In a whirlwind backpacking Eastern Europe trip, I made sure to include Berlin on my MUST SEE places to visit. With missing my train in Prague, because it was my first time using the train in Europe. Then the next train I boarded on caught on fire, making me miss my original tour. Berlin Historical Walks came in for the save! Sean Stewart (my tour guide) taught me how to tour Berlin in 12 Hours or less.
I gave Sean the task of convincing me that Berlin was more complex than what the History Channel teaches. I remember sitting with my Grandma and Grandpa on weekends watching movies about the history of Berlin, and WWII movies.
I also gave him the task of convincing me that the German people weren’t rude, and aloof like I had been told they were before visiting. So come with me, as I go on a walking tour of Berlin with Sean, and learn just how much this country has been through.
Map of the Walking Tour
The purple and orange are where I would suggest you visit. If you plan to visit a museum, you must weigh and measure the amount of time you would like to spend there. Also, factor in a time to grab some street food along the way because all the walking is going to make you hungry. The Yellow is where you can find a bathroom. The Black are other important sites I would suggest you visit if you have the time to travel that distance. Otherwise, all of this can be reached on foot.
Luggage Storage and the Train Station
Arriving at the Train station is going to be very confusing, especially for Americans who are used to driving their cars or taking the subway. This is a whole other animal in public transportation. This train station is complex and easy to get lost in. The ticket counters are on the main level, I suggest you buy your ticket prior to leaving on any tour so you don’t get stuck there overnight – even with a EURail Pass you must have a seat reservation or you can get fined.
The luggage locker is about 2-6 Euros depending on how much time you want to store your luggage. Smaller the luggage the better, because then you can empty out your squishable bags into the smaller lockers that are usually leftover. If you arrive early in the morning, you might get a larger luggage locker – but don’t count on it.
There are four different levels to this train station and is one of the main hubs of connection for much of Europe. Do not expect people to speak English, I can’t recall if they have Wifi or not – but I would get Google translate access on your phone just in case. You don’t want to end up on the wrong train to your next destination. Google translate will be your best friend when getting onto the right train, the right car, and in a good seat.
If you book with Sean (no I’m not sponsored to say this- but I should have been, lol) – he will meet you at the train station to help you figure it out and help you to store your luggage. He will also help you get onto the right train/bus to get back to the station or the airport.
Sites To See During 12 Hours in Berlin
We started our 12-hour tour of Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate then wound our way on foot throughout the town. If you go in the off-season (early spring/late fall), it is not going to be crowded and you can really take it all in without fighting hoards of tourists.
Built around 1790 by Prussian King Frederick William II as the main entry point to the city of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. If you look at the top of the gate, there is a large statue, the Quadriga. It is said to represent the statue of the goddess of victory, as she appears to be barreling into the city on her chariot pulled by four horses. I’m a little bit vertically challenged and it was starting to rain, so this picture is as good as you will get of that statue.
This gate has survived and been witness to Napoleon’s seizure of the city, Hitler’s propaganda parade to the presidential palace, World War II. This was on the side of East Berlin and stood firm against all the tragedies of the Cold War. It has morphed, been repaired, altered, and throughout it all still stands as a monument to the resilience of Germany and its people to come back from dark places of history.
Photography tip: The Brandenburg Gate is best shot from Pariser Platz, facing west. I would suggest photographing it at sunset (not pictured) as you get the sun shining through the columns, or during the blue hour with the sky is a brilliant blue and the lights on the gate light up. If you don’t want people in your shot, be sure to take multiple long exposure shots and stack them together in Photoshop.
Memorial of the Berlin Wall
The Memorial of the Berlin Wall is located along the historic Bernauer Strasse, extending 0.86 miles (1.4km) with the preserved grounds behind the last remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
This memorial reviews the function of this border, how it separated families and destroyed lives. Keeping people from East Berlin, separate from West Berlin. Photographs, oral quotes from speeches, histories written and passed down. The photographs show people trying to escape from East Berlin by jumping from windows, rooftops. East German Police attempting to jump the barbed wire fencing.
