A Stroll Down Unter den Linden Takes Visitors Into the Soul of Berlin
There’s no better way to experience East Berlin than to heed the advice from Karl Baedeker’s definitive 1904 guidebook and “walk the Linden.”
This magnificent main boulevard, stretching about a mile east from the newly opened Brandenburg Gate, is an illustrated history of Berlin’s and Germany’s commitment to art, music and architecture. This is the Berlin not of Hitler and Honecker but of Frederick the Great, Prussia’s greatest king, whose passion for music and learning transformed an uninspiring town on the north German plain into a great city.
Unter den Linden (“under the linden trees”) was designed in the 18th Century as a grander, Prussian answer to Paris’s Champs Elysees. From the monumental Brandenburg Gate, the Linden sweeps east past ornate palaces, churches and theaters to the Spree River, where it was once crowned by the mammoth palace of the Prussian kings.
The imperial palace, older and larger than London’s Buckingham Palace, was massively damaged in World War II. East Germany’s Communist rulers bulldozed its remains from the equivalent of two square blocks in the early 1950s and put up the glaring, amber glass Palace of the Republic, which houses the parliament or Volkskammer. It and the adjacent, similarly modernist Foreign Ministry are discordant buildings, woefully out of harmony with their 18th- and 19th-Century surroundings.
Since the Wall was breached last Nov. 9 the Linden has sprung back to life with astonishing speed. The enforced grayness of the Stalinist past diminishes daily. Strollers again crowd the center walkway beneath linden trees that were planted after World War II and are often no bigger than dogwoods. Big West German BMWs and Mercedes Benzes roar up the Linden past sputtering East German Trabants and Wartburgs, which already seem oddly out of place.
West Berliners also come by bicycle, train and on foot. They already comprise, by unofficial tallies, more than half of the audiences at East Berlin theaters and concerts. And they accounted for 80% of the huge turnout for the monthlong exhibit in March of American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed-media show, which made history because it was the first to span the long-divided city.
Initially, the Westerners came east out of curiousity. Now they increasingly come in what some call a spiritual quest to tap into their city’s history, hoping to reclaim its standing as Germany’s unchallenged cultural and artistic center.
For the first time since 1961, West Germans (but not foreigners, who must still go through official border posts) can walk through the six pillars of Brandenburg Gate, which is covered with scaffolding for a long-delayed refurbishing. Gone, too, for restoration from atop the gate is the Quadriga, the chariot of victory that Napoleon liked so much in 1806 that he took it back to Paris. Bismarck brought it back in 1870, the year he made Berlin the capital of a unified Germany. The Prussian king became the German emperor, or kaiser.
The Wall that sealed off East Berlin from the rest of the city passed just west of the 201-year-old gate, which came to symbolize Berlin’s division. On the West Berlin side a shoulder-high section of the wall remains where tourists can chip away souvenirs. Larger, magazine-size fragments are sold by vendors both here and at Checkpoint Charlie, half a mile south.
It was here, at Brandenburg Gate, that I pulled out my dog-eared, red Baedeker guidebook and delicately unfolded the old map to begin the stroll east. It is remarkable how much of the old city remains 70 years after the end of the monarchy, 45 years after Hitler and barely two months after the Communists yielded to East Germany’s first freely elected government.
For the first 200 yards there is little but concrete and empty space where the pillboxes, booby traps and guard towers stood so recently. Take in this barren wasteland soon, because a land rush is on and much of this choice real estate from here south to Potsdamer Platz is likely to be sold off soon for development.
Past the first intersection, what was the once-elegant Wilhelmstrasse, is the massive Soviet embassy, which the 1904 guidebook identifies as merely the Russian legation. The adjacent French and British embassies, as well as the notable Adlon hotel, were all lost in World War II.
Across the street, and startlingly changed from my last visit 18 months ago, shop windows have sprung to life with displays of elegant East Bloc fashions in jewelry, suits, ermine hats. Where are the faded posters urging solidarity with Angola and Vietnam, and the display posters of heroic Bulgarian workers?
