In 1964 when there was still an East Germany and a West Germany, a Cold War, and an Iron Curtain, I flew to West Berlin. As a young engineer working in the military/industrial complex, I was intrigued by the other side. I was also eager to connect with my family’s ancestral home country since the early 1700s. It was a short visit with the obligatory sightseeing stops ─ the famed Bahnhof Zoo, the Kurfuerstendamm shopping boulevard, the preserved WWII bombed-out Charlottenburg Memorial Church, and the many sidewalk cafés. It was at one of the cafés that I met a couple of young Germans and we ended up going bowling for beers. It was America against Germany in a not too subtle reference to the war only two decades earlier.
The highlight of the trip was passing through Checkpoint Charlie on the way to East Berlin. It was a brief and heavily guarded bus tour highlighting the stark differences between the drab and dark east and the vibrant, lit-up west. The showcase stop on the tour was an immense Russian War memorial and cemetery.
My next trip to Berlin was in 2005 during my Snowbird migrations. Berlin was then known for its financial troubles with many states complaining about having to share their income to shore up Berlin’s costs. Christl and I boarded a sleeper train in Munich on the southern border of Bavaria and woke up in Berlin in north Germany. It was another short holiday sightseeing trip but this time with an excellent cultural and historical interpreter by my side. There was no more Cold War in a united Germany. We visited a brand new memorial and moving reminder of the Holocaust as well as the new Jewish Museum. The darker side of history were more than balanced by a tiki bar along the River Spree and a boat ride past the new and very modern Chancellery. On museum island near the Berliner Dom (cathedral) was a giant letter “E” heralding an Albert Einstein exhibition. The world had changed.
Back on Kurfuerstendamm ─ Ku’damm ─ the main boutique shopping and strolling boulevard, we indulged in Berlin’s famous currywurst and beer like a pair of dumb ‘n happy Bavarian bierdimpfls.
There has always been cultural tension between northern and southern Germany, much like the tensions between northern and southern countries in the European Union. It stems from the Germanian tribes north of the Danube River along the border of Roman rule and Celts and Alemanni in the south. The north is Lutheran and the south was a Catholic Bavaria Dukedom. The Bavarians fought on the side of Austria in the south against Prussia in the north. Although Bismarck convinced Bavaria to join in the German Reich in 1871, culturally it was always closer to southern Alpine countries and Italy.
Much later Germany devised a financial transfer system in the 1950s with the idea that all Germans should have a minimum standard of living independent of their state’s financial condition. Problems began in 1990 when Germany was re-unified and five former East German states, impoverished by decades of Soviet control, were incorporated into the system. As southern states like Bavaria’s laptop ‘n lederhosen economy grew so did other tensions with the north. Klaus Wowereit, the past mayor of Berlin, was quoted as saying “Berlin is poor but sexy.” Hopefully, problems will pass with new financial transfer rules. Germans are good with rules.
Fifty-three years after my first visit to Berlin, my grandson will be the ninth generation in the family to visit our ancestral homeland during his University of Michigan semester abroad in Berlin. It will be another wonderful opportunity for me to do the Ku’Damm café circuit.