I went to Berlin last week, keen to soak up as much history as I could–and I think I succeeded pretty well.
After a pretty exhausting ten-hour bus trip, I arrived in the centre of Berlin, and took my sweet time figuring out the public transport system – U-bahn, S-bahn, M-bahn, bus or train? When I had that down, I bought a Welcome Berlin card, which gave me unlimited travel with public transport and free entry or a discount at every museum in Berlin, for 72 hours. Perfect!
I took the S-bahn to Alexanderplatz, and had breakfast with a view of the eponymous Fernsehturm. It was my second time in Berlin, and I’d already seen most of the main tourist attractions: I didn’t even pass by the Brandenburger Tor this time. Keen to get going, I walked towards the Musee Insel and went into the Berliner Dom. I think it’s one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. It looks pretty dark and forbidding on the outside, but the inside is a baroque dream of white and gold, with mosaics of Jesus’ disciples and a beautiful dome. A male choir was singing hymns when I went in and they gave me the shivers, it was absolutely beautiful. I also went on the Dome walkway and looked out over the city.
First on my list was the Pergamon museum. This museum specialises in ancient civilisations, and its most famous object is the Ishtar gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon – indeed, an entire gate! The original gate was a double one, and the smaller of the two is in the museum. The other one is apparently in storage. Sadly, the Pergamon Altar was being restored, so I didn’t get to see that. The Ishtar gate is named after Ishtar, the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian goddess of war, fertility, sex and love – interesting how often those go together. The gate is decorated with lions, Ishtar’s symbol; bulls, symbol of the weather god Adad; and mythical dragons, symbol of the city’s patron god Marduk. The gate was uncovered at the German excavation in Babylon in the late 1800’s – early 1900s. In the adjoining hall, the walls were covered with the same type of bricks, to reconstruct the original Processional Way (but slightly smaller).
If you pass through the Ishtar gate you come into a room with Roman architectural elements, which also has a massive gate above the door. This is the gate that used to decorate the Agora in Miletus, and formed the passageway to the Southern Market, the most important square in the city. It was part of the city fortifications between 600 and 800 AD. The original decoration has been preserved in fragments; left of the entrance, there is a statue of a Roman general with a vanquished barbarian at his feet, and on the right there’s a naked hero holding a cornucopia. Both are thought to represent either Hadrian or Trajan.
Incredibly, the museum has another building on display: the façade of Qasr Mshatta, the Umayyad winter palace located 30 km from Amman, the capital of Jordan. It has been on display in Berlin museums since 1903 and it was discovered in 1897 by German archaeologists. Most of the ruins are still in Jordan. The palace was constructed in 743-44 AD, but never fully finished. The façade was part of the enclosure wall of the palace, near the entrance. It was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II by the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II. The lavish triangular decorations show animals and mythical creatures in peaceful coexistence. At the time of discovery, there was some controversy about the classification of the decorations, which led to an impetus of research in Islamic archaeology.
I’m tempted to think that the Germans give the English a run for their money when it comes to collecting bits and pieces of other civilizations. I mean, carrying off the entire façade of a building is pretty impressive. The Ishtar complex is spread out over museums all over the world, but the Pergamon museum – as well as the other museums of antiquities – was filled almost exclusively by German archaeologists in the 19th century. The fact that the bigger part of the Ishtar gate is in storage, not even on display, again raises the question I stipulated in my piece of the British museum: does it even belong here?
There was an excellent Islamic art gallery in the museum as well, and a basement full of Egyptian treasures. I was excited to see a large papyrus of the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text full of spells to protect the deceased in the afterlife.
After the Pergamon museum I went to the Hackesche Höfe nearby; a small shopping complex consisting of six interconnected streets, with beautiful buildings in art nouveau style.
After taking a break there, I went back to the Musee Insel to the Neues museum. The crown piece of this museum is a largely intact bust of Nefertiti. There were no pictures allowed, but this is what it looked like:
Nefertiti was the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten (or Amenhotep IV, 1351 – 1334 BC), who established a new city, Akhetaton, as a new capital with places of worship for his own monotheistic religion. Peculiarly, he only worshiped the sun god Aton. After his reign, the polytheistic belief system was restored.
In the adjoining room was the amazing papyrus collection of the museum. The tragedies of Euripides and Sophokles on actual papyrus, right under my nose! Just incredible. They were lots of religious and legal documents, but also texts that described everyday life. To see such important texts that have survived through so many centuries was amazing!
Here are some other pieces from the Neues Museum that stood out to me.
