OUT and ABOUT BERLIN.
As soon as we left the railway station this morning and rode into the Berlin cityscape we decided instantly we were going to like the city. Our snap judgment was confirmed when we met our first Berliner, a waitress at a café where we stopped to orientate ourselves and have morning tea. The lass in question was friendly, jovial and asked many questions such as where we were from, our travels to date and where we were headed.
Getting orientated is no easy task even though we had a detailed map of where to go, however Bev managed to pinpoint the three main features we wanted to see, namely the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. Before moving on to the features, a bird’s eye view of Berlin might be helpful.
Tiergarten in German means animal ground and it was where the electors (leaders) of Brandenburg once hunted. The Tiergarten has not always looked as lush. During WW2 and the intervening years the park was deforested as it served as a source of firewood for the inhabitants of the devastated city.
I waited outside the ticket office at the Hauptbahnhof while Bev bought tickets for the next stage of our journey Berlin to Munich. I parked our bikes adjacent to a rubbish bin and during the half hour I waited half a dozen people peered into the bin, retrieving recyclables. One man even had a torch which he shone into the bin and recovered a plastic bottle. Plastic bottles have a refund on them which makes plunging one’s hand into the black hole worthwhile.
Riding around Berlin is safe, there are many designated bike paths and car drivers are courteous.
In Berlin there is a mixture of old and new buildings and every one has a tale to tell. Writer Rowan Moore explained Berlin architecture in a story he penned for the Observer.
‘Buildings, in Berlin, tend not to be just buildings. They are manifestos, propaganda, memorials, battlefields. It is the city, whose Wall (Berlin) was one of the most political works of architecture of all time. The confrontation of superpowers was condensed into Berlin’s urban form, and the apartment blocks in the old eastern and western halves are imprinted with competing ideologies. Nazism, Communism, social democracy and capitalism have all felt the need to say it with buildings’.
The damaged bell tower in the above photograph is the old Kaiser Wilhelm Church. The church was severely damaged in an air raid during November 1940 and it wasn’t until 2007 that thought was given to restoring it, not as a place of worship but as a memorial. The restoration work was encouraged and spurred on by a former British pilot, who carried out WW2 bombing raids over Germany. The modern structure immediately in front of the memorial is an entrance foyer. The memorial hall below the old tower is a place where one can meditate and be reminded of the horrors of war.
The New Church was built between 1959 and 1961 and its walls are made from concrete in honeycomb form. There are few stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes but instead thousands of predominantly blue stained glass inlays, which it is said induces a meditative calm. Berliners sometimes refer to the New Church as the ‘Lippenstift und Puderdose’ (the lipstick and powder box).
The image below I have extracted from Wikipedia. You might be asking yourself why I would not use our own photograph. The answer: during the time Bev and I were in Berlin the gate had a security fence around it.
After years of division I would have thought Berliners would never allow a fence to be placed in front of such a symbolic national monument. The reason for the fence this time was not hostile but to screen from view a stage being set up for television coverage of the final of the World Cup between Germany and Brazil. It eventuated Germany won the competition and the team held their victory rally in front of the gate.
The Brandenburg Gate was commissioned by King Frederick William ll of Prussia and was built between 1788 and 1791. Throughout its existence it has been the site for major political events and is today considered a symbol of unity and peace. The Brandenburg Gate is to Berlin what the Arc de Triomphe is to Paris or Trafalgar Square is to London. One of the reasons we came to Berlin was to ride through the arch but it was not meant to be.
Napoleon in 1806 had no trouble parading through the arch as he was on a victory roll and any fence, barrier or wall in his way would have been dispatched very quickly. Napoleon was the first to use the gate for a triumphal procession and he was so impressed with the quadriga (four horse chariot) on top of the arch he ordered it to be taken down and shipped to Paris. The quadriga languished in storage until 1814 when Paris was captured by Prussian soldiers and it was returned to Berlin.
The chariot we see today is not the original. Various forces and foes damaged the original extensively. Only one of the original horse heads survived and it is now in the Berlin Markisches Museum. The quadriga reproduction was cast in 1958.
What a momentous day it was when east and west Berliners met on top of the wall. I remember the media coverage well.
There are times in one’s life when world shattering events are fused into one’s mind. Examples for me have been the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in July 1969, the yacht Australia ll winning the America’s Cup in 1982, the September 2001 event of 9/11 and when east and west Germany reunified in 1989. I can remember exactly where I was when each of the events happened.
