Some of the biggest events of 20th Century European history have played themselves out on the streets of Berlin. If you’re a history enthusiast then there is no better place to visit. From WWI through the roaring twenties to WWII and then becoming the front line of the Cold War Berlin is packed to the brim with extraordinary stories. With so much history on every street corner, and 170 museums it can be difficult to know where to start, so here are some insiders tips:
The German parliamentary building since 1894, it has seen a remarkable amount of history. Set on fire shortly after Hitler came to power, this played a key role in him turning a democracy into a dictatorship. In ruins by the end of WWII and then right on the border next to the Berlin Wall it was renovated in the 90s to become the seat of German Parliament again with a stunning new cupola by Norman Foster. Excellent exhibition and audio guide, entrance and tours MUST be booked in advance online. Particularly spectacular at sunset on a summer’s evening with views out over Tiergarten to the west.
Pergamon and Neues Museum
For ancient history these two are unmissable. From the Ishtar Gates to the Pergamon Altar and the original bust of Nefertiti, some of the world’s finest antiquities are on display at these museums. For architecture buffs the Neues Museum is particularly interesting. Damaged massively during WWII it has been recently restored by David Chipperfield who has managed to meld the old and the new architecture while preserving the old building right down to the bullet holes left by soviet soldiers. A combined ticket is possible, and you need a timed entrance for the Neues Museum (ask your concierge on arrival).
For WWII/Jewish historians:
Topography of Terror
This is the premier exhibition on the Nazi history anywhere in Berlin. Set on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters, it traces Hitler’s rise to power, the progression of the persecutions, the war, the collapse of the regime, right the way through to the aftermath, division and de-Nazification. A dense and extensive exhibit, allow plenty of time. And be warned, some of the photos are disturbing.
Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind
Ever seen the film Schindler’s List, where a non-Jew uses his factory and influence to save Jews during the Nazi regime? Well, Berlin has it’s very own version. Otto Weidt used his brush factory and his connections to help and save many Jews from persecution. He organised safe houses, food, papers, medical care and much more for many Jewish families during the Nazi period. His workshop (including the room where he hid a Jewish family) has been preserved with a museum detailing his work, stories of people he saved, and some who were less fortunate. A second exhibition right next door entitled Silent Heroes documents many other Gentiles who helped Jews during this terrible period of Berlin’s history.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
2,711 grey hollow concrete blocks. Each set at a different height or angle. Designed by Peter Eisenmann it is one of the architectural artistic wonders of Berlin. Love it or hate it people are rarely left unmoved. Built underneath the memorial itself is the Information Centre which tracks the horrific history of the Holocaust from the beginning to the end. A stark contrast to the abstract nature of the memorial, the information centre exhibits are deeply personal – letters thrown from train windows, journal excerpts and the like. Closed Mondays.
For Cold War buffs:
Berlin Wall Memorial, Bernauer Strasse
Here is a massive outdoor exhibition in the former death strip with details of the Berlin Wall in general, and also things particular to this street along the border, such as tunnels and escapes from windows. Detailing the progress of the fortifications it documents deaths, escapes and fortifications, complete with a section of the wall with death strip intact, guard tower, viewing platform and visitors centre. Not to be missed is the exhibit in the Nordbahnhof train station itself.
Stasi Headquarters, Normannenstrasse
A visit to the former Stasi headquarters is like stepping back in time. Visit the office of Erich Mielke, one of the most powerful men of the GDR regime. Read stories of the Stasi (East German State Security) and how they became the largest employer in the country, that East Germany was the most surveilled population the world has ever seen. Stories stranger than fiction such as the ‘smell jars’ where the Stasi were collecting people’s pheromonal imprint. Read the true story of how the Berlin Wall fell, and the destruction of files that followed. Tours of the archives themselves are available in English if booked in advance.
Another one for the Cold War buffs, this is the Stasi prison complex in an ordinary East Berlin suburb that didn’t appear on any map. The victims here endured unimaginable imprisonment, experiencing both physical and psychological torture. Many of the guides are former prisoners themselves, and tell the history of the site including their own experiences. Tours are at 2.30 every day in English, advisable to book in advance. A little out of the city centre but easily reachable by cab, this is an absolute must see for anyone interested in Cold War history.
A city in its own right and full of beautiful palaces, Potsdam is definitely worthy of a day trip from Berlin. Sans Soucci is the most famoud of them all, the summer palace of Frederick the Great and the best example of Frederickian Rococco you will find. Small but beautiful and set amongst glorious gardens, it’s perfect for a walk on a warm summers day. But Potsdam also offers much more – the Cecilienhof where Chruchill met with Stalin and Truman to ratify the division of Germany after the war, the Glienicke Bridge where some famous spy exchanges took place, the beautiful Dutch quarter, the ‘other’ Brandenburg Gate to mention but a few. Trains are easy to take from Berlin, or car/guide services are also available.
To the north of Berlin this was built to be the ‘Model’ concentration camp, and also housed the administration for the entire camp network across Europe. After the war it was used for five years as a detention center during Soviet occupation where a further 12,000 people died. It is a large site with more than 13 different exhibitions detailing the history of the site and the period in general. This is definitely a day trip in itself, not just because of the distance to be traveled, but also to give the site the time it deserves.
Penelope Hassmann is Owner of Berlin Private Tours.
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