#HD110: Harley-Davidson Rides Music and Motors to Berlin

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The Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary rumbled into Berlin to celebrate freedom.

There may be no city in the world more attuned to issues of liberty and persecution than Berlin. 

Formerly the epicenter of the Third Reich that killed millions of people, and once literally divided between freedom and hopelessness by a wall that became a concrete metaphor in the struggle for human rights, the German capital still possesses a vague, but distinct ambiance of threat and sadness – even if that feeling can be marked down to dark memories and faded monuments.

However, the German metropolis is transforming itself. Once the hijacked home of Adolf Hitler in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the killing grounds of the East German Ministry for State Security for more than 40 years, a unified Berlin is evolving away from its past and toward a future cradling art, music and culture.

Offering an example of the city’s 21st Century embrace of opportunity and freedom, Harley-Davidson brought its motorcycles to what once was East Berlin. As part of its 110th anniversary tour, Milwaukee’s motorcycle makers teamed with Gibson Guitars on a three day event that acknowledged the world’s dark history while embracing the life-affirming reality that freedom endures.

#HD110 Lands in Berlin

Coming off of tour stops in Auckland and Daytona, I dressed warm and flew from sunny Los Angeles into a Germany experiencing one of its coldest and most stubborn winters in decades. I set up shop at the pleasant, quirky and playful Hotel Casa Camper near Alexanderplatz in what was once East Berlin. 

Its location in the heart of the city has always made Alexanderplatz a focal point for the battle for freedom in Germany and all of Europe. In the 1940s, its major landmarks were bombed flat by allied planes. In the 1960s, the East Germans used the area to feature feats of Communist architecture – leaving behind ugly concrete block buildings and a now-archaic television tower.

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The #hd110 Twitter hashtag adorns a still-standing stretch of the old Berlin Wall

Just prior to the fall of Communism and the destruction of the Wall, Alexanderplatz served as the home for the largest protest against East German and Soviet rule in history.

The presence of multiple modern luxury hotels and modern boutiques in and around what once was a haunted region of Berlin demonstrates how the city is reinventing itself. 

The HD110 Berlin event was a carefully constructed narrative taking journalists through a history steeped in blood, tyranny and suppression toward a future free to embrace life, freedom and opportunity.

 

Jumping Over The Wall

The first stop was the Mauer (Wall) Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. After World War II and the division of Germany between the Allies and the Soviet Union, Berlin sat deep inside Communist East Germany, though a significant stretch of the city was Allied-settle West Berlin. For more than a decade, travel between West Berlin’s American, British and French Zones from East Berlin was generally free-flowing.

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But, by 1960, East Germany was failing, and the flow of East Germans into West Berlin was rapidly climbing. To stem the hemorrhage, the Soviets and East Germans ordered the border to West Berlin closed on Saturday, August 12, 1961. Just one day later, combined East German military and police completely shut down all border crossing by force of arms. West Berlin and its Allied zones were completely cut off from East Berlin. 

The shut down was so sudden and so unforgiving in its finality that families were split. If lovers were visiting friends on opposite sides of the border, they would be permanently cut off from each other. If children visited grandparents on one side of the border, they would never be allowed to reunite with their parents on the other side. No appeal. No exceptions. No compassion.

Immediately after closing the border into West Berlin on all sides, the East Germans began construction of their Wall – 155 km. of concrete, steel, barbed wire, iron barricades, guard towers, mines and machine guns.

Checkpoint Charlie was the crucible for tensions in Berlin during the Cold War – where Soviet East Berlin met the American Zone. Travelers and business people crossed between the zones beneath razor wire and machine gun nests while American, East German and Russian soldiers eyeballed each other daily – the threat of a shooting war (or a nuclear conflict) always a moment away.

The Mauer Museum documents the Wall’s history, the struggle for human rights in Berlin and the extraordinary steps some of the oppressed took to smuggle themselves and others into the West. They dug tunnels. They crammed themselves into suitcases and hollowed-out guitar amps. They hid in specially-rigged Aston Martin gas tanks. They invented the ultralight aircraft. They tried hand-gliding, pole-vaulting and simple all-out running to get over the wall or through the checkpoints. And, they risked death and imprisonment by East German Military Intelligence to escape the never-ending grind of poverty, violence and domination. More than 1,000 died during their escape attempts, with many shot to death by the East German authorities.

 

Art Victorious over Fear

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, marking America’s Cold War victory and starting the fall of Communism in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Much of the wall was systematically dismantled. However, more than a kilometer of the original was preserved and transformed by 105 artists into the East SIde Gallery – a painted outdoor monument to freedom. The different artists were assigned portions of the wall to adorn as they saw fit. The result is as colorful and joyful as East Berlin was bleak and hopeless.

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A long stretch of the old Berlin Wall is now the East Side Gallery to celebrate freedom.

