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But first, to fully appreciate this city, we need to review history.
The Third Reich is associated with the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, the dictatorship period ruled by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Berlin was the capital, seat of the Chancellery and Reich Ministries and home of the people responsible for the Holocaust and World War II.
May 8, 1945 is known as the Day of Capitulation, the day that the German Reich unconditionally surrendered, ending World War II. The wartime defeat also led to the division of Germany into East Germany (taken by the Soviets or communist Russia) and West Germany (the American, British and French side). Since it was in the middle of it all, the capital Berlin was likewise split up into East Berlin and West Berlin.
October 3, 1990 is commonly known as the German Reunification Day when East Germany (GDR) and West Germany (FRG) became a reunited Germany, returning Berlin into a single unified city and its designation as the German capital, hosting some 160 foreign embassies.
With these dates in mind, a visit to Berlin today will be incomplete without visiting and paying homage to some key landmarks that follow traces of the darkest days in German history. Incidentally, in 2015, Germany celebrates the 70th year of the end of WWII and the 25th year of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nearly all of Potsdamer Platz was destroyed or heavily damaged during World War II, and after the war, when the Berlin Wall went up, part of this area was known as no man’s land and deserted. Only after the fall of the wall did life come back to this area, and today, it is one of the largest cultural, shopping and entertainment hubs in the city. To the east are remnants of the wall, and the open, abandoned grass park reminds one of the days when Berlin was divided into two. Potsdamer Platz now is where one can discover the cultural capital of Berlin together with its transformation into the modern, reconstructed and cosmopolitan city it is today.
It is one of the liveliest districts in western Berlin, with many new developments in recent years and where one can find more museums than one can see in a day: the very modern Sony Center Complex with the Marlene Dietrich theater, the impressive Kulturforum (a collection of buildings), shopping malls, restaurants and one of the most popular Christmas markets near the end of the year. It is one of the major public transportation hubs, so you will find yourself passing through this area during your visit. It deserves enough time to see everything it has to offer, including the reminders of the Berlin Wall and modern graphic street art works all within minutes of walking from one another.
The Brandenburg Gate is the representative entrance to the historical part of Berlin. The gate is a sandstone structure erected between 1788 and 1791 and was “crowned” with the sculpture of quadriga (car or chariot drawn by four horses side by side) and the goddess of victory a few years later.
When the GDR set up the Berlin Wall in 1961, Brandenburg Gate was just a few meters behind it and so for 28 years, it stood in plain view from both sides but only accessed from one. In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made his now famous speech in front of the gate imploring then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev to take down the wall. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan said.
Soviet War Memorial/Germania
The first Soviet war memorial in Berlin was erected in November 1947. The memorial shows an oversized soldier of the Red Army standing on a colonnade. The granite used is from the New Chancellery of Hitler. In front are two T34 Soviet tanks, and the park directly behind the colonnade serves as the burial ground for some 2,200 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin. When Berlin was split into east and west, the memorial was on the west, preventing people from the east from visiting it. Today it is a proud testament and reminder of Russia’s vital role in Germany’s surrender and the end of WWII.
The Reichstag was built between 1884 and 1894 in the style of Italian High Renaissance. It served as seat of parliament until a fire of unknown origin destroyed the plenary chamber in 1933. The last battle of WWII ruined the building. After the reunification, the German parliament voted for Berlin and the Reichstag to serve as the new seat of the Bundestag (the German government). Between 1995 and 1999 the building was rebuilt and renovated by architect Norman Foster and has served as the seat of the parliament since 1999. The glass dome and the roof terrace are open to the public, but one needs to book a tour in advance to access the beautiful interiors of the Reichstag.
Once a hunting ground of the Electors of Brandenburg, Tiergarten is now Berlin’s largest inner-city park and the second largest urban park in Germany. The park spans 520 acres and is located just west of the Brandenburg Gate. Visitors and families accessing Tiergarten’s park area can enjoy running, walking, biking, and various other outdoor activities. The open grassy spaces allow for picnicking and relaxation. Tiergarten also serves as the lungs of Berlin, like Central Park is to the city of Manhattan.
Kaufhaus des Westens or the Department Store of the West and usually abbreviated to KaDeWe, is a Thai-owned department store in Berlin. With over 60,000 square meters of selling space and more than 380,000 luxury merchandise, clothing apparel, articles and accessories available, KaDeWe attracts about 40,000 to 50,000 visitors and shoppers daily and is the largest department store in all of Continental Europe. The store is located on Tauentzienstraße, a major shopping street near the center of western Berlin. It is technically in the extreme northwest of the neighborhood of Schöneberg.
The Hollow Tooth
The Protestant Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church or Kaiser-Wilhelm- Gedächtniskirche, and commonly known with locals as Gedächtniskirche, is located in fashionable Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s version of 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive in the USA. Originally built in the 1890s, the church was badly damaged in 1943 from a bombing raid and what remains of the structure today is a church with an attached foyer and a separate belfry and attached chapel. The damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall. The Memorial Church today is the most iconic and famous landmark of western Berlin and is nicknamed by Berliners “der Hohle Zahn,” or “The Hollow Tooth.”
Party ’til sunrise
Berlin is also well-known for its unprecedented and epic nightlife and partying, the city having around 900 bars and 190 nightclubs. In general, the clubs open around midnight and remain open until sunrise. EDM, techno, house music and Top 40 hits can all be enjoyed at all the clubs. The hotspots frequented by the mod squad of Berlin include Berghain (saw Paul Van Dyk perform here), Watergate, Mein Haus Am See, Tresor and Week End.