Google please note: Potsdam’s Mercure hotel is *not* getting torn down!

IMG_7568
Potsdam’s Mercure hotel. In the background there’s the City Palace, the polytechnic and the Nikolaikirche

In newspaper articles, Michael Bauer, the manager of Potsdam city centre’s Mercure hotel, has complained that Google and the city council are killing his business. By continuously floating plans to have the hotel torn down  (for which the council neither has the money, nor the necessary majority), the first thing that travellers find when they google the hotel, apart from the usual booking engines, is lots of links about its imminent demolition. Which isn’t good for business.

So where does the political controversy come from? Of course, any planning initiative in Germany can count on a, let’s say, lively public debate. Especially where ex-GDR architecture is concerned. Let’s take a look at the Mercure’s surroundings.

IMG_7523 (1)
“Ceci n’est pas un château” – this is not a castle (but, indeed, a modern reconstruction housing the State Parliament). Polytechnic (and church dome) behind.

The city centre of Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller neighbour but the capital of the Land of Brandenburg nonetheless, is a curious mix of spectacular original classicist, fake baroque, and authentic brutalist GDR architecture.

The Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church)

IMG_7541
Potsdam’s Nikolaikirche, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, seen from the Stadtschloss.

First, and the most original, is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche (1837) – which looks new but isn’t (at least not completely). Heavily damaged, like most of central Potsdam, in April 1945, it was first restored in the GDR era, and then again in 2010. Hence the bright sandstone colour, which combined with the giant copper-green dome mean that the church is visible from miles away.

The Stadtschloss (City Palace)

620px-Stadtschloss_Potsdam_Gemälde
Potsdam’s City Palace in a 1773 painting by Johann Friedrich Meyer (image: wikipedia)

Second is the Landtag – or State Parliament. It’s a reconstruction (completed in 2014) of Potsdam’s former City Palace – the Potsdam winter residence of the Hohenzollern kings. Exactly like its counterpart Stadtschloss in Berlin, it was heavily damaged in the last stages of the Second World War, and then torn down by the communist regime. Also like Berlin’s city palace, it was reconstructed to the outside looks of the old palace, but with a modern interior. On weekdays, you can walk in to see the businesslike insides – and even have lunch in the parliamentary canteen.

The Fachhochschule (Polytechnic)

IMG_7563
Potsdam’s brutalist Fachhochschule

Third, authentic GDR architecture. A prime example in the centre is the Fachhochschule, which rubs shoulders with both parliament and church.

The Fachhochschule was a teachers’ training college in the GDR years and now teaches sociology, architecture and city planning (sic). Three storeys high, it was completed in the early 1970s, and has a rectangular shape with three courtyards. (Bizarrely, the polytechnic’s other Potsdam site is the former “Adolf Hitler” military barracks.)

IMG_7567
Fachhochschule, Stadtschloss and Nikolaikirche. Between the buildings you can make out the 18th century obelisk and behind that, the Old City Hall.

The ramshackle building is one more obstacle to the plans of the city council (and the Land government) to recreate the classical look of Potsdam’s city centre. Last news is that it will be torn down in 2017. Not because the building itself is considered to be ugly (probably a sop to the “Ewiggestrigen”, GDR nostalgists) but simply “because it is in the wrong place”.

Mercure Hotel

IMG_7520
View from the Mercure Hotel towards Potsdam’s old city centre.

The Mercure, a 17-story Plattenbau prefab building, was built as an Interhotel on direct orders of then GDR president Walter Ulbricht, to represent the ‘socialist crown of the city’. It opened in 1969 and also has its Berlin counterpart – the current Park Inn at Alexanderplatz (which was completed in 1970, also as an Interhotel). The hotel was completely refurbished after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and today is pleasant enough – certainly on the inside, where some corridors have a wonderful view of the new Landtag and the Nikolaikirche. If you ask nicely at reception, you can take a lift up to one of the hotel floors and take some pictures.

Potsdam, Interhotel, Kolonaden
The Interhotel when it opened in 1969. In the foreground, the classical colonnades, still there today, that linked the Stadtschloss with the Royal Stables. Pic: Bundesarchiv

Meanwhile, the discussion about the hotel’s future continues. Prominent Potsdam residents, such as fashionista Wolfgang Joop and talkshow host Günter Jauch, have been running a campaign for its demise. Plans to replace it range from an art gallery (since withdrawn) to a recreation of the former Lustgarten (palace park) that used to occupy the site.

But, as stated above, objections are fierce. There’s the large representation of ex-communists on the city council, who view the hotel’s demolition as another affront to the GDR’s cultural heritage (to which one prominent Potsdamer answered: “It’s nothing to do with the GDR. Anyone can see it’s just ugly”). But there are also financial reasons why an attempt for the city to acquire and destroy the hotel could end in tears. Buying and demolishing it could cost some 15 million Euros, and the city would lose its only large central hotel  – leading to a loss of tourist income.