The reconciliation church was also blown up after being stuck in the death strip when the wall was built. The Reconciliation chapel is now rebuilt in the same location where the prior chapel was built.
There is also the window of remembrance commemorates the deaths that occurred at the Berlin Wall. While there has been much debate about how many deaths actually occurred. A study done in 2017 estimates that nearly 327 people died at or because of trying to escape past the Berlin Wall. Many of those who died were young men between 18-25 and 10% of them women, one report stated that there was a baby that suffocated inside of a boot in the back of a car.
There were many ways the East Germans tried to escape like on air mattresses, paddleboards (the antique kind, not the new kind), a home built hot-air balloon (where is the movie of that!) and my favorite – a man who shot an arrow across the death zone and zip lined his way across to West Germany.
I highly suggest visiting this memorial and reading the chilling and heroic stories that surround the history of this important place.
Topography of Terror
Located on the former site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and Secret State Police. The original building was badly damaged during WWII, and the remains were demolished after the war ended. When the Cold War began, this area became a fortified area. The building remained rubble until the final structure was formed in 2010 and opened to the public.
The museum is free and well worth the effort to walk through and see some of the darkest days of Germany.
While the location of Hitler’s Bunker, where he took his own life, was highly debated for some time. The final place of the bunker was determined (in 2006) and in one of the oddest places for such a historical site, you will ever see. While it isn’t technically much to see, it is interesting to see how East Germany built the ‘saving face’ apartments right near the Berlin Wall that stood just feet away from West Berlin. Even though the rest of East Germany was starving, they made the appearance that everything was fine and refined in the decadant apartments. Only the most elite and elected were allowed to stay in these apartments, as it was so close to the wall, they didn’t want more people escaping.
There is a sign here to explain how the bunker system was laid out and which bunker was assigned specifically to Hitler. The oddest thing about the former bunker? It is now a parking spot for one of the former East German ranking society members descendants who became million-dollar apartment holders overnight when the wall was torn down. If that isn’t the oddest historical story you have heard, I don’t know what is.
No matter what time of year you visit, this is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. The concert hall (the center building) is a perfect balance between the French and German churches. During the summer there are open-air concerts, and during the winter you will find the square transformed into a Christmas Market.
The square was built during the 17th century and the French Protestant community was given one church in the square. The Luthern congregation the other church on the opposite end. Interestingly, the two congregations funded each others church. Sean explained how this would be akin to a Christian building a Mosque. The churches at the time where so at odds with each other, that it shows just how tolerant and inclusive Germans were at that time.
In between the two churches once resided a stable for the regimental horses. This was torn down by Fredrich II and the concert hall was built. If you look at the base of the concert hall steps on the right, you will see a white statue of Fredrich Schiller, a passionate French poet. After the Second World War, the square was in ruins. In the 1970s, the East Berlin government had it rebuilt to how it looks today.
The Holocaust Memorial- Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe
When I first saw a photo of this memorial, I did not realize these weren’t Jewish graves. These are slabs of concrete arranged in a way to create an interactive art piece, that is meant to cause reflection on what it was like to be a Jew during the Holocaust.
The designer of this Memorial did not give his meaning or interpretation of this piece so that each person visiting could draw their own conclusions. I like to think of it as the outer slabs that are very close to the ground are meant to represent racial slurs, and jokes. As the racial slurs became more severe, they then became accusations that rose too high for any one person to control.
As you walk between the stone slabs they rise higher and higher overhead, until you are standing in the center of the piece and can barely hear the sounds of the city. There is a feeling of apprehension as you are walking through this maze, not knowing who is going to come around the next corner- and really have no place to hide. The only way to stay hidden is to keep moving and hope you don’t run into someone around the next corner.
