Lots of interesting history in Berlin

Trip Start Sep 05, 2012
Trip End Oct 20, 2012

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

After we visited Paris we flew to Berlin. We had little idea of what to expect in Berlin, and it turned out to be a somewhat surprising city.

Berlin has a very different look and feel from Paris, London or the Italian cities we visited last year.  It has wide streets and is quite unlike those other cities which were clearly never built with cars in mind.  In that respect it is more similar to our cities at home.  The reason for this is that Berlin was practically flattened by Allied bombers in the final months of World War II, meaning that most areas are, by European standards, relatively newly constructed. Berlin is also full of distinctive modern, often quirky architecture.

We have a great hotel here, the Hotel Circus. It is quite small, but they have thought of everything. For example, they buy monthly tickets for the public transport system and then rent them to the guests for a day or so, a big saving over buying a daily ticket. You can also rent bikes from them or they will give you iPods with music from local Berlin bands.  They have 'Jazz and Gin' evenings with a live jazz band each Sunday and Wednesday. We are surprised how cheap it is to eat in this area, given that Germany is probably the most affluent part of Europe. We had lots of small Turkish or Vietnamese restaurants near our hotel and we could buy a Doner Kebab for example for only about E3.50. We paid a lot more for food in other parts of Europe that are a lot poorer than Germany. 

A link to our review of the Circus Hotel on Tripadvisor is here:

The hotel is in Rosenthaler Platz, which was part of the former East Berlin. You’d hardly know it now, more than 20 years after reunification, although as we walk around the area and look at the buildings we can see a certain ‘Soviet’ style to many of the older apartment complexes on this side of the city. We’ve been to a few museums about the Cold War era and can recognize our neighbourhood in some of the photos. It definitely looked different when it was part of East Berlin – shabby, plain and completely lacking the trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs that are everywhere now.

On our first day we did a 4 hour walking tour which focused on the history of the Third Reich. This explained why Hitler’s regime was called ‘the Third Reich’ and what were the first and second reichs. Our guide was a true citizen of the world – Colombian father, Argentinian mother, grew up in the UK and has lived the last 8 years in Germany. This guy told us about some of the crazier aspects of Nazi ideology. For example, he said that the Nazis believed that the German race was descended from Atlantis and had once possessed supernatural powers. They had lost these powers as a result of admixture with inferior races, but could regain them by cleansing Germany of ‘sub-human’ elements and restoring the Aryan race to its former purity. 

We started the walking tour at the Victory Monument and then the Soviet War Memorial. Our guide also showed us the plans that Albert Speer (Hitler’s architect) had for a new Berlin. This was to be called ‘Germania’ and would be the capital of the world. Germania would be constructed on a massive scale, for example there was to be a triumphal arch fifty times the size of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Also the largest domed building in the world, in which 180,000 people would have been able to see Hitler speak. 

Another example of mad Nazi ideology was the proposal to rename Berlin to ‘Germania’.  Apparently the word ‘Berlin’ is actually of Slavic origin and has something to do with water.Hitler hated the Slavic races and regarded them as sub-human.  He intended to kill or enslave the Slavic peoples in places like Poland, Ukraine and Russia and take their land to provide ‘Lebensraum’ and food for the Aryan ‘Master Race’. This being the case, he could scarcely abide the capital of the Thousand Year Reich having a name that was Slavic in origin!

On this tour we were shown various sites where buildings or monuments still displayed bullet holes from the final battles of the war as the Soviet army fought its way through the last few miles on its way to taking Berlin. Hitler had ordered his army (by this point consisting largely of teenage boys and old men) to fight to the last man, and by and large they did. This meant that the final days involved brutal house to house fighting, with the last few Germans often only being dislodged by the use of flamethrowers and grenades tossed into cellars.  In case any German soldiers were tempted to desert or surrender, teams of elite SS troops patrolled the city and would string up from a lamp-post any solider who they thought was trying to leave the battlefield.

