Berlin’s State Opera House started life in the 1740s as Frederick the Great’s Court Theatre. It was special in the sense that it was the first European court theatre to have a standalone building that was not part of a royal palace. Frederick’s architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753) also made this building one of the first works of German Classicism: a neo-Palladian temple front on the Unter den Linden side, possibly inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda outside Vicenza, but also influenced by English Palladianism, and a “a radically new architecture consisting of load-bearing elements with all unnecessary elements eliminated” (Watkin/Mellinghoff 1987, p. 19).
The opera house has gone through a lot of reconstruction since then. Some of it was intended to improve it, such as the remodelling of the interior by Carl Friedrich Langhans (who also built the Brandenburg Gate) in the 1780s, or the controversial addition of a stage tower to handle large stage scenery in the 1920s. But just as many restoration efforts were required to repair the effects of fire, or of war. In the 1840s, Langhans Jr. rebuilt the opera house after a devastating fire, in 1941 it was one of the first Berlin victims of an aerial bombing raid, and it was reconstructed by none other than Nazi top architect Albert Speer, only to be bombed again in 1945.
This time, restoration efforts did not get underway until the 1950s, but Richard Paulick (1903-1979) decided to return, as much as possible, to Knobelsdorff’s original designs. The interior regained its original baroque atmosphere, but in a sparse, stripped manner. The only exception is the Apollo Hall, the room that Frederick planned as a dining room that sits right at the piano nobile of the building. Paulick remodelled this hall, in a mixture of classicist and baroque glory, based on the designs of the “Parole” room at Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam, another Knobelsdorff job for Frederick. Another improvement that Paulick made in the 1950s was the addition of a huge complex of scenery building workshops, rehearsal halls and dressmaking ateliers, across the street behind the opera building itself.
In the current restoration, which started in 2010 and is due to finish in the summer of 2017, the baseline is Paulick’s work of the 1950s, just like Paulick himself went back to Knobelsdorff.
The public areas are faithfully restored and redecorated to Paulick’s designs, with one huge difference: the roof over the main opera hall and stage has been raised by about 2 metres. This means patrons on the third balcony level have more breathing space, and, more importantly, the acoustics will improve a lot.
Backstage, noone talks of restoration and monument preservation. Here, everything has been ripped out and replaced by the latest high tech stage technology.
But where star architects HG Merz, who also reconstructed the State Library, have really gone overboard is in the backstage building, Paulick’s project from the 1950s. Because an opera company usually needs to change stage backdrops several times a week, anything to make life easier for the technical staff is welcome. Here a James Bond-like subterranean empire has been created with a tunnel, wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, that links the opera house to the back stage building. This means whole opera sets can be exchanged using a system of huge lifts and trolleys in a matter of hours.
The back stage building has a complete duplicate of the stage in the opera house for rehearsals. There are also state of the art choir rehearsal rooms, orchestra rehearsal rooms, and ballet studios. It is an artists’ paradise, just like, in a sense, the whole of Germany is an artists’ paradise – here, the state is willing, as well as able, to invest in culture! The only regret that I have, is that by the time the opera will be open for business (concert hall rehearsals and final acoustic fine-tuning are now planned to start in July 2017) I will have left Berlin…
As my time in Berlin is coming to an end, I’d like to share a series of portraits of Favourite Berliners that I wrote over the past few years on request of Slow Travel Berlin editors Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican. Here’s the first: Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The name “Humboldt” to most people brings up images of South American jungle expeditions and scientific breakthroughs in geography, botany and zoology. But that was Alexander. His brother Wilhelm, two years his senior, may have led a less spectacular life, but probably had a greater overall impact on scholarship, and universities in particular, than his more famous younger brother.
The Humboldt brothers grew up on their parents’ estate at Schloss Tegel outside Berlin. Their father died when Wilhelm was twelve, and the boys were brought up in relative isolation by their mother. They were home-schooled by a succession of tutors, who did a great job intellectually. However, both Humboldts later described the atmosphere as oppressive. To escape, extroverted Alexander explored the Tegel woods, but Wilhelm, who was quite an introvert, dug himself ever deeper in books, especially Greek Classics.
When Wilhelm was 18, their tutor ended the brothers’ boredom by introducing them to the main characters of Berlin’s Age of Enlightenment. They met Henriette and Marcus Herz, and were immediately accepted into their philosophical and literary salons. Wilhelm probably had a crush on Henriette, but it was she who introduced Wilhelm, very much a womanizer, to the love of his life, Caroline von Dacheröden.
After finishing university at Göttingen, Wilhelm wrote to Alexander how much he was looking forward to a simple, bourgeois life with Caroline in Berlin. But Alexander, who may have been gay, was abhorred by such a boring existence. Both brothers recognized the way in which their characters contradicted and complemented each other. Alexander wrote about Wilhelm: “He is a wonderful person. But it’s easy to get him wrong. He can be very offensive, like Goethe, repelling, or forcibly civil. It all happens inside him, he’s too esoteric. And his marriage reinforces that apparent aloofness and coldness. Apparent, because it is not really what he is like … He is the strangest being I’ve encountered”.
