On the recommendation of one of my friends from Amsterdam, I spent today on the Brewers Tours all day walking tour around Berlin. It was really interesting, although I’m struggling to remember all the useful facts that I learned. The guide Sion (pronounced Shaun) was Welsh, and a historian, so had lots of little insights into the history of the city.
I met Sion at 10:30am at the meeting point that I’d scoped out the day before, and for 10 minutes or so I thought I was going to be the only one taking the tour. What I didn’t know was that there were 2 more pick up points at youth hostels nearby, and also that myself and Sion had blazed off leaving a Liverpudlian couple behind at the initial meeting point. Luckily they followed my red wooly hat to the next meeting point, and we lived happily ever after. After the first hostel we managed to pick up a grand total of 0 walkers and also at the second hostel, but we eventually grew to a total of 9 die hard explorers.
We were die hard explorers because it had snowed overnight which was lying on top of the ice that was previously coating the ground, making walking around potentially treacherous. It kept snowing all day too on and off making the Australians dream of a barbeque on the beach, and I’m sure the two Brazilians were having similar thoughts. Sion told me that they grit the road with actual grit, rather than the road salt that’s I know is used in the UK and the Netherlands, because it’s more environmentally friendly. The only problem is that grit doesn’t help the ice melt, so it might hang around for a while, maybe a few months like last year.
Our first stop was the Neue Synagogue which Sion explained was initially built as a symbol or power and equality when the Prussians made the Jews equal to all other inhabitants in Prussia, but as always some people were more equal than others, and the Jews still suffered in many ways. A few decades later and things changed of course when the Nazis took power, and it was due to be ransacked as all other synagogues were on Kristallnacht. The Nazis had ordered the fire and police service not to interfere with the destruction of the synagogues, and in most cases they complied, except where adjacent non-Jewish buildings were threatened by the actions of the mobs. At the Neue Synagogue however, one policeman stepped out into the road in front of the mob and fired his pistol in the air and told everyone that they should go home. Surprisingly it worked and they dispersed. The Synagogue was actually badly damaged by British bombing during the war ironically, but the Nazis didn’t manage to damage it.
From the Synagogue we went to the Gedenkstätte on Große Hamburger Straße, which I posted a picture of at the end of yesterday’s post. It’s a memorial to the Jews killed after being detained in a former old people’s home on the street. In addition to removing all the living Jews from the city, the graveyard on the street was also emptied during the war which seems quite chilling. I don’t think I would like to take up space by being buried, but I also wouldn’t like to disturb those who chose it.
The street is in a Jewish area of the city, and like Cologne, is covered with brass paving stones indicating the names of the people who used to live at that address. Apparently placing the stones isn’t something performed by the government or local council, but a private organisation which I found surprising as they’re everywhere. I took the picture below in Cologne.
Cologne remembrance stones
After lunch we walked past Montbijou park which used to be the location of a Royal palace before it was destroyed during the war. Rebuilding it would be expensive, and the Russians didn’t really agree with monarchy, so they replaced it with a children’s play park!
Onward to Museum Island where we were given a quick run down of the museums present and which ones were and were not worth visiting (the Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum are worth it FYI), and then finding out why the Berliner Dom which is the name of the cathedral looks a little dull. Apparently during the time of the Frederik the Great’s rein (more on him later) the ruling dynasty wanted to create a building as impressive as the Vatican but which they could have control, so they build the Dom as a Protestant church with none of the beauty of the Vatican.
Next we walked to Unter Der Linden (Under the Limes), a street lined with Lime trees, where we stopped near the Humboldt University. One of the buildings used to be a palace which then became the university library, built by Frederik the Great who Sion said was one of the best monarchs that Germany had, compared to the others who were generally useless. He was also a great investor in culture, and created one of the first public libraries and public opera houses. What is now the main university building was previously a library and the square in front called Bebelplatz was the location of the Nazi book burning in 1933.
Under the Limes
Now the location of the book burning is marked with two memorials. The first is a plaque with a quote from Heinrich Heine which translates to “Where they burn books, they will also burn people,” which seems remarkably prescient. The second is underground, with a window on the ground looking down to empty bookshelfs big enough to hold 20,000 books. The same number of books which were burned.
From Bebelplatz we walked to the Gendarmenmarkt, which is unusual because its name is half French (Gendarme) and half German (markt). Apparently it’s in an area where French protestant Huguenots fled to after the Catholic monarchy in Paris ordered all Protestants to convert to Catholicism or die. Those who fled to Berlin chose a third option, and in return the German’s build them a French church on this square (the Französischer Dom). There’s also a French street (Französischerstraße) nearby. The best thing about the Gendarmenmarkt however was that we stopped for a warming Gluhwein there! 🙂
From here onwards we saw some of the “Big Sites” or Berlin, with Checkpoint Charlie next up. While the area is significant for what it used to be, nothing related to Checkpoint Charlie is original and only a sign similar to the “You are now entering the American sector” sign would actually have been there while the war existed. There’s a line of bricks in the ground indicating where the part of the wall which was seen by West Berliners ran, which is soon going to be extended throughout the city. The shack in the middle of the road with an American soldier is actually staffed by the Party Police, who will also hire you a stripper in addition to an American soldier if you so desire.
Berlin Wall route
We also saw one of the remaining pieces of the Berlin wall, which looks like a thin wall with some graffiti on it. The wall itself wasn’t the barrier to freedom though, it was the wooden wall, barbed wire fence, the tank traps, watch towers and raked sand – used to highlight footprints – that lead up to the wall that were the dangerous part. This meant that normally all buildings in this area were destroyed, and graveyards and churches removed, to prevent anyone using them for cover. All except Detlev Rohwedder House, which was used by the East German Council of Ministers.
The final two sites were the location of Hitler’s official residence and bunker where there isn’t much to see anymore, but we got another essential piece of the German history lesson from the end of the war, and lastly we went to the Brandenburg Gate.
After the tour, as if I wasn’t tired already, I went for a wander and came across the DDR Museum which I wanted to visit. It’s a small place which is about life in East Germany during communism and it’s quite interesting and amusing. They explain how the East balanced the books financially (or failed to), how children were indoctrinated into being good Communists and all the luxuries and shortages that Easterners could expect to have. They also have a Trabant that you can sit in, it’s a very hands on museum.
The weirdest thing that happened to me while I was there was that I saw something moving on the ground towards me. When I looked a little closer it looked like a brown mouse, and I thought it must be one of the toy exhibits that someone was playing with. Then the mouse barrelled straight into my boot, then darted off in a different direction. It was quite surreal. Maybe it was blind. Anyway, I told the owners and hopefully they catch it.
So other interesting things that I learned today are:
- Sion’s female flatmate and former East German was withdrawn from swimming lessons by her parents after they found out the coach was giving her pills to take. She was 9 years old at the time!
- All the trees in Berlin are numbered with a little metal plaque. Someone has that job, and apparently there are over 400,000 trees
- After Chernobyl the shops in the Eastern Bloc suddenly had an abundance of food. This was only because the food wasn’t safe for sale in the West
- An 18 year old tried to escape to West Berlin by hiding in the stomach of a stuffed cow. He failed
- East Germans could receive West German TV, and vice versa (I had no idea). There was a program on East German TV that just countered with propoganda everything that was on the West’s TV the previous night
- The guy who presented the show was one of the most hated men in East Germany
- The East Germans could watch West German TV (I had no idea) but it wasn’t allowed for obvious reasons. The Stasi found a sneaky way of finding out who was watching it by asking 6 year old school children to draw the logo in the top right-hand corner of the TV screen!