Germany: Berlin, a City That Looks Back at the Past to Reinvent Itself in the Present

Berlin, the capital city of modern Germany, has an intriguing history.

A. 1200-1400

The Slavs who originally inhabited the region called it berl “swamp,” which sounded similar to the German Bär “bear.” Coincidentally, the first Margrave of Brandenburg Albrecht I was nicknamed “the Bear.” Therefore, it is not surprisng that the image of a standing bear has found its way on the guild seal, signet ring and coat of arms of Berlin. And there are even quite a few life-size statues of Buddy Bears on Berlin streets and squares.


My dear brother cuddled with one of the Berlin Buddy Bears.

B. 1400-1918

In 1415 Friedrich I became the first from the Hohenzollern family to rule in Berlin. According to Wikipedia “History of Berlin”: “Subsequent members of the Hohenzollern family ruled in Berlin until 1918, first as electors of Brandenburg, then as kings of Prussia, and finally as German emperors.” Members of the royal Hohenzollern family are now buried in the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). This branch of the Hohenzollern family was Protestant, so the statutes of the four leaders of Reformation (i.e. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, and Huldrych Zwingli) loom large alongside the biblical reliefs and mosaics that decorate the walls, niches, and ceilings of the cathedral.

Berliner Dom

The glass windows behind the altar contain colorful depictions of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Standing on the two columns near the altar are the statues of Martin Luther and John Calvin. The reliefs above the arched niches are several scenes from the Acts of the Apostles. The mosaics on the ceilings of the four small niches are the images of the Four Evangelists. On top of the huge organ is a golden statue of David, who is traditionally thought to be the author of most of the Psalms.


The dome of the Berlin Cathedral depicts eight angels representing the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11): 1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 3. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 5. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 8. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Since the eighteenth century, the European colonialism in the Middle East and their interests in the biblical stories have played a role in initiating the European studies of the ancient Near East. Therefore, do not be surprised by the vast amount of archaeological treasures collected from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia in the Pergamonmuseum and Neues Museum on the Berlin Museum Island.

According to the museum brochure, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung in Neues Museum “chart the development of ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures over a period of four millennia. Exhibits include images of royalty, burial chambers and the world-famous bust of Nefertiti from the Amarna Period. Texts covering a period extending from the ancient Egyptians to Late Antiquity are also on show.” During my visit to Neues Museum, the painted bust of Nefertiti could not be photographed, but I took a picture of the smaller stone statue of Nefertiti:


Standing-striding figure of Nefertiti (New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, in 1345 BCE, Amarna, limestone)

According to another museum brochure, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in the Pergamonmuseum “presents artefacts from ancient Near Eastern cultural history from over 6 millennia, primarily from Mesopotamia, Syria and Anatolia. The approximately 500,000 artefacts were mainly obtained through German archaeological digs in Babylon, Assur, Uruk and Tell Halaf.” What has enticed my curiosity is the wide array of hybrid and winged creatures in the museum:

TOP: The Mushhushshu “dragon” is the symbol of the Babylonian city god Marduk, who has the head and body of a snake, the front legs of a lion, the hind legs of a bird and a scorpion’s sting in the tail (excerpt taken from the placard in front of the Ishtar Gate). MIDDLE: Apkallu griffin is a “wise man” or “sage.” Babylonian tradition says that there were seven Apkallu who lived at the beginning of time before the flood. They were sent by the god Ea to teach wisdom to humans. They are shown as humans with wings. Some have the head of a bird, while others don’t have wings and are dressed in the skin of a fish. They protected people and sometimes hold a bucket and cone for purifying (excerpt taken from BOTTOM: A Lamassu was a human-headed winged bull or lion. Huge sculptures of Lamassus guarded Assyrian palace doorways and city gates. They were there to frighten away the forces of chaos (excerpt taken from

