Berlin's history is dark, not only as Hitler's nerve center of Nazi horror, but also as the battleground of the Cold War. But with its field of new skyscrapers, hip clubs, and fashion boutiques, postmillennium Berlin has recast itself as the Continent's capital of cool.
However, make no mistake, Berlin is not exactly escaping the past, as the opening of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum), a paean to German Jewry, testifies. Instead, Berlin is reconciling itself to its notorious history and moving with confidence into its future. As one hip young Berliner, Joachim Stressmann, told us: "We don't know where we're going, but we know where we've been, and no one wants to go back there."
The reunited city of Berlin is once again the capital of Germany. Berlin was almost bombed out of existence during World War II, its streets reduced to piles of rubble, its parks to muddy swampland. But the optimistic spirit and strength of will of the remarkable Berliners enabled them to survive not only the wartime destruction of their city, but also its postwar division, symbolized by the Berlin Wall.
Today, structures of steel and glass tower over streets where before only piles of rubble lay, and parks and gardens are again lush. Nonetheless, even in the daily whirl of working, shopping, and dining along the Ku'Damm, Berliners encounter reminders of less happy days: At the end of the street stands the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, with only the shell of the old neo-Romanesque bell tower remaining. In striking contrast is the new church, constructed west of the old tower in 1961 and nicknamed "lipstick and powder box" by Berliners because of its futuristic design.
Before the war, the section of the city that became East Berlin was the cultural and political heart of Germany, where the best museums, finest churches, and most important boulevards lay. The walled-in East Berliners turned to restoring their museums, theaters, and landmarks (especially in the Berlin-Mitte section), while West Berliners built entirely new museums and cultural centers. This contrast between the two parts of the city is still evident, though east and west are coming together more and more within the immense, fascinating whole that is Berlin.
Ich bin ein Berliner -- But What Is a Berliner?
John F. Kennedy's historic speech on a visit to Berlin in June 1963 became a famous utterance and made him the most popular American ever to visit the city.
But the question might be asked: Just what is a Berliner?
No one could ever accuse the Germans of being too lighthearted or frivolous. Indeed, they rank as among the most reserved in Europe. They take pleasure in neatness, in precision, in the established order of things, and even their language has changed little over the centuries. Instead of creating new words for new concepts or objects, for example, the Germans are more apt to string together words they already know.
There's little doubt that Berliners are Germans through and through, and are even Prussian on top of that, but they are also known for their dry wit and humor. They have what's called Schnauze, a Texas-like attitude that says everything in Berlin is bigger and better -- a trait they share with the Bavarians. According to one joke, a Bavarian boasted that Bavaria was better than Berlin because it had the Alps. He then smugly asked a Berliner whether Berlin had any mountains that compared.
"No," answered the Berliner calmly, looking his rival squarely in the eyes. "But if we did, you can be sure they'd be higher than yours."
With a population of almost 3.5 million people, Berlin is the most densely populated city in Germany. It also has the largest non-German population of any German city, with foreign nationals making up more than 10% of the total residents. One of the first and biggest tides of immigration brought the Huguenots in the 17th century. With them came their language, and food still evident in Berlin today -- a Boulette, for example, is a meatball that can be traced to the Huguenots and is today considered a Berlin specialty.
In more recent decades, newcomers to Berlin have included large numbers of Turkish, Yugoslavian, Greek, and Polish immigrants. Turks are the largest minority in Berlin, numbering more than 120,000. They live mainly in the precincts of Kreuzberg, Neukolln, and Wedding. Although problems occasionally arise because of differences in cultural backgrounds, Berlin on the whole enjoys a greater harmony than elsewhere in Germany. Decades of isolation have helped forge a sense of community spirit. Years of living with the Wall during the Cold War have bred tolerance and determination.
As for the Berliner wit, it's most evident in a penchant to nickname everything in sight. The Kongresshalle, for example, built as the American contribution in a 1957 architectural competition, is irreverently called the "pregnant oyster," while the new church next to the Gedächtniskirche is known as the "lipstick and powder puff," and a large global fountain in front of the Europa Center is the "wet dumpling."
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