Dutch wanderings through the Mark of Brandenburg

Luise Henriette's 19th century statue at Oranienburg palace
Louise Henriette’s 19th century statue at Oranienburg palace

Most people who catch the S-Bahn for a day trip to Potsdam or Oranienburg are on their way to UNESCO-listed Sans-Souci, or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But if you have a little more time, there is a strong Dutch influence in these erstwhile royal residences that dates over three centuries back, but is still, or rather again, very visible today. Sit down and relax for a story of Brandenburg’s relationship with Holland, and a quick history of the ruling Hohenzollerns thrown in.

The Thirty Years’ War

Frederick William, the Great Elector, by Govert Flinck (image: wikipedia)
Frederick William, the Great Elector, by Govert Flinck (image: wikipedia)

To get started, we need to dig up some 17th century history. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), a rather complicated geo-political-religious fracas in which various German, Austrian, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Baltic forces were involved, ravaged most of modern-day Germany, but was especially hard on the Mark of Brandenburg. An area with no natural borders but lying at the crossroads between all the above countries, it was extremely hard to defend against competing bands of marauding soldiers, even if the Elector at the time, George William, had not been such a shilly-shallying procrastinator. But this Hohenzollern ruler was competent enough to realise that his son and successor, Frederick William (1620-1688), would not be safe from enemy soldiers and rampant disease in Brandenburg. The son, who would later be known as ‘The Great Elector’, was packed off to his relatives in the House of Orange in the relative safety of the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were then known.

Calvinist Holland at that moment was experiencing its Golden Age – despite being tied up in a religious and political revolt against Catholic Spain, which technically still owned it. This Golden Age, remembered today by the splendid paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen, impressed in those days by a maritime empire that spread from current New York, via the Carribean, bits of Brazil, Ghana, the Cape, Goa, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Louise Henriette of Nassau, by Willem van Honthorst, image: wikipedia
Louise Henriette of Nassau, by Willem van Honthorst, image: wikipedia

There was also a less spectacular, but even more lucrative fleet trading wood, herring and grain with the Baltics. To top it all, Dutch military forces were well-trained, efficiently managed, and more or less well-behaved. Frederick William observed how his relative, Viceroy Frederick Henry of Orange, besieged the city of Breda in 1637 and eventually beat the Spanish troops occupying it. He attended Leyden University, which at the time was the leading centre of international law, featuring professors such as Hugo Grotius, who had a profound influence on his sense of legal propriety and the relationship between rulers and the governed. And, finally coming to the point of this story, in 1647 Frederick Wilhelm acquired a Dutch wife, Princess Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), daughter of Frederick Henry.

Sebastiaaan Vrancx, Soldiers Plundering, DHM Berlin (image: wikicommons)
Sebastiaaan Vrancx, Soldiers Plundering, DHM Berlin (image: wikicommons)

It is clear that when Frederick William ascended the throne of his ravaged country in 1640, his ideas on how to run it were very much influenced by what he had seen in the Netherlands. He set about creating a standing army, which steadily grew during his 48 year reign. Having his own army, he was not dependent, like his father, on a system of unreliable alliances but rather could steer his own course and choose his own coalition partners. The nascent military bureaucracy also served as the foundation of an efficient Prussian state, and helped curtail the power of the landed gentry. Frederick William put his army to good use when he chased the Swedes (who had continued pestering Northern Germany even after the Thirty Years’ War) away for good at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) – the feat which earned him the lasting epithet ‘The Great Elector’.

Schloss Oranienburg

IMG_7977The first years of their marriage, with war still raging in Brandenburg, Frederick William and Louise Henriette spent in the comparative calm and civilisation of Cleves (a Hohenzollern possession near the Dutch border), but by 1648, when the Peace Treaty of Westphalia had been signed, the couple moved to Berlin. Frederick William presented his wife with a hunting lodge in the hamlet of Bötzow, and she soon set to work remodelling it into a palace. She called it Oranienburg, and the town was so pleased with the additional status that the palace conferred that they dropped the Bötzow name and adopted the name of the palace. Louise Henriette’s Dutch background showed in the paintings she brought to the palace, and the porcelain collection that she put on display there. She also made her mark by introducing Dutch methods of animal husbandry, brewing and brick manufacturing, which helped Brandenburg overcome the depressed state of its economy following the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War.

