Best Berliners, #2 – A Woman in Berlin

Imagine yourself as a woman in a famished, besieged city. A rapacious horde of soldiers, hell-bent on revenge for the wrongs done to their country, is at the gates. When a drunken bunch of them grab you and take you to an empty apartment, what do you do? Do you resist, fight, and possibly get killed? Or do you resign yourself to your fate, and try to limit the damage by seeking protection from a higher-ranking soldier – who will still rape you of course, but might fend off the others and also bring you something to eat?

 

Book cover, courtesy of Virago Modern Classics

The anonymous author of “A Woman in Berlin” chose the latter. Although the internet knows who she was, here I will honour her wish not to disclose her identity, and stick with “Anonymous”, a woman in her early thirties, who, in her war diary, describes 1945’s Battle of Berlin from the ground. 

As the Red Army approached Berlin and the city braced itself for the oncoming onslaught, the civilian population – mostly women since the men had long been sent to war and most of the children to the countryside – had long been in survival mode. Every night, air raid sirens would summon them to their basement shelters, and they were also used to coping with food and fuel rationing; after all, Berlin had been being steadily bombed by the US Air Force and the R.A.F. since 1942. But a new, even more terrifying prospect now awaited them. 

Goebbels’ propaganda ministry had been spreading horror stories involving wholesale rape and murder about the advancing Soviet troops, which was probably meant to spur the remaining German defence troops into defending Berlin more valiantly; but when the Soviets arrived, some of those rumours proved to be true. 

An estimated 100,000 women were raped. Although Anonymous, and some other women, were able to cope by resorting to macabre humour – “how many times?”, they’d ask each other when they’d meet at the water pumps, many more suffered permanent psychological damage. When comparing notes after the worst of the Russian onslaught was over, Anonymous found that only a few women in her block had managed to escape, by hiding in upstairs apartments (very unsafe in air raids, but the Russians, most of whom were farm boys unaccustomed to cities, hated climbing stairs).

“Anonymous”, a professional journalist, had travelled widely before the war, which is how she learned some Russian – a mixed blessing , as it turned out. On the one hand, she could translate herself, and others, out of critical situations; on the other hand, she attracted attention to herself – she became popular as a sex partner with higher ranking officers, one of whom even tried to recruit her for intelligence work. 

When her diary, tracing the two months from late April to mid June 1945, was published in the 1950s, it attracted severe criticism in Germany. Although she took care to make specific persons and places unrecognisable (all you can tell is that she must have been somewhere around Berliner Strasse in the Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg area), her narrative was viewed as shameful to German women. It certainly was bad news for German men, who, like Anonymous’ own fiancé upon his return from the front, didn’t want to know about what their women had had to go through. Conversely, Anonymous describes how women had started viewing men differently: as the weaker sex, who after all their Nazi prancing, had lost the war and brought ruin upon themselves. In the after-war years German men were busy reasserting their manliness, and “A Woman in Berlin” brought an unwelcome message.

After the devastating criticism, “Anonymous” wanted to have nothing more to do with the book, and would allow a second edition only after her death. 

When the reprint duly appeared in 2003, with a new English translation, the world had changed. Many other previously taboo subjects (such as Nazi collaboration in countries like France and The Netherlands) were now open for discussion, and the book received the critical acclaim that it was due – a chilling, honest and perceptive account of the atrocities of war in general, and of the Battle of Berlin in particular. The only criticism levelled against the book this time round was that it “must be fake because it is too well written”. A group of eminent historians however dismissed this theory: the diary is real, and the author’s evocative writing only serves to make it even more of a recommendation.

This article was originally written for the forthcoming book 100 Favourite Berliners, and edited by Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican.

9th of May – Russian VE Day in Berlin’s Treptower Park

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Somewhat like the October Revolution actually taking place November, Russia’s Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th, not 8th, as in most of Europe. The reason is simple – Soviet commanders countersigned the Nazis’ surrender document late at night on May 8th 1945 at Berlin-Karlshorst, but by that time it was past midnight in Moscow and hence May 9th. Even Russians abroad engage very much with this national holiday, which showed when I visited Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park on Sunday, May 7th. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and Russian-speaking visitors galore.