It was odd walking through this maze as I’m typically very self-aware, and can feel people near me without even opening my eyes. Yet walking among these slabs, I was shocked that someone could round the corner at any intersection and I could barely hear them until we were nearly on top of each other.
After walking through this area, I had an eery sense of dread and felt very disconcerted. The message of the artist certainly affected me and still does to this day.
This beautiful cathedral is located on Museum Island, a central location I highly suggest at least passing by on your way to the other sites. This cathedral was originally built in 1895 but was so heavily damaged during World War II that it was just reopened to the public in 1993.
The first church built on this site was in the 14th century and was used by the Hohenzollern family, whose palace was just across the street. The mausoleum of this family that was housed in this church for centuries has now been moved due to reconstruction. There are still 94 sarcophagi’ of Royal Family members that are housed here today. The main piece to see in this cathedral is the 7,000 pipe organ that hosts over 100 concerts every year.
The Dome of the cathedral is open every day from 9 am to 8 pm (except State Holidays). The admission is 7 Euros, and there are also guided tours you can take as well. If you are only there for a short time I would just pay for a one time pass. If you have more time in Berlin, I would suggest getting the Berlin Pass, because you get access to 200 different sites and public transport.
If you want a realistic view of what life was like in the 1940s under the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR – this is the place to visit. It takes you into the lives of the people of Germany. From 35 different stations, you can see what it felt like to be ‘bugged’ or ‘wiretapped’, watch TV in a recreated homeroom of the 1940s. I personally didn’t have time to pop in and see this, because I had arrived so much later than planned – but it came highly recommended and is great for families as well.
There are also areas to teach about Media, literature, music, culture, family, private niche, health, equality, diet, childhood, youth, partnership, fashion, border, Berlin, education, and work during that time. You experience first hand what daily life was like from the household citizen to a ranking member of the DDR.
The Library Memorial: Bebelplatz
This is not a traditional memorial, in that it is actually underground. If you are strolling across Bebelplatz, you might miss it because you can walk right over it. If you see people looking at the ground, this is what they are looking at here. It is a memorial to the books that were burned in this spot by the Nazi Germans as a nationwide act against the ‘un-German spirit’.
As you look down through the glass plate, there are white shelves, empty of anything. What should be on these shelves are the 20,000 books they burnt that day on May 10, 1933. The books they burnt were those of independent authors, journalists, philosophers and academics that did not coincide with the regime message.
The bronze plaques you see near this memorial read:
That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well. Heinrich Heine 1820
If you walk across the square, you might see a pop-up stand of a few people selling books. These are copies of the books that were burned that day, available for purchase at a discounted price.
Soviet War Memorial
The Red Army or Soviet Soldiers are honored in this park. I didn’t realize personally, how much Russia played a part in liberating Germany. There were 80,000 Soviet Soldiers who died fighting to liberate Germany; with 7,000 of them being buried at Treptow park. Treptow park is where the Soviet War Memorial is now housed. It has a triumphal gate entrance and peaceful park that wreaths and flowers are laid on the steps every year.
Just to give you an idea of how many people died in World War II per country (to name a few):
Soviet Union 24,000,000
United Kingdom 450,700
United States 418,500
Unter den Linden
This has been the ‘main drag’ of Berlin since 1791 when the Brandenburg gate was completed. It morphed and changed over the years, until the 1920s when it was a bustling, anything goes type boulevard. The 250-year-old trees adorned this beautiful street, and time period shops glittered at night over the passing crowds. When Hitler took power, he ripped out all the trees and put up Nazi flags, much to the discontent of the public. Hitler later replanted the trees, and after Berlin was liberated the crowds washed through the Brandenburg gate like leaves blowing in the wind.
If you follow this road from Brandenburg gate, you will come across museum island, the memorial to the Jews of the Holocaust, and even a ghost subway, a statue of Frederick the Great, and the tomb of the unknown soldiers and unknown Holocaust victim.
