By Derek Wilson
Welcome back to the second half of our Berlin Mitte tour. I hope lunch was to your satisfaction, wherever you went, and you have had enough time to take pictures of our current location at Checkpoint Charlie. As I mentioned just before we took our break, most Berliners avoid this exact part of town but for visitors to the city it is one of the most important sights to see. We begin the next stage of our tour by walking away from Friedrich Strasse and along Zimmer Strasse. At this point we can see one of the few parts of wall which still exists in a large chunk. It is around 12 feet high and made of concrete. The wall in itself would not have been too hard to scale but this was the final obstacle for escapers. This part of wall is the ‘Western’ wall, built only a metre or so in East German territory. Heading back towards the East was a death strip of up to 150 metres which contained guns, mines and search dogs until the ‘Eastern’ wall is reached. The decision to escape was not one to be taken lightly. Behind the remains of the wall is an excellent exhibition known as the Topography of Terror. This display was created in the rediscovered cellars of the Gestapo central office on Prince Albrecht Strasse. It was found by a group of archaeology students in 1985 and after a long haggle over money the exhibition you see now was created. Not only was there a dispute over cash but also many Berliners felt that there was nothing to be gained by creating this type of exhibition here. Many felt that their city was one of Hitler’s first victims and that no one was remembering the many innocent Berliners that were killed not just by the Nazi regime but by the conquering Russians in the subsequent years of chaos before the Western and Eastern states were founded. That, quite frankly, is an absurd view to hold. While Berliners may not have pulled the trigger on any killings themselves the administration centre of the Nazi Reich was here. The terrors carried out by the SS and Gestapo would not have been possible without an immensely well coordinated by people in the background; for example the Reichsbahn clerks who processed all the one way tickets for Jews. The Jewish people transported by rail, incidentally, were forced to pay 4 pfennigs per rail kilometre for the dubious privilege of their journey. The exhibition on the upper half of the site focuses on the Nuremberg trials of German war criminals that took place after the war and has information in English as well as German. The lower section concentrates on the actions of the SS and English translation is available with a headset. Be warned though, some of the images are not suitable for youngsters.
We move on down the massive Wilhelm Strasse, heading back in the direction of Unter den Linden. This street was one of the most prominent in the Nazi times. The colossal building on the left was the Reich Air Ministry, the base of Luftwaffe minister Herman Goering. It was from here that he planned the blitzkriegs that devastated Poland and France but ultimately the Luftwaffe could not quite deliver for him, failing in crucial tasks over Britain and Russia. The building was hardly damaged in the war, remarkably for a construction this size. It is now the Finance Ministry. At the end of the building, at the junction with Leipziger Strasse is another scene of Berlin infamy. The mural on the wall of the ministry shows the ideal life in the workers paradise with manual labourers, farmers, housewives and intellectuals all pulling together. The reality of the 1953 demonstration is shown in the form of a picture facing the sky before the mural. On 17th June 1953 workers from the DDR gathered in this square to protest against a further rise in production targets with no corresponding improvement in pay or conditions. An incredible 100,000 people crammed in to protest and East German Premier Walter Ulbricht was getting nervous. Despite the peaceful nature of the demonstration he sought permission to use the Russian tanks located in Berlin to crush the ‘rebellion’. Officially around 400-500, although that number is believed to be higher in reality, were killed by Russian soldiers firing into the crowd and around 20 Russians were later executed by their military hierarchy for refusing to fire upon the unarmed civilians. The West commemorated this incident by naming the huge street leading from the Brandenburg Gate to Charlottenburg Strasse der 17. Juni. The watching Americans, only hundreds of metres away, felt that they could not interfere with events taking place in East German territory without sparking a major diplomatic incident and possibly war. This hesitation on both sides was evident throughout the cold war, no more so in the case of Peter Fuchs. He was the first to attempt to break out of East Berlin when the border has been closed in 1961. He was shot was border guards and lay bleeding in no mans land. Neither side was willing to risk going to fetch him and over a course of hours he bled to death. This incident caused both sides to sit down and arrange common sense principles to be used in the future. It was not thought of at the time but it was important to establish who could do what when one side had the Spree in their sector but the opposing bank was already part of the other country. Before moving on we can take a quick look down Leipziger Strasse to the large Potsdamer Platz square. In the 1920s this was one of the busiest public transport interchanges in Europe but the Berlin Wall cut right through the middle of it, leaving the once bustling platz a deserted waste ground. Today it is a haven for businesses and boasts the mighty Deutsche Bahn tower along with the spectacularly designed Sony Centre cinema and entertainment complex.
