The European Institutions take the Belgian bank holidays, which gave me two days off at the start of November for the celebration of All-Saints and All-Souls Day. Being the humanist that I am, I didn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge these particular festivities and trotted off to Berlin for three days.
The trip itself was eventful. Between Liége and Aachen, the Brussels-Köln ICE-3 broke down. This necessitated 8 carriages of passengers fitting into a two carriage local train which looked like it had been built in the ’50s. I take back everything I’ve ever said about Deutsche Bahn’s efficiency and about ScotRail’s diesel Sprinters being outdated. After a horrendous journey to Aachen and a painfully uncomfortable journey from Aachen to to Köln, I eventually got on to another high speed ICE train. Annoyingly, it wasn’t fast enough to get me to Berlin before 11, but c’est la vie.
In defence of Deutsche Bahn’s record, all four of the ICE trains I was on was faster, roomier and more comfortable then the Intercity trains used by East Coast and the Pendalinos used by Virgin. I was particularly impressed by the standing bar area and cheap prices on the train. The main annoyance was the lack of Wi-fi and power sockets, which is something that East Coast and Virgin definitely win on.
Berlin itself was fantastic. Having spent many years studying German history between 1800 and 1939, I spent a lot of time trying to put the events I’d read about into geographical context. This was considerably harder then I had anticipated, as I simply hadn’t realised how much had been destroyed in the invasion of Berlin and then by both the East and West German Governments. While, as a former history student, I do dispair for the lost of so many historic buildings, I can fully understand why the buildings which were used by the Nazi regime were destroyed rather then repurposed (with a few exceptions).
I did, however, take pictures of various streets in what was the heart of the Nazi Government. These are mainly to show my mother, as she also studied German history but has never visited the city.
This street, for example, was the site of the first Reich Chancellery. Hitler and Speer built the Nazi-era Chancellery on a perpendicular to it. The opposite side of the street housed various ministries.
The site where the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were bruned, which was once the gardens of Chancellery is now a carpark. This area has a series of signs which explain what went on in each of the buildings which stood there. Some of these can be (rightly) unsettling, such as the sign outside my hotel which explained that the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, one of the main government bodies involved in the Holocaust had soon on the site. I didn’t sleep terribly well knowing that Adolf Eichmann could have signed death warrants meters away from where I was.
There are some remnants of the Third Reich preserved in Berlin.
The German Finance Ministry was the home of Göring’s Aviation Ministry during the Second World War. According to signs outside, many aspects of it’s interior have survived intact (but de-Nazified) and have featured in a number of films since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to the fall of the Wall, it was used as a command centre by the Soviet military then as a government building by the DDR. It was also the site of a major uprising in 1953.
The Finance Ministry features a DDR-era mural, in a particularly soviet style. During the Second World War, this wall held a massive bronze casting featuring marching soldiers. It disappeared in the confusion of the invasion of Berlin and I suspect it was probably ceased by the Soviet Union to be melted down.
Nearby these relics of the Third Reich is on of the best memorials to those who suffered at the hands of Nazis. The Topography of Terror is an open museum built on the site of the SS, SA and Gestapo headquarters. The outdoor section contains photos of the area before, during and after the Second World War, along with pieces of the foundations of several of the buildings. There are also the remains of prison cells which were used by the SS and the foundations of a canteen which was just metres from interrogation cells and a prison yard.
There is little I can say to convey the full horror which overcomes you as you walk around this site, knowing what happened here.
There is also a very large exhibition on the Nazi reign of terror and the Holocaust in the visitor centre at the Topography of Terror. It’s one of the best curated museums I’ve ever been to and I highly recommend visiting it. Entry is free and it has very long opening hours. There are also temporary exhibitions and the longest surviving portion of the Berlin Wall at the site.
In addition to visiting various sites related to WWII and the Holocaust, I also did some more light hearted exploring. Amongst other things, I visited the Berlin TV Tower and the DDR Museum (which featured some amazing mock-ups).
I also treated my inner-child by visiting the world’s largest model railway, which was very, very cool. It has dozens of cameos, including a rave, a movie being filmed, a fire being put out and even Angela Merkel greeting Barack Obama as he steps off Airforce One.
I managed to pack in quite a lot (even managing to take some pictures of the German President). You can check my flickr pages for day 1, day 2 and day 3 for more images of the various things I saw and did. Most of them haven’t been captioned yet and some are unfocussed and need to be deleted, but most of them are pretty good.
I will have to visit Berlin again. Next time, I’ll be certain to give myself more time, because it does actually take quite a while to get between things in the city. There are also a host of attractions nearby which I couldn’t contemplate going to because of travel time required. I’ll also try and take someone with me next time I go, because being in a strange city on holiday from another strange city can be a bit lonely and I was dying for an in-depth conversation by the time I got back (my German is reasonably good, but doesn’t stretch too far). Still, it was a fun holiday, the food was great and so was the beer.