You eventually end up at the Lustgarten park, which was once a military parade route, now turned (and to remain) a beautiful park for the public to enjoy a sunny afternoon.
Named after Elector Friedrich III, who ruled here from 1688 to 1713. This area, once full of Royal Apartments and surrounding fields, is now a lively amusement part of Berlin. This is where many of the tourists flock to shop, visit theatres, and to see the famous Checkpoint Charlie, romanticized by spy book novels.
This area may have been my least favorite area, because of how many tourists were here. They all come in droves to see the gimmicky Checkpoint Charlie, that if you actually look at it – doesn’t resemble a true checkpoint at all. There are pictures of an American Solider and a Soviet Soldier, both who have the wrong time period uniforms on. The American Soldier pictured, actually has a military ribbon on his uniform from Desert Storm….which hadn’t even happened yet.
Sean, my guide, jokingly said that Germany models are paid to stand there with an American Flag and expect a tip to do it. If despite knowing this, you would still like to visit then feel free. Yet, I preferred to take a seat at the cafe across the street and watch the hoards of tourists take their photographic momentos. I refused to take a picture of this, as I don’t really want to encourage people to visit this site and instead visit key points to the winning the war like this bridge that played a huge role in the battles of liberating Berlin.
Sammlung Boros Bunker
It was a little chilling for me to stand on the street corner and see this, now converted, bunker. Sean said that he had a visitor who came, and he started to explain what it was and what it is now used for. A woman in the group chimed in with a shocking revelation. She explained how it felt to be in the bunker with her Mother and sisters hunkered down and feeling the vibrations of the bombs landing.
It gave me chills to think of how scary it must have been for them, yet torn over the crimes their leaders committed against the Jewish people. Yet, as with most of Berlin – they are moving away from their past and repurposing the dark into light.
This bunker now houses a contemporary art collection from international artists’ from the 1990s onward. While I didn’t have time to go in, it is definitely on a ‘must-see’ list for me when I return.
Wrapping Up My Tour of Berlin in 12 Hours – Moving on to Backpacking Eastern Europe
While there was so much more I was able to explore and discuss with Sean (see the video above) this will give you some ideas on how to best explore Berlin in one day. Despite hearing how boring, and rude Germans were/are – I found it to be quite the opposite. The city holds a special place in my heart because of the things I learned.
The people there are private, and passionate and want to move forward from their past – which is what most tourists come there to see. So if you have limited time to see Berlin, I would highly recommend choosing from the map above, book with Berlin Historical Walks (not sponsored to say this ), and I guarantee Sean will be able to change your mind about this city and its people.
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Traveler Tip: Make sure you reserve your seat on the train prior to leaving the train station when you arrive. This will either give you more time, or save you from camping overnight at one of the busiest and most complicated train stations in Europe.
How to Get Around Berlin
The train system in Europe and walking is my preferred method, as it is cheaper than flying to each individual country when backpacking eastern Europe and attempting to get around Berlin.
They also have the Berlin Welcome Card, that for around 20 Euros you can get unlimited public transport and entrance to 200 sites.
The first time I backpacked through Europe as a US Citizen, I was entirely overwhelmed and confused. I wasn’t the only foreign visitor who was confused, there were so many people who had questions about how this complex interconnecting system worked. So for those first timers out there, here are my Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe.
Just because you have a Eurail pass, doesn’t mean you have a reserved seat. So be sure to buy that extra ticket in order to reserve a seat. Also, make sure you are there at least 30 minutes early so you don’t miss your train. Especially if you are traveling across country lines. Only buy tickets from reputable places, there are a lot of scams in Europe around travel. Educate yourself on how to avoid scams in Europe.
2- Check Your Platform And Car Number
Get on the right train from the right platform. Look at the train names above the numbered platforms. Then make sure that the car you enter is the exact car you need to take. The cars separate at different stops and you don’t want to be left behind unknowingly.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, ASK!!!! Ask someone after you get on the train if you must. They will close the doors when the conductor blows the whistle. The trains in Europe wait for no one.
