17th of June – on the #Berlin street and square that bear its name

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Socialist-realist mural at current Federal Ministry of Finance

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Wreaths and flowers are laid at the memorial every June 17th by Federal Government, Senate of Berlin, and political parties.

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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.

My new story published on slowtravelberlin.com

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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.

Read the story here:

Books, Beethoven, and Berlinka – the Berlin State Library

My earlier stories for Slow Travel:

The Kronprinzenpalais – the Crown Princes’ Palace

Touring Berlin’s Airports

Ostalgia isn’t what it used to be – it’s getting worse! #Berlin’s #Ostpaket shop.

In the days of the GDR, West Germans would send their East German relatives relief packages called ‘Westpakete’ containing packs of coffee, or clothes, or even D-marks hidden inside packs of coffee. This was one of the few ways that contact was allowed between East and West, especially before travel restrictions were eased a bit in 1972.

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In a cunning play on words, Berlin has an ‘Ostpaket’ shop that opened a few years ago. It’s in a prime location on Spandauer Strasse, on the way from Alexanderplatz to Hackescher Markt (or should I say Marx-Engels-Platz?) and it’s a bit schizo in concept: when you go in, on the right hand side there’s your usual Berlin tourist tat: model Trabis, postcards, guidebooks, Ampelmann t-shirts – but on the left there’s something that I imagine an East German supermarket must have looked like: rows and rows of hearing-aid beige shelving, containing packages of apparently genuine East German foods.

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There’s even an appropriately empty cooler – no beer this month, sorry sir. Apparently, the Ossi stuff is all sourced from the factories that used to make them in the past – even though the products now have to comply with EU regulations. That means there’s actually some cocoa powder in the Ersatz chocolate now, and they’ve had to find alternatives for most of the food additives used in the GDR.

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Of course, all of this is pretty harmless and probably even funny – but that’s where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. With every honking parade of Trabis full of smiling, waving tourists, with every street vendor hawking fake DDR insignia, gas masks and Russian militaria, I’m getting more worried that people are forgetting the true nature of the terrible dictatorship that caused so much hardship, heartbreak and so many deaths (just visit the Bernauer Strasse wall memorial in your rented Trabi, for crying out loud).

As Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Memorial at Hohenschönhausen Stasi Prison has said in interviews about places like the Ostel (a hotel full of GDR symbolism, featuring a Honecker suite): “die DDR war keine Spassveranstaltung” – the GDR wasn’t fun and games. In his view, GDR insignia and symbols should only be used for educational purposes, with proper commentary to explain their relevance – in fact, Knabe makes the link to Third Reich parafernalia: you can’t go running around in Nazi uniforms wearing swastikas just for fun.

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I realise that selling packages of Tempo beans and bottles of Rotkäppchen Sekt is probably pretty harmless – but still, I very much respect Knabe’s point of view. Should we research the GDR? Definitely. Museums? Certainly, as long as they (also) show the dark side of life in the GDR. Shops selling GDR goods? I’m not sure. How about a mandatory video on Stasi crimes before your Trabi Safari, or a printed ‘Evil Government Health Warning’ on your Sandmann teabags and Spree Gherkins?

Berlin’s Terracotta army – the Statues of the Kaiser’s Victory Boulevard

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From the top of the keep tower of Spandau Citadel, we discovered this collection of statues lumped together behind a fence in a corner of the grounds. I didn’t give them a second thought until we left – when I found out, by accident, that there was a link with the Kaiser.

They are the once-famous statues of the Siegesallee – or Victory Boulevard – a present that Wilhelm II gave the Berliners to help “make the city the envy of the world”. The statues represented all 32 Prussian royal figures, starting with Albrecht the Bear, each of them flanked by two acolytes from their era (bishops, or scientists, or artists).

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Berliners of the day are never lost for a good nickname for a new construction project and immediately called it the Puppenallee (Doll’s Avenue), or later on, when many of the statues began developing defects, ‘Neue Invalidenstrasse’. Strikes a chord as we live in the (old) Invalidenstrasse ourselves.

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The Siegesallee ran through Tiergarten park, due North-South, just west of the Reichstag, and as you can see from this postcard, it was quite wide. During WWII, this part of Tiergarten was turned into a potato field and after the war, the Soviet Army built its famous War Memorial right across the previous trajectory of the Siegesallee. The Allies saw the statues as a clear symbol of Prussian hubris and first wanted to dump them with the rest of the city’s rubble on Teufelsberg – but a German state curator intervened and buried the statues in the grounds of Schloss Bellevue, where they resurfaced in the late 1970s.

When the Tiergarten forest was replanted, no trace was left of the Siegesallee and the Soviets even built their famous War Memorial (the one with the tanks) exactly on top of its former route.

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Slowly, remembering this megalomaniac project has become acceptable again, and since 2006, a footpath exists which traces the original path of the avenue. And, apparently, the statues at Spandau are awaiting restoration for a fully-fledged exhibition sometime next year. Watch this space for more news!

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The Prater Beer Garden

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In Berlin, unlike Bavaria, if you see a group of men in a beer garden wearing traditional German dress, they’re probably British. The season of stag weekends is upon us and, generally speaking, they are a pain.

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But in a beer garden they seem to fit right in! I haven’t been here long enough in warm weather to know what proper German beer garden behaviour is, but these British lads slowly but steadily filling up with fine German beer, enjoying the sunshine, and letting all of the rest of us patrons share in the fun (if only because the fun was very hard to ignore), were pretty harmless. At least, that’s my point of view now…

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The Prater, by the way, is at the top of Kastanienallee, one of Prenzlauerberg’s main drags. Its history goes back deep into the 19th century and was a typical working man’s day out on a Sunday. Recommended for nice beers (they have their own Pils) but other varieties are on sale as well. Finish it off with a nice bratwurst.

The Berlin Haunts of Kaiser Bill – tour taking off!

Yesterday I ran my first trial tour for slowtravelberlin.com.  With the centenary of WWI getting a lot of attention, I thought it would be interesting to trace the steps of one of the Great War’s main protagonists – Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This 3 km walking tour starts at Berlin cathedral (built by Wilhelm as a protestant counterweight to Rome’s St. Peter and London’s St. Paul cathedrals) and then winds it way up Unter den Linden to finish near the Reichstag – which you might say was Wilhelm’s nemesis throughout his reign.

Although many traces of Berlin’s Prussian and Hohenzollern heritage have been lost or even eradicated, there is still plenty to see that tells the story of this curious ruler.

Next steps for the tour: publish tour dates on slowtravelberlin.com – and get walking!

This camper greeted me at the start of my trial tour - a good omen!
This camper greeted me at the start of my trial tour – a good omen!