Berlin is not among the prettiest cities in Europe, at least not on the surface. But it is undeniably one of the most fascinating. Much of its beauty lies entangled in history and drama and its inherent determination and generosity of spirit has brought it into the 21st Century with new vitality. For an insight into Berlin’s unique attraction, the art exhibition, ‘Die Schönheit der grossen Stadt’ (‘The Beauty of the Big City’), at the Ephraim-Palais Museum until 26th August, is an absolute must.
Showcase with original copy of Endell’s book
The title of the exhibition is taken from a book published in 1908 by philosopher and architect August Endell. He invited readers to open their eyes to the big city and also to picture its future development. Using Endell’s basic ideas as a starting point, the exhibition shows how artists over the past two centuries have interpreted the urban and social structure of Berlin. The paintings are grouped into themes and clearly demonstrate how the city’s external appearance has, over the years, reflected its inner beauty and its soul.
Inside the exhibition
Any exhibition at the Ephraim-Palais is worth a visit, if only to pay homage to this gem of a building, once home to Veitel Heine Ephraim, a wealthy Jewish court jeweller, banker and mint master to Frederick the Great. His exquisite rococo palace was built between 1762 and 1766 and soon became known as the “most beautiful corner in Berlin”. In 1936, the Ephraim-Palais was dismantled when the Mühlendamm was extended as part of Hitler’s grandiose plans for his new capital of ‘Germania’. Sections of the façade were stored in the district of West Berlin borough of Wedding. Eventually, they were handed over to the East Berlin authorities who reconstructed the building as a museum to form part of their official celebrations for Berlin’s 750th Anniversary in 1987.
The Ephraim-Palais now stands just a few metres from its original location in the Nicolaiviertel, the heart of medieval Berlin, and belongs to the Berlin Stadtmuseum (Berlin City Museum). The exterior is still wonderfully ornate and the gold spiral staircase is breath-taking. The exhibition rooms are arranged over three floors and are quite plain and relatively small. But many of them have large windows looking on to the streets below and with their combination of natural light and polished parquet flooring they provide a perfect setting for an exhibition of paintings of Berlin.
The stunning staircase
This exhibition challenges the visitor to look at Berlin from diverse perspectives. The theme chosen for each room of paintings is introduced on a large display board and the paintings themselves each have an explanatory paragraph giving their context. All this information is given both in German and in clear English. I took photographs of the paintings which, for me, had the most appeal and summed up the theme of the room best. But there were so many others which made an impact and captured the essence of the city at a particular time and from a different angle. After reaching the last room on the top floor, suitably showcasing Eduard Gaertner’s rooftop paintings, I walked back down to the reception area to buy a couple of postcards. Quite by chance, I noticed that a rather zany black and white film of pre-war Berlin was running in the room to the left of the entrance door. It added another dimension to the ‘beauty’ of the big city and echoed August Endell’s words, displayed elsewhere in the exhibition:
“Because this is the astonishing thing: the big city, despite all the ugly buildings, despite the noise, despite everything for which it can be condemned, remains a miracle of beauty and poetry for those who would wish to see it, a fairy-tale more colourful, more varied, more manifold than anything ever told in a poet’s word.”
Below is my selection of paintings from ‘The Beauty of the Big City’ exhibition, listed by theme. The Ephraim-Palais Museum is only a few minutes walk from either Alexanderplatz or Klosterstraβe Station and is open from 10am until 6pm on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 12pm until 8pm on Wednesdays . Entrance to the exhibition is €7 for adults, with free entrance on the first Wednesday of each month. For further details, including tours in English, follow this link.