I love Berlin because it is an absolute cornucopia of history. My first day revolved around ancient civilisations, and my second day revolved around World War II. I started out at the Jüdisches Museum, which was bigger than I expected, so I had to rush it a bit. The whole building was designed by Hans Libeskind and is basically an artwork in itself. On the ground floor were possessions of Jews from WW II, presented with the background stories. You could also go into the Garden of Exile, a sloping piece of ground with huge white columns, out of the top of which olive trees grew and made a green roof. Because of the sloping ground and the sloping columns it was slightly disorienting to walk around in. It was meant to convey the sense of displacement the people who fled before and during the war felt in their new homeland. There were also children running around there, which I suppose can be interpreted as a positive message; children are quicker to adapt.
At the end of one corridor was the Holocaust room. This was a room about 40 metres high, with bare concrete walls and one iron staircase which was unreachable. Light from the outside leaked in from one crack between two walls. It was very cold and gloomy in there. You could hear the noises of traffic and people outside. There was a tremendous echo in the room, which made everything that people in the room with me mumbled to each other sound like voices of the dead whispering to the living. Whenever the door closed, the bang reverberated around the room, and it felt like being in a prison cell and the door slamming shut. Such a cold and bare space, but it was very evocative; it seemed like the deceased were whispering to you from the afterlife. Just the barest glimmer of light in the cold and dark, but up high and far away, unreachable for most. The constant reminder of other people outside, going about their daily lives, unaware of what takes place behind the walls. A staircase that leads nowhere. The room was a gripping reminder of the darkness and despair the Jews faced during the Holocaust.
There were many empty spaces in the museum that served as a reminder of the absence of Jews from our society these days. The most impressive was the Memory Void, which had an installation by Menashe Kadishman called Shalechet (“fallen leaves”). It consisted of faces cut out from metal, wearing a despairing expression, strewn about the floor like fallen leaves – except they were heavy, and you couldn’t kick them up like leaves. They made a clanging sound when you moved around in them, which few of the other people in the room dared to do. It showed how heavy the fate of the Jews weighs; in the past, but also in the present. The Holocaust isn’t something to be kicked away and scattered in the wind – it’s heavy, like lead. There were so many faces lying there, looking up at you, it was as if the victims were looking at you directly in silent despair – but, as with the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburger Tor, it’s difficult – and will always remain difficult – to comprehend just how many Jewish lives have been lost – 6 million. The Holocaust went beyond the basic human instinct for waging war, and survival of the fittest – it was an inhuman desire for complete erasure of people and their culture, as if they had never existed at all. It is incomprehensible, and should, perhaps, remain so.
The museum housed a permanent collection that showcased the history of Jews, from the earliest beginnings in Roman settlements to the present day. It was terrible to see antisemitism crop up time and again. For example, Jews were not allowed to become merchants, so they became doctors, traders, bankers and lawyers instead. There were loads of caricatures mocking and framing Jews for crimes. There was also a collection of modern Jewish attributes, such as items for bar mitzvahs and the weekly Sabbath. I especially enjoyed the gallery based on the diaries of Jewish business woman Glikl bas Judah Leib, which showed her daily activities and her travels around Europe.
After my visit to the museum I rushed to the Ostbahnhof for the start of the Third Reich walking tour. The company, Insider Tours, also organised regular city tours and a Cold War walking tour, as well as one that took in the many concentration camps in and around Berlin. I signed up for the Third Reich one, which was given by a Scotsman, and was absolutely excellent. We started out near the Reichstag next to the bridge where the Soviets rolled into the city during the Battle for Berlin. He told us about Albert Speer, who would have been the architect of many huge buildings on the rather empty field where we were standing. The Nazis were very much focused on their place in history, and wanted the ruins (when their 1000 year empire was eventually over) of these magnificent buildings to make people recall their time of splendour, as ancient Greek and Roman ruins do. We then walked to the Reichstag, which wasn’t actually used during the Nazi period, but which the Soviets used as propaganda material to show that they had defeated the Nazis in this photo:
This photo was actually staged, but it sends a clear message about who the Soviets really wanted to have the honour of liberating Berlin – not the English, not the Americans, but them. Our guide explained here how Hitler actually came to power: after the 1933 fire in the Reichstag, Hitler convinced then-president Hindenburg to frame the Communists for it, and to appoint him Chancellor to put together an emergency government in this time of crisis. Hindenburg then issued the Reichstag Fire Decree, which took away various civil liberties from the German citizens, and the Nazis used it as a legal basis to imprison or suppress anyone considered to be an opponent to their party. The Enabling Act followed, which gave Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. These two laws enabled Hitler to legally establish a de facto dictatorship.
