Berlin, the capital city of one of the foulest tyrannies ever to despoil humanity, yet a beautiful and intriguing place redolent with history and splendour. Our tour takes in the history of Berlin under the Nazis as we explore the seat of power and seek to understand how such a heritage and culture-rich nation could have fallen under the spell of Adolf Hitler.
Such a tour has, by the very nature of the subject matter, to start at the seat of parliamentary power, the Reichstag. The Reichstag was built with reparations money from the French following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and dedicated to the German people. This was Hitler's goal, constitutional power through the ballot box.
A walk follows around the area known as the government district, an area which contained most of the ministeries responsible for the conduct of the war, including the virtually untouched Luftwaffe Building, Hermann Goering's Air Ministry which featured in the recent Tom Cruise film "Valkyrie", and under the Brandenburg Gate.
Along Unter Den Linden we find the Bebelplatz. site of book-burning and opposite the Neue Wache, the new guardhouse which contains a beautiful sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz.
The mechanism of terror was embodied in the state police apparatus, administered from an area which has earned the name "Topography of Terror". This is where the RSHA ( Reichsicherheitshauptamt, or Reich Security Main Office ), the Gestapo and SS/SD (Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service ) had their headquarters in Prinz Albrecht Strasse, now called Niederkirchnerstrasse. From this complex was planned the systematic regime of terror designed to suppress opposition. It is also where the Holocaust was planned and ultimately delivered. There is an impressive visitor's centre on the site and is well worth the visit.
Hand in hand with this ran the system of Concentration camps and prisons. North of Berlin, near the town of Oranienburg, we find Sachsenhausen, second of the concentration camps to spring up in the wake of Hitler's accession to power.
Sachsenhausen was built and opened in 1936 to serve Berlin and the surrounding area. The camp was to a model in camp construction, utilising a unique triangle shape and it was at Sachsenhausen that the commandants of many future camps, including Auschwitz, were to be trained in camp administration. One such, Rudolf Hoess, who had been at Dachau, brought with him the gate slogan "Arbeit macht Frei", or work sets you free, which was to find itself on many a camp gate including Auschwitz where he later became commandant.
The main gate at Sachsenhausen
The instruments of terrror and suppression included civilian prisons, perhaps the most infamous being Plotzensee, on the outskirts of Berlin. Plotzensee was a high-security prison housing murderers and other high-risk prisoners. After Hitler came to power it became the principal place of incarceration and execution of opponents to the regime. It was in this execution chamber, which had contained a guillotine, that the July plot conspirators were executed, hanged by piano wire from the hooks you can still see on the beam at the rear of the chamber. It is said that the execution was filmed for the Fuehrer's enjoyment. It is a sombre place but one which brings home the realities of the regime. Also in the small visitor's centre one can find information on German resistance and the stories of some of those who met their end in this depressing place.
Exactly when the decision to implement the Final Solution of the Jewish problem was taken is something over which historians have argued since the end of the war. What we do know is that an influential meeting took place in the January of 1942 at a villa on the shores of Lake Wannsee. Invited to this meeting, hosted by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the RSHA, were 15 senior figures from the SS and other Ministries, the office for Race and Resettlement, the Foreign Office, the Reichs Chancellery, and head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Muller. The minutes of this meeting were taken by SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann. Whilst this meeting did not decide upon the policy of genocide, it did bring together all the agencies necessary to carry it out and arrived at unanimity in how it would be achieved. There is a superb visitor's centre here and it is possible to visit the actual location where this meeting took place and to wonder at the urbanity of it all - it is rumoured Heydrich is said to have likened it to a board meeting of the directors of I.G. Farben, a huge industrial company. 16 men, sat around a table, discussed mass murder in everyday terms, carefully disguising the language used so as to conceal the paper trail - they spoke of re-settlement, evacuation, coded words for annihilation. And all this whilst partaking of a splendid buffet lunch with the finest wines.
No visit to Berlin would be complete without a trip to the impressive Olympic Stadium, built in 1936 to house the Berlin Games, and now home to Herta Berlin FC.
This superb stadium was a representative example of Nazi architecture, what we call the "architecture of power". Built to resemble the collosseum, in greco-roman classical style, it embodied the perfection of the human form, exampled by the many statues surrounding the site, and was to overshadow the human by its' enormity. It was designed to seat 100,000 people and one can only imagine the atmosphere inside on opening day as the Fuehrer drew near.
Of course, the Games were a masterpiece of Nazi propaganda and deception. Goebbels, the Minister for Propaganda and Enlightenment, realised the huge potential for painting Germany in a new light to the rest of the world, in the face of thousands of visiting journalists. A few were not convinced, the author William L Shirer amongst them who went on to write the iconic "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".