And, finally, there’s the hotel manager, who has just signed another ten year franchise deal with the Mercure chain, and assures anyone who wants to hear that he intends to fully complete the course.

Advertisements

The Walled City – tips for cycling the 165 km Berliner Mauerweg

All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.
All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.

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

These signs are placed along Berlin's boundary. Each shows the exact date and time that this particular border crossing opened.
These signs are placed at most roads leading out of (west) Berlin. Each shows the exact date and time at which that particular border crossing opened.

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.

Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.
Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.

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.

In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform!
In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform.
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche (Saviour's Church), built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche, built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia

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.

What bike?

Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.
Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.

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.

Catering

This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.
This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.

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.

Navigation

The official Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleiting (deviation) signs, bless them!
The Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleitung (deviation) signs, bless them!

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.

The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.
The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.

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!

Het verhaal van Irma Heinis-Walter – John le Carré tussen Purmerend en Oost-Berlijn (in Dutch)

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!”

Inge (links, 87) en Irma (90) voor hun oude huis aan de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17 in Weissensee
Inge (links, 87) en Irma (90) voor hun oude huis aan de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17 in Weissensee

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.

Kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse met de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee
Kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse met de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee

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.Inge en Irma Walter

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.

Het winkelaanbod is in het oude buurtje van de zusters wel veranderd sinds de Wende...
Het winkelaanbod is in het oude buurtje van de zusters wel veranderd sinds de Wende…

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.

The Humboldt Forum lifts its veil

On 12 June 2015, Berlin's new City Palace celebrated its topping out ceremony.
On 12 June 2015, Berlin’s new City Palace celebrated its topping out ceremony. Main entrance hall and cupola.

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 Palace of the Republic in 1997, just before work started to remove its 5000 tonnes of asbestos.
The Palace of the Republic in 1997, just before work started to remove its 5000 tonnes of asbestos. Pic: dpa.

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.

Looking out at the old City Palace's Liebknecht portal, integrated in the GDR's Staatsrat building
Looking out at the old City Palace’s Liebknecht portal, integrated in the GDR’s Staatsrat building

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.

This is how far construction had proceeded on 7 April 2014 - just 14 months before topping out.
This is how far construction had proceeded on 7 April 2014 – just 14 months before topping out. Good views of the Palace’s neighbours: Marstall (Palace Stables), Staatsrat (GDR Upper Chamber) and Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office)

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 building's rough shell itself was ok - but the views of its neighbours were spectacular
The building’s rough shell was interesting enough – but the views of its neighbours, like the Altes Museum, were spectacular.

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.

Who knows, Schinkel's Bauakademie may be Berlin's next historical reproduction...
Schinkel’s Bauakademie, currently faux cloth on scaffolding, may be Berlin’s next historical reproduction…

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.

Can't have a serious party without a bratwurst stand.
Can’t have a serious party without a bratwurst stand.

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.

Many displays showed how the building's external stone masonry will be recreated.
Many displays showed how the building’s external stone masonry will be recreated – failing actual masonry, screen- printed cloth had to do!

Seelow Heights – scene of the beginning of the end for Berlin and the Reich

T34 at Seelow
A Red Army T34 tank at the Seelow Heights Memorial and Museum

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).

IMG_2790
The B1 road from Berlin to Seelow – Prussia’s mother road

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.

IMG_2774 (1)
B1 near Rüdersdorf

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”.

IMG_2783IMG_2782 (1)

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.

IMG_7671
B1 (former Reichsstrasse 1), and the eastern approach to Seelow. The woods in the distance (approx. 1 km) are 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.

IMG_7661
Detail from outdoor information sign at the Seelow Heights Museum and Memorial

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.

IMG_7653
Soviet War Grave at the Seelow Heights Memorial

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.

IMG_7655
Lev Kerbel’s Seelow war monument

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.

IMG_7633
Seelow’s battle museum

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.

IMG_7642
The museum’s main display room

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.

IMG_7644
Soviet propaganda leaflets, dropped behind enemy lines, trying to get German soldiers to surrender – “Capitulate – it’s your only chance to be saved” – from the museum’s collection

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.

IMG_7679
Seelow town square, with classicist church (1832) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel

 

 

 

 

 Good Bye Leninplatz – first visit to a Plattenbau!

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.

IMG_3541
“Schlange” Plattenbau at Platz der Vereinten Nationen (ex Leninplatz)
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.

IMG_1775
Other side of Schlange, with doorways
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.

IMG_1776
Original doorways
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.