Wilhelm and Caroline moved to Thuringia, where he continued his writing on the conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. Mankind’s objective was to achieve the Great and the Whole, and the individual should edify and educate himself. Only then would he be able to exercise any wider impact on the outside world. In Jena, Wilhelm was introduced to poet Friedrich Schiller. In 1794, Wilhelm (and Alexander, who was visiting), finally managed to get to meet famous writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The meeting of Goethe, Schiller, and the Humboldts is now seen as the kickoff of the Weimar Classics literary movement.
In 1802, Wilhelm became the Prussian King’s ambassador to the Vatican. Alexander, who had just returned from his South American expedition, had vowed ‘never to set eyes on the towers of Berlin again’ and set up house in Paris, but Wilhelm implored him to not relinquish his “Germanness”, return to the city, “even if it is a sandy waste”, and report to the King on his travels. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had not only lost a great deal of territory, but also the universities that were located there. King Frederic William III had vowed “to replace lost territory with intellectual prowess”, and in 1808, he appointed Wilhelm, who didn’t want to leave Rome, as education secretary and asked him to reform the education system.
The system that Humboldt designed was true to his convictions and put the human spirit at center stage – not the needs of the state, or any specific profession. It consisted of elementary education, where the student learns how to express and understand thoughts, secondary education, where pupils gather linguistic, mathematical and historical knowledge, and at the same time learn to learn. At university, the third stage, students should conduct their own studies, guided and supported by professors. Wilhelm’s educational theory projected his own intellectual development on Prussia’s schools.
The only thing missing in Berlin was a university. In 1809, Frederick William allowed Wilhelm von Humboldt to create one. Berlin University started operating only a year later, at the palace on Unter den Linden that is still its headquarters today. It was named after the King in 1828, and then after the Humboldt brothers in 1949. The combination of teaching and research, which made sure that students would always be taught cutting-edge insights, was a unique tenet of the Humboldtian education ideal. Berlin’s university may be relatively young, but it was so ground-breaking that its teaching system has made a major impact on universities worldwide.
After several stints as ambassador and minister, Wilhelm got disappointed with Prussian politics, discovering that, post-Napoleon, he couldn’t implement his Enlightenment ideals and his passion for a unified German nation. From 1818, he returned to life as an independent writer and scholar. He spent the rest of his life at Tegel, where he asked Karl Friedrich Schinkel to redesign his parents’ manor house, studying exotic languages but never travelling far from home again. His theories on languages and their “world views” (Weltansichten) still have their followers today.
Caroline’s death in 1829 caused Wilhelm immeasurable sadness. Fearing Humboldt would end up a total recluse at his Tegel retreat, the King called upon him to set up the collection of the new museum in Lustgarten (known as Altes Museum today), which would at least get him to travel to Berlin several days per week.
Wilhelm von Humboldt died at 68, at his home in Tegel. He lies buried there, together with Caroline and Alexander. The country house, with its memorial, is still the private residence of descendants of the Humboldts, but there is a small museum that opens on Mondays from May to September.
Further reading: Manfred Geier: Die Brüder Humboldt. Eine Biographie, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2009.
Somewhat like the October Revolution actually taking place November, Russia’s Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th, not 8th, as in most of Europe. The reason is simple – Soviet commanders countersigned the Nazis’ surrender document late at night on May 8th 1945 at Berlin-Karlshorst, but by that time it was past midnight in Moscow and hence May 9th. Even Russians abroad engage very much with this national holiday, which showed when I visited Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park on Sunday, May 7th. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and Russian-speaking visitors galore.
In recent years, tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the war in Eastern Ukraine, the attack on Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, Russia’s support to Syria’s Assad, and Russian interference in Western elections. As a countermove, “Moscow” is framing the celebrations of the 9th of May ever more strongly as a show of Russian military force and anti-Western propaganda.
This is a pity, because it tarnishes the memory of the Red Army’s heroics and the suffering of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War. It may be a truism, but just like you cannot compare today’s Germany to the Nazi Germany that tried to force Slav Eastern Europe into slavery, there is also no comparison between today’s Russian regime and the Soviet Union that vanquished the Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I wandered among the Russian speakers at the Soviet memorial.
This war memorial, built in 1949, is also a military cemetery, just like the Soviet monument with the two tanks near the Brandenburg Gate that is probably more familiar to most Berlin visitors. Indeed, the Red Army had 80,000 dead to bury after the Battle of Berlin, so, sadly, they needed all the burial space they could get. But the Treptow memorial is something different.
You enter through a simple triumphal arch, and then arrive at a grey granite sculpture (at a still normal, albeit larger than life size scale), of a woman who might be “Mother Russia”. But if you then look south, down the main axis of the monument, your jaw will drop. The monument stretches over a distance of about half a kilometer.
Along a slowly rising avenue, framed by weeping willows, you reach two colossal, red stone triangles that symbolise Russian flags, each flanked by a statue of a Russian soldier, one old, one young, both already lavishly decorated with flowers on May 7th.
