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Berlin: the Gray City of Contrasts Essay

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Updated: Aug 7th, 2020

First Impressions of Berlin

Berlin is a European city that, in many ways, stands apart from any other. With its long and complicated history, it is a place that attracts people from all over the world who want to experience what they have never experienced before. As a Chinese student, my first impression of the city was that it was very diverse, something that I did not expect.

Because Berlin is fairly cheap in comparison with other European cities, and because it provides opportunities when it comes to work and living, many come here for a better and more interesting life. I felt welcomed and secure around the people living in the city; because of the great diversity, even within the European citizens’ community, I did not feel any discrimination or alienation. Some common misconceptions I had originally believed, that Berlin may be racist and discriminates against foreigners, have faded during my time in the city.

One of the impressions is also associated with a lot of construction and renovation work around the city. Although to some this detail may seem insignificant, it says a lot about the character of the city’s citizens. People here like order and discipline, so they are very fond of their surrounding environment is as pristine and as flawless as possible.

However, despite the love for order and renovation, people’s personalities are warm and friendly, and they are glad to offer help if you need it. Despite the widespread opinion that a city makes an impression on you through the architecture and sights, to me, people are what can make you love or hate a particular place.

The Grey City of Contrasts

As I was walking through Berlin, I noticed that the city was full of gray colors, especially when it was rainy or cloudy. The grays and the blacks are juxtaposed with the bright colors of graffiti art that cover the walls of many buildings. To me, the brightest place in the entire city was the Wall. In The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, Peter Schneider wrote that “what on the far side meant an end to freedom of movement, on the near side came to symbolize a detested social order” (12).

Now, the wall does not divide the city, and the remainders of it are covered with art, representing a reminder of the city’s history and the freedom that seemed unattainable four decades ago.

The gray hues of the pre-war buildings stand in contrast with the modern architectural sights that signify the goal of the city to change and overcome its historical past. The destruction that came with World War II left very few historical sites intact, and the division of the city influenced the emergence of different architectural styles and social ideologies.

The modern and bright architecture of the city greatly contrasts with the old styles that have been preserved to show respect for classical design. Even the Reichstag building that was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century has a modern addition to it—a glass and steel cupola, renovated fairly recently. The heaviness of the grandiose building contrasts with a glass ceiling, creating a perfect, in my opinion, juxtaposition. Oxymoronic as it sounds, Berlin is a gray city of contrasts because it combines old and modern, color and monochrome, respect for the past and striving for future opportunities.

The Commanding Sense of Guilt

In Berlin: A Century of Change, Neal Ascherson stated that Berlin had experienced more social and political changes in its history than any other city in Europe (3). Having served as the capital for the Nazi regime, Berlin is now greatly influenced by a sense of guilt before the entire world community. I have heard that the German government is still paying reparations to the victims of the Holocaust, trying to make up for the damage the Nazi regime caused many.

Berlin pays respect to the victims of World War II and tries to show it through memorial art, such as the Neue Wache Memorial, the Topography of Terror museum, Anti-Kriegs-Museum, Anne Frank Centrum, book burning memorial, Rummelsburg Memorial, and many others. The sense of guilt for the damage the German Nazi regime caused Europe and the rest of the world is evident wherever one may go. As a foreigner, it is hard to understand what is it like to live in a city that was considered the capital of a totalitarian regime that wanted to dominate the democratic world. When Germans speak about the war, they cannot help but express regret for their ancestors’ actions and apologize.

Berlin does everything in its power not to be treated as the “Nazi capital.” Nowadays it is a modern city with a range of opportunities for youth and facilities to accommodate the elderly. It is also worth mentioning that Berlin appeared in a list of the top 25 most livable cities in the world, according to the ranking in the elite magazine Monocle (“Berlin Roars up ‘Best City’ Rankings” par. 1).

Berlin’s Historical, Cultural, and Social Significance

Berlin made a lasting impression on me as a foreigner. It is a city that welcomes anyone and can boast about its diversity of people, cultures, ideas, and historical events. As mentioned by Senocak in Perilous Kinship, Berlin is a city open on all sides (33). Even though the Wall divided the East and the West for decades, there is no sense of division as one walks through the city today. Berlin welcomes artists, poets, musicians, and architects from around the world, offering them a “blank canvas” of gray walls and empty concrete buildings—the city is covered in graffiti art that has become an indispensable attribute of Berlin.

The relatively modern history of Berlin is associated with the city serving as a divider of two worlds during the Cold War. Because one part of the city was under the control of the Soviet Union and the other was governed by the United States, Berlin was torn apart by contrasting political ideologies. This is another reason for calling Berlin a city of contrasts, whether cultural or political.

Berlin is comfortable for any member of the community, including citizens, foreigners, or tourists. The misconceptions associated with the city’s past have faded; there is a sense of freedom and support that fills the streets of the city. Despite a large number of memorials that remind everyone of the horrible events that took place in the 40s, Berlin offers a range of opportunities for exploring historical sites, parks, and works of modern architectural art. Unfortunately, the city will always be associated with the Nazi regime; however, the sense of guilt and recognition of past mistakes is what drives the city toward improvement.

Works Cited

Ascherson, Neal. Berlin: A Century of Change. New York, NY: Prestel Publishing, 2000. Print.


Schneider, Peter. The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story. Chicago, IL: Pantheon Books, 1983. Print.

Senocak, Zafer. Perilous Kinship. Swansea, UK: Hafan Books, 2009. Print.

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