Discover a vibrant and vital European city with turbulent and interesting history
As Gatsby fever takes the world by storm, Anthony Looch revisits the real ro aring Twenties in Germany’s risque capital
A chorus line of 32 stunning girls, high-kicking with military precision on a vast Berlin stage, prove to me that the city’s 1920s theatrical traditions are still alive and blooming.
I’m watching the multi-million pound revue Show Me, which opened last year at the enormous Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin’s East End theatre district, during celebrations of the city’s 775th anniversary.
It is an amazing show, part Las Vegas and part Cirque du Soleil. Heavily influenced by America’s Ziegfeld Follies, it follows the tradition of German directors such as the great Max Reinhardt.
He staged similar productions in Berlin during the Golden Twenties, a period with which the city will always be associated.
Now Twenties fever appears to be gripping London, thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s decadent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
So it seemed fitting I should revisit the home of early 20th century razzmatazz, Berlin.
In the new liberal Weimar Republic created after the First World War, with stuffy Kaiser Wilhelm exiled to Holland, Berlin shed its inhibitions so wildly, that Swinging London 40 years later was a mere vicarage tea party by comparison.
Twenties Berlin was the crossroads of Europe, priding itself on its modernity and embracing all things American. Censorship had been abolished and experimental theatre, music and film-making flourished. The city’s many cultural offerings were the principal marketing feature for attracting visitors then, and this still applies today.
Since my youth I have been riveted by Berlin’s Second World War and postwar experiences, but above all, by its Weimar days, immortalised in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels – Goodbye To Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains. Short-stay visitors to Berlin will focus on the Mitte, where the principal sights are to be found. I base myself at the excellent budget hotel Motel One Berlin-Hauptbahnhof – named after the nearby main railway station into Berlin.
I take a tour in a bicycle Velotaxi. Pedalled by a fit young man, who acts as my guide, I perch at the back of the vehicle, sheltered by a small roof, and with a blanket over my lap. It’s like being conveyed by rickshaw in the Far East in colonial days.
My next expedition is a Trabi Safari – a two-hour car trip along the route of the Wall, and its separate Inner Wall, which is covered by graffiti and also more serious art.
The novelty of this scary, interesting and often hilarious tour is that I and fellow visitors are travelling in a convoy of probably the worst cars ever made.
This is the Trabant, manufactured in East Germany in the Communist days and designed to be their version of a “people’s car”.
Berlin has never had a reputation for great architecture. The old Reichstag building – now the German Parliament, the Bundestag – does however have a striking glass dome created by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
But in the main, the interesting things in Berlin Mitte lie indoors – in the shops, multitude of restaurants and bars, theatres, cabarets, clubs and, above all, in the wonderful museums. There are five of these on the so-called Museum Island and many more elsewhere.
Berlin has not shied away from its 12 grim years under Hitler. There is a riveting photographic display of some of the terrors of those times in the bomb-site basement of what used to be the Gestapo headquarters, at the Topographie des Terrors.
On Ebertstrasse, which runs up from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate, lies an important and significant memorial. It is modern Germany’s riposte to the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich, which led to the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
The memorial to these tragic victims takes the form of more than 2,700 unmarked blocks of grey stone, which visitors can wander through. The experience is designed to reflect the disorientation and sense of being lost which the Jews suffered.
The memorial overlaps the site where the town house of Joseph Goebbels once stood. This appalling man, who was Hitler’s propaganda minister, was one of the most vicious anti-Semites in the fuehrer’s entourage.
The presence of the memorial to his Jewish victims on the spot where he once lived is wonderfully ironic and a fitting epitaph for everything that he stood for.
That period of history may be difficult for many to accept, but it’s important to recall that before Hitler rose to power, this buzzing city was one of the most exciting places in Europe.
Today, much of that vibrancy and excitement appears to be resurfacing.
Nightclubs may have taken the place of cabaret halls and cloche hats may have been replaced by an array of gravity-defying hairstyles, but that same spirit of carefree decadence is still very much alive.
Easyjet.com offer return flights to Berlin from £51 return. Visit EasyJet
Anthony Looch was a guest of Motel One who offer eight budget design hotels in Berlin, with rooms from 49 Euros (£41) and breakfast £7.50. Visit Motel One