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Published: November 10th 2017
Geo: 52.5156, 13.3899
I started my day with a walking walking tour of Berlin. Our guide, Kim, was an Aussie girl from Newcastle, studying her history masters here in Berlin. The tour started at the Brandenburg gate. The gate was built in the 1700's and was originally a tollway where excise taxes were extracted from traders transporting goods from the Prussian empire. On top of the gate is a bronze statue of a woman on a four horse chariot. Originally this woman was called Eirene, the goddess of peace. When Napoleon invaded the city in the 1806 he really liked the statue and he took it down and had it taken to the Louvre in Paris, which the Germans took as a great insult. When they won independence in 1814 the statue was returned to the gate, Eirene's staff was amended to include the cross and the eagle and she was renamed Victoria, goddess of victory. Victoria's head is tilted to the left and Kim pointed out that if you follow her gaze she is looking down at the French embassy. Keeping an eye on those pesky Froggies.
Next we made our way to the Jewish memorial. This is basically a city
block filled with rectangular concrete blocks of varying heights. There are no names or descriptions, no words anywhere in fact. When asked what it all means, the architect simply replied, I'm an architect, I design things, it is up to the people who see it to define what it means to them. It cost €27 million to build, you think he could have thrown in an explanation! I think it looks like a graveyard. But how 2711 concrete blocks form tombstones for 6 million Jews, I don't know. I asked the guide if the number of blocks represents anything, but apparently no.
Around the Tiergarten (massive park in the middle of Berlin) there are memorials for all of the groups targeted for extermination by the Nazi's. There is the memorial for the Sinti and Roma, which I saw yesterday, a memorial for the homosexuals, the disabled, Russian soldiers and even the politicians. I will investigate those later....at some point
Then we went on to the site of Hitlers bunker. You can't actually see the bunker anymore, its been completely sealed off as the Germans do not want to glorify Hitler (pesky Neo-Nazis are still floating around) but you can go to the
spot where the bunker was. It now has a car park and a small park over it. Now if anyone thinks they've seen a bad wedding, think of Eva Braun. After years and years of being a life partner for this man, he finally marries her in his bunker as the Russians are closing in on Berlin. 24 hours later they both committed suicide. That's a pretty crappy honeymoon! Here's another fun fact. The Russians discovered their remains, but kept the fact hidden for 25 years, allowing rumours to circulate that Hitler was still alive and had escaped. The spectre of Hitler returning put fear into people, this gave them justification for a strong military presence. They finally came clean in 1970. Sneaky Ruskies!
We then made our way along to the one of the remaining sections of the Berlin wall. On first appearance it did not seem that intimidating. Its quite tall, about 10ft, but quite thin. I had imagined some terrifyingly high thick wall with barbed wire and broken glass on the top. Instead it was topped with a sewage pipe, as the wide round shape made it impossible for escapees to grab hold of the top and
pull themselves over. There is only the remains of one wall, there were in fact two walls running in parallel. The area in between was the "death zone" laced with all sorts of nasties designed to kill or maim anyone crossing illegally. Additionally there were guard towers all along the wall and the guards were under instructions to shoot anyone on the death zone on sight. To escape people tried to climb over it, tunnel under it and one family even zip-lined their way to freedom on the west side.
The wall went up in 1961, virtually overnight. From the end of the war approximately 2 million east Germans escaped to west Germany via Berlin. (despite the fact that Berlin was deep inside the border of east Germany) Tired of this defection the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or as we know it, East Germany) erected a barricade along the border around West Berlin. From that morning on, no-one in East Berlin was permitted to cross the border. Not to visit family, not to go to their jobs or school, not for any reason. Approximately 65,000 East Berliners lost their jobs that day. Over time they constructed the wall which went
through 4 stages, from a barricade of wood and barbed wire lined with guards to its final concrete monstrosity. Approximately 40% of East Germany's GDP was spent on maintaining the wall. That's building it, fixing it, guards, etc
A short walk down the street and we came to Checkpoint Charlie. This is where anyone of non-german origin had to pass if they wanted to enter East Berlin. As time went on the west developed while the east struggled under Moscow's rule. They say crossing the border was like going from day to night. The west developed and rebuilt, while the east remained broken and torn. One of the requirement for going east was you had to spend a certain amount of currency there. As there wasn't much by way of shops and restaurants, most people ended up giving their East German currency away to folks on the street. All that remains at Checkpoint Charlie is the little guard hut and the sign "You are now leaving the American zone." All if it is a replica though, the original checkpoint building and sign are in a museum. But they do have two "American" guards standing outside the hut....they're not at attention though.
