We had a quick two days in Berlin, but we definitely got our fill of 20th century history from the Third Reich to the Cold War.
Berlin is a strange city because there is no real downtown. Most of its buildings are fairly new, and the obviously old ones are pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel hits.
It’s no secret that WWII had a huge impact on how the city developed in the second half of the 20th century. The war saw more than 70 per cent of Berlin’s buildings destroyed through bombing.
There was so much rubble lying around after the war that when it was removed, seven manmade hills were created on the outskirts of Berlin. One hill was big enough to be used a centre for winter sports including downhill and cross-country skiing.
Our Third Reich tour took us to places that were significant during the Nazi era. We saw the place where Claus von Stauffenberg and three others were executed for a failed assassination attempt on Hitler made famous by the movie, Valkyrie. We also saw the site of the former Gestapo headquarters that now houses a museum about the Nazi era, as well as the building that was the Luftwaffe headquarters (which ironically was never bombed.)
We traced the last days of the Third Reich and the advancing Red Army forces, but we had to use our imagination for most of the sites because there is nothing left. Even Hitler’s bunker is now covered by a parking lot and looks quite unremarkable.
The last site we saw in Berlin was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There has been a lot of criticism of the memorial because some people don’t see it as representative of the Jewish fate. But the artist was trying to represent an “ordered system that has lost touch with human reason” and I found he achieved this sentiment. When you walk through, it’s easy to lose who you’re with. I think if you spend some time contemplating the site, it is a good metaphor for people who lost everything during that period.
Today’s Germany goes out of its way to educate about those 12 years of horror under the Nazi regime. But Germans face a Catch 22 when talking about the Nazi period because they don’t want to create a rally point for neo-Nazis. At the same time, they don’t want to be accused of failing to highlight an event or place that needs to be talked about.
The outcome of WWII led directly to the Cold War period between the US and the Soviet Union, so we took a walking tour past places relevant to that period of history. We saw the remaining section of the Berlin wall that stood between 1961 and 1989, which the Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) built to stop the brain drain of East Germans leaving the country.
The wall was explained to citizens as an “anti-fascist protection wall” designed to keep Westerners out who still subscribed to Hitler’s beliefs. However, the wall was definitely more suited to keeping people in, with barbed wire, concrete walls, watch towers and land mines. The inner section of the outer wall was painted white to better see people escaping at night, and surrounded by sand to track footprints.
About 5,000 people managed to escape East Berlin after the wall went up, and our guide highlighted interesting ways they achieved this. Some of the methods included a tight rope, zip line, and hot air balloon. One person even commandeered a train and drove it down some decommissioned tracks.
The wall is highly protected because most of it was carted away in the early 90s when it was torn down. Pieces can be found in closets around the world (please, I know I’m not the only one), so the remaining stretch of wall is about a block long and fenced off to the public.
Our guide called the rest of the former GDR sites in East Berlin a type of “Disneyland.” Checkpoint Charlie has long been torn down, and the American soldiers “guarding” sandbags on the site are actually strippers who charge a fee to those wanting their picture taken with them (see cover photo). What you see of the former GDR in Berlin today is mostly fake.
One of the questions people have asked me recently has been about the refugee crisis in Europe. Trust me, I’ve been looking – but we have seen almost nothing. Mostly what we’ve noticed are signs in public restrooms urging people to donate money.
Except for a delay entering Germany from Austria due to an impromptu police check, we haven’t experienced much to do with the mass migration. The larger cities are very cosmopolitan with people from everywhere, so it’s hard to tell who is a refugee and who is a third generation immigrant when you don’t speak the language. Many of the refugees have been given accommodation in smaller towns, so you don’t see large tents in more densely populated areas.
We’ve asked our friends and other Germans how they feel about the million-plus refugees that have sought asylum over the past couple of years from Syria (Kind of makes Canada’s 25,000 look rather paltry). Most seem to understand the need to help, and don’t seem to be resentful of it. Our tour guide made a rather poignant point when he said that while the rest of the world sees the current situation as a crisis, Germans don’t. Berliners in particular have historically made room for refugees, beginning in the 1600s with the Huguenots.
The next time we visit Berlin we’ll make time for its arts and culture side. Germans would love the rest of the world to remember its many contributions to humanity; not just those horrible 12 years that were devastating for so many.