Young Bricklayer, 1953, Otto Nagel
Under a pale sky
Knaackstraβe, 1974, Harald Metzkes
The city and the human being
Man in front of Wall, 1988-89 and Man with Suitcase, 1983, Klaus Killisch
Nights in the big city
At Friedrichstraβe Station, 1888, Lesser Ury
Above the rooftops
Witzleben Broadcasting Station, 1982, Ernst Fritsch
Architecture and texture
Urban Landscape, 1982, Joachim Böttcher
On the edge of the city
Winter Landscape at Lichterfelde, 1912, Waldemar Rösler
The city torn apart
On Potsdamer Platz, 1973, Karl Oppermann
Landscapes of history
East Berlin, 1982, Julie de Bastion
Playground in Friedrichshain, 1913, Paul Paeschke
The Big Window, 1938, Willy Robert Huth
Wittenbergplatz, 1960, Werner-Viktor Toeffler
In the neighbourhood
Berlinbild, 1920, Ernst Fritsch
The city as a metaphor
Nollendorfplatz, 1912, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
City of work
Borsig’s Engineering Works in Berlin,1847, Carl Eduard Biermann
Berlin from above
View of the Friedrichsforum, 1835, Eduard Gaertner
Athens on the Spree
The Granite Bowl in the Lustgarten, 1831, Johann Erdmann Hummel
Berlin has an incredible 175 museums to choose from.‘20 Berlin Museums That Will Blow Your Mind’, a list recently compiled by the website Hostelworld, is a great place to start . But you won’t find one of my own top favourites here – the Märkisches Museum. This museum about Berlin’s origins and history is just off the tourist trail and attracts less hype. Its impressive red-brick Gothic-style building rises like a cathedral in a secluded park by the River Spree, in an ancient corner of the city. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was locked away in East Berlin, far from the madding crowds and today it still retains an authentic air of ‘Old Berlin’. It’s a place where you can time out to steep yourself in Berlin’s past and appreciate a stunning historic collection in a unique setting. This museum is the real thing; it even has its own U-Bahn station on line U2.
The Gothic-style exterior
Sections of the Berlin Wall outside the museum
But I would encourage you to visit the Märkisches Museum soon; there are plans to close it down for renovation and a new permanent exhibition is being created. Whilst it needs updating, this museum has a nostalgic feel to it which may be lost in the process of modernisation. The museum’s distinctive building is very much in the style of architectural precursors from the north of Germany and the Brandenburg region. In the Köllnischer Park behind the museum, there is even a bear-pit which until 2015 was home to a pair of brown bears, as symbols of the city of Berlin.
The bear-pit (Bärenzwinger) in 1984
The word ‘märkisch’ refers to the area which surrounded Berlin – the ‘Mark of Brandenburg, (English: Margravate), now the Federal State of Brandenburg. ‘Margrave’ was originally the medieval title for the military commander who defended one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a kingdom. The interior of the museum definitely has a medieval feel, with the Gotische Kapelle (Gothic Chapel), the Zunftsaal (Guildhall) and the Waffenhalle (Weapon Hall) as particular highlights.
The Weapon Hall and the Gothic Chapel
The exhibits go back as far as the Bronze Age and there are some fascinating large-scale models of Berlin as it has developed since the 13th Century.
The original settlements of Berlin
The permanent exhibition, ‘Here is Berlin!’, invites you to stroll through the streets and districts of the city and experience how Berlin has changed since it was founded in 1237. The English information boards are really clear and helpful and the carefully-chosen exhibits include important sculptures and paintings.
The Humboldt brothers
The Borsig factory in 1842
The room with an original wooden ‘Kaiserpanorama’ is an absolute must. Here you can sit at one of 25 stations, each with a pair of viewing lenses and watch a series of 3D images of Berlin life in the early 20th Century. The animation in these historic scenes is gripping.
Sitting at the Kaiserpanorama
Another museum highlight is the wonderful collection of historic musical instruments and at 3pm on Sundays visitors can hear some of them in action. There is also an interesting exhibition illustrating the museum’s meticulous research and documentation methods and a creative area for children.
Historic barrel organs – and their players
If you manage to fit in a visit to the Märkisches Museum before 25th February, you can still catch their excellent Special Exhibition: ‘Berlin 1937. In the Shadow of Tomorrow’. By 1937, the National Socialist regime had permeated every aspect of everyday life and yet there was a false sense of calm in Berlin. The fascinating photographs and exhibits are clearly explained in English and as in the permanent collection, you can sense a meticulous sharing of expertise. No dumbing down here. At the end of your visit, there is a small bookshop and a café in the courtyard outside. Both are low-key, uncommercialised Berlin experiences.