Enfilade (suite of rooms) containing Dutch Masters collection

When Louise Henriette died in 1667, her son, Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I), continued embellishing and expanding Oranienburg in his mother’s honour, until, around 1700, it was said to be the most impressive Hohenzollern palace of all. But soon after, it was overtaken in grandeur by Schlüter’s Berlin City Palace, and when Frederick’s wife Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, he started using her former palace, renamed to Charlottenburg, as a summer retreat instead. Oranienburg front courtyardYou can see the white stucco of Oranienburg’s palace on the banks of the Havel river from far away, and it completely dominates the centre of the town – which otherwise still very much bears the mark of the GDR years. In the years since it lost importance as a royal residence, the palace has served all sorts of purposes, from housing a chemical factory (the fumes of which destroyed all the frescos on the ceilings), to military and police barracks for Imperial, Nazi, Russian and GDR troops. It was renovated and turned into a museum as recently as 2001 – and what a lovely place it has become. Besides the paintings and the porcelain, there is a good overview of the reign of the Great Elector, and the museum guides (the palace can only be visited by guided tour) are friendly and knowledgeable.

Himmler’s SS training camp at the back of Oranienburg palace

At the back of the palace, there is a rather innocent, even elegant looking extension – until you read that it was built in 1938 by Himmler as a training centre for SS officers. Oh well – German history is never entirely idyllic.

Schloss Oranienburg

Admission: 6/5 euro

Schlossplatz 1, 16515 Oranienburg

S1 to Oranienburg, then bus 824 or walk 1 km. Approx. 1 hour.

Potsdam – the Dutch Quarter


Moving on to Potsdam to visit its Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), we find ourselves in the period of one Hohenzollern ruler later – by this time, King Frederick William (called the “Soldier King”, for his military focus, simple tastes and parsimonious nature) had ascended the throne. Whereas his father’s lavish outlays on palaces, the arts, and especially his own crowning ceremony (1701) had put a severe financial burden on his territories, the Soldier King cut back spending on such non-essentials immediately and focused on the army and state bureaucracy.


Like his grandfather the Great Elector before him, Frederick William had visited the Netherlands. He went on a prolonged study trip to Amsterdam and the Hague in 1704/05, and came back impressed with the advanced state of its economy and the efficiency of its architecture. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Amsterdam carpenter Jan Bouman to build a neighbourhood of 136 Dutch-style houses in Potsdam, hoping this might attract Dutch artisans and merchants to Brandenburg. Bouman duly built the Dutch Quarter in the years from 1733 to 1740, but the hoped-for immigrants never arrived, and the houses were mainly used by French and Prussian merchants and artists.



The Dutch Quarter today looks brand new – after a long period of neglect during the GDR years, its restauration was finished in 2014. Princess Beatrix, the Dutch ex-queen, has been spotted shopping in its streets, and it is rumoured the House of Orange contributed to its restoration. The neighbourhood is laid out along a grid of two crossing streets, Mittel- and Benkertstrasse, creating four large blocks of houses. As Bouman came from Amsterdam, it is assumed he modelled the houses on those in the “Jordaan” neighbourhood. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, fashion, flower and souvenir shops, but make sure you don’t miss the little Bouman-Museum – this is one of the best kept houses, complete with period furniture, interesting displays on the history of the quarter, and with original outbuildings towards the back and a pretty little garden. IMG_7885

For people from Holland who are familiar with this kind of house in, let’s say, Leiden, Delft or Gouda, visiting the Bouman house is a strange experience – everything looks familiar, but also slightly foreign. It’s only after a little while that you realise that the houses are actually much bigger than they would have been in Holland – the street fronts are probably 50% wider than a typical Dutch workers’ house would be.


Frederick William, the Soldier King, died just before the Dutch Quarter was finished, but his son, Frederick II (who later became known as Frederick the Great, or ‘Alter Fritz’) made sure the original plans were carried out.


Admission: 2/1 euro

Mittelstrasse 8, 14467 Potsdam

S7 or DB to Potsdam, then tram 92 or 96 to Nauener Tor, 1 hour approx.

