What a day. We packed a lot in and were pretty happy with it by the time we were done. The photo editing though is going to take awhile so who knows when this will go up! [I started at 10:50pm Berlin time Saturday night; continued in the morning at the hotel before, during and after breakfast, in the lounges at the airport at both Berlin and London before boarding. I finally finished Monday morning.] Between the 2 of us we took 184 photos today; that’s about 60 more than the record which was 125 at St. Peter’s and the Vatican in January. Many of those 184 are pictures of text explanations at exhibits to help with the blog narrative so many of them won’t actually make it in. But that means a lot of history is coming, so if history ain’t your thing, so sorry 🙂 We are both definitely history nerds; today was our Disneyland.
We were both very tired at the end of Friday and slept very well that night; Dan at least 7.5 hours, me about 9. So woke up pretty refreshed and ready to go. And a good thing because we put together a very ambitious agenda for our last day. We did breakfast in the hotel as usual and were on our way about 9:45.
Our first stop was the Berlin Wall Memorial. This was the item of the entire trip I was looking forward to the most, and I was not disappointed. Similar to my experience at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I got choked up as soon as we walked on the grounds and stayed that way the entire time we were there. Our initial plan was to only stay 30 minutes because of the aggressive agenda we had for the day. We were there 2 hours. Fifty of the 184 photos were took today were just here. I’m going to include some of the text explanations directly because it will be both easier and in some cases more poignant.
I love the things I learn on these trips. Dan is always amazed at some of the things I didn’t know – like how East Berlin and West Berlin came to be in the first place, which I finally learned here – and that I should keep that to myself :). I always assure him that I’m the norm and he’s the exception when it comes to history (and geography), so feel free to comment on that if you learn something, especially in this next couple of paragraphs:
Ever since my early fascination with the Olympics starting in 1976, the whole East Germany vs. West Germany thing had always been of interest to me because of the way the sports commentators would reference the differences, but a mystery as to how it had all come about. Maybe this was covered in school and I just don’t remember. But I didn’t get clear on it until 2014 when I went to the German Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn: Once the Allies took over German in May of 1945, they divided the country into 4 sectors, one to be controlled by each – USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. From the beginning, the first 3 approached it in a united fashion and worked to create a capitalist society; Stalin of course did not play. By 1949, things had progressed along that route where it became necessary to split the country in two: West Germany was formed from the 3 unified sectors, East Germany was formed from Stalin’s, and East Germany became one of the many Eastern Bloc states of the Soviet Union, along with the Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and others.
So that finally cleared that up, but I was still confused about East Berlin vs. West Berlin. For longer than I should admit, I always assumed that the border between East Germany and West Germany ran through Berlin, and that’s what created the two cities. I don’t remember now when I learned that wasn’t the case: that West Berlin was essentially a free democratic zone within a communist state, completely surrounded, and to leave citizens had to fly or take a train into West Germany, or some other democratic area. And what I learned here is how that came about: when the Allied powers split up the country into 4 zones, they also split up the capitol, Berlin, the same way: East Berlin was the 4th sector under Stalin, the other 3 became West Berlin. And for the first 12 years, it worked. Sort of, and depending on who you asked. Although there were border crossings surrounding West Berlin, citizens of both could come and go between the two pretty easily. People had jobs, families, friends, etc., across the border and going back and forth wasn’t a huge deal. The problem for the East was that it became too easy for communist citizens to escape to the West in general through West Berlin: easy to get to, easy to get out of. The problem for the West – and by West in this context I mean political – is that the tension between East and West Berlin was at the core of what started the Cold War. West Berlin was a conspicuously capitalist city in the middle of Soviet territory and Nikita Kruschchev said it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” The Wall went up in August of 1961, put up by the party called SED (the Socialist party that ruled GDR or East Germany; GDR ironically stands for German Democratic Republic). Politically, it was a success because it eased the tension between to political powers: 1000s of people a year were no longer able to flee the East as had been happening; over 3 million over the course of the decade. And the Wall eased some of the tension between the two sides: President Kennedy said “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
But for the citizens it was a disaster. Their lives literally changed overnight, in many cases separated from families, friends and jobs by the Wall. This memorial tells the story of the impact on the people. There was a lot of information here, both technical and human; we tried to pick out the things that would complete the picture without overwhelming.
