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In Munich and Berlin, recall the dark past while learning to live in the present

Paradoxes abound in the German cities of Berlin and Munich, where the past and the future juxtapose.

Brewing Ground: Hofbräuhaus am Platzl beer hall in Munich; (right) Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Like many other places here, it’s easy to miss this underground pub in the rapidly progressing borough of Neukölln in West Berlin. I would have walked right by if it weren’t for the two small posters of weekly gigs, pasted on the tinted glass door. I pushed it open and walked down to a cramped, almost cosy, dim-lit basement. A handful of high tables and chairs were thrown around an unassuming bar, all but one occupied by a diverse group of young, hip people. In a corner, three guys in baggy clothes, their faces half-hidden by oversized caps, were performing a groovy beatboxing act. I grabbed a stein of draught and immersed myself in the vibrant counterculture that is changing the once-poor, oppressed landscape of Berlin on this side of the wall.

It was in 1989 that the Berlin Wall — which had physically and ideologically divided the city for 28 years — was officially opened and subsequently demolished, following a peaceful revolution. Parts of the wall remain today in disparate stretches, a few even doubling up as tourist attractions: The Berlin Wall Memorial; the East Side Gallery that features graffiti by 118 artists from 21 countries and makes for the longest open-air gallery in the world; and the bit that lies close to the famous Checkpoint Charlie. One of the three border crossings that was controlled by the Americans, Checkpoint Charlie today features a museum exhibiting photographs and documentations of the segregation of Germany, and of escape attempts and devices.

On the other side of the wall, Germany’s past stares at you from structures across erstwhile East Berlin. The 18th century Brandenburg Gate has seen armies led by the mighty and the notorious — from Napoleon Bonaparte to Adolf Hitler — march through its passageways that stand guarded by 12 impressive sandstone columns. Taking a walk here can be overwhelming, but nothing compares to what one feels at the Holocaust Memorial. A memorial unlike any — no tombs, no pillars, no engraved names, this is a maze of 2,711 concrete slabs that at first look like unmarked graves. I spent a considerable time here, walking through and imbibing the atmosphere of the place. At certain points, the slabs were so high that they towered over me, darkening my path and making the air feel gloomy and suffocated. I emerged visibly shaken, only to find many other visitors in a similar state.

While the Holocaust Memorial is, in a way, Germany’s testament to resolutely remember the atrocities of its Nazi past, the next place I stumble upon is, perhaps, its way of apologising for it. In a dusty parking lot of an apartment complex, one small area is kept particularly unkempt, as if by deliberation. Not many tourists know about this spot, and I’d have missed it too, had I not joined a group of history students after overhearing them talk about it. It was this dusty parking lot that, 70 odd years ago, had served as the site of Hitler’s underground bunker and the Führer Headquarters during World War II. Here, Hitler had married his long-time companion Eva Braun, before committing suicide together.

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Five hundred odd kilometres away, another German city is committing to confront its dark past head on. Buildings and other structures dotting Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi movement, stand as silent witnesses to its volatile past. The beer hall Hofbräuhaus am Platzl once served as a gathering place for Hitler and his supporters. At the site of the Gasteig Cultural Centre and the Munich City Hilton Hotel, stood another beer hall — the Bürgerbräukeller from where the “Beer Hall Putsch”, an unsuccessful early attempt at seizing power, was launched. In Königsplatz, or “King’s Square”, numerous Nazi Party buildings still stand, serving as offices and other institutions. The Ehrentempel, originally a Nazi honour temple which was levelled by American troops at the end of WWII, now serves as a landmark on many Third Reich walking tours.

Its recent past may have been a dark one, but Munich also preserves structures that highlights the great city that it once was. The Baroque-styled 17th century Nymphenburg Palace served as the summer residence of the former rulers of Bavaria and takes the larger part of a day to marvel at. The New Town Hall in the bustling Marienplatz square is a magnificent 19th century neo-Gothic building, with a richly decorated façade that is a sight to behold. Munich is also a city of the future, with tech giants from Bosch to BMW calling it home. For automobile and design enthusiasts, the BMW Welt and BMW Museum are worth a visit. In addition to actual models of BMW vehicles in a plethora of possible variations, there are futuristic and concept models that can blow your mind.

But if there’s one thing Munich is best known for now, it would be its beer gardens — large and small outdoor community drinking spaces, serving beers and local food, such as pretzels, strudels and currywursts. With the highest density of such beer gardens anywhere in the world, Munich can teach effortlessly the art of living in the present and having a ball while recalling the past.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Two Becomes One’