Berlin: A look at the past, a race toward the future
November 11, 1996
(CNN) -- Berlin has had one of the most colorful and chaotic
histories of any modern European city. Now Germany's largest
city is preparing to make history again with the government's
scheduled move East, from Bonn to Berlin, by the year 2000.
Just seven years ago, things were quite different in Berlin.
The Berlin Wall and the desolate no-man's land surrounding it
ran through what are now the city's top tourist spots.
In 1989, the world was caught off guard when a spokesman for
East Germany's Communist Party casually announced at the end
of a news conference that East Germans were free to travel
That statement changed the face of Europe forever, and hours
later the Berlin Wall began to fall. Within a year, the two
Germanys became one after more than 40 years of separation.
Since the fall of the wall, Berlin has undergone a
transformation. Construction work is one of the first things
to greet visitors these days as Berlin begins to evolve into
the country's capital.
Tours of construction sites like Potsdamer Platz are all the
rage. Nestled in the heart of Berlin, the square was the
busiest in Europe during its heyday before the World War II.
However, the war and the building of the Berlin Wall left it
a desolate area.
Now, plans to make Potsdamer Platz a hub once more are under
way. Sixty cranes and 4,000 workers make it the biggest
construction site in Europe, and one of Berlin's No. 1
tourist attractions. A three-story "info box" is set up to
welcome visitors and give them an idea of what the future
office, entertainment and apartment complex will look like.
Brandenburg Gate, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens, is a
landmark that has seen its share of history from Prussian
parades to Nazi marches and East German patrols.
For many years, the gate was off-limits to tourists because
of the Berlin Wall and was symbolic of a divided Germany.
Now, it's the symbol of a united country and is a gathering
place for visitors and peddlers. Tourists will find Soviet
and East German memorabilia for sale, as well as pieces of
For another, perhaps harsher, look at Cold War rule, the
Hohenschoenhausen Prison sits on the outskirts of what used
to be East Berlin. Until 1951, it was used by the Soviets.
Some inmates' cells are now open to the public, including the
padded cell and the water torture cell. The East German
secret police, or Stasi, once used the jail but gave up their
predecessors' physical torture for mental torture -- in the
form of interrogations.
The Cold War did leave Berlin with some benefits. It is home
to dozens of treasure-filled museums and cultural sites, like
the 630-acre public park, The Tiergarten. Tiergarten, which
literally means "animal garden," gave West Berliners a chance
to enjoy nature, even though it was surrounded by Communist
East Berlin when the city was divided.
Destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt and is now home
to an abundance of shrubs and flower beds, statues, idyllic
lakes with rowboats, restaurants and walking paths.
The Schoneberg Rathaus was once the town hall for West
Berlin. The building's 230-foot-high clock tower has a
replica of the U.S. Liberty Bell, which hangs at Independence
Hall in Philadelphia. It was a gift from Americans to the
people of Berlin. Seventeen million Americans contributed
money for the bell during the 1948-49 Crusade for Freedom.
Their signatures are preserved in a book in the tower. The
bell rings at noon every day and on special occasions.
It was from the tower balcony in June 1963 that President
John F. Kennedy issued his famous words: "All free men,
wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And,
therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin
ein Berliner.'" After his assassination, the square in front
of Schoneberg Town Hall was renamed John F. Kennedy Platz.
The most famous street in Berlin is the two-mile
Kurfurstendamm, affectionately called the "Ku'damm" by
Berliners. The city's most popular shopping street and
promenade is lined with upscale shops, hotels and cafes.
During the Cold War, the Ku'damm symbolized all that Western
capitalism had to offer.
Anchored at one end of the two-mile Ku'damm is Kaiser Wilhelm
Memorial Church. Built in the 1890s to mark the 20th
anniversary of the Second German Reich, it was almost leveled
by Allied bombs during World War II. In the early 1960s,
controversial additions were made surrounding the shell of
the landmark. It remains a testament to the horrors of war,
and a memorial hall was built inside the ruined tower for the
city's 750th birthday in 1987.
The city's picture-perfect sites, such as the Brandenburg
Gate, offer visitors a peek inside history and a time to
reflect on the past and the present, the East and the West.