Berlin has an incredible history just within the 20th century. This makes it an appealing and fascinating destination for people from all over the world. It’s a history that feels accessible to us since only 90 years ago, Adolph Hitler was making his move in Berlin with the rise of the Nazi Party and the Third Reich. The subsequent war ended with a crushing invasion of Berlin by 1.5 million Soviet troops and Hitler’s suicide in his bunker here. Then the city, and all of Germany was divided up by the victorious allies, kicking off the Cold War with the Soviets eventually building a wall that would divide Berlin. When the wall came down in 1989, Germany was reunified and there was a huge rush of development in the former East Berlin.
We took a half-day walking tour called “Third Reich Berlin” covering Hitler’s rise and the beginning of his reign of terror. We often puzzle over how this could have happened in a country that, in the early 20th century was a democratic parliamentary republic. Following Germany’s crushing defeat in WWI, the Nazi party gained increasing support with its message of how to return the country to its former glory. This combined with the economic depression in the late 1920’s left many people disillusioned with existing institutions. In September 1930, the Nazi party gains a significant number of seats in parliament, then in January 1933, Hitler becomes chancellor of a coalition government. One month later, under suspicious circumstances, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, suffers significant damage from a fire. The Nazi party places blame on the Communist Party, the party with the second most seats in Parliament. Almost immediately, Hitler puts forth the Enabling Act which essentially suspends the constitution and Parliament for 4 years. Through discrediting the Communist Party, intimidation, threats and arrests, Hitler has essentially disabled any effective opposition, passing the act and giving sole authority to his government. (In front of the Reichstag, there is a monument to 96 members of parliament that were arrested and sent to concentration camps during this period, where they were subsequently killed.) Immediately, Hitler proclaims the Nazi party as the only political party in Germany and all other parties and trade unions are disbanded. Then things got really bad.
Moving on to look at Berlin following Hitler’s defeat in WWII, Germany was divided into 4 sections, each under the control of one of the allies, Americans, Soviets, French and British. And even though the city of Berlin was deep within the sector of Germany given over to the Soviet Union, it was also divided among the four due to its significance as the seat of the former government. As the Soviets brought their Communist rule to East Germany and East Berlin, thousands of residents in those areas began fleeing to the west and at the time there was little to prevent them from doing so. As time went on, the Soviets became more and more concerned about the loss of workers and especially the youth to the west. In the late 1950’s they began to agitate for the allies to withdraw from Berlin and allow them to have full control of Berlin. When the allies made it clear that they did not intend to withdraw, the Soviets suddenly began putting up a barbed wire barrier surrounding West Berlin in August 1961. Subsequently, they began construction of a wall or the German Berliner Mauer. We spent some time along the exhibition or memorial that is a 1.4 kilometer section of the former wall that runs along Bernauer Strasse. You can see some of the guard towers and read about the human toll imposed by the separation of people from family, friends and jobs. Certainly, the circumstances are different but when you examine the history of the Berlin Wall, it’s difficult not to think about the discussion regarding the construction of a wall in the United States.
The Brandenburg Gate is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Berlin. Its construction was completed in 1791 as a royal city gate where it stands over the adjacent Pariser Platz. This has been the site of many significant events in the history of Berlin and Germany. More recently, the Berlin Wall ran alongside Brandenburg Gate. Atop the gate is a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, hauling the goddess Victoria, the goddess of victory. Barely 10 years after its completion, Napoleon Bonaparte made his move into Berlin and removed the Quadriga from atop the Brandenburg Gate and had it shipped back to Paris. Then in 1814, Prussian soldiers captured Paris and the Quadriga was returned to its rightful place in Berlin.
The Reichstag, opened in 1894, was built to house the German Parliament which it did until it was severely damaged by fire in 1933 (as mentioned above). It fell into disuse and was not fully restored until after German reunification in 1990. As part of the reconstruction, a glass dome was added which provides a 360 degree view across the rooftops of Berlin. We reserved a time to take a tour of the dome. There is an inclined walkway that winds upward to the top of the dome.
A short distance south of the Brandenburg Gate you will find the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. It’s important to remember that in addition to the approximately 6 million Jews killed, another 5 million lost their lives during Hitler’s rule because of their political affiliation, because they were a member of another “inferior” race or because they were sick or disabled in some way. The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete blocks of varying height. The architect says he does not intend any specific meaning or significance, but you can’t help but think of a large graveyard. Below ground is a museum that documents many of the victims of the holocaust all across Germany and Eastern Europe. There are many, many monuments and memorials around Berlin dealing with issues related to Nazi rule, the war, the holocaust and post-war Berlin.
In addition, there are plenty of beautiful plazas and buildings to see and explore. For example, Gendarmenmarkt which contains the Berlin concert hall (Konzerthaus Berlin) flanked by French and German churches. A very different type of attraction is an alley called Haus Schwarzenberg located near to Hackensher Markt. The walls of this alley are covered in street art that is changed approximately every 6 months. So there’s something here for everybody in Berlin.
Next stop: Return to the United States