From the Reichstag, we walked past several memorials for WW II victims: the one for the Roma and Sinti, for the homosexuals, and one of the three Soviet memorials, the one of the “unknown soldier” on the 17. Juni Strasse. The Roma and Sinti memorial was a small garden with a pond, and in the pond a triangle (the symbol they were made to wear in camps), with some daisies lying on top. The stones around the pond were embossed with the names of the concentration camps they were sent to. The garden was encircled by matte glass walls detailing the history of the “gypsies” during WW II. It was immediately clear that, whereas the Jews were ostracized at a slower, more systematic pace, the Sinti and Roma had it much worse: they were sent to camps from the very start, in 1938, and taken forcibly off the streets to be sterilized. I also have to admit that I didn’t know how racist a term “gypsy” was until now; but I think less of modern Western society for it, with their romantic flimsy bohemian clothes labelled as “gypsy”.
The homosexual monument was basically a small bunker, but without a door. Instead, there was a small window through which you could see a video of two men kissing being played inside. It was very innocent, which must be the point: something so innocent as a kiss was enough to give homosexuals the lowest position during the war, only after the Jews. This meant they got the worst rations in camps and the worst treatment from the camp commanders. Our guide told us that there is another monument for homosexuals in Berlin, which reads: “Beaten to death – silenced to death”, because the homosexual victims of Nazism were not recognised and given due recompense until the 1980s! What an absolute tragedy. The monument shows a message of love, though, which must triumph over hate.
En route to the next monument, I talked with our guide for a bit and he told me that at some point, the Nazi leaders sat together around the table and discussed how they were going to distribute the Dutch population; who they were going to put in camps, who they were going to repatriate, and so on. Basically the Netherlands was a major pain in the arse to them because it was part of the great Nazi empire – it just refused to believe it. This is one of the things which I find so unbelievable about World War II: the ice cold inhumanity. Groups of people that were no longer seen as people, but as numbers on a list; cargo on a train; a pest to be exterminated; their homeland a tiny square on the map that must be swept empty.
We then came to the Soviet memorial of the Unknown Soldier. It commemorates specifically the 80,000 Soviet troops who died during the Battle of Berlin. It’s a massive statue of a soldier who points at the ground and looks at you very sternly. He’s stopping the rise of Germania, Hitler’s fantasy empire full of glorious ruins and frolicking Aryan children. The statue stands on a row of columns, and in front of the columns are two 152 mm Howitzers and two T-34 tanks; supposedly the first two tanks that rode into Berlin. This memorial is from 1945. Behind it is a small open-air museum that tells about the Battle of Berlin.
From the memorials, we went to what was left of the railway terminus Anhalter Bahnhof. During WW II, this was one of the three main stations used to deport around 55,000 Jews between 1941 and 1945. The trains leaving from this station didn’t use freight wagons, but normal passenger coaches which were coupled up to regular trains departing according to the normal timetable, which makes it all the more cruel. All the transports went to Theresienstadt, and from there to other concentration camps. There was a sign that showed the transportation schedule – neat figures of 100 or 50 Jews at the time. The station was bombed by the Soviets and the Allies in 1943 and badly damaged. During the Battle of Berlin in May 1945, the SS leaders tried to slow the Soviet advance by blowing up the bulkheads underneath a canal where the North-South line ran past. Lots of tunnels and stations were flooded as a result, and as they had been used as public shelters and makeshift hospitals for the wounded, many people died. When the Soviets saw the bodies floating in the tunnels, they said that this was the final biggest cruelty the Nazis had committed.
We then walked past the Martin Gropius Bau museum, which was riddled with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin on the outside, and towards the Topography of Terrors museum, which is built on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters from 1933-45. Those buildings were largely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 and the ruins were demolished after the war. Across the street is the enormous Ministry of Finance building, which at the time of construction in 1935 was the biggest office building in all of Europe. It was built for Hermann Göring as the Luftwaffe headquarters and clearly meant to intimidate: look how big a building we need to house the Luftwaffe bureaucracy. Imagine the strength of our air force!
Next, we visited the former Nazi government quarter in the Wilhelmstrasse, near Potzdamer Platz. Our guide showed us where Hitler’s chancellery had once been; it took up a complete apartment block and was made of red marble. That same marble was reused by the Soviets for the memorial in Treptower park, and for the metro stations in Moscow – which nobody will admit to, mind you. Across from the chancellery was Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. The building still stands, but the neoclassical entrance from which he used to make his speeches has been destroyed. There was also a monument to Georg Elser, the man who planned an elaborate assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler at the Bürgerbräukeller in München on 8 November in 1939. He planted a bomb in a pillar behind the stage where Hitler was to make an annual speech, but because Hitler decided to take the train back to Berlin that night instead of a plane (as fog was forecast), he cut an hour off his speech and left 13 minutes before Elser’s bomb went off. Elser was taken to Dachau, but he wasn’t murdered until the war came to an end. They kept him alive because they didn’t want Elser to become a martyr for the people, a symbol of opposition.
