An exploration of the historical district of Berlin was scheduled for our first full day in Germany. We started out at the Hackeschen Höfe, the beautifully restored city block featuring restaurants, small shops, and residential areas. Dating back to the early 20th century, this ensemble was badly damaged in World War II and barely renovated during the GDR period. Today the courtyards look great again, illustrating the attraction of what nowadays is called “mixed-use development,” but also the fact that this kind of expensive renovation comes at the cost of replacing small independent shops with international brands.
Oranienburger Straße with the Neue Synagoge formed the next stop on the tour. Partially destroyed in the so-called “Reichskristallnacht,” the synagoge’s front building in its oriental design still looks magnificient and functions as a painful reminder of the violence, destruction, and pain caused by the National Socialists. Walking along Oranienburger Straße, we took in a mix of new developments and old turn-of-the twentieth century houses, quite a few still showing colorful and creative signs of their more recent history as squatter buildings. Probably one of the more famous ones was the recently closed artist colony, Tacheles–if you’ve seen Good Bye, Lenin, you’ve seen it in a few sequences. Turning south, we then walked over to the Museum Island, with Bodemuseum, Pergamon Museum, and Old National Gallery. The entire ensemble is a UNESCO World Heritage ensemble and its museums house some of the world’s most renowned artifacts. The bust of Nofretete, for instance, can be found in the Pergamon Museum, alongside entire temple facades. The guide’s obvious pride in the fact that Germany “possesses” these items raises important questions about Germany’s artistic and archeological exploitation of countries such as Egypt, whose requests for a return of the bust of Nofretete the guide views as a rather absurd and inappropriate act. Our walk leads us past Humboldt University, a fairly young university from the late 19th century, whose founder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, has shaped the structure of modern universities and colleges (also in the US) to this day. Finally, we end our walk at the Bebelplatz, at the memorial for the book burnings by the Nazis.