freely through the Brandenburg Gate, then suddenly the next few days there were coils of barbed wire stretching across the city, and everywhere the East German Army and contractors were ripping down buildings, and building The Wall.

Many years later in 1989, as a civilian, I visited West Berlin to have a short break with some German friends I had met when I was a soldier there. At that time I was interested in German culture and history and I met a young couple the same age as myself, and we have remained friends ever since.

We heard about the wall being overrun on the radio, so we decided to go and have a look-see. I actually saw people ripping at the wall with their bare hands if they didn't have implements to do the job with.

A few days later there were just piles of rubble where the wall once stood!

kylie said...

it would be easier if you would just come out, nick

Nick said...

Agent: Okay.

Keith: Being there on both occasions must have been an amazing experience. Especially seeing people trying to bring down the wall with their bare hands. There must have been utter euphoria as the wall finally fell.

Nick said...

Kylie: Now there's a comment and a half. One that deserves a very long and very private reply and not a public one. But you've made it pretty clear you don't want any other correspondence with me.

Keith Smith said...

My German friends have told me that since that 1989 most of the East Germans found it difficult to accept a democratic society. He said most of them were born and reared under Nazism and then had Communism forced onto them so they had never known any other form of government. It took them a long time to realise that they could think and say openly what they wanted without fear of being thrown into a "correction camp".

Nick said...

Keith: It must have been very difficult to adjust to a normal democratic society. A bit like battery chickens suddenly let out of their cages.

Ursula said...

I am sorry, Keith Smith, whoever your German friends are: That's just b.......s, perpetuating some myth. It appears Angela Merkel has adjusted remarkably well to "a democratic society".