In late September I joined forty-four thousand fellow visitors for a tour of central Berlin.
As participants in the Berlin Marathon, we circled the inner city clockwise and, over the course of a few hours, passed several historical landmarks spanning centuries.
The race starts in Tiergarten, a central park much like New York City’s. After World War II, residents of Berlin planted potatoes in the park in an effort to stave off starvation.
Their dire situation was caused by both the devastation of war and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. The hunger was somewhat abated by the Berlin Airlift from 1948 to 1949.
In response to the Soviet siege, the Allies launched hundreds of thousands of flights into the city to deliver food, medicine, and fuel.
At the rescue mission’s peak, planes were taking off and landing every ninety seconds. Some of the pilots dropped chocolates to Berlin’s children.
The airlift was based at Tempelhof Airport. Now out of service, the airport was put to use as the venue for the marathon expo. To pick up my race bib, I walked through the deserted terminal, past ghostly check-in desks, empty baggage carousels, and blank departure boards.
Next to the expo, a Douglas C-47 transport plane was parked on the tarmac, a reminder of the airlift.
A couple of days later, I lined up at the start with runners from 150 countries. The sky was overcast and threatened rain, but the participants were anxious to begin.
Berlin’s course is flat and record-eligible. In 2018 Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest ratified marathon ever run in a time of 2:01:39.
I just wanted to finish.
Finally, the long wait at the start was over. We were off, heading west down the park’s central boulevard. Soon, the mass of runners circled the Victory Column, erected in 1873 to commemorate Prussian invasions of Denmark, Austria, and France. Later, the Nazis added to its height to honor their own conquests.
We passed Angela Merkel’s office, the modern Federal Chancellery building. Locals think it looks like a giant washing machine.
After crossing the River Spree twice, the runners turned onto Friedrichstraße, a hotspot in the Roaring Twenties.
During the economically desperate period between Germany’s defeat in World War I and Hitler’s rise to power, decadence and intellectualism flourished side by side in Berlin.
Expressionist films, Metropolis and Nosferatu, were released. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil wrote The Threepenny Opera, which includes the song “Mack the Knife.” Marlene Dietrich starred in the The Blue Angel. Christopher Isherwood wrote a novel, which evolved into the play and film, Cabaret.
Friedrichstraße was lined with theaters, dance halls, and brothels, where writers, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and philosophers reveled and collaborated. The contemporary TV series, Berlin Babylon, attempts to recreate the era.
In 1961 the Berlin Wall divided Friedrichstraße. Access from the west was through Checkpoint Charlie. That year, armed tanks from the United States and the USSR faced off across the street, just three hundred feet apart.
The tanks played chicken while the world teetered on the brink of war. Sixteen hours later, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev de-escalated the situation and withdrew the tanks.
We continued around the northeast part of the city, where the skyline is dominated by the dome of the Berlin Cathedral and the mirrored ball of the TV Tower. The tower would have complemented Orbit City, hometown of the space-age Jetsons. It was built in 1969 by East Germany.
After a few miles, we skirted Museum Island, where a cluster of five history and art museums compose a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The museums, as most older buildings in Berlin, are riddled with bullet holes from World War II. The museums preserved history by patching, but not camouflaging, the holes.
On the day after the marathon, I shuffled slowly through two of them. The Pergamon Museum features the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon and one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. (Babylon was in present-day Iraq.)
The huge gate was constructed around 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II. The original processional wall leading to the gate was eleven miles long and covered in glazed blue bricks, featuring reliefs of lions, bulls and dragons. The site was excavated in the early 1900s and relocated to Berlin.
At the Neues Museum I saw the iconic sculpted bust of the beautiful Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
The work is believed to have been crafted in 1345 BCE. Due to the discovery of the bust, Nefertiti is one of the most famous women of the ancient world.
Ownership of the sculpture is contested by Egypt and Germany.
Egypt claims German archaeologists concealed the importance of the bust and surreptitiously removed it from the country. The country wants it back. Time magazine lists it among the Top 10 Plundered Artifacts.
The course continued on Karl-Marx-Allee, then headed south to Kreuzerg. The rain arrived. Brass bands and drum lines tucked under overpasses to dodge the drops and amplify their sound. A Taiwanese runner, wearing a shirt that proclaimed Hong Kong Strong, sprinted past a group of Chinese runners.
For a few hours, the streets of Berlin belonged to the race participants. Traffic lights were ignored. So was Ampelmann.