3- Anticipate The Need To Run
Once seated, look at your ticket……look at the next platform you need to go to. Look at when your train arrives and when the next departs. You may need to run across the station to platform 12b from platform 1a in 15 minutes. There is always going to be someone slow in front of you, so take the stairs.
4- Scan Your Ticket To Get In And Out
Keep your ticket in hand! You need it to scan in and scan out of each of the train stations. The ticket must be current, or you can get a fine. If you have a Eurail Pass, you can just scan the code on the outside of the ticket to get through the gates. The Eurail tickets sometimes have their own gates. Try to go with the gate not everyone is going through (if you can’t understand the Language).
5- Check The Type Of Train You Get On
Make sure you are getting on the right type of train. If you get on the wrong train you can still get fined. It may be going to the right place, but if you get on the faster train or get on an inter-city train instead, you can get fined. B
6- Bring Your Own Supplies
Bring your own water, your phone charger, and a Travel Pillow— especially if you have a sleeper train — small backpacks are the best…..just minimize by packing like the news told you the city was going to be bombed and you had 15 minutes before you had to be evacuated. That will get you everything you need in one bag. Yes, you will probably smell……bring Febreeze…..trust me…..there are people who smell worse on the trains.7 – Take Your Trash With You
7- Take Your Trash With You
Take your trash with you when you exit the train. There are small little garbage cans underneath the tables or right under the window on most trains. These fill up very quickly, as well as the ones in the bathrooms, so take your rubbish with you when you get off.
8- Sit In Seats With No Reservations
Don’t sit in a seat with a paper at the top or an electronic name above the seat…..You will lose your seat. I had this experience once, and that is all it took for me to learn to not do this. Was very unpleasant to be laughed out of your seat by a group of teenage boys. Then I stood in the café car for two hours till the next stop, the train was so full you couldn’t find a seat even between the cars.
9- Treat The Train Like You Would Your Living Room
Don’t put your feet up on the seats, or let your luggage take a seat near you. Put your bags on top and your coat on the hooks. MOVE if there are people looking for a place to sit. You wouldn’t want to sit on a spot where someone’s muddy shoes have just been, ruining your outfit. Take your shoes off first at least before you do this. They don’t exactly clean these seats regularly.
10 – Be The First In Line, In the Right Spot On The Platform
Be the first in line to get on the train…..the seats run out very quickly. Don’t be rude and shove people aside, but if you have the chance, stay close to the train. I also would gauge where the train door would stop ultimately by the train next to us. You stand right where the train opposite would stop, and you get to be the first one onto the train! Worked like a charm every time. Most people just stand at the platform thinking if they are near the front they will get a seat, this is not true. If you are at the front of the platform, right where the doors are going to stop, THEN you will get a seat.
11- Pack Light
Please don’t bring 500 pieces of luggage that require you to ask for help onto and off the train. If you cannot easily get up and down 4 very tall 18-inch steps with both luggage pieces in hand…..people will get mad. The longer you take to board the train the less likely the people behind you will be able to find a seat.
12- Sitting In Between Cars Is Uncomfortable
If you are just going one stop, you can sit in-between the cars. If you try and do this for the entire trip….you will have to get up and move every time someone opens the car doors……very annoying.
13- Sit In The Cafe If All Else Fails
There are seats in the back at the café car that you can order food and sit or stand there. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it gets crowded very very quick. No one can eat for 6 hours straight…..you would go broke.
14 – Limit Your Bathroom Use When Possible
Don’t try to use the bathrooms unless it is an emergency. If you do try and use them— bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper in your purse. The few I did have to use were so gross I was gagging. One had a floor so sticky and stinky that I had to breathe through my mouth. A coin-operated train station in Amsterdam was another bad experience. This particular bathroom had no toilet paper (luckily I had Kleenex in my bag), the sink had a powerful water flow and you could literally see the poop near the walls of the sink.
