A review of sites in Berlin, Germany that show the city's turbulent history.
|Berlin as an unfortunate political crossroads
Around 1992 I visited the town of Plzen (famous to Germans and beer aficionados as the birthplace of the Pilsener beer) in the Czech Republic. It hadn’t always been part of the Czech Republic, of course, and the first Pilsener was brewed by a Bavarian brewer. But when I visited it was only a matter of years since the Iron Curtain had fallen across eastern Europe and this once-closed political continent had been freely open to Western visitors.
The contrast between the rich region of Bavaria we were travelling from and the remnants of a communist regime laid bare for all to see were very stark. The first thing that struck me was the cobbled roads. These may seem quaint in the context of Lancashire pit towns or Brussels city centre, but they take on a different allure when you realize they had for decades been the principal transport arteries. Beyond that, it was clear that the region was emerging from an era of poverty and repression and it would take some time for it to recover from the Stalinist legacy.
Visiting Berlin for the first time twenty years later, I wondered how much of this legacy would still be visible. The answer is very little. The city has been transformed into a modern, undivided capital city that can rightly claim its position among the world’s great cities. But despite this drastic transformation, Berlin—like Germany as a whole—has taken great pains not just to preserve some key remnants of its past but also to transform them and other, seemingly insignificant, areas of the capital into free and open monuments to the city’s turbulent history. Given the weight and complexity of Germany’s past, it’s hardly surprising that the language has spawned a term that refers specifically to this, the superbly long Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
For once, it was refreshing to put a slightly different angle on my sightseeing. Yes, I had a quick look at the Brandenburg Gate, snapped Norman Foster’s magnificent dome on the Bundestag (but baulked when I saw the queues to go up there), eschewed the commercial-looking Berlin Wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie in favour of a hardcore lesson in post-war politics, the division of Germany and the rise of communism. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have much of an appetite for history at school (fear inspired by teachers was not a good motivator for me) and that I can now explore it as I wish and at my own pace that I find it so fascinating. But I think that it’s also because a lot of it in this case is linked to some events of colossal historical importance that have happened while I have been old enough to remember them.
One of the most striking monuments to post-war Berlin is Tempelhof airport. It was only decommissioned as an airport in 2008 and the apron and runway side has been a leisure park since 2010. But the terminal building remains intact, yet unnervingly empty and desolate when not being put to its new use as an exhibition centre. In a small park just next to the airport is a barren concrete arch that serves as a monument to the Berlin air bridge. This was one of the biggest indications of Allied resolve in the face of Soviet posturing, when the Allies had to supply Berlin with goods and fuel by air from West Germany, at the rate of roughly one plane every sixty seconds, spread across Tempelhof (for the US airforce) and Gatov airfield (for the British). There are some great schematic diagrams of how this worked in practice at the Allied Museum, but more of that museum later.
The ominously-named “Topography of Terror”, hidden behind one of the few surviving stretches of the Berlin Wall, covers the origins and outbreak of the second world war, through to its bloody conclusion in Berlin and the erection of the wall, taking time to depict in gruesome detail the Nazi regime’s oppression of all the groups that did not conform to Hitler’s idea of the Aryan race. All it takes is a half-hour stroll along the outside promenade to absorb the full extent and horror of this period. The exhibition continues in more detail inside an appropriately foreboding cube.
Within minutes of this there are numerous other relics, exhibitions and museums. For example, the site is only a few minutes’ walk from Checkpoint Charlie—the place that became synonymous with the division of Berlin and the opposition of Soviet and American powers, to such an extent that the cold war reached an early boiling point in 1961, one year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within five days of American diplomat Allen Lightner kicking up a fuss and calling General Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of the US zone, to protest at having his travel documents checked by East German border guards (under the so-called four-power agreement no German authority was allowed to even stop allied personnel), 10 American tanks faced a similar number of Soviet tanks over a gap of less than 100 metres at Checkpoint Charlie. Only a tacit agreement between Kennedy and Kruschev to withdraw tanks on both sides diffused the situation. Don’t be fooled by the makeshift hut with Germans dressed up as period US soldiers that pose for photos with tourists, though: the real Checkpoint Charlie that was decommissioned when the wall came down is found at the Allied Museum on the outskirts of the city.
An exhibition entitled simply “Stasi – the exhibition” recounts the story of individuals who made the valiant attempts, by various means, to flee across the border between East and West Berlin. Here, the time and effort that the Stasi invested in covering up the fatal shootings of these “border violators” is astounding. Yet it is their attention to detail that has ultimately made these anecdotal histories so moving, since in addition to all the files that were recovered, you can also see personal effects such as wristwatches and wallets recovered from the victims, which adds a much-needed human dimension to documents written in brutally emotionless officialese.
Further outside the city centre is another section of wall that has been kept intact as The Berlin Wall Memorial. This section, however, also includes—in symbolic form—the other fortifications and barriers that had to be overcome before anyone could even get to the wall. Over an expense of around 100 metres, starting with a kind of hinterland wall, you can see where the “signal fence” of barbed wire would have run, then there would be a line of vehicle traps, followed by an uninterrupted line of street lamps to light up anyone who got that far in order to give border guards a better shot, then came a patrol road and finally The Wall itself.