The main feature of the Brandenburg chariot is the statue of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, commanding the chariot. Originally the goddess held an olive branch but now she holds a banner depicting the Prussian coat of arms and the Iron Cross. The inclusion of the Iron Cross was hotly debated because of its association with the Nazi Party. The Nazi Party used the Iron Cross as military decoration, however because the cross existed in the Prussian Kingdom well before WW2 it was included in the quadriga sculpture. During Soviet occupation the Iron Cross was removed as it represented fascism and that was what the Russians were vehemently fighting against. Unfortunately, due to the security screen, I was unable to position myself for a photograph of Victoria.
The Soviet flag flew from a flagpole on top of the gate from 1945 until 1957. After 1957 it was replaced with the East German flag. Since the reunification of Germany the flagpole has been removed. When browsing the web I have noticed a couple of pictures where the quadriga was pointing in opposite directions. The explanation may be because it was being bandied around that even the horses were trying to escape to the west. The East German government finally got the joke and went to considerable expense and turned the statue around so it was galloping to the east.
The question of having traffic passing through the gate has been fiercely discussed over the years. Car haters wanted to reserve the gate for pedestrians and bike riders but car lovers pointed out that the gate would serve to limit and slow traffic. Nazi planners sought to remove buildings on either side of the gate and make way for traffic. Finally it was accepted that the gate should serve as a symbol for peace, not as a traffic island.
The Gate was badly damaged during WW2 as a result of bombings by the Allies and the siege of Berlin by Russian forces. Following Germany’s surrender the governments of East and West Berlin restored the gate in a joint effort. The East Germans were responsible for the restoration of the stonework and the West Germans for the removal and remaking of the quadriga.
A final comment relative to the Brandenburg Gate: It is said that a visit to Berlin without passing through the gate is no visit at all. If this is the case, Bev and I will have to go back to Berlin another day. If we do, we will make sure the passage through the gate is open.
BERLIN JUST PRIOR TO and DURING WORLD WAR TWO.
Berlin was the capital of Nazi Germany during WW2 and because of its strategic importance between 1940 and 1945 it was on the receiving end of three hundred and sixty three allied air raids. Berlin was not only bombed by British and American aircraft but by Red Air Force as well. The British dropped 46 000 tons of bombs and the Americans 26 000 tons.
All around Berlin today there are reminders of those years. There are also many memorials and informative displays depicting the different political systems Berliners have been subject to. One of the most significant and informative photographic reminders of Berlin’s history is the exhibition assembled by the Topography of Terror Foundation. The exhibition is located between the old Gestapo headquarters and an original section of the Berlin Wall. The wall adjacent to the exhibition is the longest segment of wall still standing in its original position.
The above exhibition tells all. I was surprised how solemn people were as they moved quietly along the display. Most of the unaccredited photos in this post I photographed here.
The longest section of the Berlin Wall in its original location is running from the base of the balloon to the left. The barren gravel ground in the foreground is where Gestapo H.Q. once stood.
Naturally enough, the activities of the Nazi Party fare predominantly in the Topography of Terror Exhibition. Following are a few images of the period.
In 1933 the German salute became the political symbol of a politically united Germany. Anyone who did not raise their right hand was suspected of opposing the Nazi regime.
The text associated with this photograph said ‘Huge crowds in May 1933 strengthened coherence and gave a feeling of security. But each individual lost importance among the masses’.
OUSTING the NAZIS and the BATTLE OF BERLIN.
The Soviet Union designated the Battle of Berlin as the Berlin Strategic Offensive and it was the final major offensive of the European Theatre of World War ll. The offensive began in January 1945 when the Red Army breeched the German front as a result of the Vistula-Oder River campaign. The Battle in Berlin lasted from the 20th April until the morning of the 2nd May and by the time it was over German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler and his close confidantes had committed suicide.
ERECTION and DISMANTLING of the BERLIN WALL.
In November 1945 at Yalta in the Ukraine on the north coast of the Black Sea decision makers Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided the fate of post war Germany. The three statesmen decided they would accept nothing less than Germany’s unconditional surrender, have Germany pay reparation to the victors and divide the defeated nation into four zones occupied, respectively, by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The outcome was of course a divided Germany and Berlin.
Following is how the Berlin Wall evolved: Phase 1: Wire fence built 1961. Phase 2: Improved wire fence 1962 – 1965. Phase 3: Concrete wall 1965-1975. Phase 4: Grenzmauer (border wall) 1975 – 1989.
Thursday 9th November 1989 was the day the wall fell.
The Berlin Wall was more than one hundred and forty kilometres long.