Lenin-statue-in-Berlin
Lenin statue at Leninplatz (dismantled in 1991), image: Wikipedia

IMG_3549 (1)
Current fountain in same location
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.

IMG_1777
Lift only stops at floors 1, 4, 7 and 10
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.

IMG_1778
7th floor lift corridor – other floors have bedrooms in this space
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.

Grundriss_Plattenbau_P2
P2 floor plan – notice central kitchen and bathroom, and additional bedroom. Image: wikipedia
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.

 

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

IMG_3313

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.

IMG_3309

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.

IMG_3329

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…

IMG_3331

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.

IMG_3334

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.

IMG_3340

Socialist-realist mural at current Federal Ministry of Finance

IMG_3341

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

IMG_3342

 

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.

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

IMG_1370

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?

On how you can’t avoid German history – even on a Bastei hiking trip

“Die Reise in die deutsche Vergangenheit ist nicht immer eine Vergnügungsreise” (a journey into German history is not always a pleasure trip) wrote Maik Kopleck, editor of the excellent Pastfinder series of travel guides. True, and to that I’d like to add that any trip in Germany, and especially in the East, always becomes a trip into history.

Image

Take this weekend: we went to see the holiday region of Sächsische Schweiz (“Saxon Switzerland”). Its most famous feature is a scenic outcrop of rocks and boulders called Bastei that overlooks a picturesque stretch of the river Elbe, an easy day trip upstream from Dresden. There are many stone and metal bridges so that even hikers of moderate skill and fitness can see the sights. Picture-perfect Germany, and all relatively harmless, I thought.

For dinner, we ended up in the local village of Burg Hohnstein – not very famous, at least I’d never heard of it before. Its castle perches high above the town and turns out to be the only one on the upper Elbe’s right bank that is not in ruins.

Image

We were able to take a quick look at the castle just before it closed to non-staying guests for the night (it’s a youth hostel). Outside there were some memorials and monuments.Image

This monument was built by the GDR’s communist regime in 1961. It is dedicated to “the living, as a warning” and refers to the use of the castle in the Nazi era. The first thing the Nazis did after coming to power in 1933 was to clamp down on their political opponents, mainly communists and socialists. Burg Hohnstein (already a youth hostel before 1933, “the nicest in Germany”, according to one of the interpretive texts) was pressed into service as a prison for political prisoners, and became one of the earliest concentration camps.

Image

The facility’s first prisoner was Konrad Hahnewald, previously the youth hostel’s manager, imprisoned for refusing to hoist the Hakenkreuz flag. The fact that he was an official in the ADGB (the socialist trade union congress) probably didn’t help his case either. He was fortunate enough to be released later in 1933 but was banned from the town, joined a Dresden resistance group, and survived the war. Today, Burg Hohnstein’s primary school is named after Mr. Hahnewald.

Image

So far, so good then: a socialist ran the youth hostel in the castle, the nazis impounded the castle and imprisoned socialists and the youth hostel manager, the SED (East German communist party) put up a memorial for the socialists and named the local school after the imprisoned youth hostel leader – and then it all falls to pieces (as usual, where the SED is involved). According to the castle’s Wikipedia entry, towards the end of the GDR communist regime in the 1980s, the SED cynically planned to open a detention centre for 890 political opponents at Burg Hohnstein castle…

Image

On a totally different topic: for those of you old enough to remember Colditz, the castle may remind you a bit of the WW2 POW prison from the famous BBC television series. Well, totally coincidentally, from 1939 to 1940 Burg Hohnstein was Oflag IV a – and of course you know that Colditz was Oflag IV c. Before you ask: “but where was Oflag IV b?” – that was the Fortress of Königstein, just across the river from the Bastei. Maybe next time.

 

 

Thank you #SED and #GDR – for restoring #Dresden

Image

We went to see the sights of Dresden yesterday – the famous riverfront along the Elbe that has been so wonderfully restored after the devastation by the Allies in February 1945. At first sight, the beauty looks only skin-deep. The restored strip of historical buildings is really only the river front and a few hundred meters behind it. Behind that, 1960s modern, functional, GDR era Plattenbau starts – a stark contrast and a bit of a disappointment at first (such as when you look northward from the terraces of the Zwinger at the Ostra-Allee and the Postplatz).

Image

But then you think again – and you realise that what the communist regime in fact did restore, starting with the Zwinger palace just after the war, and up to the Semper Opera House and the Residential Palace in the late nineteen eighties, was a tremendous economical effort for a regime that even had difficulty keeping its population properly supplied with toilet paper, vegetables and tv sets.Image

So next time you see buildings such as the 1968 Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) right next door to the beautiful Frauenkirche , don’t scorn the communists. Despite all their other faults, they did the best they could.