Having recently read Anthony Beevor’s powerful historical account Berlin: the Downfall about the fall of Berlin in 1945, and with the arrival of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, it seems timely to reflect on some of the more memorable aspects of our recent visits to the German capital.
Berlin’s history over the past 100 years has been tumultuous to say the least. Because of the devastation wrought on Berlin during 1945, there is little left standing from before the War apart from the odd reconstruction, such as the Berlin City Palace (Stadtschloss) due for completion later this year.
Remnants of the Third Reich
1936 Olympic Stadium
Whilst nearly all of the buildings associated with the Nazi regime were obliterated during the last months of the Second World War, there are still two sites where you can get some sense of the epic architectural statement of the Nazis. In a bid to showcase the ongoing achievements of the Third Reich, Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympic Games. The purpose built stadium is now home to Hertha Berlin football team and was the venue for the final of the 2016 World Cup.
Its chief architect was Werner March, and it managed to hold 100,000 people for the notorious games, during which Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter, successfully punctured Hitler’s racist ideology..
Standing just outside the main stadium, It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the spectacle which unfolded in 1936.
At the same time as the Olympic stadium was being built, the Nazis were also overseeing the construction of a boldly innovative airport design meant to impress arrivals to the capital of ‘Germania’. Whilst never fully completed before the War, Templehof retained evidence of its notorious origins long after the Americans took control in 1945. The German eagle standing near the entrance is one of the relics from that era
During the War, it was used as a bomb shelter by German workers and their families. There are still some surviving murals drawn to entertain the occupying families which survive in the airport’s cellars
When Berlin was blockaded by the USSR in 1948-9, Templehof was the site for the famous airlift which was hugely important for enabling West Berlin to survive, as depicted in this collage in one of the old terminal buildings
From 1950, it operated as a commercial airport before finally closing in 2007. More recently, it has been Germany’s largest centre for housing refugees from wars in Iraq and Syria, whilst the airport fields now function as Berlin’s biggest park.
Soviet War Memorial
Treptow Park, in what was formerly East Berlin, is the site for the largest of three Soviet war memorials built to honour the 80,000 Soviet fatalities incurred during the Battle for Berlin in 1945. The main sculpture, completed in 1949, is a powerfully impressive monument, and given the heroic resistance of the Soviet Union to Hitler’s forces, is fully deserving of its Berlin location.
Further along from the Memorial, there are 16 sarcophagi, one for each of the Soviet Republics, depicting famous scenes from what Russians call The Great Patriotic War
Germany’s cultural capital
The German film industry has an illustrious history and many of its most creative artists such as Fritz Lang, fled to Hollywood during the 1930s.
Marlene Dietrich, one of Berlin’s best known stars of the stage and screen, also left Nazi Germany for Hollywood. Following her death in Paris in 1992, her body was finally returned to East Berlin for burial.
In 1951, during the early years of the Cold War, the West Berlin authorities helped to boost the city’s cultural scene by establishing an annual film festival, known as Berlinale.
One of its key venues is the Friedrichtstadt-Palast
Despite, or maybe because of, the unique isolation of West Berlin during the Cold War, a number of artists were artistically inspired by their experiences whilst living in the city. The Berlin Wall influenced Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale whilst living there in the 1980s. David Bowie recorded a trilogy of albums including Heroes, arguably his greatest album, in Berlin’s Hansa Studios. The Schoneberg flat where he used to live, and next door cafe, where he would hang out, are now popular places of pilgrimage for his many fans.
For East Berlin’s citizens, the Cold War meant being under the daily scrutiny of East Germany’s Sate Security Service, otherwise known as the Stasi. Their aim was simply to know everything about everyone – a bold aim but it has been established they had files on 5.6 million out of East Germany’s 16 million citizens. Up to 1 in 6.5 of the population were employed as informers. They built up a huge photographic record of its citizens’ lives. The Stasi HQ in Berlin has now been transformed into a historical museum.
To get some idea about life under the Stasi, the film The Lives of Others provides a great insight into how the organisation’s oppressive persecution affected East Berlin’s citizens.
The Berlin Wall
From 1961-1989, the Berlin Wall encircled the Western section of Berlin (which had free access to Western Europe). It was built to prevent East Germans from escaping Communist control. As such, it was the most defining symbol of the Cold War, and was the subject of countless stories and analysis. Such was the joy at its removal in 1989 (and subsequent recycling as tourist souvenir), that it only recently what little remains of the Wall has become the subject of interest and debate. It is still possible to walk along some stretches and get an idea of how it once looked
Much of the remaining stretches of the wall are a popular site for spray painting murals and graffiti
Perhaps the most famous Berlin Wall image is that of Brezhnev, the former President of the USSR kissing Erich Honecker, the former East German Head of State
Along Bernauer Strasse you can learn about the history of the Wall via the Berlin Wall Memorial, which includes large murals and pictures of many of those who died trying to cross from the East to the West
To hear one fascinating account of the lengths people would go to escape to the west, listen to the BBC podcast Tunnel 29
Berlin has been totally transformed from the city that lay in ruins in 1945. It is youthful, dynamic, multicultural, and artistically thriving. It is a great pleasure to walk its streets whilst never forgetting the social and political pain it endured during the last century.
Perhaps the best known symbol of Berlin’s resurrection is the rebuilt Reichstag, which had largely lay in ruins ever since a fire in 1933 (presumed to be caused by the Nazis) led to the suspension of German democracy. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, it was decided to once again make Berlin the capital, and to return the German Parliament to the Reichstag. The reconstructed building was re-opened in 1999 with a magnificent new glass dome towering above the original building.
Another example of the city’s redevelopment is Potsdamer Platz, the city’s best known historical square, which was destroyed during the Second World War before becoming a large strip of wasteland between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
Alongside the square are some striking new commercial complexes like the Sony Centre
Meanwhile, walking through Berlin during the changing seasons is to witness a diverse range of cultural spectacles from Berlin’s past and present.