The history that I learnt in school here in the UK about the Second World War (or WWII as the cool kids say) was about how the Allies kicked Germany’s freaking ass and defeated Hitler and those evil Nazis. The world that I live in now is much better because Hitler was a bad bad man who wanted to take over the world and kill all Jewish people. However, what I don’t remember learning was why. Why did Hitler believe in the things he did and why did he do the things he do? What was his beef with the Jewish? And what was his overall plan? My trip to Berlin didn’t answer any of those questions. What it did do was expose me to the brutality of the Third Reich in a way that sitting in a classroom in North London doesn’t. Before I visited it I had only seen it in books and film, but now I was standing in the city where a lot of shit happened. Not only that, the city acknowledges that it happened and has gone to lengths to remember it and educate people about it. I felt they were not shy of its horrible past, one that is still within peoples’ living memory.
I took a tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours (thanks to my friend Nancy for the tip) and went on the Nazi and Third Reich Tour. It was an informative tour, and as Nancy before me I would also recommend it to anyone who is in Berlin for the first time. Berlin is a big city. Traversing it by bicycle is a great way to see it, and I think that is why the tour here works so well. Two things really stuck with me afterwards:
Bebelplatz is where, as you all know, the book burnings happened in 1933. Here they burned books authored by Jewish, homosexual, and other people who the Nazis hated/despised. Amongst those involved in the burnings were students and members of the University. As a student and as someone who thinks education, free speech, tolerance, etc. are super-duper-ly important, I couldn’t imagine, at any point in my life, where I would have agreed to, let alone be involved in, a book burning. I cannot imagine what those were involved were feeling at that time, nor can I imagine the environment in which these events occurred. It is an intolerant and hateful act that goes against civilisation. This, to me, is an objectively evil act.
The memorial for the book burnings moved me greatly. It can be seen on the square itself. A glass plate, the size of a large concrete slab one usually find on the ground, set into the ground peers into a room below lined with empty bookshelves, with enough space to store the books that were burned where the you stand.
Standing in the middle of the square I almost cried.
2. Memorial to Politicians who opposed Hitler during his rise to power – outside the Reichstag
The little I know/learned of German politics was obvious when I learned on the tour that Germany has a President and a Chancellor. The Chancellor (currently Angela Merkel (2012)) is the one who keep things running (Head of Government), the President (Head of State) is the one with the final say. Shortly after Hitler was given spot of Chancellor by the President there was a fire at the Reichstag (the parliament building) which was blamed on a Communist uprising. Members of Communist parties in Germany were arrested also and riding on a wave of fear Hitler was given pretty much enough power to make himself the leader for as long as he lived and permission to do whatever the fuck he liked. But he was only given this power by a vote in parliament. Unfortunately for the world most of the politicians who would have opposed him had been arrested and couldn’t vote. This memorial is to remember those politicians who were in opposition to Hitler and suffered the consequences. Most of them were sent to concentration camps, all died as a direct result of standing up for what they believed in.
Each slab has the persons name, the party they were a member of, where they were sent when they were arrested (if known) and the year they died.
That is a muddled and shitty explanation of what happened. I hope that I’m not mistaken but it is just my simplistic understanding of it. It’s the standing up for what you believe in is important to me. Not that you can’t change your mind, but if you believe in something, and you think that that something is good, then you should have the courage to stand by them, even if your life is on the line. And that’s what these people had the courage to do.
Other Nazi/Third Reich Things
I think pictured above is Potsdamer Platz. I don’t remember, but it’s one of three stations where the Jews were deported from Berlin to concentration camps. This happened during ‘normal’ traffic. There is a plaque that lists every train that departed the station that was deporting Jewish people, kind of like a retrospective timetable. Next to each train is the number of Jewish people who were on it.
The station is now just this frontage. Nothing else is left.
Detlev Rohwedder Haus
This building was the largest office building in the world until the Pentagon was built. It was designed by a Nazi achitect named Ernst Sagebiel. It is now used as the HQ for Germany’s equivalent of HM Revenue and Customs (Inland Revenue). Which is apt.
In the foreground you may be able to make out part of the Wall. This part has been turned into an outdoor museum called Topography of Terror and is well worth a look.
Above are some pictures of the Wall, and also, where the Wall no longer exists through the city, there are two rows of cobble stone lining where the Wall use to be up. I am standing in both East and West Germany. This is something that I would not have been able to do before the Wall came down. Another thing I could not imagine was not being able to do this. How intimidating was the Wall? How imposing was it? What would have it been like living in the city with it up? I have no idea.
