Berlin: Where It All Began

Another city covered on our InterRail trip was Germany's beautiful capital city, Berlin. This was my third visit; it certainly is a place that leaves you feeling like you want to return. The city harbours a vibrance; old and new architecture side by side, curry wurst stands on street corners, the famous Ampelmann shops that have made the former East Berlin traffic light symbols something of a celebrity. Even richer, however, is the city's history, for it was here that Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power, spread their anti-Semitic propaganda and started planning the 'Final Solution', all followed, of course, by the building and demolition of the Berlin Wall.

1. Memorial to German members of parliament killed in World War II.
2. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with the Reichstag in the background.
3. Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism.
4. and 5. Topography of Terror.
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There are simply too many places of historical significance in Berlin to see in just a couple of days. I have been fortunate enough to visit some sites on other trips - the Jewish Museum, the site of the Wannsee Conference (where plans for the 'Final Solution' were discussed) and the memorial in Bebelplatz commemorating the site where Nazi anti-Semitic book-burning once took place, to name a few. It is also a strange feeling to think you may be walking down the same street where Hitler was once driven along in a car, thousands of people lining the pavements to get a glimpse of the Fuhrer, all displaying the Nazi salute and proudly waving swastika-clad flags. Berlin is such a beautiful, civilised city that scenes like those are hard to imagine.
On this trip, however, we started at the Reichstag, although visiting is now by appointment only. Not far from the entrance is a small memorial to German members of parliament who were killed during World War II, mainly due to their opposition to the Nazi government (see Picture 1). Each slate has the person's name, party, year of birth and year and place of death. Names such as 'Sachsenhausen' and 'Majdanek' are not infrequently displayed.
From the Reichstag it is only a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, centuries old and the backdrop to the late President Kennedy's famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner!' speech. A little further on is the large Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Picture 2). Covering almost five acres, the concrete pillars of various sizes and widths can be walked through like a maze. Often the pathways dip or slant, aiming to give the feeling of disorientation or confusion as the persecuted Jewish population felt. Underneath the memorial is a small museum documenting the rise of the Nazi party and the Holocaust, which pays particular attention to individuals and their families, something I feel is key in good quality Holocaust education. The location of this memorial also strikes a chord; I find it fitting that the Reichstag, where the seed of the Nazis' evil plans came into fruition, can be seen in the background. Furthermore, if you walk a little further down the street, you come to the former site of the Fuhrerbunker, now lost in an ordinary car park so that the neo-Nazis do not build a shrine to Hitler where it once stood (there is a small sign that acknowledges its vague lcoation). To me, it says the Nazis and their government tried to succeed with their plans of total extermination, but failed, and those who they did murder will never be forgotten.
A new addition to the area is the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism. Unfortunately, it is all too rare that memorials commemorate just the homosexual community, so I was pleased to see this one completed. Imitating the style of the concrete pillars of the Jewish memorial somewhat, the lone column has a peephole through which a looped video of gay and lesbian couples kissing can be watched. Those in the video are both young and old, and clearly more than happy to be filmed, to be given some recognition. A sign near the memorial acknowledges the atrocities committed by the Nazis against homosexuals and also speaks of the continuing homophobia in the world today.

The final place I will mention is the Topographie des Terrors, or Topography of Terror (Pictures 4 and 5). This is an outdoor museum built among the foundations of the buildings that previously stood on the site, which were once the headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo. The museum documents Berlin from 1933 to 1945, and later touches on the Berlin Wall, a section of which still stands behind the museum. In the Second World War section, examples of Nazi propaganda are displayed, as well as the ways in which ministers such as Goebbels tried to rally public support and community spirit. There is also information on Jewish helpers (those who informed the Nazis of the whereabouts of other Jews, so that they and their families may be saved), concentration camps and Hitler the man, not just the Fuhrer. It is a very different take on a museum but is very well put together and is certainly worth a visit.

If you're looking for a wide range of history, beautiful architecture and an atmospheric metropolis, Berlin is a must-visit city. For someone like me, who is so interested in a subject such as the Holocaust, its significance is obvious, but there is much more to see and do in the capital besides taking a trip of historical 'tourism'.