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In recent years, tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the war in Eastern Ukraine, the attack on Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, Russia’s support to Syria’s Assad, and Russian interference in Western elections. As a countermove, “Moscow” is framing the celebrations of the 9th of May ever more strongly as a show of Russian military force and anti-Western propaganda.

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This is a pity, because it tarnishes the memory of the Red Army’s heroics and the suffering of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War. It may be a truism, but just like you cannot compare today’s Germany to the Nazi Germany that tried to force Slav Eastern Europe into slavery, there is also no comparison between today’s Russian regime and the Soviet Union that vanquished the Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I wandered among the Russian speakers at the Soviet memorial.

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This war memorial, built in 1949, is also a military cemetery, just like the Soviet monument with the two tanks near the Brandenburg Gate that is probably more familiar to most Berlin visitors. Indeed, the Red Army had 80,000 dead to bury after the Battle of Berlin, so, sadly, they needed all the burial space they could get. But the Treptow memorial is something different.

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You enter through a simple triumphal arch, and then arrive at a grey granite sculpture (at a still normal, albeit larger than life size scale), of a woman who might be “Mother Russia”. But if you then look south, down the main axis of the monument, your jaw will drop. The monument stretches over a distance of about half a kilometer.

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Along a slowly rising avenue, framed by weeping willows, you reach two colossal, red stone triangles that symbolise Russian flags, each flanked by a statue of a Russian soldier, one old, one young, both already lavishly decorated with flowers on May 7th.

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Passing the red flags, you reach a kind of balcony from which the vista of the main monument unfolds itself, with at its end, on an artificial mound, the huge statue of a Russian soldier, holding a small child on his left arm, crushing a swastika with his boot. Statue and mound together are some 30 m, or 100 ft, high.

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Between the balcony and the statue, spread along a large expanse of stone and grass,  are four large fire dishes. On the left and right hand sides are two symmetrical rows of seven, white chalk sarcophagi, decorated with socialist realist reliefs which express the suffering of the Soviet population and the heroism of the Red Army.

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On their short sides are quotes from Joseph Stalin on the war, on the left in Russian, on the right in German translation. These inscriptions survived getting destalinised after 1956, possibly because Stalin’s words on sacrifice, suffering and heroism of the Soviet population during World War II still largely ring true.

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At the base of the monument, there is a cupola-shaped room that you can look into, but not enter, with a socialist-realist mosaic with Russian and German inscriptions.

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Visiting such a monument as a jaundiced Western European, born in freedom, never having experienced war,  it is easy to scoff at all the ideology and propaganda behind everything you see. But it’s important to try and find the key to the background of the propaganda – the unspeakable suffering of the Soviet population at the hand of the Nazis in World War Two, for example, and the fact that the Soviet authorities were able to build this memorial right in the capital of their arch enemy.

I’m still struggling, however, to find the key to today’s Russian propaganda on RT and Sputnik. Somehow I hope there’s more than just a corrupt country struggling to establish a place for itself in the post-Cold War world that allows it to pursue its variety of illiberal crony capitalism, a country that would rather destroy the successful example of western democracy than reform and adapt.

But the little green men in the pictures? Those are my sons.

All photographs: © Robin Oomkes 2017

 

“But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” Ikegaya’s Nested Churches at Berlin’s St. Elisabeth’s.

 

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Elisabethkirche, c. 1994. Photo: wikiwand
“Des Herrn Wort bleibt in Ewigkeit”.This text, 1 Peter 1:25, was on the frieze of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Elisabethkirche in Berlin from 1834, when it was built, through its destruction in World War II, until well into the 1990s, when it sat as a ruin.

 

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The church in April 2017. Photo: Robin Oomkes
But although the church exterior has been beautifully restored since, the epigraph  signifying eternity hasn’t returned. Berlin artist Riku Ikegaya created a temporary installation based on this story of destruction and reconstruction of architecture: a model of Schinkel’s church, made out of scaffolding pipes for the frame and construction timber for the benches, inside the actual church – hence the project’s name: Nested churches. He fronted the church’s model with Saint Peter’s words, in neon.