Ampelmann (little traffic-light man) is a cartoonish figure with a jaunty hat on many pedestrian traffic signals in Germany.
The character originated in East Berlin in 1961 during the Cold War. The originator, Karl Peglau, wanted a symbol that could be easily understood by children and the colorblind. Ampelmann proved so popular, he was incorporated into traffic-safety programs, radio shows, comic strips, and animated cartoons.
When Germany reunified in 1990, Ampelmann was rescued from East Germany’s street-maintenance yards and, through a publicity campaign, succeeded in going national.
The character has since gained cult status as a symbol of reunification. Today Ampelmann shops sell branded souvenirs to tourists. In 2004, a female counterpart, Ampelfrau, was created.
Terror and hope
Today, Berlin is a young, artsy, cosmopolitan city known for its world-class cultural institutions and universities.
As the capital of Germany and the second largest city in the European Union, it is a center of international influence. Yet, the city cannot, and probably should not, distance itself from its association with Nazism and the Holocaust.
A day earlier, our walking tour stopped at a weedy gravel parking lot on a side street. In any booming city, such a space would be prime real estate. However, this spot remains undeveloped intentionally. It is the former site of Hitler’s bunker.
When the Allies surrounded Berlin in 1945, Hitler retreated to the bunker to contemplate his final days. There, on April 29, he married Eva Braun. Forty hours later they both committed suicide. There is no plaque or monument.
Over the years, the bunker has been excavated and demolished in order to erase a landmark of Nazi Germany.
Our guide called it “the most photographed car park in the world.” The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just one block away.
The marathon course passed near the Topography of Terror, a museum built on the excavated site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS. In its cellars, political prisoners had been tortured and executed. The buildings, destroyed by bombing, adjoin one of the longest sections of the Berlin Wall still standing.
Germany works relentlessly to prevent the return of radical-right politics. Inciting hatred is against the law. A domestic intelligence agency closely monitors extremist activity.
Immigrants have been welcomed into the country. Today, Berlin has the largest Jewish population in Germany and the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey.
We ran past Schöneberg Town Hall. On the steps of the building in 1963, President Kennedy spoke to a crowd of nearly five hundred thousand, assuring Allied support of West Berlin by proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Sparkplugs with roofs
During the weekend, a Trabant car club cruised around town. Trabis are small boxy cars manufactured at a state-controlled factory in East Germany from 1957 to 1990.
They are little more than go-carts. The engine has two cylinders. The body is made of hard plastic. Trabis have no turn signals, fuel gauges, rear seatbelts, or external fuel doors. Year to year, the models were identical.
Trabis are known for terrible reliability and an uncomfortable ride. They have been called “spark plugs with roofs.”
Nearly four million of the cars were manufactured. In a country that engineers Mercedes, Porsches, BMWs, and Audis, Trabis are a joke. And now collectors’ items.
Soaked by the rain, I splashed through the puddles with the other runners. We entered Kurfürstendamm, the long, broad boulevard considered the Champs-Élysées of Berlin in the 1800s.
The spectators on the course, estimated at one million, were enthusiastic. Some read the name on my bib and shouted encouragement in English with German accents. “Let’s go, Keerck.” “You can do it, Keerk.”
After passing through modern Potsdamer Platz, we entered Gendarmenmarkt, the location of ornate French and German churches and a famous concert hall. The hall is considered, acoustically, to be among the five best in the world.
Only a couple of miles to go. I was more than ready to be finished.
We turned onto Unter den Linden, one of the grandest boulevards in Europe, for the final sprint. Gusts of wind scattered yellow linden leaves. Just ahead I could see the Brandenburg Gate, now a symbol of freedom and peace.
The iconic gate was built in the 1700s by King Frederick William III. Throughout its existence, it has been at the center of history. Atop the gate is a bronze sculpture of a chariot drawn by four horses. In 1806, after defeating the Prussians, Napoléon claimed the sculpture and took it to Paris as a souvenir. After his defeat in 1814, the sculpture was returned.
In 1933, Nazis marched with torches through the gate in celebration of Hitler’s rise to power. In 1961, the Soviets closed it.
I was thrilled to pass through the historic gate, along with an international community of runners.
Between the gate and the finish line is a double row of bricks embedded in the pavement, identifying the former location of the Berlin Wall.
It is the spot where, in 1987, President Reagan demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
I crossed the finish line. The wind picked up, chilling the wet runners. I wrapped myself in the poncho provided by the race organizer and walked to the hotel.
Six weeks later, on November 9, 2019, Germany and the world celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the wall.