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.
Most people who catch the S-Bahn for a day trip to Potsdam or Oranienburg are on their way to UNESCO-listed Sans-Souci, or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But if you have a little more time, there is a strong Dutch influence in these erstwhile royal residences that dates over three centuries back, but is still, or rather again, very visible today. Sit down and relax for a story of Brandenburg’s relationship with Holland, and a quick history of the ruling Hohenzollerns thrown in.
The Thirty Years’ War
To get started, we need to dig up some 17th century history. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), a rather complicated geo-political-religious fracas in which various German, Austrian, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Baltic forces were involved, ravaged most of modern-day Germany, but was especially hard on the Mark of Brandenburg. An area with no natural borders but lying at the crossroads between all the above countries, it was extremely hard to defend against competing bands of marauding soldiers, even if the Elector at the time, George William, had not been such a shilly-shallying procrastinator. But this Hohenzollern ruler was competent enough to realise that his son and successor, Frederick William (1620-1688), would not be safe from enemy soldiers and rampant disease in Brandenburg. The son, who would later be known as ‘The Great Elector’, was packed off to his relatives in the House of Orange in the relative safety of the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were then known.
Calvinist Holland at that moment was experiencing its Golden Age – despite being tied up in a religious and political revolt against Catholic Spain, which technically still owned it. This Golden Age, remembered today by the splendid paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen, impressed in those days by a maritime empire that spread from current New York, via the Carribean, bits of Brazil, Ghana, the Cape, Goa, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
There was also a less spectacular, but even more lucrative fleet trading wood, herring and grain with the Baltics. To top it all, Dutch military forces were well-trained, efficiently managed, and more or less well-behaved. Frederick William observed how his relative, Viceroy Frederick Henry of Orange, besieged the city of Breda in 1637 and eventually beat the Spanish troops occupying it. He attended Leyden University, which at the time was the leading centre of international law, featuring professors such as Hugo Grotius, who had a profound influence on his sense of legal propriety and the relationship between rulers and the governed. And, finally coming to the point of this story, in 1647 Frederick Wilhelm acquired a Dutch wife, Princess Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), daughter of Frederick Henry.
It is clear that when Frederick William ascended the throne of his ravaged country in 1640, his ideas on how to run it were very much influenced by what he had seen in the Netherlands. He set about creating a standing army, which steadily grew during his 48 year reign. Having his own army, he was not dependent, like his father, on a system of unreliable alliances but rather could steer his own course and choose his own coalition partners. The nascent military bureaucracy also served as the foundation of an efficient Prussian state, and helped curtail the power of the landed gentry. Frederick William put his army to good use when he chased the Swedes (who had continued pestering Northern Germany even after the Thirty Years’ War) away for good at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) – the feat which earned him the lasting epithet ‘The Great Elector’.
The first years of their marriage, with war still raging in Brandenburg, Frederick William and Louise Henriette spent in the comparative calm and civilisation of Cleves (a Hohenzollern possession near the Dutch border), but by 1648, when the Peace Treaty of Westphalia had been signed, the couple moved to Berlin. Frederick William presented his wife with a hunting lodge in the hamlet of Bötzow, and she soon set to work remodelling it into a palace. She called it Oranienburg, and the town was so pleased with the additional status that the palace conferred that they dropped the Bötzow name and adopted the name of the palace. Louise Henriette’s Dutch background showed in the paintings she brought to the palace, and the porcelain collection that she put on display there. She also made her mark by introducing Dutch methods of animal husbandry, brewing and brick manufacturing, which helped Brandenburg overcome the depressed state of its economy following the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War.
When Louise Henriette died in 1667, her son, Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I), continued embellishing and expanding Oranienburg in his mother’s honour, until, around 1700, it was said to be the most impressive Hohenzollern palace of all. But soon after, it was overtaken in grandeur by Schlüter’s Berlin City Palace, and when Frederick’s wife Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, he started using her former palace, renamed to Charlottenburg, as a summer retreat instead. You can see the white stucco of Oranienburg’s palace on the banks of the Havel river from far away, and it completely dominates the centre of the town – which otherwise still very much bears the mark of the GDR years. In the years since it lost importance as a royal residence, the palace has served all sorts of purposes, from housing a chemical factory (the fumes of which destroyed all the frescos on the ceilings), to military and police barracks for Imperial, Nazi, Russian and GDR troops. It was renovated and turned into a museum as recently as 2001 – and what a lovely place it has become. Besides the paintings and the porcelain, there is a good overview of the reign of the Great Elector, and the museum guides (the palace can only be visited by guided tour) are friendly and knowledgeable.