Passing the red flags, you reach a kind of balcony from which the vista of the main monument unfolds itself, with at its end, on an artificial mound, the huge statue of a Russian soldier, holding a small child on his left arm, crushing a swastika with his boot. Statue and mound together are some 30 m, or 100 ft, high.
Between the balcony and the statue, spread along a large expanse of stone and grass, are four large fire dishes. On the left and right hand sides are two symmetrical rows of seven, white chalk sarcophagi, decorated with socialist realist reliefs which express the suffering of the Soviet population and the heroism of the Red Army.
On their short sides are quotes from Joseph Stalin on the war, on the left in Russian, on the right in German translation. These inscriptions survived getting destalinised after 1956, possibly because Stalin’s words on sacrifice, suffering and heroism of the Soviet population during World War II still largely ring true.
At the base of the monument, there is a cupola-shaped room that you can look into, but not enter, with a socialist-realist mosaic with Russian and German inscriptions.
Visiting such a monument as a jaundiced Western European, born in freedom, never having experienced war, it is easy to scoff at all the ideology and propaganda behind everything you see. But it’s important to try and find the key to the background of the propaganda – the unspeakable suffering of the Soviet population at the hand of the Nazis in World War Two, for example, and the fact that the Soviet authorities were able to build this memorial right in the capital of their arch enemy.
I’m still struggling, however, to find the key to today’s Russian propaganda on RT and Sputnik. Somehow I hope there’s more than just a corrupt country struggling to establish a place for itself in the post-Cold War world that allows it to pursue its variety of illiberal crony capitalism, a country that would rather destroy the successful example of western democracy than reform and adapt.
But the little green men in the pictures? Those are my sons.
“Des Herrn Wort bleibt in Ewigkeit”.This text, 1 Peter 1:25, was on the frieze of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Elisabethkirche in Berlin from 1834, when it was built, through its destruction in World War II, until well into the 1990s, when it sat as a ruin.
But although the church exterior has been beautifully restored since, the epigraph signifying eternity hasn’t returned. Berlin artist Riku Ikegaya created a temporary installation based on this story of destruction and reconstruction of architecture: a model of Schinkel’s church, made out of scaffolding pipes for the frame and construction timber for the benches, inside the actual church – hence the project’s name: Nested churches. He fronted the church’s model with Saint Peter’s words, in neon.
During opening hours, the words are partially visible from outside, creating a compelling desire to enter. Meanwhile, the artist would like us to consider our expectations of eternity, in a digital age where change seems to be the only constant.
On the altar, which is not part of St. Elisabeth’s standard equipment (it is no longer used for religious services), there is a dish containing communion wafers inviting you to explore the background of Ikegaya’s work. If you’re lucky, you can catch the artist wandering around the church!
The House of the Wannsee Conference, a lakeside villa located roughly halfway between Central Berlin and Potsdam, is a place that is important and interesting for several reasons. First of all because it is the location where a group of senior Nazis and government officials on 20 January 1942 cemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the euphemism they used for the mass deportations of all European Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe.
Secondly, the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, to give it its full name in English, can also be seen as a piece of “meta-history” – a symbol of the way our society deals with history and remembrance. And finally, the villa’s lovely lakeside setting on the Wannsee just makes it a very pleasant place to spend some time – possibly combined with the Max Liebermann Villa just up the road – although that also has a bleak part to its history.
But back to the House, and the Wannsee Conference itself. The SS had purchased the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier, as it was originally known, as a conference centre and a guest house in 1940. On the occasion of the infamous Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD, had booked it for a 90 minute meeting that was to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in the ghastly project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.
I must say I was disappointed with the exhibition at the House. It’s very text-based, which makes it look old-fashioned – a problem, as one of the purposes of the memorial is to reach out to young people and educate them on the Holocaust. I don’t think it connects anymore with the visual and interactive culture that today’s school-going generation is used to. Content-wise however, it does a good job of explaining of how Nazi anti-semitism and racism finally led to the plan to murder all European Jews (up until 1941, the Nazi leadership still toyed with the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar, but not necessarily kill them).
We spoke to Stefanie Fischer PhD, postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and a freelance tour guide at the House. “Visitor reactions to tours of the House can vary a lot – depending on the background of the group”, she says. “There often is genuine anger in the group at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans.”
The story of the tour also needs to be adapted to where the group comes from, and how much the participants already know about the Holocaust. Dr Fischer: “I recently showed round a group of school children from Norway. Even though Norway did suffer from the Nazi occupation, there wasn’t a Jewish population of significant size, and this may be why schools there don’t pay much attention to the Holocaust in their teaching”. Another interesting demographic for tours are groups from the Middle East: “Groups from countries like Egypt can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era”.
Dr. Fischer keeps her tours limited to a few a month – she says “the less of them I do, the better they are”. I observed her doing a tour with a group of Bundeswehr officers, where she was very direct on the execution methods used during the Holocaust.
“The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around 2 million may have been killed by poison gas, but 2.5 to 3 million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this. The clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened.”
Dr. Fischer admits that going to this level of detail sometimes can lead to emotional reactions in some visitor groups – for example, in case of Bundeswehr groups, if they have seen military action in Afghanistan, and she has to walk a fine line of gauging how much a group can take.
