A tubby Japanese man, dressed in the trappings of youth but clearly old enough to know better, raises his hand in a Nazi salute. He is standing against the backdrop of the last vestiges of the Berlin wall as his friends take his picture on their mobile phones.
It’s a shocking gesture, especially here on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and now a memorial called Topography of Terror. The site combines the two defining characteristics of Berlin in the minds of most of us.
Cassidy Morgan, a seasoned Berliner puts it succinctly. “Most people think only two things about the city,” he says. “The Second World War and the Cold War. But people forget that the city is more than 750 years old with a rich cultural history.”
He’s right, of course, but it is those two historical epochs that fascinate almost every single tourist to the city today. Including me.
And that is why last year almost a million people visited this documentation centre, a plain, grey building on a little more than an acre of ground that once housed the security apparatus of the Third Reich. The buildings have long since gone, flattened in the early 60s and, for the most part, just waste ground until three years ago.
Then, in 2010, the centre opened to provide information about the headquarters of the National Socialist SS and police state and reveal the European dimensions of the Nazi reign of terror. All this against the backdrop of the sole surviving piece of the Berlin wall that divided east and west for almost 30 years.
I am in Berlin – for the first time – to attend a two-day HR conference, but it is the city that holds my attention like some sort of celebrity. I have read so much about this place and it has fascinated me for so many years.
So I marvel, almost unashamed, at the pock-marked fronts of so many old buildings that display the physical force of a conquering army. In one grand building – which once housed the civil servants of the turn of the century government – there is a notice on the wall outside. In several languages it draws the visitor’s attention to both second world war bullet holes and, with no attempt at humour, east German neglect.
Every so often I come across a collection of square brass plaques embedded in the pavement. These mark the residences of former Berlin citizens. Into each small square is etched the name and age of those – mainly Jews – who were taken from these homes. It also has the name of the prison camp they were sent to.
There is construction everywhere and a plethora of different architectural styles. As a city it is green – the greenest in Europe – and incredible spacious. Not least because it was a city built for 6m people and now is home to a population of only around half that number. Accommodation is, unsurprisingly, fairly easy to find but it varies every bit as much as the architecture.
In the old houses, rooms are large with high ceilings. Many of the original features remain, including ornate, wrought iron fireplaces extending from the floor high up towards the roof and intricate cornicing. Their entrances are just as impressive, with towering wooden doors, wide reception areas and grand wooden steps inside.
If these were built to last and to bring comfort to those who lived in them, the homes built in the 50s and 60s were very much the opposite.
Here space is cramped. Everything is utilitarian. Nothing is ornate, all is functional and square.
It is, of course, the vintage houses that call to me as I walk, mile after mile, through the streets of central Berlin – through the Tiergarten, along the Speer past the Reichstag, across to Potsdammer Platz surrounded by a dizzying collection of buildings, past the Trabi museum housing a huge collection of Trabants from the heyday of East Germany, through Checkpoint Charlie, bordered by McDonald’s and Starbucks on its Western side, and up Freidrichstasse.
I consider a martini in the Hotel Adlon but it seems too brash and without a soul – as if all the years of historic personality have been ripped away in the most recent refurbishment. Instead I continue to stroll through the Brandenburg gate, past the Victory column, moved by the Nazis in 1938, and retrace my steps through the Tiergarten.
Just inches from the Berlin wall, I reply to an email and consider the enormity of change.
When I was a teenager this was still a divided city where communication – and every other form of traffic – was heavily restricted. Although just a few feet apart, the two parts of the city were literally a world away and standing where I am now, I would almost certainly have been shot.
Now we are all carefree enough to throw up a Nazi salute without a care on a site that from the 30s to the 90s caused misery and death for millions of people across two regimes.