The tour explained what Berlin was like before the Nazis. It must have been one of the most tolerant and liberal cities anywhere. For example there were hundreds of gay and lesbian bars and it was possible to live an openly gay lifestyle here.  Think of the movie ‘Cabaret’. Jews were well integrated into German society. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Nazis could transform society so radically and so rapidly. We stopped by the Reichstag where the guide explained how it is thought the Nazis engineered a fire in order to seize ‘emergency powers’.  Within a month of coming to power Hitler had dissolved Parliament and within 2 or 3 months the first concentration camps had opened, with his political opponents being the first batch of inmates.

Our Third Reich tour included exhibits of the mad and egomaniacal aspects of Nazi rule, such as a ‘prayer’ to Hitler which young children were encouraged to recite before bed each night. I couldn’t read all the German, but the gist of it was along these lines: ‘I love you Fuhrer, just as I love mummy and daddy’.  ‘You protect me Fuhrer, just as mummy and daddy do’. Nauseating and sinister stuff for sure!

On this tour we were also shown the places where some of the famous assassination attempts on Hitler were planned. I had no idea that there were 42 attempts on Hitler’s life.  Presumably surviving all of these must have strengthened his belief that he was protected by divine providence or some similar force. The tour ended at a non-descript place behind an old East German communist-era apartment block where the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were supposedly burned.  The actual Chancellery and bunker were on this location but were destroyed by the Soviets and no longer exist. Some of the red marble from Hitler’s chancellery was used to build the Soviet War Memorial, one of the subway stations and other buildings that went up after the war was over.

We were also told how strict the German laws are about the display of Nazi symbols and paraphernalia. For example, it is against the law to display a Swastika, and a tourist was recently arrested for getting his photo taken giving the Nazi salute at the Brandenburg Gate.  At the same time, Germany continues to have a significant problem with right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis, especially in the economically depressed regions of the former East Germany. The same is true in other parts of the former Soviet empire. On tonight’s German news there was a story about neo-Nazis being arrested for possession of weapons in one of the former East German states near Berlin. I gather these groups often operate in the guise of football hooligans who beat and harass blacks and other immigrants.

Our other activities in Berlin include visiting the Pergamon Museum, which features many artifacts excavated from sites in Turkey and nearby regions – whole walls and massive altars etc. We were told that the Ottoman Empire donated these to Kaiser Wilhelm in the late 1800s.

While in Berlin we visited the ‘Border Experience Museum’ which is located in Friedrichstrasse Station. This was the only place where West Berliners were able to travel to East Berlin from. Depending on the climate between the two governments, family members might be allowed to visit their relatives in the East for a day trip. It was known as the ‘Hall of Tears’ or something like that, as when they parted after these brief visits, divided families could never be sure when they might see each other again. This also had exhibits about the many people killed trying to escape as well as videos of the joyous scenes when the Wall finally was opened in 1989.   

Today (our last day in Berlin) we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is located right near the Brandenburg Gate. This was a very sobering experience, even if not a lot of it was new information to us. Much of the exhibition focuses on the stores of five or six Jewish families and is very confronting and sad. There are copies of Nazi records outlining in specific detail the number of ‘Jews’, ‘Jewesses’ and ‘Jew Children’ killed in various ‘special operations’, as well as Gypsies and other groups targeted for extermination.  One of the maps featured a coffin symbol next to each of the towns this team had visited, giving the number of those killed at each site. For one or two of the towns in Latvia the notation ‘Jew Free’ appeared.  The chief of the killing squad was reporting back to headquarters how successful he and his men had been in their mission.   I think a survivor who emigrated to Australia was a major player in putting this memorial together.  Perhaps Ahmedinejad and other holocaust deniers should be brought here and made to tour the memorial, right in the heart of the place where these crimes were conceived and the orders to carry them out issued. 

Visiting this place is not a fun way to spend an afternoon but probably something everyone should do if they come here.

We have finished our Berlin visit now and will fly to Istanbul on Wednesday afternoon for a 4 day stay in Turkey. We were glad to have included Berlin on the itinerary and will look forward to visiting other regions of Germany on future trips.
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