Before Hitler came to power the Summer Olympics were given to Berlin 1936. Hitler wasn’t a fan of the idea but it went ahead anyway. There are tours of the stadium but only in German language, so I guess I’ll have to learn German for next time I go. The S-Bahn takes you straight there. On the way to and from the S-Bahn station there is a board that has a bit of information of the 1936 Olympics and also old pictures, one of which was of Hitler arriving at the games.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
One of the biggest and poignant memorials is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is this. The slabes are same length and width but are different heights and set on uneven ground. The ground actually slopes, unevenly, downwards towards the middle. The tallest slab is about 11 foot high.
What do they represent? Coffins? Perhaps. Trains carriages? That also perhaps. Whatever you interperate them to be, when you walk into the middle of it and can’t see over the slabs anymore you do start to lose track of which way you’re facing. This could be part of the confusion and disorientation that was experienced by the Jews in the holocaust.
For once I think the answer “it means whatever you want it to mean” doesn’t seem like a cop out when describing this. And that was the answer that the artist gave when posed this question.
Underneath there is also a museum about the holocaust. All museums about WWII and the holocaust are free.
Other Things I did in Berlin
When I arrived in Berlin I arrived in Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station) which is set on 5 levels. The lowest floor has 8 platforms serving trains going North-South, the top floor has 6 platforms serving trains going East-West and also the S-Bahn. Everything in between is everything you’d expect from a train station. It is so fucking huge and I was so fucking impressed because anything to do with trains gives me the horn. In the picture you can see at the very bottom some railway tracks. That’s the bottom floor, or B2. Next B1, the floor above B2, you can see on the right is an escalator taking people up from B1 to G, where I am took this picture from. Then F1, where you can seen the escalator taking people down from F1 to G on the right there. Above them is F2, the greyish-white thing going across, that’s supporting the train tracks and the trains that rumble by.
I joked that if that film ‘The Terminal’ was made in a train station instead of an airport then this would be the train station it’ll be set in.
This is a vegan/vegetarian café/bar that was opened and run by collective self-government. There is no leader or owner but they all run it and do all the jobs that need doing on rotation.
On the back of the menu it was explained that this was a place where they believed that daily work, politics and culture are all inter-connected. They believed that people should be free to share their ideas and they are open to events. Also, they go on to say, if anyone witnesses any racist, sexist or other threatening or violent behavior, to stand up to it as they will have the full backing and support of the staff. I have no doubt that they’ll have the support of everyone else in the cafe as well.
On Friday-Sunday they do a breakfast that has a suggested price of 7€, but you can pay whatever you can afford. They don’t believe that just because you can’t afford it that you skip breakfast. Unfortunately they can only do it on weekends. However, you can pay more if you wish, which I duly did because I can afford it. In fact I paid double for my meal because I loved what they were doing there and wanted to support them and show them that I supported what they were doing and wanted them to know that I think they are doing a good thing.
I highly recommend this wonderful place. It is situated in a great are, so even if you don’t want to eat her, there are other places really close by. Also really close by are some tiny tiny cinemas:
(Kino = Cinema) See that front row on the bottom? that’s actually the front row. I came here to watch The Cameraman by Buster Keaton. It cost 5€ and it was a good atmosphere. Across the road was another tiny cinema, but I didn’t watch a film there, but I did explore the interior. It looked like this:
Brilliant. They love cinema in Berlin.
They also love cycling. Like I mentioned about the Bike Tours, cycling is an effective way to see Berlin. Berlin is new city – 90% of the city was ruined by war (and the remaining 10% has bullet holes in them) and so everything is planned and not densely packed together the way Old Towns are. There is an effective network of cycle routes in Berlin and that makes it safer than a lot of other places to cycle. Although there are still a lot of motorists, the roads are not very busy. I don’t think I saw a single traffic jam. They are also well prepared for cyclists beyond cycle routes – here I am riding the S-Bahn:
…it’s a place for your bicycle to go. However, if you want to bring a full size bicycle on it does need its own ticket, priced ~1€50. I don’t mind this idea, after all a full sized bicycle does take up at least as much room as a human. Fold-up bicycles, though, are free.
This is the bicycle I rented whilst I was there:
In conclusion, my time in Berlin was emotional and enjoyable. It was interesting to think about what it would have been like to live here during the war. Back in school we learned that as children living in London we would have been singing songs and lining up to get on trains that would take up out of the city and into the sticks where it was safer. But what if I was a kid in Berlin, how fucking shit would that have been?
Anyway (shifting gears), as a vegetarian it was incredibly easy to find vegetarian food, one of the easiest places on my entire journey. Very progressive place and I wouldn’t mind coming back to see more. There is definitely more there that I haven’t seen.
Hmm, so this may be a hasty end but I think that’s enough. My onward journey was a sleeper train from the top floor (East-West) of Hauptbahnhof. When I woke up I arrived at the first familiar place I’d seen in 19 days and one of my favourite places in the world – Amsterdam.