At the back of the palace, there is a rather innocent, even elegant looking extension – until you read that it was built in 1938 by Himmler as a training centre for SS officers. Oh well – German history is never entirely idyllic.
S1 to Oranienburg, then bus 824 or walk 1 km. Approx. 1 hour.
Potsdam – the Dutch Quarter
Moving on to Potsdam to visit its Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), we find ourselves in the period of one Hohenzollern ruler later – by this time, King Frederick William (called the “Soldier King”, for his military focus, simple tastes and parsimonious nature) had ascended the throne. Whereas his father’s lavish outlays on palaces, the arts, and especially his own crowning ceremony (1701) had put a severe financial burden on his territories, the Soldier King cut back spending on such non-essentials immediately and focused on the army and state bureaucracy.
Like his grandfather the Great Elector before him, Frederick William had visited the Netherlands. He went on a prolonged study trip to Amsterdam and the Hague in 1704/05, and came back impressed with the advanced state of its economy and the efficiency of its architecture. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Amsterdam carpenter Jan Bouman to build a neighbourhood of 136 Dutch-style houses in Potsdam, hoping this might attract Dutch artisans and merchants to Brandenburg. Bouman duly built the Dutch Quarter in the years from 1733 to 1740, but the hoped-for immigrants never arrived, and the houses were mainly used by French and Prussian merchants and artists.
The Dutch Quarter today looks brand new – after a long period of neglect during the GDR years, its restauration was finished in 2014. Princess Beatrix, the Dutch ex-queen, has been spotted shopping in its streets, and it is rumoured the House of Orange contributed to its restoration. The neighbourhood is laid out along a grid of two crossing streets, Mittel- and Benkertstrasse, creating four large blocks of houses. As Bouman came from Amsterdam, it is assumed he modelled the houses on those in the “Jordaan” neighbourhood. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, fashion, flower and souvenir shops, but make sure you don’t miss the little Bouman-Museum – this is one of the best kept houses, complete with period furniture, interesting displays on the history of the quarter, and with original outbuildings towards the back and a pretty little garden.
For people from Holland who are familiar with this kind of house in, let’s say, Leiden, Delft or Gouda, visiting the Bouman house is a strange experience – everything looks familiar, but also slightly foreign. It’s only after a little while that you realise that the houses are actually much bigger than they would have been in Holland – the street fronts are probably 50% wider than a typical Dutch workers’ house would be.
Frederick William, the Soldier King, died just before the Dutch Quarter was finished, but his son, Frederick II (who later became known as Frederick the Great, or ‘Alter Fritz’) made sure the original plans were carried out.
S7 or DB to Potsdam, then tram 92 or 96 to Nauener Tor, 1 hour approx.
Jan Bouman, one of the greatest architects you’ve probably never heard of, was then honoured with the task of supervising construction of Frederick the Great’s beloved Sans-Souci palace (the designs were drawn by Frederick himself, together with Georg Knobelsdorff). He created further works in Potsdam (Berlin Gate, City Hall), but soon moved to Berlin, where he built the predecessor of the current Berliner Dom, worked on St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and, most famously, built Prince Henry’s palace, more familiar today as the main building of the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. His first son Michael Philipp, by then Germanized to the name of Boumann, continued the family tradition by building Schloss Bellevue (today the seat of Germany’s Federal President), while the second son, Georg Friedrich, built the Royal Library (now known to Berliners as the ‘Commode’), on August-Bebel-Platz. And so, after our day trips to Oranienburg and Potsdam, the Bouman(n) family has taken us back to central Berlin.
In the first half of 2015, Europe celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On an almost daily basis, you can follow the Allies’ progress across occupied Europe by following commemoration events – from the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January to the Battle of Berlin from 20 April onwards, and the final surrender of the German High Command at Berlin-Karlshorst on 8 May. (Use Liberation Route Europe’s excellent app – LRE in your app store – for details on the route).
