It is a brutally hot day – high of 98 degrees Fahrenheit – 20 to 30 degrees above normal across Europe. Forecasts say it will stay hot in Europe for 4 days then cool down. Our hotel room air conditioner is having trouble keeping up. We are taking two showers per day trying to stay cool.
In the morning we rode the inner-city S train for 4 stops to the Berliner Zoologischer Garten stop. The Berlin Zoo is the largest in Europe. We are headed toward the meeting point for our morning walking tour. On the train a plainclothes man suddenly stood up from the seat in front of us and started checking tickets. For a moment we had a flash of feeling that people must have had in Nazi or post-war East Germany. There was no trouble today because everyone around us had tickets.
Kenny McCloud is the guide for our 4-hour “Famous Walk” overview tour. He is from Scotland and has a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing. Half of his PhD time he spent writing a novel titled “The Incident. It was published internationally in 2012. The reviews on Amazon are mixed with some criticism of the overuse of crude language. The other half of his PhD time he devoted to investigating the causes of writer’s block.
Kenny came to live in Berlin because he had friends here. The European Union rules allow people to move about freely between countries. He told me that if Brexit is finalized (British exit from the EU), he will probably have 3 months to leave Germany. He also lived in Egypt for 6 months where he indulged his passion for scuba diving at the Red Sea.
Kenny with his Scottish accent was entertaining. He told us how the Berlin Zoo uses moats instead of cages. One storm felled a tree and a bear escaped across it. Kenny said that none of the tourist goods are real. He corrected himself to say that they are made in China, “well I guess that is genuine Communist.” Kenny informed us that an area of the Tiergarten Park allows nude sunbathing. He didn’t take us there.
Berlin was founded in 1237. From the 1400’s until 1918 the Hollenzollern family ruled this region formerly called Brandenburg and Prussia. They built a number of palaces next to each other so that each individual family son could have his own palace. The British call this “an heir and a spare”. Some of the Hollenzollern palaces became Humboldt University buildings.
Albert Einstein taught here. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels studied here. Perhaps this is where they developed their Socialist/Communist ideas.
On May 10, 1933 a significant book burning event occured in the square led by a Nazi-dominated student group. It was meant to be symbolic about purifying Germany from the intellectual ideas of the West. Goebbels (Nazi propaganda minister) was here. He said that the spirit of new Germany will rise from the ashes of the books burned here. 12 years later most of Germany lay in ruins.
Here is the Hollenzollern family church, now the Berlin Cathedral.
During WWII the Allies did “area bombing”. There was no precision bombing like today. Kenny said that in he early years of the war 80% of the bombs landed more than 5 miles from their target. Most of this area was completely reconstructed in the 1990’s.
After WWII West Germany and also Berlin were divided into 4 areas. The Russians got here first with 1 1/2 million troops. The Potsdam Agreement – split Europe, Germany, and Berlin. West Berlin was completely encircled by Communist East Germany. The Potsdam Agreement gave 3 roads, a canal link, a rail link, and 3 air corridors as access to Berlin from West Germany. In a 1946 speech Winston Churchill said that an “Iron Curtain” had fallen across Europe.
In the 16 years before 1961 3.5 million East Germans out of 19 million fled to West Germany. They were typically the young and educated. Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1961, 40,000 troops started unrolling 100 miles of barbed wire. Then the construction crews arrived. Eventually the Berlin Wall was built into 2 walls with a death strip up to 160 yards wide in between. There were land mines, guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches, guard dog runs, floodlights, and trip-wire machine guns. We heard many stories about people who tried (some succeeded) to get over, under, around, and through the wall. In 1964 57 people escaped through “Tunnel 57” that had been dug under the wall. Others were killed or arrested when they tried to get out.
Along the wall there were some checkpoints or entrances. Tourists could come from West Germany on a 24-hr visa as long as they purchased 10 East German Marks. The exchange rate was amazing, so Western people would come to drink and party. Anyone caught carrying the smallest amount of East German currency back would be punished. It was very difficult for East Germans to cross and just asking would put them in the sights of the Stasi state police.