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
During opening hours, the  words are partially visible from outside, creating a compelling desire to enter. Meanwhile, the artist would like us to consider our expectations of eternity, in a digital age where change seems to be the only constant.

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
On the altar, which is not part of St. Elisabeth’s standard equipment (it is no longer used for religious services), there is a dish containing communion wafers inviting you to explore the background of  Ikegaya’s work. If you’re lucky, you can catch the artist wandering around the church!

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
WhatNested Churches by Riku Ikegaya

Where: Elisabethkirche, Invalidenstr. 3, 10115 Berlin. U/S: Rosenthaler Platz, Nordbahnhof, trams 8 and 12.

When: Daily, 20 April until 1 May, 12-7 pm.

More at: bit.ly/-ewigkeit

 

9. November – Stolpersteine vor der Haustür: die Familie Goldbrenner

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Die Stolpersteine für Lea (1888-1942) und Josef (1890-1942)  Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Heute ist 9. November – ein Tag der in Berlin vor Allem mit dem Mauerfall verbunden ist. Und das ist gut so – auch wenn es an diesem deutschen Schicksalstag noch vieles anderes zu gedenken gibt. Neben der Hinrichtung Robert Blums am 9.11.1848, der Abdankung des Kaisers am 9.11.1918 und dem Hitlerputsch am 9.11.1923, ist das vor Allem die Reichspogromnacht am 9.11.1938. In dieser Nacht (und an der Nacht des 10.11) überfielen die Nazihorden und ihre Mitläufer Jüdische Geschäfte, Synagogen und andere Eigentümer. Die Aktionen trieben etwa 400 Juden in den Tod; viele mehr wurden verhaftet und in Konzentrationslager überführt.

Zum Gedenken der Reichspogromnacht 1938 finden an vielen deutschen Orten von Freiwilligen veranstaltete Putzaktionen für Stolpersteine statt – jene kleine im Bürgersteig eingelassenen Gedenktafeln aus Messing, die seit 1992 vom Künstler Gunter Demnig überall in Europa  vor den letzten frei gewählten Wohnungen ermordeter Juden angebracht werden.

Das Haus Invalidenstrasse 2, Berlin-Mitte. Vor der Haustür befinden sich die zwei Josef und Lea Goldbrenner gedenkenden Stolpersteine. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Vor unserem Wohnhaus in Berlin-Mitte befinden sich zwei Stolpersteine, für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner. Die Steine gab es schon als wir Anfang 2014 einzogen, und uns war von der Familie Goldbrenner nicht mehr bekannt, als was wir auf die Steine lesen konnten: Josef wurde 1890 geboren, 1939 verhaftet und nach dem KZ Sachsenhausen gebracht, und wurde dann 1942 nach verschiedenen Verlegungen (über Dachau und Buchenwald) in der Tötungsanstalt in Bernburg/Saale ermordet. Lea Goldbrenner wurde 1888 geboren und 1942 nach Riga deportiert, wo sie ermordet wurde.

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Günter und Gisela Wongel putzen die Stolpersteine der Fam. Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Aber im Juni 2016 erfuhren wir mehr: vor unserer Haustür traf ich zwei knieende Personen, die die Stolpersteine putzten. Es waren Günter Wongel (geb. 1941) und seine Frau Gisela. Sie waren, zusammen mit den Enkelkindern der Familie Goldbrenner 2013 für die Initiative zuständig, Stolpersteine für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner anbringen zu lassen. Günter Wongel ist im Haus Invalidenstr. 2 aufgewachsen; er wohnte mit seinen Eltern in der Wohnung am 5. Stock. (Durch Kriegsschäden gibt es diese Wohnung nicht mehr; das Haus ist heute oben des 4. Stockwerks mit einem flachen Satteldach ausgestattet.)