The fourth phase of the wall was the final and most sophisticated version. Begun in 1975 and completed about 1980, it cost three and a half million US dollars. Reinforcing was built into the wall to prevent escapees from driving vehicles through, however at strategic points weaker sections were installed so East German and Soviet armored vehicles could easily break through from east to west in the event of hostilities.
Along the top of the Phase 4 wall a smooth round pipe was placed, which made it difficult to scale. On the east side of the fence there were signal trip wires, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, dogs on lines and over one hundred and sixteen watchtowers. Beds of nails were positioned below balconies hanging over the death strip.
Regardless of the deterrents, well over 100 000 citizens tried to cross over from east to west between 1961 and 1988. More than 600 were shot and killed or died in other ways in attempting escape. At least 136 died at the wall between 1961 and 1989.
In August 1962 teenager Peter Fechter was shot by East German border guards while trying to escape from East Berlin. His body lay in the barbed wire where he bled to death in full view of the world’s media. American soldiers could not rescue him because he lay a few metres inside the Soviet sector and East German guards were hesitant to approach him as some days prior US guards had shot an east German guard nearby.
The above photograph was taken at a protest site where concerned citizens of Berlin are objecting to crosses being removed from sites where East Berliners met their death.
At the end of WW2 there was no actual fence or wall separating the US, British, French and Soviet sectors. Residents of both East and West Germany were free to travel in either direction, however by 1961 the living conditions in the western sectors had improved considerably so people crossing from east to west and back officially were able to compare living standards in each zone. As time passed it became increasingly obvious that living in the west was a far better option than under communist rule in the east.
The difference in living conditions was the product of varying ideas as to how post war Germany should develop. The Russians wanted to keep Germany weak so they would never again attack them, whereas the British, French and Americans believed a strong Germany would be beneficial.
The mass movement of people, from east to west began to be a social and economic problem for the Soviet authorities so the East German powers decided to restrict and control the movement of people by erecting a barbed wire fence and establish checkpoints at various points along the Allied and Soviet zones. At this time it was clearly stated that there was no intention of building a wall, all that was going to happen was the erection of a barrier, no different to normal border fences and controls found in most sovereign states in Europe.
Not all East Germans were happy with the erection of the barrier. Many made a run for it into West Germany. One East Berliner, Conrad Schumann, successfully made it across.
All photographers, professional or amateur, dream of the day when opportunity knocks like it did for photographer Peter Leibing (1941-2008). Prior to him taking this photograph, he was tipped off by police that an East German border guard might attempt to cross the barrier. As Schumann jumped the wire, people on the west side encouraged him to ‘come over’. The photo became a well-known image of the Cold War and won the Overseas Press Club photograph award for the year. Photographer Leibing took the photograph while working for the Hamburg picture agency Contiepress.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schumann said that only since the fall of the wall had he felt truly free. Conrad was really just an ordinary sort of bloke and after his ‘Leap of Hope’ he found it difficult to handle the celebrity status the escape brought him. In latter years he became depressed and in June 1998 he took his own life. A sad, sad end and one that we should all dwell on.
The barriers where the Berlin Wall was to be eventually erected first began to appear in the early hours of the 13th August 1961. Asphalt and cobblestones on the connecting roads were ripped up. People wanting to cross the border at this time were turned back. The only way people could cross from east to west was with official permission through official checkpoints. For those not able to get official permits they had to devise cunning alternatives to get across the border.
Two men desperate to escape devised a plan using a live powerline as part of a flying fox system. They made a bosun’s chair and attached a sheave to it and launched themselves across the wall. This was also done on disused power lines. The flying fox launch day was chosen carefully. It took place when it was foggy and raining in the hope the guards would not see them. Fortunately their cunning paid off as they reached the west without harm. Another escape involved walking a tightrope.
For east German residents who could obtain official passes to travel into the west they naturally turned their thoughts to how they could smuggle family and friends across the border. One enterprising man made a hollow surfboard in which an escapee was concealed. Another removed the stuffing from the seat of a car he was driving and a child hid inside the seat shell. Others filled their car doors and boot cavities with concrete hoping the concrete would deflect any bullets directed in their direction. One of the most audacious was by a man who lowered the windscreen of his sports car, put a relative in the boot and drove at speed though the barrier, ducking down as he went under the barrier. The barrier was about one metre above the roadway. Homemade hot air balloons and ultra-light like aircraft were also employed: the list goes on infinitum.
In places, the border fortifications ran close to houses. Many had their front entrances bricked up. Hundreds of people were evicted from their homes to make way for the barriers. From one day to the next the fortifications cut streets and squares, separated neighborhoods and severed public transport routes.