By 1989 the political situation was changing. The East German government was slow to implement the reforms occuring in Russia and other Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland. When Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia said he wouldn’t intervene, people came out into the streets of Berlin.
Kenny told us that on November 9, 1989, crowds gathered near the wall. East German troops phoned their headquarters but got no response. The soldiers had a choice but didn’t fire – some of their friends were in the crowds. The people pressed closer to the gates of the wall. They clammered “Open these gates.” Finally for purposes of public safety a guard opened the gate at Checkpoint B. The East Germans streamed through. Then other gates opened. Still the wall hadn’t fallen. One East German guy climbed on top of the wall. In the past he would have been shot immediately. The crowd of 150,000 people held their breaths. Then one by one others climbed on the wall. Next one person took a sledge hammer and knocked a chunk out of the wall. Then enmass people pulled and kicked at the wall. The world changed that day. Two million people crossed from East Berlin into West Berlin that weekend.
Only a few sections of the wall remain today.
In many places the former wall path is marked by stones in the pavement where it meandered through Berlin.
Nearby, 50 feet under a parking lot was Hitler’s bunker where he killed himself on April 30, 1945.
Hitler spent the last 2 1/2 months of the war in the bunker. He had become a drug addict, suffered small strokes, and walked with a dragging leg. The Russians attacked Berlin on his 56th birthday. Hand to hand combat occurred between Russia and Germans. Mortars landed in the garden. After period of silence a single shot rang out. Hitler had also taken cyanide to be sure that he died. The Germans burned his body so it couldn’t be paraded. Berlin surrendered two days later. The Russians retrieved the burned body and checked dental records to confirm it was Hitler’s remains. Stalin kept this information secret so the Allies would be running around looking for Hitler. The dentists and technicians involved in the identification were sent to a Russian gulag. Rumor said that Stalin used Hitler’s skull as an ashtray. While the floor plates and walls of he bunker remain, it has been packed with dirt.
We ended at the Brandenburg Gate. It had been built to celebrate the Prussian war and stood in the death strip.
We bid goodbye to Kenny and took a train out to the Berlin Olympic Stadium. It was the site in 1936 where Jesse Owens won 4 gold metals in about 45 minutes in front of Hitler. I rushed ahead to get tickets for the English-speaking tour and ended up at the entrance to the pool. When I retraced my steps a bit I found Brenda waiting for me at the correct entrance.
Webke is our guide. She is 45 to 50 years old and about 6’2″ tall. In the photo below she is pointing out the wide stairs designed to make Hitler appear taller as he walked up them.
Webke is a soccer fan. At one point she went on and on about the Bundesliega and the Bayern Munich soccer team who “buys all of the best players and puts them on the bench so they can’t play for the other teams.”
She admitted that she is searching her own mind to understand how Hitler came to power, why the people didn’t object, and what she would have done if she had lived in that time.
The stadium area seems rundown to us – not well-maintained. The stadium itself was not damaged much in World War II. We think the Allies might have left it as a location indicator since so much else of Berlin was destroyed in the bombings.
Some things have changed here since 1936. The balcony area where Hitler stood has been shortened and the rostrum removed.
In the 1930’s the top tier had no seats. It was standing room only. At the 1936 Olympics there were 110,000 people vs. 75,000 seats now.
The locker rooms are very plain.
Webke told us that it is a myth that Hitler refused to congratulate Jesse Owens and shake his hand. Hitler had already decided the day before not to congratulate any more of the winners at the request of the International Olympic Committee. She claimed that Owens was able to move among white people here more freely than he was able to in the USA.
We learned that the terror of the Jews temporarily was driven underground during the Olympics only to resurface in full force soon after.
The amount of history here in Berlin is bewildering, and it is hard to keep straight the various periods even of the 20th century alone. Lots of sorrows and much to remember so that history doesn’t repeat itself.