Even on the cold, snowy and windy day I visited the Gallery, visitors gathered for photographs in front of their favorite images. Many signed a stretch of wall or left an inspiring message of their own in the aging paint. That sort of behavior isn’t encouraged and is technically illegal, but aggressively punishing those amateur artists would fly in the face of the celebratory spirt that founded the Gallery.

 

Eyes Open to Insanity

The next day’s journey brought me in contact with another dark chapter in Berlin’s past – the rise of the Third Reich. The Topography of Terror Museum sits on the exact site occupied by the Headquarters of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. The original office buildings that housed the Gestapo and SS were bombed flat long ago. But, the museum  complex built in their footprints records the rise and fall of Hitler’s fascist regime with photographs, artifacts and documents, including the printed agenda of the Wannsee Conference. The Holocaust grew from Wannsee, where the Nazi SS hierarchy met to decide the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a cold, gray reminder of the Holocaust's horrors.

 

To draw a contrast between the nightmarish insanity of 1930s Berlin to the city’s 21st Century conscience, Harley-Davidson took journalists to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s an astounding and sobering outdoor collection of 2,711 concrete blocks of varying sizes and orientations covering more than four acres. The rows and varying heights of the slabs warp light and sound, creating for a feeling of isolation and oppression within its boundaries.

All summed up, Berlin’s celebration of Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary was off to a very unusual start for a would-be international birthday party. It was literally two days of death, sorrow and crimes against humanity. But, it was also a look at Berlin of the past – not the unified city of the present and certainly not the limitless potential of its future. 

 

Hope through Music and Motors 

To turn eyes toward the brighter here and now, Harley-Davidson gathered international media, artists, musicians and motorcycle lovers of all ages and backgrounds at the Berlin Gibson Guitars Showroom. The repression and inhumanity of the city’s past was left outside while a celebration of life and freedom got underway within the unified realm of motorcycles and guitars.

It was a night of food, drink and live music from The Crave and Brian Fallon as the happy crowd gawked at and fondled a complete collection of Gibson guitars from Flying Vs to the autographed instruments of B.B. King and Nikki Sixx.

Harley-Davidson parked the hottest 2013 models throughout the showroom grounds, including the redesigned Street Bob and the all-new Breakout. The latter made an all-star appearance during Daytona Beach Bike Week – the previous stop on my HD110 world tour. 

Harley-Davidson’s intended theme for the trip and its finale event within Gibson’s walls was clear – “freedom surviving while overcoming oppression.” The concept was to offer the free-wheeling, long-haired, leather-clad modern aura of motorcycles and rock n’ roll as a 21st Century counter to the pain and suffering of the past 70+ years.

Obviously, no one at Harley-Davidson, Gibson or anywhere in the civilized world would be naive or glib enough to suggest for a single moment that riding a motorcycle or playing a guitar can in anyway dismiss the destruction of WWII, the grief of the Holocaust or the repression of the Cold War. But, we can find some courage in the idea that freedom, joy and celebration still exist in a world once plagued by all of those nightmares.

Thanks to the heroic efforts and endurance of human beings who never gave up hope or a belief in humanity, the global conflict that killed more than 60 million people is over. Fascism was utterly defeated. The Final Solution was stopped short of its unspeakable goal. The Berlin Wall fell, and the repression of the Soviet Union faded from Europe.

Civilization survived. Berlin rebuilt. The spirit of freedom burned through the blackness and protected little individual moments of playful defiance like riding a Fat Boy too fast or strumming a C Sharp too loud. Those happy outbursts of carefree life could’ve been swept aside if events chose a darker path.

There remains violence and fear around the world as such oppressive concepts are as much parts of us as music or love. Humanity will never be entirely free of that suffering, lest we cease to be human.

Still, what if the free spirit revving that motorcycle or shredding that guitar is somehow extending a middle finger at all of the pain humanity can endure? That noisy bastard shouts to the shadows: “You’re bigger than me. You might get me today. You might get me tomorrow. You might get a lot of us, eventually. But, you won’t get us all, and you won’t get us forever. So, I’ll enjoy today. I’ll enjoy this moment, this loud machine, this silly music. And, if you do claim me, there will be someone else here ready to take my place, making just as much happy noise.”

Maybe that’s how humanity survives the insanity – one motorcycle and one guitar at a time.

Check out John Scott Lewinski's previous reports from other HD110 stops:

Daytona: HD110: Bike Week 2013 ‘Breaks Out’ in Daytona; Mar. 18, 2013
New Zealand: Harley-Davidson Celebrates 110 Years in New Zealand; Mar. 6, 2013
Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson Kicks Off Its 110th Anniversary; Sept. 16, 2012

Special thanks to the following sponsors and benefactors for making this leg of the HD110 World Tour possible: Harley-Davidson, Crave Online, IndieGoGo, The Langham Hotel Auckland, Auckland Motorcycles and Power Sports, Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, Todd Hall, Steve Harpst, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Carla Gehrig, Eric Rogell, Traycee King and Nicholas Kearney.