A walk in the park 1937
Poster for a 1937 exhibition
Finally, it is important to explain that the Märkisches Museum is the main part of the ‘Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’. This foundation of Berlin city museums, governed by public law, was set up in 1995 following the reunification of the German capital in 1991. The aim was to bring together into one foundation the two major historic museums in the eastern and western parts of the city, as well as several smaller ones. The Märkisches Museum was originally founded in 1874, but its current building in Berlin-Mitte dates back to 1908. The Berlin Museum, founded in 1962 in West Berlin, was housed in the former Superior Court of Justice building on Lindenstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg. This building was handed over to the newly-founded Jewish Museum in 1999. There are now five museums belonging to the Stadtmuseum Berlin: the Märkisches Museum, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraim-Palais, the Knoblauchhaus and the Museumsdorf Düppel. For further information and opening times, visit the Stadtmuseum’s website at https://www.en.stadtmuseum.de/our-museums
The New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum – The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years from 1961 until 1989. In 2017, 28 years since its fall, hardly any physical traces of it remain. In today’s free and easy German capital, it seems incredible that such a construction could have ever existed or survived so long. In the 1980s, I lived within its confines in West Berlin but, unlike East Berliners, I could escape whenever I wanted to. West Berliners could express their feelings by daubing the Wall with graffiti; on the other side of the Wall was a bleak stretch of no-man’s land, under close surveillance by East German soldiers who had orders to shoot to kill if anyone tried to cross it.
Berlin Wall seen from the west
I devoted a whole chapter to the Berlin Wall in my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and described some of the of main historic sites in the city centre where you can see remnants of the Wall and find out more information about it. The East Side Gallery by the River Spree runs for 1.3 kilometres between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke in the multi-cultural borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. This famous outdoor gallery of ‘wall paintings’ was originally a section of the ‘Hinterlandmauer’ (interior wall) – the actual border between East and West Berlin was the River Spree itself. The East Side Gallery was launched in 1990, on the initiative of two German artists’ associations and consists of 105 paintings by international artists, all on the theme of freedom. Everyone has their favourite wall painting in the East Side Gallery and many of the ‘canvases’ have become world-famous.
The famous ‘Kiss’
One of my personal favourites…
In April 2016, a brand new East Side Wall Museum was opened at the eastern end of the East Side Gallery on the second floor of the Mühlenspeicher, an historic grain storage building, which is also home to the ‘Pirates Berlin’ restaurant. Politicians and international experts such as Michail Gorbatschow and Guido Kane pushed to establish a private museum here on the 25th anniversary of reunification. At first, I was rather sceptical of a museum which advertises itself as ‘a live experience with film, sound and historic sensations’, but I can certainly recommend it as an excellent audio-visual account of the full story of the Berlin Wall, from the reasons for its construction in 1961 to its dramatic fall in 1989.
The New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum by the Spree
Clever virtual construction of the Wall at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum
There are 13 rooms of multi-media exhibits at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum, using over 100 screens and projectors to show original footage and documents. Visitors enter the rooms through painted curtains and are launched into large screen-shots on the walls. In the first room you are confronted with the ruins of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and learn how political events led to the building of border between East and West Germany. Then, original film gives a close-up experience the Berlin Wall’s construction and a concrete mixer, barbed wire and original elements of the Wall add to drama of the moving images.
Building the Wall
One room at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum features a faithful reconstruction of an East Berlin living room in the 1960s and another has witness reports on victims of border shootings. The room dedicated to Glienicke Brücke, the ‘Bridge of Spies’, is especially fascinating, but it is a sad experience to stand on the balcony overlooking the Spree and read accounts of children who drowned in its dark waters when a border separated west from east.