Jan Bouman

St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church on Berlin’s Forum Fridericianum

Jan Bouman, one of the greatest architects you’ve probably never heard of, was then honoured with the task of supervising construction of Frederick the Great’s beloved Sans-Souci palace (the designs were drawn by Frederick himself, together with Georg Knobelsdorff). He created further works in Potsdam (Berlin Gate, City Hall), but soon moved to Berlin, where he built the predecessor of the current Berliner Dom, worked on St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and, most famously, built Prince Henry’s palace, more familiar today as the main building of the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. His first son Michael Philipp, by then Germanized to the name of Boumann, continued the family tradition by building Schloss Bellevue (today the seat of Germany’s Federal President), while the second son, Georg Friedrich, built the Royal Library (now known to Berliners as the ‘Commode’), on August-Bebel-Platz. And so, after our day trips to Oranienburg and Potsdam, the Bouman(n) family has taken us back to central Berlin.

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).

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.

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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”.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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





BMW’s Berlin-Spandau motorcycle factory: against all odds

How Bavarian motor bikes came to Berlin. Info display at BMW’s Spandau factory.

Today, there is not a lot of heavy industry left in Berlin. The city that once was the home of huge factories like Siemens, Borsig, and AEG never recovered from World War II. What wasn’t bombed by the R.A.F. and the US Air Force was dismantled and carried off by the Soviet, French, and British occupying forces, what wasn’t dismantled was either nationalised (in East-Berlin), or was left to die a slow death in the isolation of post-war West-Berlin.

But there’s an exception: BMW’s motorcycle factory in Spandau. Since 1969, BMW has built all its motorbikes at this site (with the exception of the original F-series 1-cylinder bike in the 1990s). Today, some 110.000 bikes leave the factory each year for shipment over the world. That may sound like a lot, but Honda, its largest Japanese competitor, builds five times as many – and that’s down from a peak of 3 million in 1982.

BMW relocated its bike production to Berlin as it was running out of space in its factories in Bavaria. But it had a long history at the site. Originally built as an airplane engine plant by Siemens in 1928 (the factory is adjacent to an area called Siemensstadt, a complex of factories and modernist flats for workers, now a Unesco World Heritage site), it was spun off as ‘Brandenburgische Motoren Werke’ or Bramo in 1936 – after all, the BMW acronym was already being spoken for.  The plant built radial engines for planes such as the Junckers Ju52/3m – known throughout Germany as the Tante Ju (Auntie Ju), the German equivalent to the reliable and multipurpose DC3 ‘Dakota’.

Junckers Ju52 at Berlin’s Technikmuseum, with three 9-cylinder BMW radial engines.

By 1939, BMW, by then a motorcycle, aeroplane engine and motor car producer, acquired Bramo and continued building aircraft engines at the site. After World War II, the plant’s equipment was dismantled by the Allies. Low scale production of useful stuff like sickles and scythes continued at the factory, but it returned to full operations in 1949, constructing motor cycle parts for BMWs assembled in Bavaria.

Gate 1 of BMW’s Spandau motorcycle factory. No photography beyond this point – except for the visitor centre!

What certainly influenced BMW to bring all motorcycle production to Spandau were the lavish subsidies the Senate granted to anyone wishing to invest in West-Berlin – a sum of 200 million Marks (in 1969 money!) was granted just to redevelop the site. But whatever the original motive – the company has stayed the course, and is even expanding. It’s bought a plot of land adjacent to the factory to build a new assembly hall.

BMW’s first motorcycle, the R21 from 1923, in the visitor centre at the Spandau plant. In the background: part of the almost 100 years old machining hall, where engine parts are made.

When you take a tour of the factory (6 euros, book through the bmw.de website), you see why they need the extra space: while quaint, the long history of the factory means that it consists of a large number of smallish buildings, some from the early 20th century, and the logistics of keeping everything organised must be a nightmare.

As mentioned, the production numbers at BMW Motorrad (the subbrand’s official name) are not spectacular as far as global bike factories go – but then, as BMW likes to point out, they are a high end brand, and there’s a lot of manual labour in constructing each bike. One of the interesting things you see on the tour is how much of the work is done by hand. There’s robots for the heavy and dangerous stuff, but a lot of the assembly work is done by people who have usually entered the factory as trainees straight out of school, and are quite happy to spend their whole careers there. In Berlin terms, they are good jobs to have.


