A whole week in Berlin could not do the city justice. In planning our trip we decided that Germany and France were both countries which deserved a greater amount of time than we had available. So we have picked key cities only, with the intent to return at a later date.
Our accommodation in Berlin was simply delightful. We Air BnB’d in a room in a share house in a grand old apartment in the former East Berlin. Our host was subletting his room while he took a holiday. Our housemates were fun and friendly, and Josh even helped them build some Ikea furniture.
On night 1 we went on a pub crawl with the Busabout folk. This was fun exploring Berlin’s bar scene… with free shots in every bar. We crawled home in the wee hours of the morning (Josh requiring some persuasion to leave the last nightclub)… and a sorely written off Sunday, swearing not to pub crawl again this trip (we’ll see how long that lasts).
As Berlin’s history is so richly layered we took a number of day tours with a company called ‘Insider Tours’. We can’t recommend them highly enough: Third Reich Tour (4 hours), Berlin Walking Tour (4 hours), Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Tour (6 hours). We were lucky enough to have a New Zealander ex-pat as our guide for the first two tours, Mike. He was extremely knowledgeable, with a European history academic background, and very passionate about German history. On the Third Reich Tour we walked the key sites of Hitler’s Berlin, many of which were destroyed during the bombing that ended WWII. The tour ended at the ‘Topography of Terror’ (ToT) memorial museum.
After the tour we spent several hours at the ToT museum, located on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. The site has a very sombre treatment – a glass building houses panels narrating the history of the Nazi Party and its rise to power, the rapidty of events which led to a totalitarian state, and eventually WWII, the ‘Intstitutions of Terror’ (among others the SS and concentration camps); the persecution of perceived enemies of state (political prisoners, Jews, gypsies, it goes on horrendously); countries occupied and terror inflicted; medical experiments; and finally, after the war – prosecution.
The site also has an outdoor display sited along an archaeological dig of the basement of the Gestapo headquarters. This is a long series of more information panels. The whole site is one of great sorrow.It is a challenging thing to be a tourist in Berlin amongst a psychological remembrance of such a difficult historical past; a recent past which is still within living memory. I wonder whether the memorialising is not necessarily a good thing as it both teaches us lessons, reminds us of the evil, but also in a strange way immortalises the perpetrators.
I found the ToT museum very interesting up until the point where images of hangings and shootings – images drawn from Nazi files – were included. I’m sure the intention was to show the utter disregard for life and sheer abhorence of the period, but for me, i found it a sickening collection of images. Josh and I argued about this. I feel that it gives no dignity to people who faced traumatic and frightening days, where Josh feels it allows for them to have not died in vain; rather, serving to illustrate and bear witness to the atrocities. Of course, he is right, though there is little enough dignity in it.
History shows us only too well how quick the human race is to violence, and I wonder what lessons the world has really taken on board?
Berlin has many wonderful historical and archaeological collections. We spent 3 days exploring the Museums Island – the Neues Museum; the Pergamon Museum; the Bode Museum; the Alte National Gallery, and the Altes Museum. These house an incredible range of collections from pre-history, antiquities through numismatics and Byzantine icons. We were truly impressed by the Pergamon – which includes the Great Altar of Pergamanon, a marble structure acquired from Turkey in the C19th, featuring some 400 running metres of mostly intact freize. It also included a temple to Athena; the Gates of Babylon (exquisite glazed ceramic tiles in blue and yellow); and the front gates of Markttor von Milet. Truly impressive for a museum to be able to display multi-storey ancient buildings; though also somewhat questionable as to how well a building maintains its significance once removed from its site (though this is a debate that could rage for ever, so let’s not).
I loathe to think about the volume of cultural heritage material that was destroyed during WWII in Berlin.