Haus Schwarzenberg courtyard in Berlin

Berlin Is the Johannesburg of Europe

I spent three days in Berlin, which is not enough time to get to know a place and make dramatic pronouncements like, “Berlin is the Johannesburg of Europe.”

Potsdamer Platz, BerlinPotsdamer Platz, Berlin.

But I’m saying it anyway because that’s how I felt when I was there.

Berlin/Joburg

Of course there are the obvious differences. Berlin is in Europe and Joburg is in Africa. Berlin is wealthier and cleaner and has far less poverty than Joburg. Berlin certainly has less crime and is safer to walk in at night. Berlin has superior public transportation to Joburg. Berlin is gloriously flat, making it an excellent city for cycling, and doesn’t have any mine dumps.

Unlike Joburg, I hear Berlin has horrible weather in winter.

And yet there are so many similarities.

Street art in BerlinStreet art by Various & Gold on the former border of East and West Berlin. The concrete wasteland behind that fence was once a parking lot for cars passing between East and West Germany. Street art in a concrete wasteland…very Joburgian, no?

Both cities are full of immigrants.

Turkish restaurant in BerlinA Turkish restaurant where I ate my first dinner in Berlin. I could just as easily have been eating in Istanbul.

Both cities feel chaotic in their own ways, and are considered atypical compared with other cities in the same country. Both cities are artistic, creative hubs.

Haus Schwarzenberg courtyard in BerlinCourtyard of the Haus Schwarzenberg, an alleyway filled with secret cafés and graffiti.

Graffiti in Haus SchwarzenbergMore street art at Haus Schwarzenberg.

Both cities have beautiful graffiti and an anything-goes kind of vibe. Both cities have incredibly friendly people who seem to provide inexplicably unfriendly service.

Both Berlin and Joburg have painful, tumultuous histories and their people were victimized by repressive, brutal regimes that lasted until the recent past. Both cities have supposedly “moved on”, but the scars remain.

Checkpoint Charlie in BerlinCheckpoint Charlie, the most touristy spot in Berlin. The photo looming above the square portrays a Soviet soldier who would have manned this line between East and West Germany during the Cold War. There’s a photo of an American soldier on the other side of the placard.

Cyclist passing the Berlin WallA portion of the Berlin Wall that still stands as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Stolpersteine, or stumbling tones, in BerlinStolpersteine, or stumbling stones, which appear all over Berlin. These small brass blocks commemorate individuals who were killed or persecuted by the Nazis during the holocaust. The blocks mark the spot where each individual voluntarily lived or worked before being killed or deported to concentration/extermination camps. Each block includes the person’s name, year of birth, year of death, and where they died. All four of these people died at Auschwitz.

Both cities have changed dramatically over the last few decades. Both cities are quirky, hard to fathom, and kind of make no sense.

Tempelhof Airport in BerlinBerlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport, which closed in 2008 and is now a public park where people can cycle or walk or otherwise ambulate around on miles and miles of unused airplane runways. My friend Jeroen and I cycled joyously over these wide open runways for 30 minutes or so, then branched off onto a garden path where we found a bunch of people under a tree playing folk music. Oh, and Tempelhof is also now a refugee camp. The white buildings in the middle of the photo are refugee houses. Because Berlin.

Both cities are beautiful but the beauty must be uncovered.

St. Michael's Church in BerlinSt. Michael’s, one of countless beautiful churches in Berlin. The facade looks pretty normal but when you walk around to the side of the church you’ll see the inside is missing and open to the elements. The church was bombed during World War II and never rebuilt.

East Berlin and TV towerA view toward East Berlin with the iconic TV tower in the distance. Joburgers: Does this tower look familiar?

Getting to Know Berlin

As I mentioned previously, my friend Jeroen lives in Berlin and knows everything about the city. I spent two days cycling the streets with Jeroen and learning everything I could.

We spent the first day cycling along the path of the Berlin Wall. Jeroen explained the history of this crazy structure.

Me and the Berlin Wall
Modeling with some remnants of the Berlin Wall. (Photo: Jeroen Van Marle)

I can’t believe how little I knew about the Berlin Wall before this trip. I’d always imagined it as a straight wall dividing the city neatly in half, with the western half of the country on one side and the eastern half on the other.

In reality the Berlin Wall meandered, zig-zagging haphazardly to separate the districts belonging to East and West Germany. When the wall was built in 1961 (so recent!), it divided streets. Buildings standing on the edge of the East Berlin side were closed off, the west-facing windows and doors filled in with bricks. People tried to jump out of those windows before they were filled; some jumped to their deaths. Churches along the wall were closed and eventually destroyed.

Couples got married on the streets below the new wall so their parents on the other side — who suddenly couldn’t cross to be with their children — could witness the wedding.

I never knew before that Berlin was not actually the dividing line between these two “countries”. In fact, the city of West Berlin was completely surrounded by East Germany — in the same way Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa — a small island of “freedom” in a communist sea.