Here are various photos of the wall itself. Note that at first it was just barbed wire and then very shortly became a literal wall, then progressed to being an area with several layers of barricades with a patrol road and towers in between.
Bernauer Strabe and the Reconciliation Church
The Berlin Wall Memorial is located at the site of two adjacent locales that best represent the entire story of the Wall.
On Bernauer Strabe (street) there was what were referred to as “border houses” which literally sat on the border between East and West: so much so that their front doors opened to the West, back doors to the East. In the first few weeks of going up, word quickly spread that this was a way out for those wishing to escape the East. Over time, the SED forced residents out of these houses and boarded them up to stop the incidents. This ground in this area was also very stable, and turned out to be a good place to build tunnels, usually started on the west side.
Reconciliation Church had been a congregation since the late 1800’s. Most of its members lived in the West. On Bernauer Strabe, the entrance to the grounds were in the West, but the church itself was in the East. After the Wall went up, the majority of the congregation were forced to build another church. The SED ended up using the church tower as a patrol tower. In 1985, the SED demolished the church, simply because they got tired of it being a symbol of division.
A new church has been built on the site of the old one since the Wall fell. Although it is part of the Wall Memorial, it is also a functioning church with a small congregation that attends regular services.
We left feeling odd combinations of melancholy, uplifted and energized. I don’t think it’s just me; I think most Americans don’t really understand the impact of WWII in general and the communist regime that followed in much of Europe after. I get a more real sense of it every time we take one of these trips; it’s always the thing I look forward to the most. For me at least it’s important to understand the level of human suffering that occurred here. While certainly Americans suffer in many ways, and many in the military have given their lives to various democratic causes around the globe, there’s something about delving into the everyday life of those who lived it day in and day out that’s humbling, maddening and petrifying all at the same time. And the current level of uneducated, non-civil discourse that’s been going on in American politics for well into two decades now just makes me that much more crazy. As you see here and will see later, using labels like “communist” and “Nazi” to describe things happening in America is ridiculous when you deeply take in what really happened here. We’ve never experienced anything like this. (OK, I’ll try to make that the only diatribe on that topic for the rest of the blog…)
Next we went to Neues Museum. Along with the Pergamon, it’s famous for it’s collection on ancient civilizations. Our intention was to stay only 1 hour because there was really only one thing we wanted to see.
We stuck to our hour and left at 1:30. It was lunch time. We’d decided on Thursday we were having lunch at the Ritter Sport restaurant to made our way in that direction, walking this time.
This is Humboldt University. The square in front of it is Bebelplatz, where books were burned for being “un-German” during the early days of the Nazi regime.
We had planned to come back to Ritter Sport to get some chocolate to bring home, and to have lunch and take advantage of something we saw on the menu we hardly ever get to do.
The front of the museum. This was definitely a history museum. It’s collection of artifacts was vast and varied, and the permanent exhibition was well structured and easy to follow. But huge. And the collection was noteworthy from a historical perspective, not really an art perspective. So we didn’t take that many photos. Following is a simple list of the main historical points we got to help fill in the blanks of our Germany history knowledge:
- Historians generally agree that German history starts with Charlemagne. who became King of the Franks in 768, King of Italy in 774, and was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo in 800, the first Roman Emperor since the fall of the Roman Empire 300 years before. Similar to the exhibit we saw in Bratislava, this museum follows the theme that, because of Charlemagne, German history and European history are one and the same. For the next thousand years or so, references to what we know of today as Germany is referred to as the Holy Roman Empire because of Charlemagne.
- The Northern section of his empire eventually became Belgium and the Netherlands.
- The Western section became France, and broke off relatively early.
- The Eastern section remained the Holy Roman Empire and eventually became Germany; when the German label was used it was Deutsch and was calling out those who spoke the language more than the people as a whole
- Germany makes an impact on world history with inventing the mechanical clock in the 1300’s – like the ones we saw in Prague and Dresden. Prior to that, society still counted out 12 hours in a day between sunrise and sunset, but because that interval changed based on the time of year, it was horribly uneven. The clock allowed for regulation of time, a disciplined approach to gatherings at church and other social necessities, etc, for the first time, and became a “fundamental condition of middle-class life.”
- Another significant contribution about this time was Guttenberg inventing the printing press in 1448 in Mainz (my very first European city in 2013!); the Bible was the first book printed. Both sides of the coming Reformation saw this advance as a gift from God, since it for the first time enabled many to read the word of God themselves.
- In 1522, Martin Luther translated the Bible into simpler German to make it more accessible to the lay public, with illustrations provided by Lucas Cranach (whose work we met in Dresden). “The translation was of as decisive and fundamental importance to the Reformation as it was to the development of the modern German written language” because of its clarity and overwhelming sales success.
- Short version of the next 400 years: war, war and more war. Lots of mentions of empires we’d been hearing about the entire trip, especially the Habsburgs and Napoleon. The big 5 powers were England, France, Germany but known as Prussia then, Austria, and Russia. Dan and I found it interesting that, with the exception of Austria, not much has changed compared to today.
- The Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806 after Napoleon’s victory across the content. Germany was united again in 1871 under Wilhelm the First.
- The other common theme was revolutions by the people against monarchies and/or authoritarian rule, much of it fueled by the success of America’s independence, which swept the continent between 1789 and 1850 (some with more success than others). Austria and Germany were the last to fall, the result of losing WW1.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave much of the rest out with the exception of a few particular items.
While it probably wouldn’t go over well today, apparently having a dwarf as a part of ones court in the Baroque period was encouraged due to a “delight in the unusual and bizarre.”
We only stayed an hour. It would have been easy to stay longer, but we wanted to get to the final item which was still 15 minutes away and closed at 8pm. We left here a little before 7pm. The final destination: an exhibit (also free) called The Topography of Terror. This was my 2nd most anticipated item of the trip, after the Berlin Wall. It is located in a section of the city that housed many if not most of the administration offices for the Nazi regime and details what life was like during their rule. Dan took a couple of photos along the way.
We only had 45 minutes here and wished we had longer. The level of detail was highly impactful. The one thing that stuck out was that the Nazis were a nasty bunch from the beginning. I’d had the impression before that they were more subtle. For example, in Amsterdam, we definitely got the impression that when they first got there in 1940, very little changed. They initially played well with others and got people to go along with things like national identification systems. It wasn’t until the Jews started being rounded up in 1942 that people really started to panic.
This exhibit showed how in Germany, it was pretty clear from the beginning where things were headed for anyone paying attention. The problem was that Hitler was seen as a savior, bringing the country out of a depression – both financially and emotionally – that it had been in since losing WW1. So many believed that they were benefiting from his actions that they chose to look the other way on the other stuff, if they were aware of it at all. What Dan and I found most refreshing about this exhibit, as well as the Wall and the Holocaust exhibits, is how unflinchingly honest the Germans have been in documenting and portraying what really happened. They want to keep talking about it to help ensure that it never happens again.This was very much not true immediately after the war; that generation had so much shame about their complicity that it wasn’t talked about at all until the 60’s.
There are 36 images following. We included the text directly because there was no point in recreating the wheel, and I was afraid something would be lost in summarizing.
They shooed us out right at 8pm. We took a bus directly to a restaurant that the hotel clerk from our first day had recommended, right by the hotel. It was Italian and called 12 Apostels.
As we always do, we discussed our favorite aspects of the trip and logistical details of going home the following day. Some of that will be in the next and final entry. We got back to the hotel some time after 10pm. It was a long day but was definitely our favorite of the trip. We hope you enjoyed it, too, and didn’t find it too depressing. This is the stuff we travel for. Granted, I haven’t been to any of the major holocaust museums in the US, but my guess is they wouldn’t be quite the same. There’s something special about getting it first hand, on the very ground where it all happened.