When a friend came to visit me for a long weekend, I finally had the chance to check off a few things on my list of sights to see in Berlin before leaving.
The first stop was the Hohenschönhausen Memorial in the former East German part of the city. The building was built as a cafeteria during the Nazi era, but was transformed into a Soviet prison after 1945, housing Nazi members and other post-war prisoners. The purpose of the complex changed after it was taken over by the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. Between the building and the fall of the Wall, the prison housed mostly political prisoners and those who had failed at escaping East Germany. The Memorial was created by and is entirely run by former prisoners, who give the tours and share their experiences in East Germany and with the Stasi.
The guide we had was imprisoned for 10 months for attempting to flee to West Germany. He was 18 at the time. Another woman he spoke of had been imprisoned for being Jehovah’s Witnesses (crime: endangering world peace). Hearing the stories directly from eye-witnesses makes the whole experience more vivid. It reminds us that these stories are not so far in the past. Our guide even told us that several years earlier, he was telling his tour group about his escape attempt, and one of the visitors realized that he had been the guard who had shot him.
The people who had lived on both sides of these stories are still around, in the same neighborhoods, living next to one another. The reunification of Germany in 1990 saw immunity for a lot of people — from the people who operated this prison, only one saw a prison sentence himself. But that type of forgiveness, if forgiveness is the right word, was recognized as the only way to rebuild a unified country. The cracks in society are still visible, but so is the desire to move forward, and that’s much stronger.
Berlin was heavily bombed during the two world wars. By the time the city emerged in 1945, over half of the buildings were destroyed. With this rubble, a small mountain was built on the western side of the city and named Teufelsberg, which translates literally to Devil’s Mountain. Then, during the Cold War, the NSA built an American listening station at the top. When it was abandoned, the buildings were emptied out but the structures and the domes remained in place. Now it’s occupied by artists and squatters, and you can go wander around the complex. Most of the walls have been covered with street art, there are gardens in the yard, and a honeybee colony in the back.
It was an impressive complex and there was something satisfying about seeing a space built by an organization for the purpose of building institutional power being repurposed as a playground for hippies.
After World War II ended, Germany was divided into four zones, one for each of the Allied powers. Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet zone, but as the capital, the city itself was also divided into four quarters. After relations between the Soviet Union and the other Allies deteriorated, this left the western part of Berlin stranded as an island in the middle of the Soviet-occupied territory. For 11 months during 1948-49, this part of Berlin became accessible only through the Luftbrücke, the Berlin Airlift, which delivered supplies to the city through the Tempelhof airport.
The airport, which was used throughout the years as a commercial airport as well, closed in 2008, but the field was taken over as an urban park. You can walk or bike out onto the runways, windsail on roller blades, fly kites, and barbecue. There’s a community garden, art projects, and a baseball diamond. And in the last few months, there’s been another development: some of the buildings have been taken over as emergency refugee housing. This park really shows what Berlin is about. The residents are invested in what their community is and what it can be, and they act on their ideas. They create the most bizarre and wonderful spaces.