Günter war zu jung um die Deportation 1942 Lea Goldbrenners bewusst zu erfahren, und zur Zeit der Verhaftung Josef Goldbrenners 1939 war er noch nicht geboren. Trotzdem hat seine Mutter Emilie, die im Haus die Hauswartsstelle inne hatte, ihm viel über die Familie Goldbrenner, die im 1. Stock wohnten, erzählt – wie Lea geweint hat, als Josef von der Gestapo weggeführt wurde, und wie sie damals für die Goldbrenners am Sabbat Feuer gemacht hat. Als es Juden schon nicht mehr erlaubt war, einkaufen zu gehen, hielf Emilie Wongel die Nachbarin indem sie für sie einkaufen ging. Emilie Wongel wurde beschimpft dass sie ‘wohl wieder für die Juden einkäufe’, weil die von ihr gekauften Waren, zum Beispiel frische Gurken, für die Familie Wongel wohl zu teuer waren.

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Günter Wongel, Blick auf das Gemeindehaus der Elisabethkirche, Öl auf Pappe1976.

In den siebziger Jahren haben Günter und Gisela Wongel selber noch einige Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse 2 gewohnt, und immer wieder an den weggeführten Nachbarn gedacht. Seitdem sind die beiden nach Pankow umgezogen, aber ein Kunstwerk von der Hand von Günter, gelerntem Grafiker, erinnert noch an die Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse.

Mindestens einer der Kinder der Familie Goldbrenner, Willy, hat den Krieg und die Konzentrationslager überlebt. Willy emigrierte nach Frankreich. Er und seine Frau Estera bekamen 1943 einen Sohn, Jean-Claude. Estera wurde kurz nachdem verhaftet und in Auschwitz ermordet. Jean-Claude Goldbrenner überlebte den Krieg geschützt von seinen französischen Grosseltern und lebt heute in den USA. Über seine Lebensgeschichte erfährt man mehr unter http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700168866/Holocaust-survivor-treasures-mothers-last-letters.html?pg=all.

Günter und Gisela Wongel haben ihre Erinnerungen an und Spurensuche nach Josef und Lea Goldbrenner in zwei Dokumente erfasst, die ich gerne empfehle:

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Heute Abend werden meine Frau und ich für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner bei den Stolpersteinen eine Kerze brennen.

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.

The Battle of Cedynia (24 June 972) – medieval history with a communist twist

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Living History-buffs at the Cedynia Days festival. Pic: Dni Cedyni 2015

Some 50 miles east of Berlin lies the Polish town of Cedynia. Since the 1960s, on every 24th of June it is the scene of a festival commemorating the Battle of Cedynia, which took place there in 972 CE. Reenactment aficionados replay the battle in mediaeval costumes, there are open air concerts, and blacksmiths and potters display their trades.

The battle itself, then, took place over 1000 years ago, between the forces of German count Odo I and Polish warlord Mieszko. Odo was as a vassal of German emperor Otto I. His attack on Mieszko’s lands was against the wishes of the Kaiser, as Mieszko himself, the first documented ruler of Greater Poland, also paid tribute to the empire. Odo was unable to beat his Polish opponent and the battle ended in a truce. A year later, Otto, the old emperor, would lay down a judgement settling the matter, but the conflict was only fully resolved when Mieszko married a German noblewoman some seven years later.

But why does this ancient and forgotten battle (at least until after World War Two) get so much attention now? The reason is Cedynia’s situation on the Oder river, part of the famous Oder-Neisse line.

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The bridge on the Oder river at Cedynia. This frontier crossing was reopened as late as 1993. Pic: Robin Oomkes

When Stalin demanded that Poland should be shifted westwards at the end of World War Two, this happened at the expense of German territories like the easternmost part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg. The town of Cedynia (which was called Zehden until 1945) became Poland’s most westerly city. All German-speaking citizens were deported from the area, and the town became the new home of refugees that Stalin had chased from the east of pre-war Poland.

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The Polish shift from East to West. The red line on the left is the Oder-Neisse line.