The best way to visit this monument is by the underground, because you alight at the Nordbahnhof. I found the station interior strangely dated but soon realized that this was intentional. It was one of the so-called “ghost stations” that were sealed up by the East Germans once the wall was built, effectively decommissioning them. The Nordbahnhof, however, also had an entrance in West Berlin, which created an additional problem for the East Germans. The result was that the stations were not only sealed off but also guarded by border guards. Even this was not sufficient, though, because the border guards soon sussed out how easy an escape route they had, so they, too, were eventually locked in to their own bunkers before their shift. While construction workers were sealing off some of the tracks that crossed solely into East Berlin, one took advantage of the bizarre situation and jumped between the East German border guards supervising him, past the West German guards standing just metres away and thus to freedom. The entire station is now a living, working memorial to these ghost stations and is crammed with photographs and stories of underground transport in a divided city. Many of the underground lines ran from north to south and therefore crossed through East Berlin. They continued to run but just didn’t stop at the East Berlin stations, meaning that commuters faced the eerie sight of East German guards in dimly lit stations watching “the enemy” pass by at five-minute intervals.
Another poignant edifice that has been left “as-is” is the “Palace of Tears”, which was erected by the East Germans right outside Friedrichstrasse station. At least that’s how it looks now, since the exhibition it houses was only opened last year and until then this historically significant building had, unbelievably, been a nightclub. This major interchange carries national and regional trains as well as several underground lines and during the cold war was one of the few border crossings between east and west. The Palace of Tears was set up as a filter station before travellers were allowed into the station proper. Its light and airy construction belies its more sinister purpose and inside you will find the original passport and visa control stations (closed at both ends for total privacy), which are coated in a 1970s-style formica overlay, beyond which lay the passage to West Berlin. Like many of the exhibitions dedicated to the cold war, this is also filled with stories and personal objects that bring home the reality of living in a city that had been brutally divided literally overnight.
A building complex that was not marked on any East German maps also survives in its original state, with some of its original furnishings and, most importantly (thanks in no small part to the East German citizens that occupied it as soon as the wall came down), countless files and documents, is the former headquarters of the Ministry for Security. One of the buildings is now the Stasi Museum, where you can see the drab 1970s furniture of the minister’s office, complete with conference room and small rest area for the drivers (with the East German stations clearly marked on the radio to immediately show up any unauthorized listening). Dotted around the other floors you will find biographies of some of the key figures from the East German regime and resistance, as well as some of the ingenious devices that ministry employees—Stasi agents—used to spy on their own people.
Head to the outskirts of the city and you will find the Allied Museum, easily identified by the huge RAF Hastings plane used in the air bridge parked in its grounds, as well as a carriage from the French military train that used to join Berlin with Strasbourg (the only direct connection between West Berlin and French territory) as well as the original Checkpoint Charlie.
Inside you will find such gems as the spy tunnel dug by the Allies to tap into the East Berlin phone network. This sophisticated 400 metre construction was revealed by a double agent to the East German authorities, who took great delight in showing this blatant attempt at espionage to the world’s media. The Allied Museum managed to secure a small section of this almost forgotten part of history when it was dug up from a building site in 2005. As well as the early days of divided Berlin, the air bridge and the construction of the wall, one of the more intriguing exhibits is a simple video of “inspections” by western “diplomats” in the east. Under the four-power agreement already mentioned, they were entitled to travel into East Berlin but as the cold war intensified this rare freedom took on a huge significance. The fact that you can hear the speakers but can only see what they are seeing, either through their long lenses or video cameras, adds an extra dimension of tension to the footage—they are the antithesis of carefully scripted pieces to camera. You can feel for the Frenchman who excitedly tells his driver to reverse when a Soviet personnel carrier suddenly veers in front of them, stops, and a soldier gets out, then marvel at the phlegm of a British inspector who calmly instructs his driver to drive off slowly, then back up, then drive off slowly again to provide an almost farcical game of cat and mouse with an intrepid soldier who jumps down from a tank convoy to chase them. Or the helicopter pilot that turns his ship to face the photographer directly and approaches slowly, allowing the zoom lens to clearly pick out his face as he flies past. All the while you can hear in the background a voice calling off the type, numbers and markings of every vehicle that can be seen in the passing military convoys.
Berlin does, of course, have much more to offer and countless other museums. It’s also home to western Europe’s biggest department store, has great bars and restaurants and a thriving alternative scene. If you head off to the unmistakable TV Tower at Alexanderplatz and then seek out the Alex shopping centre you can even indulge in some Ostalgie (the word the Germans have cunningly formed by contracting “ost” (east) and nostalgia) by shopping at a store that sells all the old favourites from East Germany. The store itself is on the first floor, but an enticing window display on the ground floor is crammed full of some of the foodstuffs and consumer goods you would find in East Germany.
But if you’re only there for a few days, why not focus on a specific theme? For me it was the city’s history as both the point of culmination of the second world war and the birthplace of what was to become the Iron Curtain. I probably barely scratched the surface and am keen to learn much more, but for starters this small but excellent selection of museums and exhibitions (of which all apart from the Stasi Museum are free of charge), is a great starting point.