Berlin’s fragile history

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The Reichstag dome
The Reichstag dome

You get used to cobblestones in the plazas and pedestrian malls at the centre of many European cities, but these cobbles in Berlin are different.

A double line of the rough-hewn stones snakes its way around the German capital, seemingly paying little attention to the built environment.

But when you seek out the more famous Berlin landmarks – the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – the penny drops. The snaking cobbles trace the route of the infamous Berlin Wall, built by the East German communist regime to prevent its citizens from voting with their feet.

It’s a subtly effective reminder of the city’s recent, living history. After all, many of us were alive 28 years ago when the Wall came down.

Of course, to an Australian, all European cities reek of history. Some are famous for being the centre of empire, or for their palaces and architecture, others for fostering the arts, sciences, diplomacy and other worthwhile pursuits. Berlin is a contender in all of those fields. 

The city’s friendly persona and obvious prosperity also present a bright and confident character that attracts tens of millions of visitors a year.

But Berlin may be unique in Europe as having been the capital of two of the most unsuccessful political regimes ever foisted on its citizens.

Underground museum tour, Berlin
Underground museum tour, Berlin

Discover the past

For anyone interested in the tribulations of European democracy over the past 100 years, Berlin’s suffering from 1914 through to the end of WWII and the Cold War, when the city was divided into two, with East Berlin under communist control, will act as an irresistible magnet. It is sobering to see how fragile democracy can be.

There are scores of museums and tours to improve your understanding of how things can go wrong. You can do it by walking, cycling, riding a Segway or even driving in a fleet of Cold War-era Trabants, the plastic-bodied, two-stroke car that epitomised the broken-down East German system.

Evidence of Berlin’s wartime history can be found all around the city, above ground and underfoot. Many tours include air-raid shelters and bunkers, although the Fuhrerbunker where Hitler spent his last days no longer exists. Tour operator Berlin Unterwelten has a series of Berlin from Below tours that delve into the Nazi state. 

A tour of the Gesundbrunnen air-raid shelter shows how the Nazi elite was dangerously misled by its own PR. The air-raid shelter was initially a collection of underground tunnels associated with the Berlin Gesundbrunnen Station. After it became clear that British bombers could actually reach Berlin – defying Luftwaffe assurances – the tunnels were quickly converted into a makeshift shelter. 

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A visit to Haus 1, 103 Ruschestrasse shows that darkness was not confined to underground bunkers. It is the former headquarters of the East German Ministry of State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi.

The museum provides detailed explanations of the methods and equipment used by the Stasi to control the population, such as hidden cameras and microphones, and steaming machines to open letters.

View of historic Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) at famous Museum Island with ship passing Friedrichsbrucke bridge on Spree river at sunset, Berlin
View of historic Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) at famous Museum Island with ship passing Friedrichsbrucke bridge on Spree river at sunset, Berlin

A lighter view  

For lighter sightseeing, Berlin has a smorgasbord of castles, including Sanssouci, Charlottenburg and Cecilienhof. 

The Lustschloss, built by Frederick William II, King of Prussia, was completed in 1797 and, as the name suggests, was designed for his mistress Wilhelmine Enke, who bore him five children out of wedlock.

The Lustschloss is located on Peacock Island, about an hour by train and bus from Station Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). A 300-metre ferry ride completes the journey to this rural idyll of manicured gardens, wooded groves, statues and follies.

Frederick’s son and successor, Frederick William III, later turned the island into a menagerie that became wildly popular with Berliners as a zoo, featuring, among other species, kangaroos. Today the only remaining exotic animals are the peacocks that give the island its name.

Here’s a tip. Be careful when you ask directions for Peacock Island from Deutsche Bahn information officers at train stations or you might end up at a water fun park called Tropical Islands instead. Like the Lustschloss, this was well off the cobblestone path.


Written by Ian Porter
February 07, 2018

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