An internal visit to the stadium is usually possible, and is recommended to absorb the history of the place. You can see the track, now renovated of course, where Jesse Owens stole Hitler's thunder, the Fuhrer podium and private box, and the cauldron which held the Olympic flame. At the rear of the stadium is the May Field, the equestrian centre and parade ground, and it is possible to see the winner's plaques and the original olympic bell cast to summon the youth of the world to compete. A truly "must" visit.
There are, of course, many, many more places to visit but this should give a taste for what you can achieve on a trip to Nazi Berlin.
Berlin in the Cold War:1945 -1989
Berlin occupied a unique position during what became known as the Cold War. A divided city, deep inside the Soviet zone of occupation and cut off from the West save by one road, one rail link and of course, the air corridor. To understand the background to the post-war period, and the soviet attitude, it is essential to look at, and understand their sacrifice, and a tour of Berlin should start, as we shall, at the Soviet War Memorial in the Avenue 17th June. This memorial stands in the centre of Berlin in what was the British Zone of occupation and was built in the immediate aftermath of the war. Built of stone salvaged from the Reichs Chancellery it records the dead of the attack on Berlin with a cemetery to the rear. It is flanked by 2 soviet T34 tanks and 2 pieces of field artillery used in the attack
Once you have seen the way in which the Soviets felt it will be easier to come to terms with their post-war attitude.
There are many sites of post-war interest in Berlin which tell the story of the Cold War. The soviet museum at Karlshorst, the Potsdam Conference House and not the least the Allied Museum on Clay Allee which tells the story of the Berlin Airlift.
The classic manifestation of the Cold War in Berlin was of course the Berlin Wall. Following the establishment of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 it became a buffer state between Russia and the West. Owing to soviet economic policies of asset-stripping and other reforms many of those trapped in the East began the journey to the West. This could only be accomplished via West Berlin, where there was no enforceable border, and the "brain drain" ultimately led to the East Germans, led by Walter Ulbricht, to erect a barricade of barbed wire across the whole of Berlin, along the lines of agreed zones of occupation, effectively cutting the East from the West. The border was sealed.
Following the sealing of the Berlin border, crossing points were established across the city. Without doubt, the most famous of all was to become known as "Checkpoint Charlie" astride Friedrichstrasse. This crossing point became the focus of tension throughout its existence, perhaps no more so than in October 1961 when an incident nearly sparked off a third world war. The hut pictured is in fact a replica, the original being situated in the grounds of the Allied Museum on Clay Allee.
Just behind the hut is a museum which chronicles the history of the site as well as telling the stories of many escape attempts.
On the establishment of the GDR a mechanism was needed to monitor the people and to ensure compliance with the soviet ethos. A secret police was formed known as the "Stasi", the MIS or Ministry of Internal Security, headed by Erich Milke. The Stasi infiltrated itself into every facet of life in the GDR and employed brutal and decisive methods of surveillance of its people. Those suspected of activities against the state were held in a remand prison at Hohenschonhausen, situated in the forbidden zone.
This facility was originally a soviet NKVD prison which was handed over to the GDR and which was enlarged to hold potentially hundreds of prisoners for indefinite periods until they "confessed" to their anti-social activities. Shown above is one of the corridors of the new prison wing. The original prison was in an underground complex known to the inmates as the "U-Boot" or the submarine, owing to a complete lack of natural light, and where screams could not be heard. Here prisoners could be held in complete isolation and subjected to mental and physical torture, including water torture and standing cells, to extract their "confession". Guided tours of this facility are available, often conducted by former prisoners, and these form an invaluable experience for any visitor to help understand the regime the inhabitants of the GDR were living under.
Not to be missed is a visit to the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse where the visitor can see a reconstructed section of the wall complete with death strip and watchtower and view original archive footage of the history of the wall. The tour will also include a walk along the longest surviving stretch of wall, just over a kilometre, which is known as the East Side Gallery, as many graffiti artists from the West used the inner wall as a platform to express their political ( and other ) views.
As I do not hold an ABTA or ATOL licence it will be necessary for visitors to purchase their own air tickets. I will make all other arrangements, such as hotels, museums, meals etc.and as with all my tours, a selection of accommodation is available according to the client's needs/requirements. Transport around Berlin will be by the excellent public transport system and can include a river boat cruise as an option.
Accomodation will be in any one of a number of 3* hotels in Berlin, or, if desired, in one of the up-market hostels which provide near-hotel standards at a reduced cost. Please ask for advice.
Prices are per person and start from, assuming two persons sharing:
Two days £699
Three days £849
Four days £1,089
Single room supplements of £30 will apply. This is a charge made by the hotel and is beyond my control. Please contact me on: email@example.com, call 01842 862014, or write to me at: Past Endeavours, 18, Pashford Close, Lakenheath, Suffolk IP27 9ED