Walking along Wilhelm Strasse we need to take a quick duck under the flats on the left hand side of the road. We emerge at the other side looking at an unspectacular area which could be a quiet part of any city. There is a car park immediately in front of us and off to the right is play area for children. It is almost impossible to imagine – but please try – the monstrous Reich Chancellery stretching several blocks into the distance. This was Hitler’s residence, his personal space, his meeting area and, as the end came, his whole world. Underneath the Chancellery and extending out to where we stand now was the Fuehrer Bunker where Hitler spent his last days with his soon to be wife, Eva Braun, and a handful of close aids. Shortly after his 56th birthday in April 1945, Hitler and Braun were actually married in the bunker. Previously Hitler had put off the subject of marriage by claiming that he was already married to the German people. As the German people, those in Berlin and the East, were forced to suffer the recriminations of the brutal Red Army brought upon them by Hitler’s policies, Hitler was steadily losing his mind. His plans and processes became wilder and wilder and he made announcements based on ‘facts’ that actually had no basis in reality. His wedding was a brief affair, celebrated in private with a gathering of close contacts. It is rumoured that the main subject of conversation at the reception was the most efficient way of killing yourself when the Russians eventually arrived. By this point Germany, and Berlin, was on its knees begging for mercy. Hitler committed suicide long after defeat was inevitable after being persuaded that a retreat to Munich was not viable and a heroic defence of the capital was the honourable conclusion to the war. Subordinates attempted to burn his body to prevent it falling into the hands of the Russians but failed miserably. In fact, they would have needed industrial furnaces to succeed in their goal so their attempts with petrol and matches were doomed from the start. The Russians were very secretive about Hitler’s body but the most feasible explanation – of many! – is that they took his body along with his personal dentist to identify it. After identification and cremation a period of years passed before the ashes were scattered near Magdeburg. There is no mention of the buildings which previously stood here and underneath here due to fears of it becoming a focal point for present day neo-nazis.
As we approach the end of our tour we come to what is now one of the most well known parts of Berlin. The memorial to the lost Jews of Europe consists of 2700 stone slabs on an undulating surface. It is possible to walk through the memorial, designed by American Jew Peter Eisenman, and one should experience a displacement and confusion symbolically similar to what was felt by the Jews in Germany in the build up to the Holocaust. The memorial was immensely controversial for number of reasons. Firstly it was asked why it was aimed only at the Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis – Slavs, homosexuals, communists and gypsies, among others, were persecuted as well. Secondly the memorial is far from traditional and there is the concern that many people will eventually use it as a short cut or kids can play hide and seek here. Finally, in a city notorious for graffiti the stones are noted for being bare. Initially Eisenman wanted to accept the possibility of graffiti on the stones to allow Berliners to express their feeling towards the memorial. This was naturally risky in the extreme and eventually it was prevailed upon him to use an anti graffiti agent on the slabs. Even this was not without problems though as the company which produces the agent had previously manufactured poison for the Nazis. German history still runs deep and dark. My own personal view is that the memorial is an innovative and catchy design that is suitably thought provoking. Many disagree. There is an information centre under the exhibit that is free to enter but again, it is not suitable for everyone. Crossing the road we walk past the building sight for the new American Embassy and reach the world famous Brandenburg Gate. This gate dates from Prussian times when it was one of several toll points into the city. The monument on top contains the Goddess of Peace riding her chariot although even this was not immune to the Nazis – they placed a swastika in her hand when they were in power. Now the Goddess is restored to her original glory but she also resided in Paris for a while after Napoleon’s victorious army looted her in the early 19th century. The Gate has five entry points with the large thoroughfare in the middle previously being deemed only suitable for Prussian royalty while the peasants had to pass through the sides. The Gate is not that big in terms of European monuments but is one of the classic images of Germany, particularly when it was lost to no man’s land being right in the middle of the Berlin Wall security zone. Looking away from the Gate and to the West we can see all the way down Strasse 17. Juni as it stretches through the Tiergarten and into Charlottenburg. The imposing monument we can see is the Victory Column built in the celebrations following the expulsion of Napoleon and his army from Berlin.
We cross the road and head up to our final stop of the tour. The Reichstag, complete with it’s new dome as designed by Norman Foster, is once more home to the German Parliament. The capital of the reunified Germany almost stayed in Bonn but a narrow parliamentary vote brought the hauptstadt status back to Berlin. A young Dutch communist who was later executed burnt down the Reichstag in 1933. This gave Hitler the excuse needed to suspend most human rights in Germany and the parliament voted itself out of existence by passing the Enabling Act – giving Hitler supreme power – shortly after. It is now of some consolation to Germans that Hitler never used the Reichstag building. On the rare occasions he needed parliament to convene it did so in the building of the Kroll Opera house opposite. This building was destroyed during the war. The Reichstag building was not used during the Second World War but it was a symbolic place for both the Germans and Russians. The Russians eventually took the building and hoisted the red flag over it but only after bloody room-to-room fighting. After the war the Reichstag was fairly redundant as it lay in the Western sector but the capital of Western Germany was in Bonn. It was used for occasional meetings but until reunification and it’s face lift in 1990s it was a shadow of it’s former self. Restored to it’s former glory it is now one of the most popular tourist spots in Berlin – it is free to enter and the view from the glass dome gives a breathtaking view over the whole city.
So now our tour has come to an end. The hardened tourists can pick out what museums and attractions to look at while others will simply walk back to the Hauptbahnhof and continue on their way. The recent opening of the Hauptbahnhof was spoiled by a knife welding maniac who attacked people – no one was seriously hurt but it showed once again the Berlin is not without it’s problems. The Berliners are a stuffy lot though and there is no doubting that they are an integral part of this great city. The city and the people will continue to develop; the future of the city will not be as bloody as the past but it will no doubt be just as exciting.