I am a pretty laid back person when it comes to expecting things to always be perfect (if you do expect it, your trip will be horrible); but this particular restroom was the most disgusting one I have used in the ENTIRE world. Who would have thought that a train station in the Netherlands would be that gross…..they are usually a very clean people.
I will say this though, there are some trains (typically the newer ones) that have decent bathrooms with air-fresheners and everything. They give hefty fines to people who are caught using first class bathrooms without a ticket.
15 – Getting A First Class Ticket Can Be Worth It
If you get a sleeper car for an overnight train trip, get one in first class with one other person if you must. I’m telling you….. it is amazing, and I actually slept…..everything is so clean and really just like a hotel room. You even get breakfast. Second class sleeper trains are adequate but don’t expect to have it be perfect.
My experience with the Second class sleeper was with 4 people in it, and nowhere to put your things because the ladies on the bottom bunks took up all the space. On top of that, you are usually at the end of the train which is a lot more bouncy and less restful. The Air conditioner broke and it was so incredibly hot woke up drenched in sweat. The gentleman in charge of our car and cabin just apologized, said they tried to fix it, and there were no other rooms for us to go
Make Train Travel in Europe Easier
Now all these things may make you not want to take the train at all. These 15 tips, were constructed from the worst parts of my experience. These tips and tricks will help your experience better. There are many many more wonderful parts of train travel, that can end up being a really great experience. My luck on trains is not the greatest. Apart from the one time I got a first class cabin all to myself. Being in first class was sooooo worth the money! To be in a cool, quiet, restful place with an attendant who really cared.
So don’t let this article deter you from train travel, it really is a great way to get around. I hope these things have helped and will allow at least those in the Culture Trekking Community to travel with ease, by learning from my mistakes.
As always, Happy Travels, Happy Tales and See You on the Flip Side.
I grew up with a Grandmother who does not want anything to do with Germany. This was mostly due to the fact that she was raised in the time of World War II and was taught to loathe all things, German. I dated a guy once with the last name of Jorgens, and she asked how he spelled it, he told her, ‘J-O-R-G-E-N-S’. She asked if it was German origination, and he responded smiling with a yes, and she unsubtly responded with, “I hate Germans”, after which she walked off. I laughed it off because the spiciness and frank Dutch personality of my Grandmother is something that is very endearing to me.
Her German aversion was a drawback to my perception of the German people, despite my efforts to not let it affect me, it did. I was slightly nervous to go to Germany, as I thought it would be full of people with suppressed military regime like attitudes. After visiting, I feel I can say, the German people are definitely not who I had imagined them to be. It gave me a greater understanding to learn their history, how the circumstances of World War II came about & things they were literally bribed with to go along with the mastermind that created one of the darkest moments in World History. So let us explore a little bit of its tumultuous past so we can better connect as a Culture Trekking Community. For my German friends, please feel free to comment/add your thoughts as well.
Berlin History at a Glance:
Berlin has West Slavic roots with the meaning related to the Polabian stem Berl, meaning swamp. Since Ber at the beginning of Berlin sounds like the German word Bar – for Bear, a bear actually appears in the coat of arms.
The earliest evidence of settlements dated is from 1192 from wooden house parts. Berlin came into being in the 13th century with it being the major stopping point for two important trade routes.
Berlin became the capital of Margraviate (1417-1701) with Frederick I became the elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg which ruled until 1440. The 15th Century saw those of the Hohenzollern family rule Berlin until 1918. First, they operated as electors, then crowned themselves Kings of Prussia, and if that wasn’t enough – why not just call them German emperors. In 1529 the electors of the city actually converted to Lutheranism.
