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Berlin

It was at the Brandenburg Gate that Ronald Reagan famously said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (©iStockphoto/Dirk Freder) It was at the Brandenburg Gate that Ronald Reagan famously said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (©iStockphoto/Dirk Freder)

Berlin's history is dark, not only as Hitler's nerve center of Nazi horror, but also as the battleground of the Cold War. But with its field of new skyscrapers, hip clubs, and fashion boutiques, postmillennium Berlin has recast itself as the Continent's capital of cool.

However, make no mistake, Berlin is not exactly escaping the past, as the opening of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum), a paean to German Jewry, testifies. Instead, Berlin is reconciling itself to its notorious history and moving with confidence into its future. As one hip young Berliner, Joachim Stressmann, told us: "We don't know where we're going, but we know where we've been, and no one wants to go back there."

The reunited city of Berlin is once again the capital of Germany. Berlin was almost bombed out of existence during World War II; its streets reduced to piles of rubble, its parks to muddy swampland. But the optimistic spirit and strength of will of the remarkable Berliners enabled them to survive not only the wartime destruction of their city, but also its postwar division, symbolized by the Berlin Wall.

Today, structures of steel and glass tower over streets where before only piles of rubble lay, and parks and gardens are again lush. Nonetheless, even in the daily whirl of working, shopping, and dining along the Ku'Damm, Berliners encounter reminders of less happy days: At the end of the street stands the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, with only the shell of the old neo-Romanesque bell tower remaining. In striking contrast is the new church, constructed west of the old tower in 1961 and nicknamed "lipstick and powder box" by Berliners because of its futuristic design.

Before the war, the section of the city that became East Berlin was the cultural and political heart of Germany, where the best museums, finest churches, and most important boulevards lay. The walled-in East Berliners turned to restoring their museums, theaters, and landmarks (especially in the Berlin-Mitte section), while West Berliners built entirely new museums and cultural centers. This contrast between the two parts of the city is still evident, though east and west are coming together more and more within the immense, fascinating whole that is Berlin.

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