The selection of the Oder-Neisse line as the new Polish-German frontier had a long diplomatic aftermath. The GDR accepted the new border as soon as 1950, but the Federal Republic (or West Germany) didn’t formally agree until 1970. The German reunification treaty of 1990 again acknowledged the border specifically, hoping to assuage Polish fears of German expansionism. So, in the 1950s and 60s, it is understandable that Poland’s communist regime was not quite certain of the status quo of its new western frontier. Politicians knew perfectly well that the area had been German for a long time, and the state did its best to justify its claims on the territory. Clearly they weren’t fully convinced that the atrocities inflicted upon Poland by the Nazis during the war were justification enough for some compensatory annexation.

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1972’s Polish eagle monument, on a hilltop half way between Cedynia and the Oder river. Pic: Robin Oomkes

So, Polish politicians started looking for any historical sources that could justify their


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Esterwegen Concentration Camp – a memorial to the Peat Bog Soldiers

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From Esterwegen Memorial, a short walk takes you onto the moors themselves
On a recent drive from Berlin to the Netherlands I found myself on an 80 km arrow-straight stretch of two lane highway next to a shipping canal. There was nothing much to see for the whole distance. A few farmhouses, a junction with traffic lights and a bridge across the canal every 10 km or so, and one town, Esterwegen, where there’s another traffic light.

But at Esterwegen, there were two road signs,  Esterwegen Memorial and Esterwegen Cemetery, printed in the font Germany reserves for Official Places of Significance. I’d never heard of either, and the signs also didn’t say what the memorials were for, but with a sense of foreboding and curious as to what might be so important in the middle of nowhere,  I followed the signs.

Walking from the impeccably maintained (and empty) parking lot to the memorial itself, I soon found out from the displays that Esterwegen was the Nazi concentration camp most famously associated with the song of the Peat Bog Soldiers – or Die Moorsoldaten in German, a tune I’ve known for years. Here is the short version of the lyrics, in German and English.

Die Moorsoldaten

Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Moor und Heide nur ringsum.
Vogelsang uns nicht erquicket.
Eichen stehen kahl und krumm.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
keiner, keiner kann hindurch.
Flucht wird nur das Leben kosten,
vierfach ist umzäunt die Burg.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
ewig kann nicht Winter sein,
einmal werden froh wir sagen:
Heimat du bist wieder mein.

Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Peat Bog Soldiers

Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere.
Not a bird sings out to cheer us.
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

Up and down the guards are marching,
No one, no one can get through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wire block our view.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall rise rejoicing.
Homeland, dear, you’re mine at last.

No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.
No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.

Here’s a version sung by American folk music hero Pete Seeger, performed in 1967 at the East Berlin Oktoberklub folk club (that’s another interesting story!), in German as well as in English.

The buildings of the memorial look like what you’d find on any  industrial estate, but once inside I found myself in a stark museum-like space. I later found out that the memorial for Esterwegen Concentration Camp has only been created as recently as 2011 – when the Bundeswehr (German army) vacated the site. Hence the industrial look – the buildings originally were military barracks.

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Main hall of Esterwegen Concentration Camp memorial
Inside, there’s an exhibition that again drives home the chilling message of the horrors of nazism. This part of the current state of Lower Saxony has always been dirt poor, with very bad soil and no industry to speak of. During the depression of the 1930s, the Weimar government had already started New Deal-like employment projects in the area, using the unemployed’s cheap labour to dig peat and reclaim farm land from the marshy soil.

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A display of the names of the other Peat Bog concentration camps at Esterwegen. Bergermoor is where the famous song was written.
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, they started using the existing workers’ camps as prisons for their political enemies. These were mainly socialists and communists, but also liberals and centrals – anyone who would speak up against the regime.

One of the very earliest concentration camps, the inmates were not treated quite as inhumanely as at the destruction camps the Nazis later built further east, but deaths among prisoners were frequent and the treatment of the inmates was completely at the mercy of the fascist prison guards. Many took personal revenge on political prisoners from their old home towns.