Next stop was the Gendarmenmarkt. A beautiful old square. Walking into this square I felt like I was back in old Europe. 90% of Berlin was bombed during WW2 and rebuilt. Now it is a very modern city by European standards. Gendarmenmakt however has three beautiful old buildings, the Konzerthaus, (concert hall) and the German and French cathedrals. In the 1600's when the french Huguenots (protestants) were being persecuted by their own king, the Prussian king, Fredrick I, invited them to Berlin, well not all of them, just their artists, poets, architects, etc. to make the offer more attractive he built the French Cathedral. The locals felt somewhat neglected so to appease his own people he built a near replica cathedral on the other side of the square. Only the German cathedral was a foot taller.
Around the corner was Bebelplatz. Another square, almost completely surrounded by the Humboldt University. I mention this uni because its student body once included the brothers Grim, Karl Marx and Max Engels. (If you don't know who they are, look it up, they were really smart) Albert Einstein lectured there until things started to go bad for the Jews and America looked like a much better place. Kim informed us Humboldt university boasts 27 Nobel prize winners. I didn't ask in what. Bebelplatz is also the place of the Nazi book burning of 1933. Any miscreant intellectual who had the audacity to write about peace, tolerance or democracy, had his books burned in this fire. Approximately 20,000 books went up in flames. On a plaque on the ground is a quote from German Jew, Heinrich Heine. "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." (That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people) He wrote that in 1820.
After the tour ended, I had lunch and made my way back to Checkpoint Charlie. When we had walked past the piece of the wall I had noticed a memorial there I wanted to check out. Being completely lost I figured if I could find the checkpoint, I only needed to follow the path of the wall back to the memorial. (The path of the entire wall is marked by a row of two cobblestones) As I walked up to the checkpoint I noticed big panels along the street, explaining the checkpoint and the history of occupied Berlin. Reading through it they highlight the many Russian attempts to disrupt or disturb the allied forces occupation of West Berlin. The historians viewpoint may be slanted, but I gotta hand it to JFK for his monumental efforts at diplomacy when dealing with Khrushchev. They just don't make pollies like him anymore. What a great jelly doughnut.
I returned to the wall. The memorial I had spotted was not about the wall itself, but about the Nazi invasion, and subsequent soviet occupation of Poland. Now I know the Jews aren't happy about the war, but if anyone has a right to PO'd its the poles. They saw the invasion coming, fought, got no support from France or Britain, got invaded, suffered huge losses, fought again, got "rescued" by the Russians and then faced 40 years of soviet rule which wasn't much better than Nazi occupation. During the war the poles, especially Warsaw, became a bit of a pill to Hitler. So as a warning to others he decided to wipe Warsaw from the face of the earth. One of the quotes in the memorial was an order fro Himmler and Hitler "All residents must be killed, no prisoners to be taken. Warsaw is to be razed to the ground, setting a frightening example for all Europe." In terms of horror, this is where the Nazi's did their worst. Invasion, slave labour, rape, murder of women and children...and not with bullets. Now before the war, Russia and Germany had pretty much signed a pact to divvy up Poland anyway, can you imagine how the Poles felt when Russia took over the whole lot. Didn't matter, any uprising was met with brutal force, and the instigators sent off to Gulags. In 1944, polish poet, Józef Szczepański, wrote. "We are waiting for you Red plague, to save is from the Black death. To be salvation welcomed with revulsion, after you tear our country apart" I think that sums it up.
Finally, if you are wondering about my JFK comment. In a speech to West Berlin in 1963, JFK wanted to exclaim his solidarity with them by saying "Ich bin Berliner" I am a a citizen of Berlin. What he actually said was "ich bin ein berliner" I am a jelly doughnut.
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