Even with Germany over 50% occupied by Allied forces by February 1945, and no realistic hope of a military victory, Adolf Hitler and his staff showed no signs of surrender, instead preferring to fight to the bitter end – bringing country and population down with them (read Ian Kershaw’s excellent The End for an analysis of why they might have done that). To force a surrender, the Allies had to conquer Berlin. The job was left to the Soviet forces advancing from the East, and the first step was the Battle of Seelow Heights.
Road tripping the B1
I decided to go and see the battlefield. Seelow is a small market town on the B1 road, close to where it crosses the Oder River. The B1 used to be Reichsstrasse 1, which once ran all the way across Prussia, some 1300 km from the Dutch border at Aachen in the west to Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad) in the east. (It actually shares its roots in middle Germany with the Westfalischer Hellweg, which dates back to Charlemagne. But that is another story).
There’s trains to Seelow, but driving the road that the Red Army needed to secure for their final assault on Berlin does add to the experience. Berlin to Seelow is easy – just point east on Karl-Marx-Allee and keep going. It takes about 90 minutes and takes you across a varied landscape – after the GDR high rises of Marzahn, the road continues as a 4-lane highway up to Berlin’s outer ring road (A10) – but the cityscape quickly changes to typical one or two storey Brandenburg farm houses – interspersed with a variety of not too prosperous looking businesses.
Once you’re across the A10, the road narrows to two lanes, and the country becomes slightly hillier, with the occasional S-bend in the road. It also passes the Nature Reserve of “Märkische Schweiz”, an example of the strange German custom of calling any area that is slightly hillier than the surrounding landscape “Switzerland”.
As you approach Seelow, you can tell you’re getting close to the Polish border. In the last stand of woods before the town, even in mid-winter, there are girls sitting by the side of the road, waving at passing motorists, and chatting (to each other?) on their mobiles.
The Battle – first they took Seelow Heights, then they took Berlin
Marshall Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, had been pushing back Nazi forces through Ukraine and Poland since October 1943. In January 1945, he finally reached the Oder-Neisse line, at Kostrzyn, the point where Reichsstrasse 1 crossed the river. Here, his armies kept their position in the floodplain of the Oder river, only 70 km from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, waiting for other Soviet army units to spread to the north and south, to allow for fully encircling Berlin.
By 16 April, sufficient forces had finished their mopping-up operations further east for the final push to the German capital. General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, consisting mainly of under-armed Hitler Jugend boys and little-trained Volksstorm fighters, had prepared its defences on a a north-south ridge in the landscape some 90 m high, flanking the Oder’s flood plain and centred on Seelow – where Reichsstrasse 1 scaled the Heights.
The attack started before dawn. The Red Army used runway floodlights to light the battlefield and blind their opponents, but in the early morning mists, they only served to backlight the advancing infantry. Pushing across the muddy floodplain up onto the well-defended heights (which, from any distance, look deceptively flat) proved to be more difficult than expected, and the battle dragged on for days, causing heavy casualties on both sides.
Only by the fourth day of fighting, the Soviet troops managed to break the German forces’ third line of defence at Seelow, and from then on, not much stood in their way until reaching Berlin’s city limits. The Battle of Seelow Heights turned out to be the last entrenched battle of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with tens of thousands of losses on both sides.
The Monument and Museum
After the Battle of Berlin, the Red Army wanted to honour its dead and mark its victory. Marshall Zhukov, who stayed on as military commander of Berlin and the Soviet occupation zone, commissioned three monuments immediately after hostilities ceased in May 1945: the famous Soviet War memorial on Strasse des 17. Juni in Berlin’s Tiergarten, the monument at Seelower Heights, and an obelisk at Kostrzyn, just up the road in Poland, which was removed in 2008.
The monument at Seelow was created by Lev Kerbel, who also designed the Tiergarten memorial. The Red Army didn’t waste time: both monuments were inaugurated in November 1945. The Seelow statue shows a Red Army soldier with his hand on the turret of a defeated German tank. From the beginning, the memorial included war graves, but most Soviet and German casualties of the battle are buried elsewhere, at Lebus and Lietzen cemeteries respectively.
