I visited the DDR (also known as East Germany) back in the summer of 1990—just three months before that unhappy country ceased to exist. After retiring in mid-September, my wife and I decided that East Germany was an ideal spot for a late summer vacation. It isn’t–the weather was cool and rainy. Nonetheless, the trip was still instructive, and even enjoyable at times.
In 1990, I was struck by the grey and drab look of East Berlin. The buildings were still pockmarked by bullet holes from WWII. The other city I visited (Dresden) was still partially in ruins. It was sad to see the pointless destruction inflicted on its beautiful baroque buildings, especially given that the war was all but over in February 1945. (Full disclosure: My dad was a mechanic at a US bomber base in Thetford, England during WWII.)
I am happy to report that both cities have been rebuilt. We arrived at a beautiful (and long delayed) new Berlin airport which opened in 2020, and our hotel was right next to a brand new subway line that opened the same year. You cannot imagine a bigger contrast with New York’s subways—the attractively designed stations did not have any graffiti at all. The central part of the line has three new stations and cost about 550 million euros. In NYC, a similar recent project cost 4 billion euros.
Overall, the scale of change in central Berlin since 1990 has been stunning (especially on the east side and the wall area), more comparable to a Chinese city than to an older European capital. I can’t imagine why some East Berliners still vote for the renamed communist party (now called the Left Party.) Berlin is a textbook illustration of the superiority of capitalism over communism. (Yes, part of the cost was born by German taxpayers, but what economic system allowed western Germany to have the resources to rebuild the failed communist experiment in the east?)
Countries that unified relatively late, such as Germany and Italy, have smaller national capitals than countries with long continuous histories such as Britain and France. What I like best about Berlin is its modesty. I recall reading that Berlin is the only capital city in the world that is poorer than the nation over which it governs. (Is that still true?). I suspect that the ratio of a capital city’s per capita income to the nation’s per capita income is a fairly decent index of corruption. Let’s hope that Berlin remains modest. It has a nice mix of modern and traditional architecture, and a great new museum.
Dresden is one of my favorite European cities, full of interesting museums. We spent 2 1/2 days there, but could easily have spent twice as long.
This was our subway stop in Berlin:
And here’s the starry ceiling of another station: