Berlin (Part II) - July 31-August 1
Aug 1, 2010
|July 31, 2010
We’d utilized the three days of our museum passes as much as we could and today we were faced with actually paying an entrance fee! We’d seen six museums, of varying sorts, in the past three days so decided for a bit of a change. We started the day on the edge of the city at the Olympiastadion. We got here fairly early and decided to make full use of the audioguide as it was only a couple of Euros extra. The investment was certainly worthwhile as it gave an excellent historical insight into the entire site from the early 1930s when it was first constructed by the Nazis for use to host the 1936 Olympic Games. It told how the Olympic movement had awarded the games to Germany having shunned their involvement in the Olympics following WWI and hoping that a “new” Germany could host the great event and show the world what they had become. This decision was made in 1931 and in 1933 Hitler became Germany’s leader and it was under his guidance that the stadium was built around 1934. Of course, by the time the Olympics came around the situation had further worsened in Germany and Hitler’s radical ideas were not welcomed by many competitors, including, for example, the great Jesse Owens whose skin tone was not agreeable with the Nazi regime. Hitler had initially planned to shake hands and congratulate all the gold medal winners from the “Führer’s Box”, an area which overhung the lower part of the stadium for the leader himself. He soon made his excuses though and refused to congratulate many of the athletes, instead reserving his praise for just the German winners in a more private area of the stadium.
The stadium was reconstructed for the 2006 World Cup but given the listed status of the building, it was designed so as to retain all of the original architectural integrity. Many of the internal stone columns had been sculpted like a jigsaw which meant that each piece had to be individually labeled while the building work was ongoing so that it could eventually be replaced and put back together so the stadium still looks the same as it always did. The main differences are the brand new roof and the new banks of seating, enough for 75,000 spectators. Even the roof, however, was designed in such a way as to compliment the old design of the stadium. From the outside, the stadium almost resembles some kind of Roman ampitheatre with a modern roof atop!
Around the side of the stadium the Olympic pool and diving pool still remain and these were one of the few areas which were barely damaged during the war so were kept open for use by the public and even remain that way today. The far end of the stadium is open and opposite is a large open area. This was originally intended to be a parade ground for marches by the German army but as the conflict rose and the army grew, this ground was never actually used as it was deemed too small for even the slightest show of propaganda. The field was used during the Olympics for other sports like hockey. Within the open section itself is the Fire Bowl where the Olympic flame was lit. The Germans had been the first nation to undertake the Olympic torch relay from Greece to Berlin. They used it as part of their propaganda machine and to show the strength of the nation and the people to undertake such an arduous task. Given the beginnings of this tradition, it is actually surprising it still remains today. This area also houses Honorary Boards of the 1936 Olympic Champions, showing all the gold medal winners from the Games, including three for us Brits!
Beyond the parade ground is a reconstruction of the old Bell Tower. The original had been dynamited by the Allied Forces after the war as it was unstable. The bell was left inside the building when it was destroyed but was later recovered from the rubble and is now displayed by the side of the stadium. Whilst the damage from the explosion is visible through a crack at the back, the explosion did not cause enough damage to fully hide the Nazi symbolism engraved in the bell. Around the edge of the complex were columns which showed all German Olympic gold medal winners including Winter Olympics, too and even I recognised some of the names, albeit mostly from the late 80s and early 90s.
The fact I have written so much and remember so much is credit to the interesting and not-too-detailed audio guide. The tour of the stadium is one of the best things we’ve done in Berlin and the history of the stadium in interesting and holds quite a strong link to the general history of the country at that time. Things that happened in this stadium were echoed, admittedly louder, in the 10 years or so afterwards as the Nazis trampled their way around Europe. Looking back, you have to wonder what the hell was going through the minds of the Olympic committees by allowing Berlin to host the games although never let it be said politicking doesn’t have a strong foothold within sports, before and after this period right up to the current era.
After a good couple of hours here, we took the train back into the centre and sat by the Dom to eat our lunch and enjoy the lovely weather. It has been mostly warm here in Berlin and most days it has been just right to make walking around comfortable without the production of too much sweat! Even more amazing is the lack of rain which we’re always glad of. As a slight aside though, I am looking forward to snow. Call me crazy, but in some of the museums of late we’ve seen pictures and photos of cold, snowy, wintery climates and I think I’m ready for some cold. No volunteers to join me, I bet?
The next stop for the day was the DDR museum. We had read about the museum and another similar and picked this one as it seemed the better of the two. What we found though was a tiny museum which was very busy, being right along the riverside on a sunny Saturday afternoon! Nevertheless, we ploughed in and made full use of our elbows to work our way through and read and view the exhibits. These varied from some of the harsh conditions the East Germans lived under, to the comical situations they found themselves in. One such situation, which probably didn’t seem all that funny back in the 1960s, was the ownership of cars – the purchaser often saved for years to buy a car, sometimes waited even longer to get it and, heaven forbid, it should break down, they were expected to supply the parts themselves. I bet if you were in this situation it would’ve been increasingly frustrating but looking back at this now from such a consumer-based society it seems hard to imagine that happening now anywhere in the world. The old model of the Trabi car they had in the museum was really cool and as the displays were “interactive”, I got to sit in it as well. The dashboard consisted of one dial – a combi speedo and fuel guage. Amongst the other things here were annoying children (not really relevant to the museum, but they were inside it!), a reconstructed 1960s kitchen and living room and a funny little diorama showcasing nude bathers. One thing the East German people used their small amount of freedom on was nude bathing. The government frowned upon it but they people refused to clothe themselves at the beach so the government let them get away with it, providing the beach was advertised as such! Amusingly, the number of nude beaches greatly outnumbered those for clothed bathers although when the West Germans came in after the end of the divide in 1989, figures suggest these numbers quickly switched around. I guess the West Germans were either prudes or preferred to showcase their “freedom” in other manners! We’d picked up a voucher from our hostel so as we left we were both able to get a free postcard from the museum, another little bonus! It was certainly a different kind of museum to what we have seen so far and also different to what I was expecting. It was really fun and a great insight into life in the DDR.
Back at the hostel we spent a bit of time trying to work out what we wanted to do in Amsterdam. We’re really trying hard at the moment to save money as we want to be able to visit a fair bit of Scandinavia which we know is going to be expensive. One way we can do this is with museum or transport passes but the ones in Amsterdam seem expensive so we wanted to make sure what we get is worth the money. We’ve saved considerable amounts here on museums and we even bought weekly travel passes which have proved to be cheaper, and more convenient, than individual tickets, too.
In the evening we went for currywürst at a small café called Curry 36. Leaving the underground station we immediately saw it and the big queue for the food! The mix of people in the queue was even between locals and tourists so we had high hopes for a good feed! We both ordered the currywürst and fries and along with a beer each it was under 10 Euros. The food was good but the currywürst here is completely different to Munich. In Munich, you get a curry sauce with the sausage but here the sausage is covered in tomato sauce and then sprinkled with curry powder. It was still really good and a nice way to try something local. Given dinner took us no time at all to eat, we went to the bar next door for some beer and there they had SchneiderWeisse. We were able to try the dark beer version of the SchniederWeisse we’d had in Munich and for barely 2 Euros a beer, too! Another successful evening of cheap eating and drinking – I think we might even have to come back here tomorrow for our last night in Germany!
August 1, 2010
Today was our final day in Berlin and there were a number of major sights we’d not yet visited, having decided to leave them for one day when we could just wander around the city. As we left the hostel we felt some rain but we decided to carry on regardless, hoping it would stay away. As it happened, it stayed away all day and warmed up into a nice day, if a little bit too humid – maybe some rain would’ve helped!
We started at the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and got some amazing views of it walking down Unter den Linden towards the open area nearby. The small signs here explained the history of the gate from the late 18th Century through to its reconstruction post WWII and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the wall had only been a short distance away from the gate. Having learnt a bit more about the wall and its location a couple of days ago, we were going to be following the wall around for a while today so hopefully the significance will become more apparent, too.
Just north of the gate, by the river is the Reichstag which houses many of the parliamentary offices of the German government, along with the surrounding buildings. Again, the riverside here marks the boundary between East and West with the Reichstag being in the West but the river belonging to the East. On the river side was a small memorial containing a few white crosses. Each cross signified a person who had been killed trying to cross the wall, the DDR wall guards having a policy of shooting anyone who entered the restricted zones beyond the wall. In many areas, no-one was allowed to enter this area, not even the West or East German police and security forces, as we later found out.
Following the course of the wall southwards, we reached the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial at street level is a number of large, concrete blocks split into rows and columns of varying heights and sizes that you can walk between. At the subterranean level is the information centre which is actually a museum dedicated to the story of the Jews and gypsies who were persecuted, humiliated and exterminated during WWII in line with Hitler’s “final solution”. The exhibits were really touching and gave an excellent summary of the history and events which affected the Jewish populations of Europe throughout Hitler’s reign, starting with the boycott of Jewish-owned shops for a day in 1933 to the atrocities and genocide which occurred during the early 1940s. A large room had stories about a number of different Jewish families from all over Europe from Germany to Czechoslovakia to as far south as Greece, of which much was occupied by Mussolini’s Italy. These stories gave the background to each family and showed some of the last images of them which were taken prior to their transportation away from their homes. It was really sad seeing a picture with five or six people in it and underneath the captions showing that, in most cases, all of them had died during the war due merely to their religious persuasions and heritage. It is estimated that around 6 million Jewish people were killed during WWII and of these almost half were from Poland and over 1 million were estimated to have been killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Just the sheer scale of the genocide is frightening and one of the slogans written just after the event is equally telling and chillingly accurate. To paraphrase, the slogan said that because such an atrocity has happened before it is quite possible it will happen again. Having seen evidence of this in Cambodia and Rwanda the author was unfortunately correct and I suppose only time will tell if it is the last humankind has seen of such actions. The museum as a whole was really touching and sad. Even though we had walked through part of the memorial already, it somehow seemed more sombre having visited the information centre.
We continued with the wall down through Potsdamer Platz before finding a statue to sit on to eat our lunch, another salami and cheese sandwich! It was good to sit down for a while as it seemed like we’d been on our feet for a while today and we had plenty more walking to do.
A bit further along, and fronted by a section of the wall as it was in 1989, was the Topography of Terrors museum. The museum went into detail about the actions of the Nazis from 1933 to 1945 and their treatment of any person suspected of being against them as well as those not consider to be part of Hitler’s ultimate Aryan race. The focus was on the German security forces and the SS and Gestapo with the role of Heinrich Himmler at the head of much of the atrocities and punishments meted out. As a high ranking official in Hitler’s hierarchy he made many of the decisions that resulted in the deaths of millions and even where he didn’t make the decisions, he was the one empowered with carrying out Hitler’s dirty deeds. Unfortunately for the societies and families Himmler ruined, he cowardly committed suicide in 1945 whilst in British custody before he could stand trial and be executed for his crimes. The museum was quite intense with some horrible pictures, including one that showed a row of 11 men being hanged. As the men hung from the gallows there was a picture showing one man whose noose was too long and he didn’t hang as his feet touched the ground. Rather than re-hang him (not that he should’ve been killed in the first place, of course), an SS guard merely lifted his feet up so the rope strangled him to his death, causing a slow painful death.
The section of the wall in front of the museum is one of the few remaining pieces of the wall in the city which is unchanged from how it was in 1989. The museum applied for this section to reamin and it now has it fenced off as a constant reminder of other terrors which followed the war, too.
We continued along the route of the wall to Checkpoint Charlie. The open air displays here spoke of the history of the wall from 1961 and the restricted areas in and around it. It told the story of how the Western powers had to constantly negotiate with the East for the right to cross certain areas of the city and it also told of the attempts by civilians to cross the border illegally. It said that all cases of successful and unsuccessful escapes were logged so that the DDR police could ensure any potential weaknesses in the wall were remedied. The restricted zone around the wall was an area that no-one was allowed into. A story told how one young man, around 18 years old, tried to flee across the wall with a friend and was shot. Still alive, his body lay in the restricted area for over an hour as the Eastern guards would not allow the West Berlin police in to get him, none of the Allied forces soldiers was willing to risk going to get him and no-one from the East was willing to go in either. He was left to die for over an hour before the medical services were finally allowed to go in and get his body. Today, around 100 yards or so from Checkpoint Charlie, there is a memorial to the young adult who died there. In reality, Checkpoint Charlie in 2010 doesn’t even exist. There are signs around which show where the checkpoint was and a hut with an American flag where you can pay 2 Euros to have your picture taken with a German dressed as an American. Coupled with tour bus after tour bus driving through it all seemed very tacky which is a shame because the street-side displays and exhibits here are well worth taking the time to read.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to the city bear. Next to one of the museums in Berlin the city’s official mascot lives in a small little area barely big enough for her to roam around. We’d read about the bear and until we actually saw it, I still hadn’t been convinced whether the bear would be real or just some model as a trap for tourists to have their photo with. But no, it was in fact a real bear although it looked like the poor girl had seen better days and was in need of a new, more stylish housing arrangement.
Finally done with walking, we jumped on the U-Bahn the one stop back to the hostel stopping only for a well deserved cold drink (not beer) and yoghurt! Given we consumed more beer last night than we’d expected we were both a bit behind on our travel journals so we both spent a couple of hours trying to catch up before dinner time, which inevitably was going to be currywürst again!
I have to admit though that I did double up on my currywürst this time, choosing two sausages rather than one to accompany my fries. Elizabeth went for just one again and they were just as good. We skipped the beer this time and went straight to the bar next door after eating instead. We worked our way through a couple more beers and enjoying our last night in Berlin. The beers weren’t as cheap as last night though so I reckon the barmaid must’ve had a brain calculator malfunction last night!