Berlin: Layers of History

Berlin is my favourite city in the world. If that sounds like the syntax of a giddy 6-year-old, then you’d be partly right. I have been known to grin like one at the thought of going back to Germany, before returning to the sad realisation I am stuck at home for the next couple of years. 

I love Berlin for its history and its culture. It is a city unlike any other; one that has endured and reinvented itself for centuries to the point where no Berlin of the past can be directly related to the Berlin today - but remnants remain.

Today’s Berlin, one which the city’s mayor described as »…arm, aber sexy« (“poor, but sexy”), does not shy away from its history (even the nasty parts), placing them at the centre of the shifting city.

One example of this is the Topographie des Terrors - an open-air museum and documentation centre built on the site of the former Reich Main Security Office, headquarters of the feared SS and Gestapo: Prinz-Albrecht-Straße.

In the cellars of this dreaded address, political prisoners were tortured and executed. Here Himmler and Heydrich had their offices; here they planned the elimination of their enemies and the genocide of an entire race.

The site was heavily bombed during the war and the buildings destroyed. After the end of hostilities, the site again became a fortified domain, forming part of the border between the Soviet and American zones of occupation. 

In 1961, the Wall was built. The site fell in to disrepair, a possible flashpoint in the next world war. It became a dumping ground for rubble from nearby suburbs, with nature reclaiming the site - creepers, birch trees and undergrowth dominating amongst the rubble. 

Part of the wasteland was transformed into »Harrys Autodrom« where unlicensed drivers could practice around a small track. All this only metres from the physical manifestation of the greatest ideological divide of the 20th century. 

Stuck between world views and in a nation uneasy about commemoration of its National Socialist past, a permanent memorial on the site was a long time in the making. 

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the site was further excavated. The cellars were revealed again, now visible directly below the Wall like stratum upon stratum of human misery. Unfortunately, this would not be the end of battles over the site.

In 1993, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor won the tender for a permanent building on the site. His striking design, however, proved expensive to construct. The contractor became insolvent during construction, with no other contractor willing or able to commit to the project for its fixed budget. 

Concrete towers which were to form the stairwells of Zumthor’s building were demolished in 2004. A new design competition was held in 2005 and a scaled-back documentation centre now occupies the site. 

The former Autodrom area remains an overgrown grove with nature reigning almost unchecked. A path follows the route of the former driving track. 

Tourists visit the site en-masse, but its difficult to tell from their hop-on, hop-off-style touring how much they really take in. They pose in front of the Wall, they walk along the excavated cellars, perhaps not entirely aware of the horrors that were born on this site that will forever stain the 20th century.

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