Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Berlin is a city freighted with historical baggage. Should any city have to bear so weighty a historical burden? Nicky Gardner reflects on how Berliners handle the multiple historical narratives about their home city.

article summary —

Nicky Gardner is co-editor of hidden europe and likes to describe herself as a ‘Wahlberlinerin’ — a Berliner by choice rather than by birth. Here she reflects on how her adopted home city copes with its historical baggage.

It’s 2020. And it’s a good time to be in Berlin. At least, I think so. There are all manner of things that make Berlin a fascinating city. Not least of these is the way in which historical memory is endlessly renegotiated. Let’s face it. Berlin relies on its history. The city’s trump card in pulling visitors is its uncomfortable history of which the story of the Berlin Wall is just one part.

Berlin evokes more associations than any city should ever have to cope with: Prussian power, Nazi authority, the Cold War. The insularity of West Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s was suddenly brought to an end with the cataclysmic political changes of 1989. In the 1990s Berlin became a place laden with other people’s ambitions — for some a World City in the making, for artists and writers a creative sanctuary in the heart of Europe and for capitalist investors a promising playground.

Home truths

But what of Berliners? What do they expect of their home city? For many, I’ve realised during the two decades I’ve lived here, the focus of debate about the city lies extremely close to home. Few worry whether or not Berlin might stake a claim to being Europe’s Art City. When Berliners were asked whether the German capital should bid to host the 2024 Olympics, the response was unenthusiastic. Yet Berliners are easily energised when it comes to tweaking the rules over allotments — small parcels of land which, like Scottish crofts, are surrounded by lots of regulations. Berliners will agitate over proposed changes to bus fares, but be utterly phlegmatic when it comes to competing visions about the future of their home city.

This year is the centenary of Berlin’s ambitious expansion — it was in 1920 that huge areas beyond the then boundaries of Berlin were annexed into the German capital, so defining, give or take a few later tweaks here and there, the outer boundaries of the city which still exist today.

The wider world surely won’t be making a big fuss over this 100th anniversary of the rejig of municipal boundaries. But it won’t go unnoticed in Berlin, especially in the outer suburbs where community newsletters and other local media will recall the days when places like Zehlendorf and Marienfelde still had grazing sheep and horse-drawn carts.

The centenary of that day in 1920 when Berlin quadrupled in size falls on 1 October 2020. That very same week, a sequence of events in the German capital will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the unification of the two German states which joined forces on 3 October 1990 — leading to six new Bundesländer (formerly East Germany) becoming part of the European Union. I suspect that in the wider media landscape it’ll be the German unification anniversary which steals the limelight.

This is just an excerpt. If you are a subscriber to hidden europe magazine, you can log in to read the full text online. Of course you can also read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 60.


Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 60.