History of remembrance
The House of the Wannsee Conference is also a symbol of the history of remembrance or memorialisation. When in Berlin today (or in other places in modern Germany), I am always impressed by the Germans’ talent for it. There are monuments, memorial plaques, and museums everywhere that try to do justice to the horrors of the past – the Nazi period or more recently, the East-German communist dictatorship. In fact, modern Germany is so good at showing contrition for the darker periods of its history, and does this with so much respect for all parties involved, that it is widely seen as a role model by other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict.
However, the sensitivity displayed towards difficult periods from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR, for example, didn’t consider itself at all responsible for its Nazi inheritance. It consistently labeled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, only focused on the persecution of communists and socialists – certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.
But also in West Germany, as well as in West Berlin, there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible, and the House of the Wannsee Conference is one of them.
The history of the House as a memorial is closely linked to Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. He was very outspoken, and his message was not a welcome one in post-War West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, even if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.
From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on his initiative to turn the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa which by that time had become a children’s holiday hostel for Neukölln, one of West-Berlin’s municipalities, into a documentation centre on the Holocaust. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included famous names such as writers Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.
However, the committee’s attempts to get the Berlin Senate to release the building as a Holocaust documentation centre all fell on deaf ears. “Why should Neukölln children pay for the sins of a past generation?” was one of the excuses. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.
In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment, soon after his wife’s death. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, has never become really clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:
“I have published 18 books here on the Third Reich and all without effect. You can document yourself to death with the Germans, they may have the most democratic government in Bonn – but the mass murderers walk around free, have their little houses and grow flowers (the small SS people, who only followed orders, do get convicted but are released later on because of vague health complaints)” (my translation, letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, copy at the House of the Wannsee Conference)
Only by the 1980s, attitudes began to change sufficiently for the children’s hostel to move out and the current memorial and educational site to open (in 1992, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference).
Changing attitudes to Holocaust memorials
But why did it take so long for authorities’ attitudes to change sufficiently to allow the creation of a memorial?
Dr. Fischer: “The main reason for that was purely generational. As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”
Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. Dr. Fischer: “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions: these originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”
A terrible story in a lovely setting
However beautiful the settings of the villa on the lake, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference is, like many journeys into Germany’s history, “not a pleasure trip” – by the time you leave you will be deeply impressed by the sheer callousness and the meticulous planning that led to the massacre of five to six million European Jews in as little as 24 months.To take your mind off these horrible facts, an antidote could be to combine your visit with the Liebermann Villa a few hundred meters up the road.
This lovely place, Berliner Sezession protagonist Max Liebermann’s summer retreat, also serves tea and cakes (no food or drinks are available at the House of the Wannsee Conference). The Liebermann Villa might restore your spirits with its beautiful paintings, drawings and garden – even though Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had professionally already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.
Did you know that there’s a cycle path that follows the full length of the Berlin Wall? The most dramatic part of the Wall surely was the 40 km inner-city section that divided West and East Berlin. But a much longer stretch, 125 km long, ran around the whole of West Berlin, separating it from the surrounding GDR countryside. Apart from keeping GDR citizens from entering West Berlin, it also caused a kind of claustrophobia in many West-Berliners, who could not easily leave the city. You can try to get some idea of what life was like outside and inside the Wall by taking the Berliner Mauerweg, or Wall Trail, a fully signposted cycle and hiking path that follows the course of where the wall used to be – all 165 kilometres of it.
I cycled the path in two days in September 2015, starting at the former Chausseestrasse border crossing, continuing south through the city, and following the trace of the Wall clockwise. On the first day I cycled 72 km to Potsdam-Griebnitzsee, and took the S-Bahn back to Berlin-Mitte. On the second day, from the same S-Bahn station I continued clockwise for another 95 km back to Mitte.
East and West
Cycling the Wall 25 years after German reunification is a strange experience. First of all, it’s astonishing how little there is left of it. There are information panels on the path that show aerial photos of what the border strip looked like in the 1980s – sandy wasteland, watchtowers, outer wall, inner wall… almost all of this has gone. On 125 km of Mauerweg outside the city, I’ve spotted two remaining watchtowers, and a few slabs of inner and outer wall – that’s it. (If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you might as well stick to the inner city). The no man’s land of the death strip is either overgrown, built up, or otherwise disguised. Again, there’s only a few places where it is immediately recognisable.
What’s also strange is how hard it has become here to tell East from West. If you’ve been to Brandenburg towns outside Berlin (Oranienburg, for example), you probably agree that they still look very “GDR” in places. But on my clockwise run down the path that straddles the West-Berlin border, I had to keep reminding myself that “left is East” and “right is West”. The bits that run through nature of course look neutral. And in the parts where you ride through built-up areas, the houses on the eastern side are often just as nice (often because they’re newer) as the ones in the former West.
Cherrypicking or the Full Monty?
Obviously, doing the full Wall ride is satisfying in itself. The trouble is that if you want to do it justice, and also take some time for photography or reading the many explanatory signs, you’ll need three, maybe four, rather than just two days.
