PRAGUE TO BERLIN
09.08.2012 - 11.08.2012 20 °C
On our way out of the Czech Republic we picked up some much needed groceries, filled the van up with diesel, and arrived at very full but cheap camperstop 15min outside of Berlin later that evening. We had no internet access here but I’d already had a look at Berlin’s public transport system and plotted our way to the meeting point at the Brandenburg Gate for yet another free walking tour. Neither of us were feeling any better, but we got ourselves up, stuffed ourselves with the little Aspirin we had left, and were ready to explore another city rich in an eventful, divided and amazing history.
Our tour guide this time round was Taylor – a fellow Aussie who had been traveling around Europe few years ago, came to Berlin and loved it so much he stayed. We started by going through the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag, which I’ve always wanted to see in person. It is one of many free attractions in Berlin, as in it’s free to go inside and walk around the glass dome on top (which you can actually do when parliament is sitting as well). Our visit just happened to be timed with a recent terrorist threat to the building, hence anyone wishing to go inside has to first register online in advance and are given an allocated date and time. It could be the next day, or the next week depending on how busy it is. We didn’t know about this ahead of time so sadly we had to miss out ☹
We next visited the Holocaust Memorial just south of the Reichstag, a strangely beautiful and peaceful collection of 2,711 grey concrete columns of equal size, but differing heights. Its official name is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There was apparently a bit of controversy when it was in the planning stage, others thought it should remember all victims (gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled etc), but several other memorial sites are now being planned around the city to include all victims. The reason behind the design has not been revealed by it’s creator, with the intention of letting people who visit decide themselves what it means to them. We each have our own thoughts of what it means to us. Underneath the memorial is a free information centre, with real life stories of different Jewish families in all different professions and stages in life and what happened to them.
Next, we were taken to the former site of the bunker where Hitler took a cyanide capsule at the same time as shooting himself (he wanted a warriors death, hence the gun, but was worried he would miss and just wound himself due to terrible tremors in his hands thanks to either Parkinsons disease or syphilis, so the cyanide capsule was backup). It’s now a carpark surrounded by apartment blocks. Whilst the bunker system is still underneath the ground, it was all caved in by the Soviets so that no traces would remain.
A bit further on we were greeted with the imposing ex-Luftwaffe and then ex-Soviet headquarters, a grand building created in a style that is now sometimes know as ‘Totalitarian’ thanks to it being the preference of both the Nazi’s and the Soviets. It is essentially designed to make the individual feel small, and it does a great job, especially now that it houses the German Tax Authority. While in use as the Soviet HQ, there was a mural painted on to one of the outside walls depicting the Socialist paradise that Communism should be…. As a statement against Socialism, placed on the square in front of the building there is now a photo taken from outside the building during one of the largest demonstrations against the Soviet rule, it depicts a very angry mob and mirrors the original mural in size and location, showing the reality of Communism compared to the ideals of Communism.
Ideals of Communism
A little further along the same road we came to one of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, along with the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters. On this is now a free museum called the Topographie des Terrors, housing models of what originally stood there and a timeline showing who worked there and how things unfolded in Berlin from the 30’s through to the 80’s.
Next we got to see famous Checkpoint Charlie for ourselves. It would have been overrated, if it were rated at all… I don’t think I’ve seen anything much more tacky and gaudy for a long time, but it still holds historical importance, being the final of 3 checkpoints for those in East Germany getting out into the West on visas (when it was permitted), or for people living in the West but working in the East. It’s also the centrepiece for quite a few escape attempts and therefore some entertaining stories. There is still a sign reading “You are now leaving the American Sector” on the West side, and also 2 large pictures of soldiers who were actually stationed there. One was American, the other Soviet, each now looking into the opposing territory as a symbolic gesture.
After our lunch break we checked out the old looking Konzerthaus Square, also holding 2 different churches on either side that are almost identical to each other. One is the Französischer Dom, which was built for French citizens who were enticed to help rebuild Berlin in the 1700’s, and opposite is the Deutscher Dom – of course, built for the locals because you couldn’t have a church for the French without having a church for your own people. And to show how much they loved their own people, the government at the time built the Deutscher Dom to be 1 metre taller than the Franz Dom.
Konzerthaus Square, looking at the Französischer Dom (Kitty Photo-bombing)
We were then taken to Bebelplatz – a small but important square outside the Law Division of Humboldt University, where during the Nazi reign, 20,000 books deemed not to be in line with Nazi ideals were taken from throughout the city, including the nearby university library, and burnt. Underneath there is a really simple memorial to this – enough bookshelves to fit 20,000 books (you can see it through a window on the ground).
20,000 Books, right here...
We finished off the tour by paying our respects to another memorial – a sculpture of a mother cradling her dead son sits above dirt taken from all the battlefields and concentration camps of WWII, with an unknown soldier and an unknown Jewish victim also buried below – then sat on the grass on Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in the shadow of the Pergamonmuseum, the Berliner Dom, and the TV Tower.
We had yet another enthralling day soaking up all of this history, but there was only 1 thing missing from our Berlin experience – we each had a fantastic Currywurst before we headed back to the van.
Our next stop was one that everyone who comes to Europe should do – it was to one of the former concentration camps, Sachsenhausen, which was utilized by the Nazi’s prior to and during WWII. There is not a lot that can be put into words about visiting a place where so many known, and unknown atrocities took place. It is unsettling and brings you face to face with the past in a way that reading about it cannot. Most of the buildings had been demolished, or left to rot during the Soviet occupation, but there still standing along with a few others are Block 38 and 39, which specifically housed the Jewish population. These are now museums holding personal artifacts including diary entries detailing life in the camp. Also still standing is part of the camp prison, along with the ‘hanging poles’ used to torture prisoners by hanging them from their wrists till there shoulders dislocated. Not very pretty stuff, and I wont go into too much detail about this particular part of our travels, as it doesn’t get any easier to stomach.
We left Sachsenhausen still feeling the effects of whatever infection we had, quite tired, achy and coughing up a lung, so we packed up that afternoon and were on our way to Denmark.