The museum is worth a visit. It’s fully bilingual in German and English, and like so many monuments in the former GDR, it has an interesting history in its own right. It was built in 1972 to complement the War Memorial on the hill, and has the shape of a typical Russian bunker. It was meant to pay tribute to the Red Army, and cement the everlasting friendship between the socialist peoples of the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union.
Although no one disputes the heroism of the Red Army soldiers giving their lives for the final push to rid Europe of the Nazi regime, after German reunification questions arose on the overtly political slant of the museum’s displays. The exhibition texts were rewritten and by 1995 the current displays had been created. The museum now tries to do justice to victims on either side.
There’s no catering (or other facilities) at the museum, but Seelow has a nice town square, with some cafes and restaurants to make up for it. Unfortunately, the battlefield itself, in the floodplains below Seelow, is not signposted, and there aren’t any other monuments beside the main one, so after finishing your Kaffee und Kuchen, you’re probably best off following the Red Army’s tracks back up the B1 to Berlin.
Today, there is not a lot of heavy industry left in Berlin. The city that once was the home of huge factories like Siemens, Borsig, and AEG never recovered from World War II. What wasn’t bombed by the R.A.F. and the US Air Force was dismantled and carried off by the Soviet, French, and British occupying forces, what wasn’t dismantled was either nationalised (in East-Berlin), or was left to die a slow death in the isolation of post-war West-Berlin.
But there’s an exception: BMW’s motorcycle factory in Spandau. Since 1969, BMW has built all its motorbikes at this site (with the exception of the original F-series 1-cylinder bike in the 1990s). Today, some 110.000 bikes leave the factory each year for shipment over the world. That may sound like a lot, but Honda, its largest Japanese competitor, builds five times as many – and that’s down from a peak of 3 million in 1982.
BMW relocated its bike production to Berlin as it was running out of space in its factories in Bavaria. But it had a long history at the site. Originally built as an airplane engine plant by Siemens in 1928 (the factory is adjacent to an area called Siemensstadt, a complex of factories and modernist flats for workers, now a Unesco World Heritage site), it was spun off as ‘Brandenburgische Motoren Werke’ or Bramo in 1936 – after all, the BMW acronym was already being spoken for. The plant built radial engines for planes such as the Junckers Ju52/3m – known throughout Germany as the Tante Ju (Auntie Ju), the German equivalent to the reliable and multipurpose DC3 ‘Dakota’.
By 1939, BMW, by then a motorcycle, aeroplane engine and motor car producer, acquired Bramo and continued building aircraft engines at the site. After World War II, the plant’s equipment was dismantled by the Allies. Low scale production of useful stuff like sickles and scythes continued at the factory, but it returned to full operations in 1949, constructing motor cycle parts for BMWs assembled in Bavaria.
What certainly influenced BMW to bring all motorcycle production to Spandau were the lavish subsidies the Senate granted to anyone wishing to invest in West-Berlin – a sum of 200 million Marks (in 1969 money!) was granted just to redevelop the site. But whatever the original motive – the company has stayed the course, and is even expanding. It’s bought a plot of land adjacent to the factory to build a new assembly hall.
When you take a tour of the factory (6 euros, book through the bmw.de website), you see why they need the extra space: while quaint, the long history of the factory means that it consists of a large number of smallish buildings, some from the early 20th century, and the logistics of keeping everything organised must be a nightmare.
As mentioned, the production numbers at BMW Motorrad (the subbrand’s official name) are not spectacular as far as global bike factories go – but then, as BMW likes to point out, they are a high end brand, and there’s a lot of manual labour in constructing each bike. One of the interesting things you see on the tour is how much of the work is done by hand. There’s robots for the heavy and dangerous stuff, but a lot of the assembly work is done by people who have usually entered the factory as trainees straight out of school, and are quite happy to spend their whole careers there. In Berlin terms, they are good jobs to have.
Many Berlin-based expats share a love for GDR history and architecture. And GDR architecture doesn’t come more in-your-face than Plattenbau – the prefab tower blocks that grace the edges (and often also the city centres) of many East German and other Eastern Europe towns.