Living in East Berlin
There is plenty of gripping newsreel footage of the political situations that developed over the years, including confrontation between the Americans and the Soviets, Willy Brandt’s Neue Ostpolitik and eventually the people’s demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the opening of the border. The museum also links reflections on the Cold War with art: works by Keith Haring, Pink Floyd’s epic music drama “The Wall” and the song “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions are all part of the multimedia concept.
David Bowie in Berlin, 1987
The Pink Floyd room
The area which celebrates the opening of the border crossing points, with thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin, catches the jubilant mood brilliantly, with powerful music to add to the euphoria. And in the room dedicated to the political negotiations surrounding reunification, the simulated heartbeat of ‘the master of diplomacy’, West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Friedrich Genscher, who had previously suffered two heart attacks, creates a suitably tense atmosphere.
Genscher in negotiations
Finally, I found that this museum told me many new stories about the feelings and reactions of individuals. One light-hearted anecdote was that as a teenager, Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed by his German grandmother in 1988 trying to push down the Berlin Wall and after the Wall fell, Margaret Thatcher expressed a sense of unease about a united Germany because of her memories of wartime bombing. The words of Michail Gorbatschow also captured my attention. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990, he said that we must all help to make the 21st century “a century of a new human renaissance.”
Margaret Thatcher as a teenager
The final curtain
When I emerged through the final curtain at the end of my journey through this multimedia Berlin Wall experience, I was certainly glad to step into a reunited Berlin and really felt that the 13 rooms had increased my knowledge of Cold War history through watching and listening. The Museum has a useful website at http://www.thewallmuseum.com/welcome.html with further information and admission fees. It is open seven days a week from 10am until 7pm. The staff there are great enthusiasts about this project and the whole enterprise has an edgy Berlin feel about it, ideally located in an old warehouse on the Spree, right next to the Eastside Gallery.
The Stasi – Berlin is a city with a fearful past. But it doesn’t keep its skeletons in the cupboard; it bares its soul and share its shame. Countless museums and memorials bear witness to its willingness to confront a catalogue of 20th Century crimes. And it’s not just the Nazis who committed them. Life in the capital of the GDR held plenty of horrors as well, now brilliantly documented in the permanent exhibition at the Stasi Museum, ‘State Security in the SED-Dictatorship’. The museum is located in the main building (‘Haus 1’) of the former Stasi Headquarters, which also contains the recently-renovated offices of the notorious Erich Mielke, Minister for State Security from 1957 until 1989.
Walking into the Stasi HQ
The Stasi was the GDR’s infamous secret police force. Calling itself the ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ (referring to the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany – in German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), it was from its massive headquarters on Magdalenenstrasse in Lichtenberg that the Stasi conducted a covert war against all perceived enemies of the state – including thousands of its own citizens. The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal declared the Stasi to be “worse than the Gestapo”. It’s estimated that one in every ten East Germans worked as an ‘unofficial informer’ for the Stasi and the museum reveals many of the extraordinary ways in which the regime spied on its population.
“The Party is the State”
There is nothing quite like a museum which is housed in its authentic surroundings. When I lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, I knew all about the Stasi, but I couldn’t really conceive of its horrifying, all-encompassing power until I first visited its headquarters in the 1990s. This vast complex of grey concrete blocks started life in 1930 as the finance offices of the borough of Lichtenberg and was then enlarged by the Ministry for State Security in the 1970s. The buildings are grouped menacingly close together and included a cinema, canteen and exclusive supermarket. The Stasi headquarters formed a city within a city, totally closed off from the ‘normal’ world. Even now, the buildings exude a grim, inhospitable air.
Aerial view of the vast Stasi HQ
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi buildings were taken over by an East Berlin citizens’ organisation, called ASTAK (Antistalinistische Aktion), which stills runs the museum in Haus 1, jointly with the Federal Commission for Stasi Records (BStU). Haus 7 contains the Stasi archives and Haus 22 contains an information centre and is used for functions. The remainder of the buildings have been bought by a real estate company but it is proving difficult to redevelop the site as it is under a historic preservation order. At present, one building is being used to house refugees, but in the long run it is difficult to imagine Berliners choosing to live in surroundings with such an eerie past.
