The House of the Wannsee Conference – a memorial finally

img_2625The House of the Wannsee Conference, a lakeside villa located roughly halfway between Central Berlin and Potsdam, is a place that is important and interesting for several reasons. First of all because it is the location where a group of senior Nazis and government officials on 20 January 1942 cemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the euphemism they used for the mass deportations of all European Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe.

Secondly, the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, to give it its full name in English, can also be seen as a piece of “meta-history” – a symbol of the way our society deals with history and remembrance. And finally, the villa’s lovely lakeside setting on the Wannsee just makes it a very pleasant place to spend some time – possibly combined with the Max Liebermann Villa just up the road – although that also has a bleak part to its history.

But back to the House, and the Wannsee Conference itself. The SS had purchased the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier, as it was originally known, as a conference centre and a guest house in 1940. On the occasion of the infamous Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD, had booked it for a 90 minute meeting that was to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in the ghastly project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.

I must say I was disappointed with the exhibition at the House. It’s very text-based, which makes it look old-fashioned – a problem, as one of the purposes of the memorial is to reach out to young people and educate them on the Holocaust. I don’t think it connects anymore with the visual and interactive culture that today’s school-going generation is used to. Content-wise however, it does a good job of explaining of how Nazi anti-semitism and racism finally led to the plan to murder all European Jews (up until 1941, the Nazi leadership still toyed with the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar, but not necessarily kill them).

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Dr. Fischer with a group of high school students

We spoke to Stefanie Fischer PhD, postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and a freelance tour guide at the House. “Visitor reactions to tours of the House can vary a lot – depending on the background of the group”, she says. “There often is genuine anger in the group at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans.”

The story of the tour also needs to be adapted to where the group comes from, and how much the participants already know about the Holocaust. Dr Fischer: “I recently showed round a group of school children from Norway. Even though Norway did suffer from the Nazi occupation, there wasn’t a Jewish population of significant size, and this may be why schools there don’t pay much attention to the Holocaust in their teaching”. Another interesting demographic for tours are groups from the Middle East: “Groups from countries like Egypt can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era”.

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Another school class in the room where the conference took place – see the period photograph at top right

Dr. Fischer keeps her tours limited to a few a month – she says “the less of them I do, the better they are”. I observed her doing a tour with a group of Bundeswehr officers, where she was very direct on the execution methods used during the Holocaust.

“The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around 2 million may have been killed by poison gas, but 2.5 to 3 million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this. The clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened.”

Dr. Fischer admits that going to this level of detail sometimes can lead to emotional reactions in some visitor groups – for example, in case of Bundeswehr groups, if they have seen military action in Afghanistan, and she has to walk a fine line of gauging how much a group can take.

History of remembrance

The House of the Wannsee Conference is also a symbol of the history of remembrance or memorialisation. When in Berlin today (or in other places in modern Germany), I am always impressed by the Germans’ talent for it. There are monuments, memorial plaques, and museums everywhere that try to do justice to the horrors of the past – the Nazi period or more recently, the East-German communist dictatorship. In fact, modern Germany is so good at showing contrition for the darker periods of its history, and does this with so much respect for all parties involved, that it is widely seen as a role model by other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict.

However, the sensitivity displayed towards difficult periods from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR, for example, didn’t consider itself at all responsible for its Nazi inheritance. It consistently labeled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, only focused on the persecution of communists and socialists – certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.

But also in West Germany, as well as in West Berlin, there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible, and the House of the Wannsee Conference is one of them.

Joseph Wulf

The history of the House as a memorial is closely linked to Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. He was very outspoken, and his message was not a welcome one in post-War West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, even if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.

From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on his initiative to turn the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa which by that time had become a children’s holiday hostel for Neukölln, one of West-Berlin’s municipalities, into a documentation centre on the Holocaust. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included famous names such as writers Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.

However, the committee’s attempts to get the Berlin Senate to release the building as a Holocaust documentation centre all fell on deaf ears. “Why should Neukölln children pay for the sins of a past generation?” was one of the excuses. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.

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Joseph Wulf’s apartment building in Giesebrechtstrasse 12, Charlottenburg, where he committed suicide in 1974

In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment, soon after his wife’s death. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, has never become really clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:

“I have published 18 books here on the Third Reich and all without effect. You can document yourself to death with the Germans, they may have the most democratic government in Bonn – but the mass murderers walk around free, have their little houses and grow flowers (the small SS people, who only followed orders, do get convicted but are released later on because of vague health complaints)” (my translation, letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, copy at the House of the Wannsee Conference)

Only by the 1980s, attitudes began to change sufficiently for the children’s hostel to move out and the current memorial and educational site to open (in 1992, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference).

Changing attitudes to Holocaust memorials

But why did it take so long for authorities’ attitudes to change sufficiently to allow the creation of a memorial?

Dr. Fischer: “The main reason for that was purely generational. As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”

Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. Dr. Fischer: “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions: these originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”

A terrible story in a lovely setting

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Lakeside view of the House of the Wannsee Conference

However beautiful the settings of the villa on the lake, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference is, like many journeys into Germany’s history, “not a pleasure trip” – by the time you leave you will be deeply impressed by the sheer callousness and the meticulous planning that led to the massacre of five to six million European Jews in as little as 24 months.To take your mind off these horrible facts, an antidote could be to combine your visit with the Liebermann Villa a few hundred meters up the road.

This lovely place, Berliner Sezession protagonist Max Liebermann’s summer retreat, also serves tea and cakes (no food or drinks are available at the House of the Wannsee Conference). The Liebermann Villa might restore your spirits with its beautiful paintings, drawings and garden – even though Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had professionally already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.

House of the Wannsee Conference

www.ghwk.de

Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58

14109 Berlin

Open: 10-18 daily except some public holidays – check website

Admission: free

Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee

www.liebermann-villa.de

Colomierstrasse 3

14109 Berlin

Open 10-18 daily except Tuesdays (11-17 Oct-Mar), closed on 24 and 31 Dec

Admission: 7/4 EUR

S/DB Berlin-Wannsee, then bus 114

This story originally appeared in 2014 on slowtravelberlin.com. Editing by Paul Sullivan.

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

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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.

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“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)

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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)

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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)

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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.)

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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

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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.

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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.

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!