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Postcard sold at the memorial – one of the song’s earliest versions.
But the prisoners were granted one favour – on Saturday nights, they were allowed to organise entertainment, ghoulishly calling themselves the Zirkus Konzentrazani (a play on the many travelling circuses of those days with Italian sounding names). This is where the famous Peat Bog Soldier song was first performed – as early as August 1933, when the Nazis had been in power for just over six months! It soon became known outside the camp and even became a battle hymn of sorts for the Republicans fighting Franco’s forces in Spain from 1936 onwards.

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None of the original buildings at Esterwegen remain – so gates and roadways have been reconstructed using steel sculptural elements
Ironically, even the prison guards liked the song – they possibly also viewed themselves as Peat Bog Soldiers, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with their charges.

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Some elements of the original prisoners’ barracks have been preserved inside the memorial
What keeps surprising me when looking at the exemplary German culture of remembrance as it exists today (with memorials for the murdered Jews, homosexuals, and Sinti and Roma all within a stone’s throw from Brandenburg Gate, the country’s most cherished symbol, and television programmes about the horrors of World War II almost every night), is that much of it is relatively recent. The memorial at Esterwegen was only created in 2006, when the Bundeswehr saw fit to leave the site. The House of the Wannsee Conference was only turned into a memorial in the 1990s, when the building was released by the city of Berlin from its former use as a children’s home. And many of these memorials would not even exist if it hadn’t been for ‘citizens initiatives’ that collected the necessary signatures. It just goes to show how much time is needed for any nation to truly come to terms with the negatives in its past – usually until all active participants in the era concerned have either died or at least are old enough to have lost their political influence.

Speaking of political influence: at 2016’s annual holocaust memorial ceremony on 27 January in the Bundestag, the German parliament, this beautiful version of the Peat Bog Soldiers was sung (in German of course) by RIAS Kammerchor, one of my favourite classical choirs.

Which version do you prefer? Pete Seeger’s emotional song accompanied on the banjo performed at a GDR state sponsored concert, or the mathematical precision of the arrangement by RIAS Kammerchor in the heart of modern German democracy, the Bundestag? Let me know in the comments!

Esterwegen Memorial
Hinterm Busch 1
D-26897 Esterwegen, Germany
Tel.: 00 49 (59 55) 98 89 50
http://www.gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de
info@gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de

Opening hours:
From April to October Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
From November to March Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Easter Monday and on Whit Monday open

Closed from 15 December to 15 January

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.

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.

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!

Honouring the dead in Berlin’s West End

Langemarckhalle - commemorative shields for regiments that fought in the battle
The Langemarckhalle – Hitler’s link between soldiers dying in WWI trenches and the 1936 Olympic Games

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.

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1936 map of the Reichssportfeld. Much of the site remains as shown here.

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!).

Maifeld grandstands and Olympic Belltower. Fuhrer's Lodge is below the tower.
Maifeld grandstands and Olympic Belltower. Fuhrer’s Lodge can be seen at the base of the tower.

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.

View over Berlin from the top of the Glockenturm
View over Berlin from the top of the Glockenturm

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 .

Friedrich Holderlin's 1799 quote on sacrifice for one's country - taken out of context by the Nazis - adorns one of the Hall's walls.
Friedrich Holderlin’s 1799 quote on sacrifice for one’s country – taken out of context by the Nazis – adorns one of the Hall’s walls.

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.

Outside view of Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Glockenturm
Outside view of Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Glockenturm

The 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery

The modest entry path to the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetery on Heerstrasse
The modest entry path to the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetery on Heerstrasse

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.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners tend to the cemetery.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners tend to the cemetery.

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.

“Their name liveth for evermore” – Rudyard Kipling, who lost a son in World War I, was asked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to choose a suitable text for use in the cemeteries. He chose this quote from Ecclesiasticus.

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.

Bell Tower and Langemarckhalle: Am Glockenturm, 14053 Berlin, admission 4,50/2,50.

Berlin War Cemetery: Heerstrasse 139, 14055 Berlin.

Both sites can be reached by S-Bahn S5 from Friedrichstrasse – get off at Pichelsberg, not Olympiastadion!