Will Peischel is a journalism junior and Mustang News study abroad columnist.
Berlin is easily the least homogenous city I’ve ever seen, and it has complete justification to be. The city has been the capital of eight different nation-states over the course of its 600 year existence, with a notable portion of this time split into two smaller cities. Paris, London, Madrid and Rome might stand as meccas of great notoriety, but Berlin is where east meets west.
Berlin began its life as capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, a 15th century kingdom. Four hundred years later, the city was promoted to capital of another kingdom, Prussia. In 1871, when the first incarnation of Germany as we know it united, Berlin was named the top dog city. Following World War I, the German Empire collapsed, followed by the brief but notable Weimar Republic. Next came the Nazi Party. Berlin saw constant change and evolution due to its everlong status as the dominant city in the region. Growth came in the form of whatever architectural style was popular, the makings of a multifaceted city to say the least. In the final scene of World War II in Europe — the city was almost completely destroyed.
A few breaths later, the Cold War began. Rubble was divided between victors, who rebuilt in their own architectural image: West Berlin as Western Europe and the United States, East Berlin as the Soviet Union. In 1989, the city reunited, a patchwork of impressions and fingerprint marks from every chapter of whoever was in charge.
Berlin evolved into the still-great city it is today. Museums were erected, new shops opened, restaurants, homes and nightclubs were built. And, of course, the historical Berlin Wall became a tourist attraction.
I embarked on a hunt for the nearest stretch of the Berlin Wall from my Airbnb. Bits and pieces of the wall create a sort of dotted line that separates the city only by fading, but notable cultural differences that split former east and west Berliners. The first holes in the wall appeared 26 years ago, but 40 years of oppressed life leaves permanent scars.
To my surprise, East Side Gallery, a primary memorial of the Wall, stood a few hundred meters away. The stretch is almost a mile long, and commemorates the importance of freedom and unity among people. The presentation is made unique by the irony of the canvas, a former representation of antithetical themes. People stroll up and down the walk, eyeing up memorial quotes that bubble to the surface of the over-graffitied, larger than life spray paint colors. In the caveats of concrete left untouched, people put in their own two cents.
“Tom + Mari,” someone wrote.
I smirked at “Tom” and “Mari,” fueled with the holier-than-thou that comes along with reading inspirational calls for democracy and open-mindedness in the style of urban art. A hotel came into view, the entire side filled with the skin of two overweight lovers, sprawled out on the bricks.
It was beautiful, and time to go elsewhere.
I skirted to the S-Bahn to ride into the center of the city, where remnants of all of the past Berlins flank each other. Brandenburg Gate stands at one end, once entrance to the city when the Prussian monarch ruled. The gate’s massive row of pillars are reminiscent of Roman architecture, kept in golden age quality. Atop the gate stand horses and a chariot, staring down a road appropriately sized to end at the foot of a monument. Within a few hundred meters of the pillars are the Tiergarten German Chancellery, and Reichstag Building — all products of different times in German history. The gate may not be the city entrance anymore, but it is the beating heart of Berlin.
Berlin is home to enough monuments, museums and sites to fill an encyclopedia. Like any metropolitan area, it also caters to activities you wouldn’t use as the backdrop of your next family Christmas Card. You probably wouldn’t want to bring your parents at all.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a newly-reunited Berlin became the epicenter of techno music. In the early ’90s, DJs emerged from the woodwork to congregate the two ends of the city under strobe lights and liberated sexuality.
In 2015 Berghain is the techno club that dominates, known for its exclusive, hedonistic, there-are-no-rules mentality. The former power plant stands oppressive and gray in a fenced-off field, at the heart of a post-industrial zone.
At 12:30 a.m., the club opened. I was dressed in black, and told not to look excited. The three groups in front of me were rejected. After 30 minutes, I reached the front of the line. One bouncer looked at another, then another, then to me.
The bouncer said “yes.”
After 15 Euros and electric tape on phone cameras, I was sent into the labyrinth. Berghain was the closest thing I could imagine to Sodom and Gomorrah — totally absurd. Hallways were lined with cubbies of a perfect dimension to fit two people, finished with a door that could slide closed. The bathrooms had no mirrors.
This place knew exactly what it was. Through the smoke and lights of the dance floor, to a dance beat that could shake bones, I saw a man wearing only a transparent rain coat dance.
Berghain stays open until late afternoon the next day. The windows are blacked out, so it always seems to be 3:30 a.m. As a plebeian American, I left at 8:30 a.m.
Berlin is a city rich with history of half a dozen cultures, and inhabitants of hundreds more. The city couldn’t be covered in a lifetime. Upon arrival, just try not to get lost in it all.