Refugees happy to have a temporary home
The Stasi Museum is open every day, from 10am until 6pm on weekends and from 11am until 6pm at weekends and entrance costs 6 euros, with reductions for school pupils, students and pensioners. There are excellent free guided tours in English at 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, but you can also spend a gripping few hours at this museum on your own, as all the information is given in English. This is a museum for genuine history buffs, with fascinating exhibits and excellent display boards giving every possible detail of the Stasi’s activities. No Disneyfication here.
Detailed information in English
When you walk into Haus 1 of the Stasi Headquarters, it is as if you are re-entering the GDR. The interior décor is original, so the colours are murky; a depressing palette of brown, yellow, orange and cream. The large foyer has a model of the whole complex and under the 1970s-style staircase, complete with tacky gold-coloured railings, stands a ‘delivery van’, used by the Stasi to pick up ‘suspects’ for interrogation. On the ground floor, it is also worth visiting the café where time has stood still for almost 30 years – as have the prices.
The first and third floors of the museum contain the permanent exhibition. This includes an excellent general history of the Stasi and their propaganda methods. For example, they tried to brainwash all GDR children not only at school, but by making them join the ‘Junge Pioniere’, a state-run communist organisation which fed them political propaganda as well as organising activities and camps. There is also an interesting section devoted to the Stasi’s technique of ‘Zersetzung’ (‘undermining’) which involved disrupting the lives of problematic political dissidents, by ruining their marriages or constantly deflating the tyres of their bicycles.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the displays remains the exhibits which are examples of the ingenious ways in which the Stasi used to spy on its citizens. There are wrist watches with wire taps for running up the inside of sleeves, microphones hidden in hymn books and handbags, cameras in nesting boxes and tree trunks. The list is endless and some of the unlikely hiding places for cameras and microphones have to be seen to be believed. These days, we might view the Stasi’s surveillance methods as bizarre or even amusing, but for ordinary people living under their control they must have been totally unsettling.
If you have seen the award-winning 1986 film ‘The Lives of Others’, you will remember one of the methods that the Stasi used to track their suspects. First, they would bring in the person for interrogation and leave a cotton square under their seat cushion. This piece of material would then be placed in an airtight jar and later used by sniffer dogs.
The second floor of the Stasi Museum is devoted to Erich Mielke, as this was entirely his domain. Everything is wood-panelled and emanates a suffocating stuffiness. His luxury office features his desk complete with chair , telephone and shredding machine. There are a series of meeting rooms with original maps on the walls, long conference tables, bright blue chairs and a secretary’s desk complete with a 1970s telephone switchboard. Mielke also had a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen on this floor, suggesting that he spent much of his time in the building, controlling his empire of 92,000 spies and 170,000 ‘unofficial informers’, rather than returning home to his wife and children.
Mielke’s office and meeting room
On November 9th 1989, when the GDR effectively collapsed, the Stasi started destroying all their files as East Berliners stormed the buildings in their headquarters. Mielke left his post three weeks later and in 1993, aged 85, he was sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of two policemen back in 1931. Mielke was released after four years for medical reasons and died in 2000, living in a small apartment in Hohenschönhausen, East Berlin, not far from the notorious Stasi prison. For further reading about the Stasi and its methods, I have listed a couple of interesting links below. The Stasi Museum is only a five-minute walk from Magdalenenstrasse Underground Station.
Mielke facing trial
Potsdam is the capital and crown jewel of the Federal State of Brandenburg. Renowned for its exquisite baroque architecture, beautiful Prussian royal palaces and gardens, in 1990 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage City status. Wartime destruction and the lack of funds during the bleak GDR years left terrible scars on the city centre, but since reunification it has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction and now positively gleams in its new grandeur and glory.Only a 22-minute train journey from Berlin main railway station, Potsdam is not only a great lure for visitors, but has become one of the most sought-after residential addresses in Germany.
