If you want to avoid history, then you’d probably be best advised to avoid Berlin, because you really can’t keep away from it there.
It’s not just the obvious, the large scale. Here a street named after a student leader in 1968, there a tiny brass plaque in the cobbled pavement to a woman who was deported to a concentration camp from that spot.
I wanted to do history – well, some history. A trip out to Potsdam and Sanssoucci had been identified as a must, giving me a lovely big dose of old Prussia as we strolled around the gardens, formal and less formal, that surrounded Frederick the Great’s getaway palace.
There too was the grave where he was finally interred, in accordance with his wishes, at night and without ceremony, next to the graves of his beloved dogs.
It was a Monday and the palaces themselves were closed. Whilst that meant not being able to wander in the halls where the king had entertained guests with his flute playing and conversed with Voltaire, it had the advantage of meaning a greatly reduced tourist presence that day, thus enabling many moments of solitude, where the only sounds were bird song, a gentle breeze in the trees and the occasional buzz of insects. It was beautifully soothing.
Not quite everything was shut – the shop remained open, so I didn’t have to miss out on the appropriate fridge magnets, postcards and a lighter. The Other Half has long been tolerant of what he describes as my being a "romantic Prussian" – his reward was being photographed next to a T34 tank at the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten later in the week (his kind of history).
But even as one approaches Potsdam on the train – a lovely journey through wooded countryside much of the way – more recent history imposes itself. When the train stops at Wannsee, for instance, and you see the name on the platform sign, it is impossible not to make the historic connection. And then, of course, Potsdam itself hosted the allies’ post-war conference to decide the fate of Germany.
A short walk down the road from our hotel in one direction was the Jüdisches Museum, with architect Daniel Libeskind’s shattered Star of David providing a disorienting and claustrophobic experience next to the old Kollegienhaus, where the main part of the museum is housed.
In the other direction had stood Checkpoint Charlie, where people could pass through substantial checks from the US to the Soviet sector. Now, with the original checkpoint in a museum, a copy has been built and bus loads of tourists queue to have their pictures taken in front of it, with models dressed in the uniforms of the four occupying powers.
With spectacular irony, on street corners in all the major tourist areas, trestle tables are loaded with reproduction Soviet and DDR military memorabilia – hats in particular: communist iconography made for profit.
And on Marx-Engels-Forum, the knees on the seated statue of Marx are polished to a shine by the endless bottoms seated there for holiday snaps.
Later in the week, as we walked from the hotel to the Philharmonie to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, we found ourselves on the street where the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall stands. If every souvenir shop that sells what they purport to be real fragments of the real wall is telling the truth, then that wall must have stretched to the moon and back – never mind across a city.
There are holes in the remaining stretch, with bared wire visible like prison bars, and gouges where the surface of the concrete has been stripped away, as though by clawing hands. It is ugly and obscene, and something keeps you mute as you hurry past.
The next day, I discovered from my Time Out guide to the city that the building site on the other side of that stretch of wall is where the Gestapo headquarters were. A temporary exhibition of photographs from the first half of the 20th century stands on the site while an exhibition and memorial centre is built. The pictures displayed are the only place where it is apparently legal to show the swastika, an otherwise banned symbol.
I’m never comfortable amid such history – but then again, it should disturb. In Amsterdam, next to the Westerkerk, stands a small statue of Anne Frank. On many occasions, I’ve seen people having their photographs taken, smiling, next to it. Which disquiets me.
In the UK, we’re comfortably removed by distance from most of our historic dodgy deeds. There are some memorials to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but none that I know of to the victims of the British concentration camps in South Africa in the first years of the 20th century or in Kenya in the 1950s, for instance.
And Churchill and Bomber Harris even have statues to celebrate them – conveniently ignoring, amongst other things, their roles in the 1919 gassing and carpet bombing of the Kurds in northern Messopotamia (as it was then) or in the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 (which incident itself still divides opinion as to whether it was proportionate: even Churchill tried to distance himself from it).
The immediacy of such history prompts one to query one’s own relationship to it – and one’s own response. And in some cases in particular, there is a sense that one has to have a socially-approved ‘correct’ response. If you don’t, have you ‘failed’?
Not all Berlin’s recent history is so disquieting, thankfully. It was with great delight that I found a collection of 21 original pen and ink erotic sketches from 1925. Together with a bowler hat purchased from the same market, I could quite happily create a Cabaret mood.