When my 6-year old’s playmate Lukas needed a ride home to ‘Platz der Vereinten Nationen’ (United Nations Square) in East Berlin, not far from Alexanderplatz, Ijumped at the chance to visit a Plattenbau – the word literally means ‘panel construction’. As an expat who has ended up in scenic Mitte, I don’t meet that many people who live in Plattenbau buildings, as the apartments are mostly rented by people with East-German roots who don’t really mix with the professional/expat/creative crowd. So here was my opportunity.
The current Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square) started life around 1970 as Leninplatz – so, to honour the great revolutionary, this particular GDR project received a bit more thought than, let’s say, some of the rows of high-rises on the outskirts in Marzahn. Although all flats in this project are of the standard P2 and WBS70 types (trust the GDR to give innocent tower blocks military-sounding names), this was the first Plattenbau to be built in a curve. The builders developed special trapezoid prefab elements to be able to bend the building, meaning some lucky tenants have living rooms with five corners.
First impression: the outside of these very centrally located East Berlin apartments looks pretty ok – lots of space around the buildings, they seem to be in a good state of repair, some colourful detailing – I know social housing and council estates in the Netherlands and the UK that look worse. The entrance portals, and indeed the flats and the square itself, are protected as city landmarks. The square, a busy traffic junction, used to have an enormous Lenin monument, but it’s too late to protect that now. Removed in 1991, it gave the 2003 feel good blockbuster “Good Bye Lenin!” its name – in the movie, the monument can be seen dangling from a helicopter as it is taken down. This was poetic licence, as the actual statue was made of granite, and no helicopter on earth would have been able to lift it! All that’s left at the site of the monument today is a fountain, which somehow doesn’t fill the void left by Vladimir Ilyich.
But back to the Plattenbau – my visit was to the building in the northwestern corner of the square, the ‘Schlange’, or snake – because of its curved shape, of course. Although 11 storeys high, the lifts in these buildings only stop at the 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th floors.
It’s almost as if the Politburo begrudged their comrades lifts that actually took them to their front doors, but from a planning point of view it makes perfect sense: Lukas’ parents’ apartment, which is on the 6th floor, has an additional bedroom thanks to the fact that there is no hallway and corridor for the lift taking up space on their floor. Their upstairs neighbour, who doesn’t have to climb the stairs to get to the lift, in fact has two bedrooms less to pay for it. Inside the apartment, it’s not that bad – again, a bit like western Europe 1960s/1970s social housing projects. I did find the ceilings a bit low, and the rooms are cramped (the apartments are made up of 6x6m squares to fit in the prefab structure). But it’s nothing that some clever decorating and furnishing can’t fix. For privacy reasons, I won’t show you pictures of Lukas’ apartment, but the good news is that the Plattenbau apartment recreated at Berlin’s DDR Museum is also a P2 – so if you’ve seen that, you’ll know what it’s like.
Everything in Plattenbau design was aimed at efficiency – as we’ve seen with the lifts, not always leading to the most pleasant solutions for the tenants. The best example is the kitchen. For ease of construction, it’s good to have the kitchen and bathroom back to back, because it allows for sharing water pipes, drains and ventilation. And this is how they’re built – kitchens and bathrooms are next to each other, in the centre of the apartment. But this means that in the original layout, the kitchens only received indirect daylight, if any – through a gap in the wall dividing it from the living room. In most P2 apartments, the wall between kitchen and living room has now been removed, at the cost of a lot of cupboard space. Can’t see your cake and eat it, then.
Summing up, then, I was happy to see that Plattenbau apartments are not as terrible as they are sometimes made out to be. They’re small, yes, but they’re cheap to rent, and they’re not much worse than 1960s/1970s social housing in the UK, Netherlands, France or indeed ex-West-Germany.
What you can hold against them is that the drive for efficiency sometimes went too far: the kitchens without daylight, the floors without lifts, and, let’s face it, the sheer ugliness of most of them. On the plus side, Lukas’ parents told me there’s a real sense of community in the Plattenbaus, with children sometimes settling only a few blocks, or even a few floors , away from their parents. And, in the case of ex-Leninplatz, in the centre of East Berlin, the location is perfect.
We visited Berlin’s Technology Museum for our son’s 6th birthday. We only had time for the aeronautics section and the trains – but I had my aha moment, and the boys loved the museum.