C. 1918-1933

After World War I (1914-1918), the royal Hohenzollern family was overthrown and the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was established. In 1931, the Prussian Prime Minister Otto Braun turned the Neue Wache, which had served as a guardhouse displaying the Prussian military might, into “die Gedächtnisstätte für die im Weltkrieg gefallenen Soldaten” (the Memorial site for the Fallen of the World War). Having a pacifist mindset, Braun said that the site was dedicated for those who had “sacrificed their blood in a way never before imagined in world history, and in a way, as we hope and as we will try to ensure, that the course of history will never call for again.” (excerpt taken from Prof. Harold Marcuse’s fine paper entitled “The National Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny: From Conflict to Consensus”). Then the Nazis came, added a crucifix to it, and renamed the memorial as “Reichsehrenmal.” The American tour guide told us that the Nazis’ adding of the crucifix was to exclude the fallen Jews during the World War I from being commemorated. It is absolutely horrifying! I consider myself to be a Christian, but if this nationalistic kind of Christianity is what we are talking about, then I want to have nothing to do with it! After World War II, under the influence of SED (the communist party who led the DDR [or GDR in English]), the memorial changed its name again to “Mahnmal für die Opfer des Faschismus und Militarismus” (Memorial for the Victims of Faschism and Militarism). Only now, the memorial has a more inclusive name – “Zentrale Gedenkstätte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland für die Opfer des Krieges und der Gewaltherrschaft” (Central Memorial of the Federal Repbulic of Germany to the Victims of War and Tyranny). Isn’t it interesting to see how the changing names of Neue Wache have reflected the changing politicians in power? Different people have different opinions of who they want to exclude or include.


History of Neue Wache in German. For more information in German, see also


History of Neue Wache in English. I was not able to take the picture of the English translation of the history, so this picture posted here is taken from (a great website for photos from around the world!)


Käthe Kollwitz’s Sculpture “Mother with Her Dead Son.” According to Prof. Harold Marcuse, the mother “is not merely mourning, she is filled with regret, with the wish to be able to do it over again differently.” See the history of the sculpture in

D. 1933-1945

This is the epoch of German history I am most intrigued by. When things are not going well for one group of people, they are often desperate enough to find a scapegoat/scapegoats to account for their misfortunes. They become blind to, intolerant of, and agitated with other opinions not in their favour. This is precisely what happened to the elected Nazis Government, which wanted to get rid of anything that “contaminated” the “more superior” German tradition. Under the slogan “Wider den undeutschen Geist” (Against the un-German spirit), the first big official Nazi book-burning took place in May 1933 at Bebelplatz. The aim was to cleanse Germany from the works of anti-nationalistic, jewish, and communist writers and scholars. For more information on this event, see (in German).


On the right is an explanation of the memorial in Bebelplatz: “On May 10, 1933, in the middle of this square, national socialist students burned the works composed by hundreds of free writers, journalists, philosophers, and scientists. ” On the left is a quote from Heinrich Heine, the German poet, writer and journalist: “That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people. Heinrich Heine 1820.” Heine’s jewish descent and his radical political views caused many of his works being banned by German authorities.

And I must recommend the excellent Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which is home to a permanent collection of two millennia of German-Jewish history. I couldn’t take my eyes off from the following sign:


The sign reads: “Jews will not be served here.”

Reading this sign reminded me of the Chinese scholar Ji Xianlin (季羡林), who studied in Germany during 1935-1945. In Chapter Eight of his memoir “留德十年” (Ten years in Germany), he wrote:

根据法西斯圣经希特勒 《我的奋斗》,犹太人和中国人都被列为劣等民族,是人类文化的破坏者,而金黄头发的“北方人”,则被法西斯认为是优秀民族,是人类文化的创造者。。。不管怎样,中国人在法西斯眼中,反正是劣等民族,同犹太人成为难兄难弟。

This is my English translation:

According to Hitler’s fascist bible “Mein Kampf,” the Jews and Chinese were classified as the lower races, they were the destroyers of human cultures. On the other hand, the Aryans with their golden hair are considered to be the superior race – the creators of human cultures…Anyway, the Chinese, in the eyes of the Fascists, were the lower race, and were thus in the same boat as the Jews.

(Note: If you cannot read Chinese, but can understand German, there is a German translation of the book, freely downloadable in the following link:

Now you can understand why I really could not take my eyes off from the sign. It was as if the sign read: “The Chinese will not be served here.” Even though Ji Xianlin did not get sent to the concentration camp, but I am guessing this: If the Chinese were as influential as the Jews were in Europe at that time, the persecution and massacre would have befallen the Chinese as well.