So if you have limited time, or are not keen on two full days of cycling, or want to experience more of what you see en-route, I would recommend cherry picking some stretches. Here’s the two that I liked best: one is the inner city bit that many guided tours also follow (partially or fully): starting at Bornholmer Strasse crossing in Prenzlauer Berg, the first border crossing to open on the night of 9 November 1989, and continuing as far south as, let’s say, Treptower Park.
As for the country part of the Mauerweg, my favorite part starts at Potsdam Griebnitzsee S-Bahn station, which is right on the Wall Trail, and can easily be reached from Mitte on S7 and S1. There’s a bike (and canoe!) rental place right at the station. Continue northward, and you’ll cross Glienicker Brücke (famous for its Cold War spy exchanges), and ride through the park of Cecilienhof Palace. It’s a great way to explore the UNESCO Potsdam Havel area. The path traces the Havel lakes, past the lovely Heilandskirche (Church of the Redeemer), and then there’s a long forest ride. The first opportunity to put you and your bike back on a train to Mitte is at Berlin-Staaken railway station. The distance is roughly 35 km. Or you could turn around at the church and make your way back to the bike rental place at Griebnitzsee.
Some people say you need a mountainbike to ride the Mauerweg. That’s not strictly true, although if you have one, go for it. The thing is, the path is quite good (for a 165 km initiative), but not that good. The tarmac, for example, is broken by tree roots in many places which makes for a very choppy ride. There’s stretches of gravel, which I like, some sand, which is OK depending on recent weather and your tyres, and a few kilometers of cobble stones, which are terrible. All of these problems are ok for short distances but if you want to complete the loop they can get very tiresome.
The southern half is not very hilly, but I did about 400 metres of climbing on the northern section (mostly short, steep hills). So if you can get your hands on a bike that has front suspension (for the bumps) and gears (for the hills) that would be good. Unless you have the stamina of a Paris-Roubaix racer, road bikes (Rennrad in German) are not suitable, not to speak of fixies (but then, they’re not actually for riding, are they?) Obviously bring a tyre repair kit (Flickzeug, one of my favourite German words) as most of the time, it’s a heck of a long walk to the nearest S-Bahn station or bike shop.
Which brings us to food. My app says I used about 4000 calories for the whole ride (with a 20 km/h moving average, which is not that fast). That’s the equivalent of 40 bananas or 8 Big Macs, none of which you can buy on the trail. There are some shops and cafes here and there, but outside the city, there are many stretches where you can ride for 30-40 kms without getting to a food outlet. You could interrupt your ride and cycle into the city to find food, but it’s probably better to bring lots of fruit and sandwiches.
To find my way around, I mainly just used the official signs. I also had a GPS on my handlebars, which was nice as a backup, and as a warning for upcoming turns. You can download my gps .gpx track here. A map is great for getting your bearings in the grander scale of things (the Mauerweg has so many twists and turns that it’s easy to get disoriented). The PublicPress map is cheap, durable, and, importantly, clearly shows S-Bahn stations, so you can always find your way back home. One side of the map shows the full Mauerweg, the other side shows an enlarged segment of the city centre. It’s also got some text explaining the sights along the way. Highly recommended.
So – the only thing left to do is actually do it. Stock up on food, pump up those tyres, and off you go. Just start riding, see how far you get (there’s plenty of S-Bahn stations in the first 20-30 kilometres to cut your ride short if you want to). There’s space in the comments for your experiences!
Dotting Germany’s northern half, there is a collection of 19th century monuments that are astonishing both in size and theme. These huge memorials have various motifs: many are dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm I and were built after his death in 1888. Others, like Berlin’s Victory Column, glorify battles as recent as the victory over the French in 1871, or as ancient as the Roman legions’ defeat by the Germanic tribes under Hermann the Cherusker in 9 CE, at the Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold. The central theme of all these monuments is that they celebrate the German nation’s unity, symbolized by the royal and imperial family.
National monuments – German statues of liberty?
Today, these monuments seem absurdly pompous and conservative, and we usually see them as symbols of the militarism and nationalism that led to World War I. But at the time they were built they were also symbols of hope, progress and modernity. The German middle classes of the 1860-90 era took the initiative for many of these monuments and funded them too. Not out of the kind of patriotism that seems narrow-minded today, but as symbols of a newfound national identity that marked a clear cut with the ancient-regime past.
Ever since the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars which followed, middle-class Germany had tried to rid itself of its archaic, divided system of government. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, and also in the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. But each time the various local princes, backed by the aristocracy, had been able to more or less restore the scattered status quo.
Therefore, to many ordinary Germans, the proclamation of the Reich and the coronation of the Kaiser at Versailles marked their hope of an end to a period of division, religious intolerance, censorship, and lack of consistent rule of law that had lasted centuries. They were hoping for liberty and democracy. Many people working in Germany’s fast-rising trade and industrial sectors felt that their country had finally caught up with other modern nations such as France and Britain.