Next is Friedrichstrasse, the main north-south artery, with the early 1900s train station a few blocks north and the four-year-old Grand Hotel, East Berlin’s finest, to the south. Tastefully done in traditional style, the hotel has been virtually off limits to East Germans because everything, even postage stamps, had to be paid for in Western currency. This will change July 2 when the West German mark becomes the currency of the East.
Like Vienna, Berlin is known as a city that lives in its cafes, though East Berliners have long been deprived of good ones. Now they’re sprouting like spring flowers. In the Grand Hotel is a pale remake of the once notorious Cafe Bauer, a meeting place for the artistic set for over half a century until the Nazi period. The Baedeker advises tourists that “the Bauer, No. 27 Unter den Linden, stays open all night.” The new Bauer does not.
Two very good nearby cafes, two blocks south of the Linden, are Cafe zur Laube and the Akademie Cafe. There you’ll find good coffee, cakes, music (Jimmy Cliff’s reggae the night I was there), newspapers on sticks, comfortable wicker chairs and real East Berliners. Both are just behind the Schauspielhaus (formerly the Prussian state theater), the main concert hall where Mahler and Wagner conducted and Leonard Bernstein led last Christmas’s triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Back on the Linden, now halfway to the site of the old palace, keep going east past the Soviet bookstore (German language editions of Henry Miller and Stendhal were in the window in early April). Ahead, in the center of the boulevard, is the famous equestrian statue of Frederick the Great in his three-cornered hat. The Communists, who were very ambivalent about the long-ruling (46 years), nationalist Frederick, didn’t return this huge 1851 statue to its traditional place until the early 1980s. The imposing Frederick statue was always the Linden’s most popular landmark.
On the north side of the statue is the state library where Marx and Lenin studied. Next to it is Humboldt University where Hegel and Schiller taught.
As darkness falls on the Linden, rich and fashionably attired West Berliners descend from their Mercedes Benzes and enter Frederick the Great’s magnificent 1743 Opera House (Deutsche Staatsoper) through three polished wooden doors.
Gazing at this scene diagonally across the Linden from the 1816 Guard House (Neue Wache, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), whose simple classical lines replicate those of the grander Opera House, it’s easy to imagine how quickly the drab and neglected Linden could regain its place as Germany’s, and perhaps Europe’s, most elegant thoroughfare.
A good place to reflect on the Linden is from the open-air Operncafe (Unter den Linden 5) next door to the Opera. Upstairs is a decent and inexpensive restaurant, perfect for before or after the theater.
A dozen remarkable structures are visible from the Guard House, which the Communists called the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. Tourists photograph the gray uniformed East German soldiers who, implausibly, still goose-step back and forth in front of the Guard House. From here, Berlin’s tortured 750-year history is vividly displayed.
Directly behind the Guard House is the Singing Academy (Singakademie) where Mendelssohn launched the Bach revival in 1829. Under the Nazis, Mendelssohn became a non-person. Today this tiny hall is the Maxim Gorky Theater, Berlin’s finest playhouse.
To the east next to the Spree canal is the 18th-Century Armory (Zeughaus, now the Museum of German History), a huge, two-story yellow building the old Baedeker calls the “finest structure in Berlin.” It still is.
Across the palace bridge (Schlossbrucke) (for a few more months Marx-Engels bridge) on “museum island” is the heart of old Berlin: the Lutheran Cathedral (Berliner Dom)--whose interior is still in ruins 45 years after the war; the bullet-pocked Pergamon Museum with its breathtaking and vast, classical altar from Asia Minor; the National Gallery and the Old Museum.
I walked back to stand next to the Guard House again. Bach stood here in 1747 to survey construction of the Opera House. In Opera square (Operplatz), during last autumn’s revolution, thousands gathered to call for an end to communism. Beyond is the dome of the Catholic Cathedral (St. Hedwig’s), with the Schauspielhaus in the distance.
Berlin is a city that, because of its split postwar period, has two downtowns. Well out of earshot, two miles past the Brandenburg Gate and the vast wooded, Tiergarten park, is the glitzy, vibrant commercial center, the Ku’damm or Kurfurstendam, where West Berliners over the past 28 years created a new city center.
But here--in the east--beneath your feet and within your gaze, is Berlin’s old and enduring cultural center. The soul, if you will, of the city.