Just before Christmas we swapped cold, gloomy London for freezing Berlin! Berlin is really a city where you can feel the history all around you. World War 2 and the Cold War still define a lot of the city. While walking around the city you can see a lot of reminders of the past, be it a museum, remains of the Berlin Wall, or just gaps where a building was destroyed and never rebuilt.
The rise of Hitler
While in Berlin we took a self-guided walking tour. The tour pointed out a lot of locations associated with the Third Reich, but many of the buildings are no longer there. This is mostly deliberate, and avoids possible Neo-Nazi shrines.
Hitler’s bunker (Führerbunker) was demolished, and is these days now a boring car park. The building that housed the Nazi Government has also been replaced by a block of ugly East German-style flats.
Interestingly, just across the road from where Hitler’s bunker was, they now have the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial is very well done. It’s like a maze of towering stone slabs on uneven ground. It was very atmospheric and eerie to walk around.
While in Berlin it was a good opportunity for us to learn more about the rise of Fascism and how Hitler came to power and managed to spread his propaganda. Less than a 20-minute walk from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the Topography of Terror, a free museum which we found to be very informative and worth setting aside several hours for, to digest the chronologically presented facts, photographs, and stories. It really made us reflect on how blame and responsibility for actions is passed on. Many people who stood trial for war crimes claimed that they were merely a small cog in a process and not responsible for any decisions made by the Nazi regime. It’s quite conflicting, as if you consider yourself in their shoes, you can definitely understand some of the arguments and protests of innocence (and almost sympathise with those who considered themselves to be merely doing a job (such as accounting), following orders with no other choice, and those oblivious to how their actions contributed to the outcomes).
We went on a very interesting tour with Berlin Underground. They run a few different tours, but we ended up choosing the Dark Worlds tour which focused on the lives of ordinary Berliners during the air-raids in World War 2. The tour took us down into some old shelters underneath a working tube station, where occasionally we heard the sounds of trains whizzing by.
Our guide gave us a picture of what ordinary people experienced in Nazi times, for example how people were given a narrative about how they must prepare for inevitable air bombings, and forced to purchase expensive gas masks and participate in ‘black outs’. There was a culture of fear and it was encouraged to report non-conformers. Punishment for non-conformity could ripple down to punish not just yourself, but also your family and community.
We were told about the above-ground giant air raid fortresses that were very expensive to build, and then the more cost effective below ground alternative. The below-ground shelters were effective except for in the case of a direct hit.
There were a few neat surprises in the underground shelter that we were shown. At one point, our guide turned off the lights, and we could see the room illuminated by glow in the dark paint. This was the original paint and we were asked not to touch it. Our guide shone his torch on it to show us how bright it would have been in the past and how it worked if there was a power cut.
At another point in the tour, we were shown a working example of the pneumatic post, where parcels could be sent across the city at high speed in vacuum tubes. Apparently this form of delivery is still used today in some places to transport small objects.
As the war continued, and more and more underground shelters became unavailable for use, we were told of how conditions in shelters got increasingly worse, with few sanitary facilities to cater for more and more people. There was also not much to do in the shelter to occupy your time, as the facilities were very basic.
A fascinating topic that was touched on was how women worked to clear rubble from the streets after the bombings. It looked like it would have been really hard and dangerous work, but the women were very industrious and managed to re-purpose items of war. For example, we saw a soldier’s helmet that was converted into a cooking colander!
A city divided
During the Cold War, Berlin was divided into East and West Berlin. It’s incredible today to think that such a situation lasted for almost forty years. It was still around less that 30 years ago! The impacts of the wall still linger today.
One easy way to tell whether you are in the old East or West Berlin is to look at the traffic lights. The traffic lights on the east side all have Ampelmännchen, a cute little man in a hat letting you know when to walk. He’s very popular and there are shops around Berlin dedicated to Ampelmännchen merchandise.
We visited the DDR Museum (no, nothing related to the arcade game!), which provided us with a good insight as to what life would have been like in East Berlin. The museum was well done, with very interactive and tactile exhibits. We learnt about how the wall was patrolled and about some successful and unsuccessful escape attempts. We read about East German ways of life, like how sport was encouraged, houses were built identical, supermarkets had shortages of products which were exploited by suppliers, and how people saved to buy one type of car, the Trabant, that wasn’t even very reliable.
The East Side Gallery
We made a visit to the East Side Gallery, which is a big stretch of remaining wall that has been covered in artwork. While Berlin has a lot of street art scattered around, the East Side Gallery is pretty special. A lot of the art is very poignant, with some being well known famous pictures that you are sure to recognise.
Unfortunately, our experience was dampened by all the ‘ three cup game’ scammers we had to pass by and avoid (and at the Brandenburg gate too for that matter). It was funny when at one point a person grabbed one of their cups and ran off!
Walking around Berlin really felt surreal, as in addition to the visual reminders, we felt we could really feel the history around us. The topics we encountered were heavy at times, but you simply cannot visit Berlin without immersing yourself in its history. It was an education – and while we learnt about WW2 in school, it really is something else to experience and see for yourself where these events took place.
In our next post, we’ll look at a lighter side of Berlin!
Jase and Kimmie