It’s worth noting however that none of these grand monuments, shown in red, are in the southern regions of Swabia and Bavaria, possibly indicating a lack of fervour for the idea of a united Germany with Prussia at the helm. The 1842 Walhalla in Bavaria, grand as it may be, doesn’t celebrate German unity, but rather the greatness of the German speaking area (including, for convenience’s sake and not to the liking of many Dutchmen, the Netherlands). And another early Bavarian monument, the Befreiungshalle at Kelheim from 1863, celebrates the liberation of German lands from Napoleonic oppression in 1813, but expressly aims to maintain Germany’s federalist status quo (it depicts all 35 members of the German Bund at that time).
Memorial building during the reign of Wilhelm II
After the death of Wilhelm I, and once the initial wave of monuments in his honour had been built, the monument-building frenzy cooled. His successor, Wilhelm II, was never as popular as the first Kaiser, and in his thirty year reign never inspired the population to keep up the momentum. In fact, monument builders turned to Bismarck as a subject, the original chancellor of united Germany dismissed by Wilhelm in 1890. The 1913 Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of the Nations) was built, like the Befreiungshalle above, to remember the 1813 battle between Napoleon’s troops and the Allies on the outskirts of Leipzig. It was the last of the great patriotic monuments built in Germany’s version of the long nineteenth century.
Public perception and the monuments’ survival
From Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) to Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal, these memorials have physically stood the test of time well. Considering all the political and ideological changes since they were built, the remarkable thing is that they have survived at all!
When World War I ended and the Kaiser abdicated, the public’s perception of the memorials, and the political system that produced them, changed considerably. For many Germans, they were embarrassing reminders of the era of the last Hohenzollern Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, by the end of the Great War, had lost all credibility with the population. But only a few years later, the Nazis were able to seamlessly fit the monuments into their myth of German history. Their often spectacular locations and huge scale made them great venues for Nazi mass meetings.
At the end of World War II, the end appeared to have come for many monuments. The Allies, whether capitalist or communist, were united in their abhorrence of these gigantic symbols of Prussian nationalism and militarism. The monument at Porta Westfalica almost succumbed when the British occupation force blew up the tunnels in the mountain below that had been used as a forced-labour camp by the Nazis, but survived (part of the viewing platform surrounding it fell down the mountain, though). And the local Soviet military commander could only just prevent East German communists from destroying the Kyffhäuser Kaiser Wilhelm memorial – he is famously supposed to have said: “It is time you Germans finally learn to live with your history and your monuments!”
Day-tripping the monuments
Although many are in more or less remote locations, monument builders took care to make them accessible on day trips for workers from Germany’s emerging industrial cities, sometimes creating a railway station especially for the memorial. For the monuments to carry their nation-building message successfully, it was essential that as many ordinary people as possible would be able to visit them. Souvenirs and miniature monuments were sold at affordable prices, to make sure people would take the message home with them (for a collection of these, see the exhibition at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column).
But also after the end of World War II, the monuments remained popular regional day trip destinations for ordinary Germans – just as they were in the era when they were built. Despite the ideological contrasts of both East and West Germany with the monuments’ nationalist and militarist messages, people kept coming to visit, if only to enjoy the view from the scenic vantage points on which they were built. In fact, that is how many of the local Tourist Boards refer to them today. Rather than entangling themselves in the monuments’ murky political history, they simply promote them as viewing platforms.
For more information on the historical background of many of the larger monuments and practical information on visiting them, consult the website of Strasse der Monumente – a network of monument owners run by Berlin’s Victory Column.
Toen ik op een mooie zondagochtend aan mijn racefietsrondje vanuit Berlin-Mitte begon, moest ik even wachten bij het stoplicht op de kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse en de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee. Vanaf het bankje van haar rollator, geparkeerd voor de bakker, sprak een nette oude dame me in het Duits aan: “lekker weertje om te fietsen, hè meneer?” Ze vroeg of ik Berliner was, en toen ze hoorde dat ik uit Nederland kwam zei ze stralend: “Ik ook!”
Toen wilde ze weten waar ik in Nederland vandaan kwam, en voor ik het wist had ik m’n racefiets geparkeerd om het levensverhaal van Irma Heinis-Walter, want zo heet ze, aan te horen.
Irma, dit voorjaar met een groot feest 90 geworden, logeert een paar weken in Berlijn bij haar al even pronte zuster Inge (87), die zich al gauw met haar eigen rollator bij ons voegde, af en toe het hoofd schuddend over haar zuster, die er blijkbaar vaker genoegen in schept met wildvreemden over haar belevenissen te praten.
Irma leerde in 1945 haar Nederlandse echtgenoot in Berlijn kennen. In de chaos vlak na de oorlog was ze blij een baan als stenotypiste op het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf (in de Amerikaanse sector) te bemachtigen. Tot 1947 werkte ze op het consulaat, want toen kon haar man een goede baan bij de PTT in Nederland krijgen. Ze verhuisden naar Noord-Holland, waar ze drie zoons kregen. Eén van die zoons, niet toevallig leraar Duits geworden, heeft haar overigens voor de logeerpartij bij haar zus met de auto naar Berlijn gebracht.
