Our work with hidden europe is very much a product of the new Europe that has been forged in the heart of the continent following the political changes of 1989. Twenty years on, and especially following the eastward expansion of the European Union, the map of Europe now looks very different from that of the cold war years.
Berlin lies at the heart of this new Europe and anyone who has ever visited hidden europe’s home city will surely have felt just how much Berlin really is the product of eastern and western European influences. Ours is absolutely not a pretty city . . . in truth, it is often quite ugly, for it still bears the scars of war, and many reminders of Europe's tumultuous twentieth century history.
With its vibrant café culture, its self conscious multiculturalism and its rich literary and artistic resonances, Berlin is as much “a place to be” as “a place to see”. The German capital has a Bohemian history second to no other major city in Europe. Berlin has always challenged its would-be rulers: Prussians, Nazis, and Communists. Revolution and dissent are the city's lifeblood, and the history of Berlin over the past century captures many of the most important political currents of the age. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht died in the streets of Berlin, and it was on some of those same streets that East Germany's quiet revolution of 1989 was forged.
Berlin is also a very mixed city . . . indeed, over one third of its 3.5 million inhabitants are incomers. Turkish rivals German as the everyday language of the streets in some parts of the city, and Berlin is host to many Slavic-speaking minorities: Poles, Russians. Croats, Slovenes and many more besides. The dominant religion in this region of northeast Germany is Evangelical Lutherism, but the immigrants to Berlin have brought their own faiths, principally Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Berlin is a city that traditionally has thrived on its links with the countries to the east, especially Poland and Russia, and its eastern perspective has become even more important with the expansion of the European Union. Remember that the middle of Berlin is just an hour's drive from the Polish border.
Berlin is not an affluent city, and quite unlike many western European capitals in this respect. Indeed technically the city is bankrupt! The city lacks an effective industrial base, and this part of Germany has been slower to embrace the new information industries than other regions. But it wasn't always so, for during the Weimar Republic years in the roaring twenties, Berlin was at the centre of Germany's publishing industry, developing a tradition for eclectic comment and detached, impartial but passionate writing that still feeds hidden europe today.
So that's Berlin, our home, and the home of hidden europe! Tempted to visit? If so, let us know, and we'll happily point you in the direction of some of Berlin's hidden corners. Three of our favourites are mooching around up and coming Friedrichshain, where you'll get some the best doner kebabs in all Europe; taking the ferry across the Wannsee on an ice white winter morning when the lakeshore is all frost and frozen shallows; and tea at the Tajik tearooms, that oddball timewarp of a place in the Maxim Gorki theatre donated in the eighties by the then Soviet government to the people of East Germany. And that's just three from our list of dozens of diversions in a city that sort of unexpectedly found itself in the very middle of Europe.
Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner
(editors, hidden europe)
updated November 2009