The Thirty Years War
The Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 devastated all of Berlin, 1/3rd of its houses were utterly destroyed & HALF of the city population was killed. What was it all about you ask? Religion actually. When Holy Emperor, Ferdinand II tried to force his people into Roman Catholicism in order to create a unified country. It seems the Protestant Unions that formed did not like this, they did not want him as their ruler. The Protestant League actually chose the Calvinist Frederick V as the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Those of the Catholic faith favored the Emperor and were severely angered, Frederick V was expelled. Multiple Countries became involved because of atrocities viewed from all sides, these were some of the countries involved: Sweden, Spain, Netherlands, France, Italy, and Austria. This war devastated entire regions with famine and disease that resulted in HIGH morbidity and mortality and devastated the populations of both Germany and Italy. Finally, the Thirty years war ended with the Osnabruck and Munster treaty, part of the larger Peace treaty of Westphalia.
The Kingdom of Prussia (1701-1918) came about when the Margraviate of Brandenburg had been in personal union with the Duchy of Prussia. In 1701 the Elector of Brandenburg crowned himself King Frederick I in Prussia after a Dual state was formed with the Kingdom of Prussia. This was the first time that Berlin actually started to grow after merging with 4 other sister cities surrounding it.
Frederick the Great
1740 saw the coming of Frederick the Great, or Frederick the II; this is the time Berlin saw the first whispers of The Enlightenment, although a 7-year war with Russia was a problem. Then followed the conquest of Napoleon Bonaparte who granted Berlin self-governance in 1806.
Brandenburg and the First World War
1815 Berlin became known as the Province of Brandenburg spurring the Industrial Revolution that transformed Berlin all the way into the 19th century. During this time, more cities merged with Berlin and was then known as The German Empire (1871-1918) War was inevitable, the First World War struck in 1918 and Berlin’s name changed yet again to The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) – civil unrest plagued the city & the roaring 1920’s influenced the city greatly. Despite this Berlin became a central hub for leadership, science, arts, humanities, and film. This was also the time that Albert Einstein was rising from the poverty he was born to and quickly won his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
The Third Reich
Yet with every success, Berlin has seen since its inception, war always seemed to follow. In 1933 the infamous Third Reich (1933-1945) was established, with Adolf Hitler as its leader. People in Berlin were trying to recover from the years of war and rebuilding cycle. Quality jobs at the time were very low, and it was often hard to find work. If you did find work, you typically worked overtime without getting paid to do so. The story of World War II began in these conditions when Hitler came into power and offered the people a ‘better Germany’.
One where all of the sudden you were able to find a job, get healthcare, have paid time off – the cities were being rebuilt, quality homes were being vacated. On the whole, most locals were in the dark about the atrocities that happened. What was happening in Germany at that time is similar (but not equal) to what nationalist governments do today with their people, they praise all the good things politicians or governments are doing & twist the truth into seeming not so horrible as the rest of the world may see it as. It wasn’t until later that the people started to gain a better understanding of what was happening to the Jewish people.
Under the Reichstag Fire Decree gained power and was established as a party leader under emergency conditions after the Reichstag caught on fire. He ruled for the next 12 years under this decree, and when elections came up half of the opposition was already put into concentration camps. His approval rating at the time was around 80%. At the time there were Jewish people in the government, they had money. The population of Jewish people in the city was 160,000 in 1933. Thousands were imprisoned after Kristallnacht in 1938 and put in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Overcrowding caused shipment of these poor souls to Auschwitz during World War II, with Auschwitz now being known as a major death camp. In the Battle of Berlin air raids destroyed much of the city with 125,000 civilians being killed.
After 1945 defeat of the Third Reich Berlin received many of the refugees from Eastern Europe. The Western Allies occupied the West side of Berlin, and those from the Soviet Sector occupied East Berlin. All 4 great powers (America, France, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) shared governing responsibilities which led to increased tensions in the Cold War era with people being sectioned off into different areas based on nationality and political affiliations. After World War II Berlin was divided into East and West with a wall surrounding West Berlin from 1961-1989. In 1990 Germany became reunified and again Berlin became the capital.
