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The first time I went to Berlin was when I was 19, on a train. When my friend and I were awakened in the middle of the night by an East German agent, we learned that no, transit through East Germany was in fact not covered by the Eurailpass. They then made us pay for tickets. It was my first run-in with a Communist authority (but it wouldn’t be my last).

Monica in Berlin in 1984
Here I am (right) with my friend Michelle on Unter den Linden in East Berlin, 1984

On that same trip, we crossed from West Berlin into East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie, a border checkpoint administered on the western side by the U.S. and on the eastern side by East Germany. We had to apply and pay 5 German marks for a day trip visa. We also had to change 25 more German marks into East German Marks at the poor exchange rate of 1:1.

Once we arrived in East Berlin, we realized that since it was Sunday, everything was closed. There was nothing to spend our new marks on, except for a ride to the top of the TV Tower, which we did. When it was built in 1969, it was the fourth-tallest freestanding structure in the world. We walked around and gazed at the dilapidated colorless buildings. We saw the Brandenburg Gate but were unable to go near it. Finally, we crossed back over to West Berlin.

Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower, April 2023

Berlin, Today

Flash forward to 2023. Mark and I spent two weeks in Berlin, just a few blocks from the iconic TV Tower, still the tallest structure in Germany. Checkpoint Charlie is now a museum. The central avenue, Unter den Linden, is just a long open boulevard. The Brandenburg Gate represents a marker of where the wall once stood. Germany has been unified since 1990 with Berlin once again its capital. A massive complex of shiny glass federal buildings completed in 2006 testify to the strength of modern Germany and its position of leadership in the European Union as well as NATO. Berlin is a symbol of united Germany as well as undivided Europe. It is the vegan capital of Europe!

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Berlin’s Dark Past

But evidence of its dark past is everywhere. A failed war in 1914 gave way to Weimar Germany in 1918. Harsh punishments built into the peace agreement, along with hyperinflation and economic hardships during the Great Depression, festered into the Third Reich, unchecked Nazi aggression and the evil of the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews. Millions more people perished during the war in Europe and around the world.

Post-war Berlin, divided among the four Allied powers including the Soviet Union, became the epicenter of the Cold War and East-West tension. Millions of Germans migrated out of the eastern sector to the west. This outflow precipitated the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 that would divide Berlin and Germany until 1989.

Berlin: City of Memorials

To Germany’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from its history or try to minimize it. Berlin is stuffed full of memorials and monuments that commemorate countless historical events and honor its victims. Reminders are literally everywhere.

Holocaust Memorials

Berlin’s primary Holocaust memorial, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, consists of an underground museum. Aboveground, a field of 2,711 concrete stelae commemorates the victims.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Nearby, you can find the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism and the Sinti and Roma Memorial. Opened in 2001, The Jewish Museum Berlin is the largest Jewish museum in Europe. It documents German-Jewish history, including the era of Nazism. Smaller memorials can be found all over the city.

Over 9,000 Stolpersteine (“Stumbling Stones“), tiny brass memorials to individual victims of the Holocaust embedded in the pavement, can be found all over the city.

The Platform 17 Monument, at Grunewald Station, is a memorial of the deportation by rail of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Nazism Museums and Memorials

The Topography of Terror Documentation Centre on the site of the former Secret State Police and SS details National Socialism in Germany from 1933-1945. The Book Burning Memorial recalls the burning of 20,000 books by Nazi students at Bebelplatz in 1933. There are some monuments that honor those who stood courageously against nazism. Examples include the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag, the Memorial to the German Resistance, and the “Block of Women” memorial to the women’s uprising of 1943.

War Memorials

The New Guardhouse on Unter den Linden has served as a war memorial in various forms for several hundred years. In 1993 it become known as the Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny. It contains only Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son, centered beneath a hole in the roof and open to the elements, which symbolizes the suffering of civilians during conflict.

Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny
Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, bombed out during the war, was deliberately left in disrepair as a war memorial.

Berlin has a dozen Soviet war monuments. The three most significant Soviet memorials were constructed in Berlin immediately following the end of World War II to honor the liberation of Berlin and the unconditional capitulation of Nazi Germany. These are in Tiergarten Park, in Treptower Park and in the park Schönholzer Heide, where about 13,000 Soviet dead are buried. The Commonwealth War Cemetery and the Monument to the Polish Liberators of Berlin honor Allied personnel.

Post-War Museums and Memorials

There are many museums and memorials of post-war Berlin and East Germany as well. These include The German Spy Museum, The Stasi (East German Secret Police) Museum, the DDR Museum, the Hohenschönhausen Memorial dedicated to victims of the former state prison.

Berlin Wall Monuments

A number of monuments concern the Berlin Wall and the divided city. The Berlin Airlift Memorial commemorates the 322-day-long crisis in 1948 that arose when the Soviets cut off road and river access to West Berlin, forcing the Allies to deliver supplies by air.

Although most of the Wall was torn down starting in 1989, there are remnants of the Berlin Wall at Topography of Terror (the longest remaining segment of the West-side Wall) and East Side Gallery (longest remaining segment of the East-side Wall). The Berlin Wall Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, Palace of Tears, Chapel of Reconciliation, White Crosses Memorial (to those who died trying to cross the Wall), and the Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising are all monuments having to do with the Wall.

Finally, there is the Monument to Freedom and Unity, which commemorates the reunification of Germany in 1898.


East Germans had to put up with a dreary regimen of work, submission, and uniformity. Socialist aspirations and principles influenced the majority of facets of life. The press, radio, and television were all owned by the state. Although movies were widely seen, the majority were made in the Soviet bloc.

Despite the bleakness of this society, it was still a common experience shared by East Germans. A word has been coined to describe the nostalgia for aspects of life in Communist East Germany: Ostalgie. A combination of the words for “east” and “nostalgia,” it refers to a fondness for the ‘bad old days’.

The DDR Museum is dedicated to everyday life in East Germany. It contains countless exhibits of cars, electronics, foodstuffs and other products that were widely available at the time. Other highlights include surveillance techniques of the secret police, as well as a reconstructed five-room furnished flat, complete with retro wallpaper and appliances of the day.

In the same vein, TrabiWorld Berlin offers visitors the chance to drive a Trabant, the small no-frills car produced in East Germany from 1957 until 1991. Widely considered one of the worst cars ever made, the Trabi is symbolic of the failure of the communist model in East Germany. TrabiWorld’s Trabi-Safari is a 2-hour self-drive tour with a guide around the most interesting sights of the capital and makes for a fun experience. Mostly because you can then give the car back and leave.

Driving a Trabi along the Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany 2023
Driving a Trabi along a remnant of the Berlin Wall – Berlin, Germany April 2023

Are Berliners Rude?

Berliners have this reputation, no doubt; I can’t say we were really overwhelmed with friendliness when we were there. The nicest service personnel we encountered were actually from other countries.

In my opinion, Berliners have long since moved on from their dark past, which ended almost eighty years ago. However, they still confront it every single day, all over the city. It always makes me wonder, What is it like to be German and to be constantly reminded of this past?