Travelling around Berlin today (on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Ostkreuz, and then on to Schönefeld airport for example), you see a lot of railway archeology – old shunting yards, signal boxes, engineering works – relics from a past where railways were even more important to the city’s life than they are today. In the museum, it suddenly dawned on me why Berlin, home to the revolutionary Borsig locomotive works, was such an early adopter of rail transport – not only was it a sprawling city in itself, it was (and is) so bloody far away from anywhere!
Look at places like the UK and the Netherlands – both used railways to their economic advantage (although the Netherlands was notoriously late) – but both had proven alternatives in the way of well-developed canal and stage coach transport links, and distances were small, anyway.
But in the case of Berlin, located in the midst of the East-Elbian steppe, there was no such alternative. Besides economic activity (freight) driving railway building, it must have been political and passenger demand that led to such a huge railway infrastructure radiating from the Prussian capital.
The legacy is here today: such was the rapid expansion of the railway system, and such was the continuous improvement technology and things like stations, that today there are lots of abandoned former railway stations turned into other interesting uses: parks (Nordbahnhof, Anhalter Bahnhof) or modern arts museum (Hamburger Bahnhof – built in the 1840s but already released from railway duty in 1884).
And after the railways, history repeated itself in the early days of air travel: lots of aviation pioneers performed their flying experiments at Tegel and Tempelhof – again, not coincidentally, because the authorities were keen on entrepreneurs finding ways of breaking down the distances that separated Berlin from the outlying corners of the empire.
I’m sure there’s nothing new in my ‘discovery’ of this – but for me at least it put Berlin’s five (at least) airports and heaps of current and abandoned railway stations into perspective. And it explains why Berlin has the material for such a great rail and air museum!
Today is the 17th of June – and that used to be (West) Germany’s national day, until reunification came along. Why? On 17 June 1953, the first major people’s revolt against Eastern Germany’s communist regime took place. Soviet tanks came in to restore order. In the end, there were more than 100 dead, and many more sentenced to long stays in prison.
All you can say for the Russians is that in those days, when they sent tanks into “countries in their sphere of influence”, at least they didn’t try to hide it.
I decided to go and take a look if there was anything special going on at the Straße des 17. Juni (Street of June 17th) – the main East-West thoroughfare that is the extension of Unter den Linden. It runs from Brandenburger Tor, through the Tiergarten, past the Siegessäule and all the way to Charlottenburg.
Ironically, and probably intentionally, the Straße des 17. Juni actually runs past two Soviet tanks – the ones that are mounted on top of the Soviet War Memorial. Today however, not much was visible of the tanks, or indeed the memorial, as the Straße des 17. Juni is fully taken over by the Hyundai Fan Mile – a celebration zone for the Brazil football World Cup, complete with big screens, sausage vans and lots of beer outlets.
When you get to the end of the fan zone, at Brandenburg Gate, you get a sense of what it must have looked like when the wall was still there…
Another Berlin locale linked to the people’s revolt of 17 June is the “Platz des 17. Juni”, actually the forecourt of the current Federal Ministry of Finance. In the GDR era, it was called the House of Ministries, and before that, it was Goering’s Airforce Ministry. This place, on the corner of Leipziger and Wilhelmstraße, is where the revolt actually took place, and where the official memorial is located.
The revolt started when construction workers from Stalinallee (current Karl-Marx-Allee) protested against the raising of performance norms by another 10% – without additional compensation. One after the other, different sectors of the economy joined in the protests, until it all ended in tears.
Socialist-realist mural at current Federal Ministry of Finance
Wreaths and flowers are laid at the memorial every June 17th by Federal Government, Senate of Berlin, and political parties.
Today, the 17th of June is not Germany’s national day anymore – that is now the 3rd of October, the day of official reunification. But the victims of the people’s uprising are still remembered, and honoured, at the memorial of the 17th of June.
Happy and proud to mention that my latest piece, on the curious institution that is the Berlin State Library, got published on http://www.slowtravelberlin.com. As one friend mentioned, it’s amazing how the story of a country can be told through a library! Thanks, as ever, to Paul Sullivan and Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe, for their encouragement and editing support.