“Berlin? A pile of rubble next to Potsdam.” That was Bertolt Brecht’s description immediately following the end of World War Two. He had used this description because the city had been virtually obliterated by a ferocious Russian campaign in which around 250,000 people from both sides were killed in a two week period in April and May 1945.
This was one of many chilling facts we were given on a four hour walking tour of “Third Reich Berlin” with history expert, Englishman Barnaby, who was working for Insider Tours. During this tour we visited the Reichstag, the Resistance Museum (where Von Stauffenberg was executed following the failed 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler), the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler’s bunker, now a car park, and the Topography of Terror exhibition on the site of the former Gestapo HQ.
We were surprised at the extent to which Berlin accepts and confronts its past, with many free or nominally charged museums and exhibits, such as the museum on the site of the workshop for the blind, where Otto Weidt, blind himself, had tried to shield his Jewish workforce from the Nazis.
This was our second walk with Insider tours. The first, a couple days earlier, had been themed “Cold War Berlin”, taking us to wall remnants, the “Palace of Tears”, (where West Berliners were funnelled into the East to meet relatives or friends before having to return home, not knowing when (or if) they’d see their loved ones again), and the Stasi Museum, previously HQ of the hated East German Secret Police.
In a couple of four hour tours we had learned more about the recent history of Germany from the knowledgable and enthusiastic guides than we had ever thought possible.
Where we had paid a nominal fee to go into a museum, it had generally been reduced by 25 or 30%, because we had purchased a “Berlin Welcome card”. Different prices for the number of days and travel zones, but the five day card including all of Berlin and Potsdam was only €39.50. The Welcome Card also covers all of the trams, buses, U-Bahn, S-Bahn and regional trains.
To get a break from the busy city we had used the public transport to head to its east, to the Wuhle Valley to walk along it to the Gardens of the World, which showcases gardens from Korea, Japan, China and Italy.
A couple of days later we headed out of the city again, about an hour by S-Bahn, to Potsdam, South West of Berlin. Potsdam is well known, again because of its Second World War connections, being the place where Churchill, Stalin and Truman met to discuss the carve-up of post war Germany. And for a few Euros, we visited Schloss Cecilienhof, to see the conference room where this actually happened.
There’s much more to Potsdam though. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site for a start. The architecture of the city centre, with its Dutch gabled houses, squares and classy-looking outside cafes, is a joy to walk around. And then you have the huge park and Schloss SansSouci, the park Babelsberg and the lakes Helliger and Tiefer.
Back in the city we headed to our hotel, the Adina Apartment Hotel in the Hackescher Merkt area. Formerly in East Berlin, the area was once extremely run down but is now thriving, with open air cafes and a Saturday market, it is reminiscent of London’s Covent Garden. It’s also very close to Berlin’s new synagogue, which is easily recognisable because of its large ornate dome. It was built between 1859 and 1866.
During the Nazi period, a mob of 200 set out to burn it down, the fire brigade having been told not to intervene. But a single policeman, recognising the significance of the building managed to turn back the mob and persuade the fire brigade to put out a small fire despite their orders. Not everyone was evil in Nazi Germany and stories of resistance can be found in many of the museums, giving a new perspective to life in war-torn Germany.
It was handy staying in an apartment hotel. The rooms had a two-ring cooker, fridge, microwave, toaster, kettle and even a dishwasher. Using the supermarket, a handy two minute walk around the corner, we were able to purchase and prepare our own breakfasts and some evening meals, thus saving money. Not that Berlin is particularly expensive. Supermarket food and eating out are comparable to prices in the UK.
In the centre of the city lies the Tiergarten, a haven for cyclists, walkers and nature lovers. It is bordered in the east by the Brandenburg Gate and the main thoroughfare of the old East Berlin, Unter Den Linden, and in the west by the main shopping street of the old West Berlin, Kurfurstendamm, now lined with designer shops.
But even a walk in the tranquil Tiergarten is tinged with history. Immediately after the war there were no trees left in this 520 acre forest. Those that hadn’t been destroyed in the fighting were chopped down by the starving and freezing populace, struggling for survival.
These days Berlin is no longer a “pile of rubble” but a city steeped in history and one well worth visiting.