Panoramic view of Potsdam in 1871
In January, Potsdam gained yet another fabulous attraction – the Museum Barberini, a museum inside a palace. The ‘Palais Barberini’ was originally built by the Prussian King, Frederick the Great in 1771/1772 next to the Stadtschloss (Potsdam City Palace) and modelled on the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Destroyed in a bombing raid in 1945, it has now been reconstructed as a museum by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. At the official opening, its creator, media magnate Hasso Plattner, a co-founder of the multinational software company SAP, described the Museum Barberini as his gift to the city and “one of the most important things” he had done in his life. Plattner is a member of ‘The Giving Pledge’, a group of billionaire philanthropists who promise to give half their wealth to charity during their lifetime or in a will.
Queues of visitors outside the Museum Barberini
Plattner’s assets are estimated at $9.8 billion and his substantial private art collection will form the core of exhibitions. The museum’s first exhibition, for example, showcases Edvard Munch’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ which Plattner is said to have bought at Sotheby’s last November for $54.5 million.
‘The Girls on the Bridge’
His social circle is sufficiently elevated that both Angela Merkel and Bill Gates attended the museum opening. Frau Merkel reportedly declared the museum to be “breathtaking”. Plattner has now been made an honorary citizen of Potsdam, a title he shares with Berlin luminaries such as landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and President Paul von Hindenburg.
Hasso Plattner with Angela Merkel
The opening of the Museum Barberini marks the end of years of strife. There were disputes over everything – from what Plattner was allowed to exhibit to where the museum should be built, and the project nearly foundered on several occasions. But Potsdam’s Barberini has finally been reincarnated on its original site and completes the historic rebuilding of the fabulous Alter Markt square, which also includes the Parliament building for the State of Brandenburg. The cost of reconstructing the historic façade of the Palais Barberini and creating its modern, airy interior is estimated to have been more than €60 million. For further details, follow this link to a recent article in The Economist.
The reconstructed Alter Markt Square
(photo by Konstantindegeer, March 2016)
I paid my first visit to the Museum Barberini a couple of weeks ago and adored it. The beautiful exterior architecture speaks for itself and the three state-of-the-art exhibition floors are light and crisp, with 7-metre high ceilings and fabulous views from large windows. In the summer the building’s regal position on the waterfront of the River Havel will undoubtedly be a great attraction in itself.
The debut exhibitions at the Barberini Museum are ‘Modern Art Classics: Liebermann, Munch, Nolde, Kandinsky’, and ‘Impressionism: The Art of Landscape’, featuring works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Caillebotte, among others. Both of them are perfectly curated and carefully themed. Most of the works are labelled ‘private collection’, although there are some on loan from major art galleries around the world. It is not clear how many of the paintings actually belong to Plattner himself.
‘Liebermann versus Nolde’
Impressionist seascape and snowscape
Apart from the two major exhibitions, other attractions include a display of Rodin sculptures loaned by the Musée Rodin in Paris and on the top floor the museum features an auditorium with a ‘smart wall’ where visitors can forensically examine most of the collection’s paintings, which have been reproduced in high resolution images. Just as interesting are the contents of the gallery next to auditorium, telling the fascinating history of the Potsdam Barberini Palace. After its illustrious beginnings under Frederick the Great, by the time of its destruction in 1945, it was being used as a youth hostel, public library and registry office.
Rodins in the Lelbach Gallerty
English speakers are well catered for in the Barberini Museum. All the information, including the large panels and the useful descriptions of individual works, is given in both English and German. Headphones are available at €2 or the Barberini App can be downloaded free. The Museum is open from Wednesday to Monday from 11am to 7pm, as well as on the first Tuesday of each month until 9pm. Admission is €14. Forthcoming exhibitions include ‘From Hopper to Rothko: America’s road to Modern Art’ (3 June until 3 October) and ‘Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR’ (28 October until 11 February 2018). I would recommend booking online in advance as this museum is proving hugely popular. The excellent café on the ground floor is doing a roaring trade too.