None of it made sense. How could anyone have ever thought this made sense?

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Berlin Wall memorialAnother part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. The rusty poles mark where the wall once stood.

I could go on and on about the history of the Berlin Wall and how astonishing and violent and non-sensical it was. Much like I could go on and on about the history of apartheid for basically the same reasons.

This post is getting long though. Let me just share a few more pictures of interesting things I saw and did in Berlin.

Reichstag building BerlinThe Reichstag building.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The stunning and poignant Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered JewsI took many photos of this memorial.

Photographer in Murdered Jews MemorialOne more.

Street art in KreuzbergBeautiful street art (and basketball courts) in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.

More street art in Kreuzberg
More Kreuzberg street art.

PrinzessinnengartenPrinzessinnengärten, a real-life German beer garden surrounded by an actual garden (where plants grow and stuff). I loved it.

Eisbein in BerlinEisbein (pickled ham hock) served over a mountain of sauerkraut with mashed peas and boiled potatoes. Thanks to my Berliner friend Stephan for making sure I experienced this classic German dinner. (It was great but once was enough.)

Berlin is my kind of city. I guess that’s another thing it shares with Joburg. I hope to go back soon.

If you happen to find yourself in Berlin, check out Berlin In Your Pocket. I’m a huge fan of the In Your Pocket guides (especially Joburg in Your Pocket), and Jeroen writes for the Berlin guide.

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9 Comments

  • Reply lindasneedLinda Sneed September 14, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    I was so moved by your post, Heather. The cruelty of this history is inexplicable. And I so admire the people of Germany who force others to never forget and who forge on in a positive way. We still have so much to learn. Thank you . I now want to visit Berlin!!

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2018 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks Linda, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There were so many other crazy Berlin Wall stories that I didn’t have time to share in the post. And some truly heartbreaking photographs and footage I saw at the memorial. You should definitely go if you can! And stay longer than three days 🙂

  • Reply autumnashbough September 14, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    I never would have guessed all the similarities between the two cities, but once you point it out, they make sense.

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2018 at 6:26 pm

      I know, I never would have guessed it either. Incidentally when I sent Jeroen this post he said the following: ‘The fall of the Wall is linked to the death of apartheid too in a way – with the end of Soviet help to all kinds of movements in southern Africa in the late 1980s, the ‘communist danger’ that the Apartheid regime needed to fight against was gone, making people realise they didn’t need this system…’

  • Reply Lani September 20, 2018 at 5:58 am

    You are so lucky you got to go to Berlin! As a couple of creatives, my BF and I salivate over such a place. It’s definitely been on the list and I loved your POV and your comparisons.

    I was a kid when the Berlin Wall came down, but I remember watching it on TV and how overjoyed the crowds on the street were. I knew I was witnessing a momentous occasion, but I didn’t have the wisdom to fully appreciate it. Later, I would meet people who went to the wall and had brought back a piece of it – a piece of history.

    • Reply 2summers September 20, 2018 at 10:41 am

      I’m sure you would love it! Yes, I was so lucky to have this opportunity — it’s not easy to get to Europe when you live in Africa and have family in America. I figured I better just do it when I had the chance.

      • Reply Lani September 21, 2018 at 6:03 am

        Absolutely.

  • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme September 29, 2018 at 2:02 am

    I saved this post until I had time to read it. I so loved the title of it, made total sense to me. I am German, as you know, and once worked in Berlin for 6 weeks for an internship, in 1988, so before the wall came down. After one visit to East Berlin during that time, I vowed to never ever set foot in a communist country again. When I came back to Berlin it was 2008, together with our 2 sons. My husband and I oohed and aahed at how it had all changed (he was with me in 1988), and couldn’t get over the fact that you could now just walk through the Brandenburg gate, and such. Our kids got a little tired of it after a while. They didn’t get it. It’s so amazing to me that the wall was only up for such a short time, yet it basically was there my entire youth, so loomed much larger in my mind than seems justified. The best book I can recommend, if you like historical fiction, is the third book in Ken Follet’s Century trilogy (I don’t think he is a great writer, but that trilogy really captures 20th century history well, and especially the parts about the wall, which I always felt outsiders couldn’t really understand.

    I’m also glad you mention not just the wall and how cruel it was to Berlins citizens. I just read a really good article that talked about the fact that Germans, especially those connected to Berlin, tend to see themselves as victims in regards to the wall, and that the injustices against another group of Germans, meaning German jews, are not nearly as well memorialized. The holocaust memorial was a really late addition if you think about it. We Germans alway think we have atoned so well for our collective sin, and some say it’s time to always beat up on that, but we really haven’t done all that much. There certainly was a need for that memorial, as well as the Stolpersteine.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and great pictures, and I love the connection to Johannesburg!

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2018 at 11:25 am

      Thanks Sine! And thanks for sharing your own experiences and memories about Berlin. It’s such a fascinating place! I hope I get to spend more time the next time you go.

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