Eventually, two fences running parallel to each other divided the city. The second fence was built in June 1962 one hundred and ten yards further into East Germany. Many houses were demolished to make way for the no mans land strip, which was later to become known as the Death Strip.
A narrow strip of sand was placed along the Death Strip and it was raked smooth, rendering footprints that were easy to notice. Any footprints in the sand and no dead body nearby indicated to officers which of the guards had neglected their task of bringing down any potential escapees.
On the evening of August 13, 1961 Willy Brandt, the governing mayor of Berlin said, ‘ The Berlin Senate publicly condemns the illegal and inhumane measures being taken by those who are dividing Germany, oppressing East Berlin and threatening West Berlin…’. The Berlin Wall evolved by stealth to the detriment of thousands of East Germans.
Most of the Berlin Wall has been torn down now and its remnants cast to the annals of history, however much of the wall’s location has been marked with a row of settes.
Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the allies to a crossing point between East and West Berlin. After the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc countries and the reunification of Germany the building at Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction and in latter years it was taken away and exhibited in a museum. These days I think Checkpoint Charlie is a bit of a circus. If you want to experience tourism at its worst visit Checkpoint Charlie during the European summer. Tens of thousands of tourist push and shove along the footpaths and the whole area reeks of commercial opportunism.
Tourists stand between two flag bearers, pay money, have their photograph taken then receive a certificate of some sort.
Checkpoint Charlie took its name from the NATO alphabet, i.e. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…. Checkpoint A was at Helmstedt, Checkpoint B was near Drewitz and Checkpoint C (for Charlie) at Friedrichstrasse.
On the 25th October 1961, American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie. The standoff came about because East guards had attempted to check the identity of representatives of the Western Allies as they attempted to enter the Soviet zone. In the view of the Americans, the right for any of the Allies to move freely through all of Berlin had been violated.
For fifteen hours the two nuclear powers confronted each other from a distance of just metres and the people of that era worldwide felt the imminent threat of war. Thanks to a diplomatic initiative between US President Kennedy and Russian President Khrushchev the tanks withdrew.
During the multinational occupation period of post war Germany, including Berlin, the Soviet Union blocked railway, road and canal access from the west into the Berlin US, British and French zones. The blockade meant those living in the western sector of Berlin were denied basic food and supplies. The Soviet’s idea was to force the western powers to allow them practical control over the entire city.
This of course was not in the best interest of Berliners or post-war Germany as a whole. In response the Western Allies organised the Berlin Airlift. Aircrews from airforces around the world flew over 200 000 flights in one year carrying everything from coal to milk. Up to 4700 tons of supplies were flown in daily.
By the spring of 1949 the airlift turned out to be a resounding success, much to the embarrassment of the Soviets. The airlift came to an end after the Soviet blockade was lifted in May 1949. Discussions soon after resulted in the creation of two separate German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East).
The first sign that the Eastern Bloc countries were heading for collapse was in 1988, when the Polish government agreed to talk to the leader of the opposition movement, Solidarity. The Solidarity movement was an anti-bureaucratic civil resistance movement. Talks between Solidarity and the government led to semi-free elections in 1990 and Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland. The seeds of change had been sown and democratic freedom began to be demanded in the Eastern Bloc countries. Citizens held hands to form a six hundred kilometre long chain to draw attention to calls for independence. Hungary was the first to realize that the Iron Curtain had to go. It opened its border with Austria in 1989.
The circumstances relating to the first attack on the Iron Curtain are rather amusing. Things were tough on the east side so commanders along the Hungarian and Austrian sections of the Iron Curtain started selling sections of the fence as scrap. There were attempts to close the gaps but the Soviets were not forthcoming with new wire which meant the fence had an uncertain future. The Hungarian officials saw what was coming so they stepped forward with the bolt cutters and carried out a symbolic cut. The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall had had their day.
Prior to the Berlin Wall collapsing completely holes in the wall began to appear. The next two photographs show East German border guards peering through to the west. If the truth is known I’m sure that not all serving East German soldiers wanted to live under Communism or in fact wanted to shoot their fellow man but once the tyrants get control of the masses they then live in fear if they don’t do what they are told. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition politician spoke recently about fear.
‘Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.’
On that note I will bring this post to and end. In the next post we travel across France to Normandy and look at where the Allies commenced their campaign to free Berlin and bring WW2 to a conclusion.
Note: Historical information for this post was drawn from leaflets, books and written text on the many information boards scattered around Berlin. Wikipedia has also been of great benefit. I have gone to extreme lengths to obtain copyright clearances on photographs and where I have been unable to track down copyright holders I have posted credits.