We then walked to a very plain looking parking lot – only there were groups of people standing around. The parking lot we were standing on was where Hitler’s bunker used to be. There is a sign, but otherwise nothing indicates the importance of this site, because it might attract an iffy crowd. There were two bunkers in fact: the Vorbunker, completed in 1936, and the Führerbunker, completed in 1944. This was where Hitler took up permanent residence in January 1945, and with him Eva Braun, Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels and his family, and others. He married Eva Braun there, shortly before they committed suicide. Because of the total mundanity of the parking lot it was just the strangest feeling, standing on top of what used to be Hitler’s bunker, the place where it all came crashing down.
Lastly, we walked towards the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which I had already visited on my last trip to Berlin. It’s a big square filled with 2,711 concrete stelae in a maze-like structure. It is dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which stirred up some controversy because it excluded other victims of Nazi rule. It is a strange place to walk around in, because the further you walk into the maze, the higher the stelae get, until you’re surrounded by cold concrete walls of 5 metres high. Our guide opined that it represented the Jewish identity: from a distance, it doesn’t seem that remarkable (like the low stelae at the fringes), but the deeper you go in, the darker it gets, and the dark fate of the Jews becomes apparent and seemingly inescapable. The stelae also remind one of coffins, because of their shape and colour. I think it’s a good statement to have such a big memorial in the heart of the city, as a testament of Germany’s past. Then again, when I saw how many people were simply sitting on the slabs, having a drink or a smoke, it didn’t feel like it was getting the respect it deserves.
The tour finished around 6 PM, so I decided to have a curry wurst and visit the nearby Topography of Terror museum that we’d walked past earlier. It was free of charge and an absolute goldmine of information about Nazi Germany. There were lots of pictures, replicas of letters and documents, and quotes: about the Nazi officials and their fates after the war; about the specific victims of the Nazi regime; about the effects of the war in certain European countries; about the rise of the Nazi regime. Especially seeing the slew of paperwork, for me, brought to life the incredible effort and the determination that the Nazis put in to actively murder millions of people. They were so precise: they enacted laws that gradually removed “undesirables” from their society, thought of intricate deportation systems, deployed their victims as a massive labour force, and believed they were totally within their right to do so. The museum also showed pictures of camp commanders relaxing in a mountain retreat nearby Auschwitz. The scariest thing is that the Nazis were not all deranged psychopaths, but simply ambitious people with delusional ideas that had catastrophic results. Every bit of their mass murdering was carefully calculated and planned. The photos you can see below, of people shot dead during “escape attempts”, for me exemplify the effort they made to legitimize their operations.
Outside of the museum was a trench showing the excavated cells of the Gestapo headquarters, where many political prisoners were tortured and killed. There was an open-air exhibition with lots of photographs.
I decided to take it easy on my last day. I went to the Altes Museum, where they housed some lovely Greek, Roman and Etruscan art.
Then I took the S-Bahn to Treptower park, all the way in the south east of the city. Treptower Park hosts the biggest Soviet war memorial outside of Russia – there is a monument for the battle of Stalingrad that’s even bigger. This memorial was basically just part of the park. You went in through an arch, and after a few metres there was a statue of a weeping woman, Mother Russia. Signs explained the Soviet involvement in WWII. It suffered the heaviest losses during the war; about 25 million Soviets were killed, both in camps (in Germany and Russia) and during battle. Some 5,000 soldiers are buried here. There are two massive red marble “flags” with an inscription about the loss of lives – this is the recycled marble from Hitler’s Chancellery – flanked by statues of kneeling soldiers. You then walk down between rows of marble sarcophagi, which are engraved with scenes from the war and have quotes by Stalin on them. This avenue is lined by weeping willows. Finally, you come to a massive grass mound on which stands an enormous statue of a Russian soldier, carrying a rescued German child and grinding a swastika into the ground with his boot. They couldn’t send a more obvious message if they tried.
It was a nice green park to relax in. I walked around the monument, ate some cherries, and read my book. What surprised me was that when I left, on my way to the station, I saw not one, but two fashion photo shoots taking place! One was of a girl in lingerie posing with the soldier in the background, and one was of two girls doing a “best friends” pose in front of the big stone that said “The homeland will not forget its heroes.” I found it an incredibly strange place for a photo shoot and not very respectful. The ultimate triumph of capitalism over communism, I suppose.