Mevrouw Heinis-Walter vertelt dat ze omstreeks 1950 erg veel last van heimwee kreeg – naar Berlijn en naar haar familie. De DDR was toen net gesticht en visa waren heel moeilijk te krijgen. Toch deed ze een poging: omdat de reis vanuit Nederland door de Franse, Britse, én Russische bezettingssector zou lopen regelde ze vanuit Nederland visa voor al die gebieden. Tegen de wens van haar man in overigens, die (terecht, zoals later zal blijken) bang was dat zijn vrouw, eenmaal in Berlijn, niet meer terug zou kunnen komen.
Tot Marienborn verliep de reis voorspoedig, maar bij de grenspost aldaar wilden de DDR-autoriteiten mevrouw Heinis, met haar Russische visum, niet binnenlaten. Misschien omdat de DDR, zo kort na haar oprichting in 1949, haar tanden extra wilde laten zien?
Wat volgt is een verhaal dat John le Carré waardig is. Mevrouw Heinis, toen 25, zocht een eind verderop een landweggetje op, en wandelde zo illegaal de DDR binnen (de muur zou immers pas in 1961 gebouwd worden). Een vrachtwagenchauffeur gaf haar een lift naar Berlijn en zo klopte ze op een avond bij haar familie in de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse aan de deur.
Dat gaf natuurlijk consternatie, want als de Stasi erachter kwam dat haar familie onderdak verleende aan een illegale immigrante zouden ze in grote problemen komen. En bovendien kon Irma, vanwege het ontbreken van het juiste visum, ook niet zo maar meer terug over de grens naar het westen. Ook haar oude werkgever, het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf, kon officieel niets voor haar doen. Maar gelukkig wist één van haar oud-collega’s daar een ticket voor haar te bemachtigen op een vlucht van Tempelhof naar Hamburg. De kosten, 200 mark, moest haar Nederlandse familie voldoen op Schiphol. Zo vloog ze vanuit Berlijn terug naar het westen, waar ze de reis met de trein kon voortzetten.
Nu is alles anders. Zowel Irma Heinis als haar altijd in Duitsland gebleven zuster Inge zijn weduwe, en haar zoon brengt haar met de auto naar Berlijn als ze zin heeft om haar familie te zien. Inge en Irma wilden nog wel even poseren voor de deur van Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17, het huis waar Irma kort, en Inge bijna haar hele leven gewoond heeft. Inge zegt: “mijn vader is hier gestorven, mijn moeder is hier gestorven, mijn man is hier gestorven, en ik sterf een stukje verderop” – ze heeft een paar jaar geleden een betere woning gekregen, een eindje verderop in de straat. Het was een voorrecht met de dames te spreken – wat heb ik als nieuwkomer in Berlijn (zelfs al was ik hier in 1992 voor het eerst) toch maar weinig van de geschiedenis van de stad meegemaakt!
Naschrift: om mevrouw Heinis dit verhaal te kunnen laten lezen, heb ik via internet contact gezocht met haar zoon. In zijn reactie noemde hij zijn moeder en tante ‘wandelende geschiedenisboeken’. Dat vond ik een mooie definitie van ‘oral history’, het vakbegrip onder historici voor het optekenen van ervaringen uit de mond van mensen die een gebeurtenis zelf hebben meegemaakt. Vaak een race tegen de tijd.
Celebrating ‘Richtfest’, reaching a building’s highest point, is a German tradition. In the case of Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum, which we’re not supposed to call City Palace, the party arrived sooner than everyone thought, as the project is, shall we say, controversial. Many ostalgians prefer its predecessor, the GDR’s Palace of the Republic, ‘an architectural atrocity with orange windows and asbestos inside’, to quote The Economist. It was razed to the ground in 2008 to make way for the new City Palace Humboldt Forum.
The historical to-and-fro on this site is ironic: first there was the old City Palace, built by Andreas Schlüter and Eosander von Göthe around 1700. Last monarch to occupy it was Wilhelm II, who fled into Dutch exile in 1918. Heavily bombed in World War II (but not unsalvageable), the government of the GDR considered the palace such a poignant symbol of Prussian tyranny that they blew it up in 1950 – keeping only one part: the ‘Liebknecht portal’ which contains the balcony from which Communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the German Soviet Republic on 9 November 1918. The portal was integrated in the Staatsrat building, Erich Honecker’s office, just across the road from where the palace had been. Then, in the 1970s, the GDR’s bronze glass and asbestos Palace of the Republic was built on the site previously occupied by the City Palace. As the GDR itself got confined to history, so did the Palace of the Republic, and things went full circle as construction of the new Humboldt Forum, a replica of the old City Palace, is now halfway completed.
Funding of the Humboldt Forum project has always been precarious. In the end, the German federal government agreed to foot the bill for the new ethnology museum that the palace will house and which had to be built anyway. But the cost of the baroque stonemasonry that will make the building look like its 1702 predecessor has to come from private funds, and the money isn’t fully there yet – hence the hearts and minds (and money) exercise organised over the weekend of 12 to 14 June 2015. If all goes well, ironically, Berlin will have two Liebknecht portals (one on the Staatsrat, one on the Humboldt Forum), but no more communism.
