Having previously worked in Germany, it would surprise many to learn that I haven’t actually seen much of it. Even more surprising is that my wife had never been at all, yes I know it’s a sad state of affairs especially because it’s so ridiculously close.
Therefore when the recent opportunity arose for a flying visit to Berlin we grasped it with both hands. You could argue that we would do the same with any city, and yes you would probably be right. However there was something more at play here, I’d actually studied modern European history at school and was fascinated to see the pivotal location for myself.
We opted for a tour, as that was the best way of seeing as much as possible in the limited time we had. The tour was with a company called SPB Tours and didn’t disappoint. Our first port of call was the impressive Olympic Stadium, where we met our guide – who just happened to be American, not completely authentic but I did travel China with an Australian! Luckily this guy was incredible – exceptionally knowledgeable and very well versed (having lived and studied in Germany for over 10 years).
Our guide immediately launched into the pre-WWII history, which I really appreciated, educating the group about the time before the Nazis and giving us a bit of history about the city. Being the son of a ‘history buff’ I don’t claim to remember a lot about the pre-WWII days, but it did all come flooding back to me. Setting the scene really did bode well for the rest of the trip which would concentrate on the highlights of the city.
From the Stadium we rode through the old West Berlin, it’s incredible to think that the majority of the buildings we saw didn’t exist 50 years ago, or were piles of rubble (along with the majority of the city) after the Battle for Berlin in 1945. We did pass the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which has been left as a symbol of remembrance from WWII. Granted it’s one of the only buildings of that age, that hasn’t been rebuilt, restored or just removed. I liked it – I think it’s important to remember those dark days in human history – Hiroshima has a very similar building that has been left as well.
Our next main stop was the famous Reichstag building. Even with very limited knowledge of the German capital, this building was hugely significant all the way until the Nazis took power as it was the seat of parliament. Although it was again mostly destroyed during the Battle for Berlin, it has been rebuilt and now stands proud with a beautiful glass dome as its roof and centre piece. The Reichstag was also the location of one of the most iconic pictures of WWII, where the Soviets flew a flag over its remains after a hugely bloody battle. Now that is an image that gives you a sense of how Berlin looked at the end of the conflict, it was also hugely significant for the Soviets propaganda as showed the true fall of the Nazi’s.
Image credit: rarehistoricalphotos.com
Something I really liked about the tour was that the guide kept showing us pictures of the capital during the days of war, and days post war. This meant that you could get a real sense of what this city has endured.
A short walk down the road was probably the most iconic Berlin site, the Brandenburg gate. This is a huge monumental gate, which was once the entrance to the city and road to Brandenburg. The Nazis used it as a propaganda piece, and a party symbol. Incredibly it survived the Battle of Berlin with extensive damage and was rebuilt. It’s an incredible structure – very grand in stature and very compelling. From a history perspective so much has happened here, it just evokes the sense of marvel.
Just behind this structure our guide showed us a line of tiles/bricks permanently embedded into the roads and pathways. It ran straight behind the Brandenburg gate and marks the full length and location of the notorious Berlin Wall. This historic structure was built throughout the city and divided it in between the allied victors of WWII (French, British, Americans and Soviets). The wall became one of the most notorious structures in all of human history – used as a propaganda tool and a worldwide symbol of the cold war.
The Image our guide shared with us was incredible, taken during the cold war; it gave a completely new dimension to where we were standing. The Gate stood in front of the wall, with nothing around it but sparse land. There were no buildings alongside it, no trees, no modernisation and essentially no life – it was literally a wasteland. The contrast from today is just incredible!
Image credit: www.hereandtherewithpatandbob.com
An eerie feeling crept over me, when where we were standing was actually designated the Soviet ‘Kill Zone’. It’s incredible to think how many deaths there has been in this city, but this site, this site now so teaming with life was probably the death site for hundreds.
Unbelievably the wall still exists in specific parts of the city, conserved as a reminder of the incredible history of the city and country as a whole. Approaching it, you get a real sense of its historical importance. I don’t know why, but I had a real desire to actually touch it and see it up close. I mean, although very young, I vividly remember watching the collapse of the wall in the early 1990’s. I remember seeing it on the news and thinking what a funny place this Germany must be… I also remember studying it, from Kennedys address, to Hitler’s Bunker. To actually be here within one of my memories, to walk in the city that has so much incredible history and stories is a privilege.
An even stranger thought was the fact that the part of the wall we visited was right next to where the Gestapo and SS headquarters were located before its inception/creation. These sites now only have a visitors centre on them, and again provide a great memory as to the terrible events of the NAZI regime.
Our next historical stop was of course Check Point Charlie, which was one of gateways through the wall – and essentially the way West Berliners could enter into East Berlin. The historical display here is very interesting, but the check point itself is long gone – nowadays all there is a tourist version, where you can pay to have your picture taken with uniformed guards. Tacky – but fun!
Lastly we visited Berlins Holocaust memorial, located a short walk from the Brandenburg gate. This is a conversation starter to say the least. Located where it is, I don’t feel that I am adequately equipped to address it, I really feel it’s a ‘decide for yourself’ memorial. Personally I liked the way it made you think and actually the deeper you got into it the more haunting it became.
The rest of our trip was actually spent exploring the other wonders of Berlin, there’s still a lot of history but let me try to refrain from that. The beautiful buildings still show the scars of the conflicts, but there are green spaces, beautiful bridges, lovely cafes and a lot of bars, restaurants and shops. We stopped at a lovely café for lunch and had the traditional German Stitzel and Bratwurst.
All in all we loved Berlin, although we were on a historical tour, we felt that we saw and learned so much in such a short space of time. I thought that it would check the city off my list, but now we have seen the history, in all honesty I want to return to experience Berlin as the modern city it is now and continues to be.