The Cold War
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided amongst the Allied forces under the Postdam Conference. Those four powers included the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Peace was short lived as the splitting of Berlin into Russian control on the East side, and the other 3 countries on the West side, became ever more competitive and aggressive towards one another. Tensions continued until there was a Blockade by the Soviet Union in June of 1948 where all supplies were stopped from reaching West Berlin. After a distinction of ‘East’ and ‘West’ Germany was established….conditions on either side became increasingly different.
Under the rule of the 3 other allied forces, the economy flourished in West Berlin. As the Soviet Union ransacked and pilfered all valuables from the East side….conditions deteriorated significantly. When East Germany finally became its own country in 1949 privileges of its citizens were severely restricted. By the 1950’s most of the citizens had had enough. Hundreds of thousands East German citizens were crossing the border into West Berlin. Most of those who were able to escape were young professionals that were flown into West Germany for work. By 1961 nearly 2.7 million people escaped East German. The Soviet Union tried to circumvent this mass exodus by attempting to take over West Berlin, even threatening Nuclear Warfare. In the middle of the night August 12th, 1961 the Berlin wall was completed.
Holes were dug for concrete posts, stringing barbed wire, telephone wires were cut and railroads were blocked for all 91 miles of it. Whatever side you decided to be on the night of August 12th was the side you were doomed to stay for the next 28 years. Three days after its initial construction it was replaced by concrete blocks and topped with barbed wire again. In 1965 it was replaced again by a concrete wall with steel. The most ominous version was the one finished in 1980…a 12 foot high, 4 feet wide concrete cage. Later additions included an inner wall that created a ‘no man’s land’, 300 feet of the deadly ground. Boarding up windows and guarding stairways thwarted the escape attempts. Sewer lines connecting East and West Berlin were shut off and re-routed. The ‘Death Strip’, created in 1960 with a standard order to ‘shoot on site’.
Extra security was taken with guarding the wall. No one could work on the same shift or station twice. Escape and coercion between guards was thwarted by frequent rotation. The guards were also instructed to shoot without warning, 69 people died that first night. The fall of the wall happened rather quickly, on November 9, 1989. An East German official, Gunter Schabowski, was questioned by a reported on when restrictions on travel visas to West Berlin would be lifted. He responded without hesitating to think of his response as, “Immediately, without delay”. The East Germans were supposed to be required to go through a lengthy Visa process to get into West Berlin. A hoard of East Germans approached the wall telling Harald Jager, the chief officer on duty, the news.
With limited communication, confusion, and increasing nervousness on the part of this officer who was expecting his cancer results the next day…opened the gates to West Berlin. The excitement ballooned from there and soon hundreds were arriving at the wall. Armed with chisels, hammers they chipped away at it until the Berlin Wall finally fell. A portion of the Berlin Wall still remains and is memorialized on Bernauer Strasse street. It is surreal to think that such oppression happened, literally, within my lifetime. (For my fellow Americans, if you are male and want to see a piece of the wall, a portion of it is housed in the Venetian Men’s restroom behind a protective glass covering).
How is Berlin Now?
After the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany was reunified in October 1990. Since 2000 it has been the center of a cosmopolitan entrepreneurial scene. There are many Germans that want to make amends for the past. Remarkably there is a lot of construction and rebuilding still happening in Berlin. The city is clean and modern, yet still faces it’s past with an open mind, heart & courage to do so. I told my guide, Sean Stewart of Berlin Historical Walks, that his job was to change my mind about Berlin & make me love Germany because I had been taught the opposite.
I left Berlin that evening, heart aching for that which the people had both witnessed. Where there is heartache there is also hope, this country is stunningly beautiful, the people are ever so kind (at least of what I observed), they care about their city and have the courage to face their past & celebrate the future. Berlin humbled me in ways I did not anticipate nor expect. I cannot wait to return to explore more of not only this city but the country. Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and see you on the flip side 😉
What is your favorite part of Berlin’s History?
Would you add anything to this brief summary on Berlin’s History?