Most of the thousands of visitors to this weekend’s open house looked like Berliners – they certainly were different from the hordes of tourists in shorts and sunglasses hanging out in Lustgarten outside. Most people were over 50, conservatively dressed – West or East Berlin, or from outside the city? Hard to tell.
The fundraisers for the palace’s completion got ample exhibition space, but the open house wasn’t a begging exercise – access was free, and the collection boxes weren’t that conspicuous. If anything, the Humboldt Forum’s partners got pride of place. On each corner of the building, the neighbours got the opportunity to present themselves – the German Historical Museum across the road on Unter den Linden, the project to reconstruct Schinkel’s red-brick Academy of Architecture, the Foreign Office, the management institute that occupies the GDR’s former Council of State, and so on.
Students from the Hanns Eisler music academy, which is housed in the Marstall, the stables and service building of the old City Palace, played jazzy big band tunes which fitted right in with the visitors’ demographics.
Although touring the second floor would find you some non-standard catering, including an Israeli falafel stand, the main entrance hall of course contained the staple of any German festival: a bratwurst stand and a beer wagon. So far, so traditional.
Hard to say when the next time will be Joe Public can go see the City Palace. Maybe it will only be by the time the Humboldt Forum actually opens – and Neil McGregor, current director of the British Museum, connoisseur of all things German and curator of the excellent ‘Memories of a Nation’ exhibition, will have woven his magic wand over the Forum’s concept and content.
Follow the Strasse des 17. Juni all the way west from Brandenburg Gate and after about 10 km you will find yourself in the leafy area of Berlin’s West End. There are two poignant war memorial sites here: the 1936 Olympic complex with its Langemarck Hall, honouring the German dead of World War I, and the 1939-1945 Berlin Commonwealth War Cemetery.
Berlin’s sports complex for the 1936 Olympics and the Langemarck Hall
Berlin’s huge Olympic site in the West End is one of those projects, like the Autobahns, that are usually credited to Hitler but which were actually conceived in the era of the Weimar Republic. Hitler knew a good idea when he saw it but would normally add his own perverted twists.
In the case of the Reichssportfeld, this involved turning the original design for the Olympic Stadium, which was Bauhaus-inspired with lots of steel and glass, into the traditional Nazi design language of forbidding stone cladding and intimidating Doric columns.
Hitler also added the Maifeld to the west of the stadium, a huge parade ground where the Party could marshal hundreds of thousands of people for mass gatherings, and an amphitheatre for open air performances (known as Waldbühne today and still used for performances). Then there was the Olympic Bell Tower (Glockenturm) overlooking the Maifeld and the Olympic Stadium (and much of the rest of Berlin besides – very much worth a visit!).
But the structure most telling of Hitler’s belligerent intentions, already as early as 1936, was the Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Bell Tower. Langemar(c)k is the name of a Flemish village near Ypres, where one of the first entrenched battles of World War I took place in October 1914. Many young German volunteers lost their lives, and in Germany the name became symbolic for the horrors of war but also for the heroism of the soldiers who died.
The Nazis used Langemarck in their propaganda whenever the topic of World War I arose – which it frequently did, as the platform on which the NSDAP had come to power was the shame of Germany losing WW I, and the Stab-in-the-back myth of Socialist and other mainstream parties agreeing the November 1918 armistice, where, if left to fight on, the German army could have won the war .
But in the runup to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler took Langemarck propaganda one step further in creating a direct link between sportsmanship and the heroism of fighting and dying in battle. By building this rather grim memorial to the dead of World War I at the centre of the Reich’s most prestigious sports facilities, he managed to frame the Olympics, for the German population at least, as a kind of preparation for the struggle to come.
The 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery
A different, and far more peaceful, kind of war memorial is the 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just over a kilometre away from the Bell Tower, at the northern edge of Grunewald forest, this site is the central burial place for British and Commonwealth airmen killed over Eastern Germany, as well as for killed prisoners of war.
Most of the fallen at this cemetery were bomber crews – the survival rate of flying staff in the R.A.F. was only 44%. Crews lie buried together whenever possible. The cemetery was opened in 1945 and bodies of airmen were soon collected from all over Eastern Germany to receive their final resting place here, in what was then the British sector of West Berlin.
Visiting the cemetery is a familiar experience for anyone who has been to a Commonwealth war cemetery anywhere else – the same headstones, the same simple descriptions of rank and date of death, and often an inscription chosen by the dead man’s relatives. The grass and flowers are meticulously kept by the cemetery’s groundsmen, and the atmosphere is very much one of peace – sadness yes, but definitely peace, and gratitude for those that gave their lives.
There couldn’t be a more different approach to honouring a country’s fallen soldiers than between the Langemarckhalle and the Berlin War Cemetery. Visiting them together makes for a fascinating half day away from the bustle of central Berlin. The stark contrast between the two memorials is a great reminder of the power and the dangers of propaganda, and clearly shows the difference between how democratic and totalitarian countries come to terms with their history.