Here is the commemoration of the victims of World War II in the museum:


According to the information provided by the museum: “The architect Daniel Libeskind created empty spaces in several parts of the building. These so-called voids extend vertically through the entire museum and represent the absence of Jews from German society. The Memory Void contains a work by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, who calls his installation ‘Shalekhet,’ or ‘Fallen leaves.’ He has dedicated the over 10,000 faces covering the floor to all innocent victims of war and violence.”

According to the other museum placards that provide information about Nazi Germany, “new laws and regulations remove Jews from the public service – their admission to universities is greatly restricted and eventually banned altogether.” “In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws divest Jews of important civil rights. The ‘law for the protection of German blood and honor’ forbids ‘mixed marriages’ and sexual relationships between Jews and ‘Aryans’. Jewish staff are removed from universities and Jews are banned from doctoral examinations.” Not surprisingly, some of the brightest people (e.g. Albert Einstein) left Germany. Where did they go? In addition to other well-known cities in the world, they sought refuge in Sydney and Shanghai!


The Axis of Exile in the Jewish Museum


Shanghai and Tel Aviv!

In fact, two short videos about the Israeli gratitude to Shanghai for providing refuge for the Jewish people during World War II came out last Wednesday. One of them features a short speech by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another portrays the Israelis happily waving their hand-written “谢谢” (Thank you) at the camera. How touching!

See the really cool youku videos here:

A short advertisement of the videos is available also in youtube:

At the end of the Axis of Exile is the Garden of Exile. According to the explanation in the Jewish Museum:

49 columns filled with earth are arranged in a square, standing vertically on a slanting floor. Olive willows grow out of the columns. The garden’s form – a square – is the only completely rectangular form in the building. “One feels a little bit sick walking though it. But it is accurate, because that is what perfect order feels like when you leave the history of Berlin” —- Daniel Libeskind


My dear brother in the Garden of Exile

Here is another commemoration of the Jewish victims of World War II in Berlin:


The Holocaust Memorial impresses me by its proximity to the Reichstag building. From the Holocaust Memroial, the Reichstag building is within 10-min walking distance.

E. 1945-1990

After World War II, Berlin became ground zero for hostilities between the USA and the USSR. In 1949, Germany was divided into two nation-states: die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) in the west, and die Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) in the east. The former was controlled mainly by the USA, whereas the latter by the USSR. Due to the economic stagnation in the DDR, many young and well-educated East Germans fled to seek a better fortune in West Germany. In order to stop the flow of its own labour force into West Germany, the DDR built a wall all around West Berlin on 13 August 1961. The Berlin Wall became the most visible symbol of the Cold War.


During the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie was the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between the East and West. For more information, see

Today, the DDR Museum near the Alexanderplatz takes the visitors back to East German times. The polished Trabant (nicknamed “Trabi”) inside the museum reminds me of the box-office smash hit “Goodbye Lenin!” (2003):


Trabant P601. One line on the placard of the Trabant caught my attention: “Er versprach ein wenig Freiheit in einem unfreien Land.” (It [the Trabant] promised a little bit of freedom in a restrained country).

The Stasi interrogation desk makes me think of the poignantly touching “Das Leben der Anderen” (2006), which paints the lives of the DDR civilians five years prior to the fall fo the Berlin Wall.


INTERROGATION You Will Talk! “Don’t worry, we have plenty of time”, said the interrogator repeatedly. The same questions for hours and the monotonous tapping of the typewriter. The remand prisoner was entirely helpless. Nothing to read, no visitors, no lawyer, sleep deprivation and strict isolation. The only person with whom he ever spoke was his interrogator. Prisoners often felt the need to get everything off their chest. In fact, this was part of the strategy which the Stasi men learned at the Stasi University of Postdam (excerpt taken from the placard of the museum).

Despite all the violations of human rights, I do find East Berlin’s invention of Ampelmann quite charming and even humanitarian. The Ampelmann was the East German pedestrian traffic light symbol designed to reduce traffic accidents. See the brief history in the following link:


The red Ampelmann means “stop” and the green Ampelmann means “go.”

On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski the political member of the ruling party of the DDR announced the DDR government’s decision that “travel abroad for private rasons may be unconditionally applied for.” Tens of thousands of East Germans enthusiastically rushed through border points in Berlin and elsewhere in the country. Both West and East Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Graffiti on the remaining Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

On 3 October 1990 the reunification of Germany was achieved without a single drop of blood, and an official ceremony was held at the Reichstag building.


Above the Reichstag building is the glass dome designed by Norman Foster. The dome symbolizes a transparent government. The visit of the dome is free of charge, but all have to book a visit in advance. For registration, see

F. Today

How seriously does Berlin today take its history?

I don’t understand all the complexities of Berlin’s history but I think I have found at least some answers inside the Neue Synagogue.

Within the Neue Synagogue, there is a special exhibition “Momente einer einzigartigen Beziehung: 50 Jahre Deutschland und Israel,” detailing some of the momentous events about the post-war relationship between Germany and Israel.


The placards in the exhibition:

IMG_2696[1]Here are some of the meaningful sentences cited on the placards:

  1. Israeli Ambassador Yakov Hadas-Handelsman

Germany and the Germans also face up to the past in their own interests – if not primarily in their own interests. One reason they are now in such a good postion in the world is because they have accepted the past and the memory of the past, and taken on responsibility. However, this does not mean that relations between the two countries are “normal”. They are not normal and they cannot be normal. Rather, they are unique. And this should also be the case in 100 years’ time (Tagesspiegel, 22 February 2015)

2. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Opening Event in the German-Israeli Series of Readings and Discussions

Our relations will forever remain rooted in responsibility for the past. But on the broader basis of a present energised by the curiosity of younger generations, they are set to look even more keenly towards our shared future. (Berlin, 15 January 2015)

3. Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder Speaking to the German Bundestag

Let me put this unequivocally: Israel wll receive what it needs to preserve its security, and it will receive this when needed. But as a friend of israel, it is also our right and our duty to speak up openly and sometimes publicly. Without a comprehensive political settlement, one that must include the creation of a viable Palestinian state, there will be no permanent security for Israel and the region (25 April 2002).

4. Speech by Klaus Schütz, Mayor of Berlin, During a Visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

Berlin has always been a special place for the relationship between Jews and Germans. They lived here together for centuries, and together they made a large and unmistakable contribution of European intellectual life in Berlin. However, Berlin is also the place where the genocide of the Jews was planned, the place where the orders were given to annihilate the Jewish people. We in Berlin do not forget the past, as we firmly believe that our own chances of overcoming the difficulties of the present day and at the same time of being able to build a future in secure peace are only to be found in this remembering and in this awareness of the past. (9 July 1975)

Outside of the Synagogue, a group of German armed police dutifully guarded the Synagogue, possibly to prevent it from any possible terrorist attacks. On the wall near the entrance of the Synagogue is inscribed the following information:


My English Translation: 5 September 1966 – 5 September 1966 This Synagogue is 100 year old and was set on fire by the Nazis in the Night of Broken Glass. During the Second World War (1939-1945), it was destroyed by the bomb attack in 1943. The front section of this house of God should remain a site of warning and remembrance for all time. NEVER FORGET IT Jewish Community of Great Berlin The Board September 1966

One thing Berlin has taught me is perhaps this: To bravely embrace not only the good, but also the bad memory. Not for revenge, but for mutual growth.

Note of acknowledgment:

Many thanks to my dear brother  – Paul Lee – for paying me to be his tour guide during his stay in Berlin. All the above information are gathered from the excellent American tour guide in the Insider Tour, the informative local guide in the Berlin Cathedral, the detailed Lonely Planet “Germany,” and the picture history book entitled “Deutsche Geschichte: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart” written by Cornelia Fraz and Leo H. Strohm and illustrated by Kyra Stempell. I do not forget the many informative websites available on the internet. See my citations of them in the text. My way of collecting sources and telling the history reflect my own subjectives. It was also my first time to visit Berlin. So, if there is any error, omission, or distortion of facts, please do kindly inform me. Hope you enjoy reading this personal venture into the history of Berlin 😀

About Lydia Lee liber noster orbis terrarum est; in eo lego completum, quod in libro dei lego promissum.

2 thoughts on “Germany: Berlin, a City That Looks Back at the Past to Reinvent Itself in the Present

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  2. Pingback: News: Chinese Tourists Arrested in Germany After Making Hitler Salutes in Front of Reichstag – Around the World in More Than 80 Days

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