 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.

“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.

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.

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 at Leninplatz (dismantled in 1991), image: Wikipedia


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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.

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.

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.

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.


Why Berlin has such a great rail and air museum

We visited Berlin’s Technology Museum for our son’s 6th birthday. We only had time for the aeronautics section and the trains – but I had my aha moment, and the boys loved the museum.

Model of the current site of the Technikmuseum with U1

Travelling around Berlin today (on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Ostkreuz, and then on to Schönefeld airport for example), you see a lot of railway archeology – old shunting yards, signal boxes, engineering works – relics from a past where railways were even more important to the city’s life than they are today. In the museum, it suddenly dawned on me why Berlin, home to the revolutionary Borsig locomotive works, was such an early adopter of rail transport – not only was it a sprawling city in itself, it was (and is) so bloody far away from anywhere!

Berlin-built Borsig steam engine “Beuth” from 1842

Look at places like the UK and the Netherlands – both used railways to their economic advantage (although the Netherlands was notoriously late) – but both had proven alternatives in the way of well-developed canal and stage coach transport links, and distances were small, anyway.

Engine turning circle, originally part of Anhalter Bahnhof, reconstructed in situ in the 1970s for Technikmuseum

But in the case of Berlin, located in the midst of the East-Elbian steppe, there was no such alternative. Besides economic activity (freight) driving railway building, it must have been political and passenger demand that led to such a huge railway infrastructure radiating from the Prussian capital.

Möckernbrücke U-Bahn station, seen from the Technikmuseum

The legacy is here today: such was the rapid expansion of the railway system, and such was the continuous improvement technology and things like stations, that today there are lots of abandoned former railway stations turned into other interesting uses: parks (Nordbahnhof, Anhalter Bahnhof) or modern arts museum (Hamburger Bahnhof – built in the 1840s but already released from railway duty in 1884).

Prussian State Railways, ca. 1912. Image: wikipedia

And after the railways, history repeated itself in the early days of air travel: lots of aviation pioneers performed their flying experiments at Tegel and Tempelhof – again, not coincidentally, because the authorities were keen on entrepreneurs finding ways of breaking down the distances that separated Berlin from the outlying corners of the empire.

Junkers Ju 52/3m or “Tante Ju” (Auntie Ju) – developed for parallel military and civilian use in the 1930s. Mainstay of German passenger aviation.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in my ‘discovery’ of this – but for me at least it put Berlin’s five (at least) airports and heaps of current and abandoned railway stations into perspective. And it explains why Berlin has the material for such a great rail and air museum!

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


Today is the 17th of June – and that used to be (West) Germany’s national day, until reunification came along. Why? On 17 June 1953, the first major people’s revolt against Eastern Germany’s communist regime took place. Soviet tanks came in to restore order. In the end, there were more than 100 dead, and many more sentenced to long stays in prison.

All you can say for the Russians is that in those days, when they sent tanks into “countries in their sphere of influence”, at least they didn’t try to hide it.

I decided to go and take a look if there was anything special going on at the Straße des 17. Juni (Street of June 17th) – the main East-West thoroughfare that is the extension of Unter den Linden. It runs from Brandenburger Tor, through the Tiergarten, past the Siegessäule and all the way to Charlottenburg.


Ironically, and probably intentionally, the Straße des 17. Juni actually runs past two Soviet tanks – the ones that are mounted on top of the Soviet War Memorial. Today however, not much was visible of the tanks, or indeed the memorial, as the Straße des 17. Juni is fully taken over by the Hyundai Fan Mile – a celebration zone for the Brazil football World Cup, complete with big screens, sausage vans and lots of beer outlets.


When you get to the end of the fan zone, at Brandenburg Gate, you get a sense of what it must have looked like when the wall was still there…


Another Berlin locale linked to the people’s revolt of 17 June is the “Platz des 17. Juni”, actually the forecourt of the current Federal Ministry of Finance.  In the GDR era, it was called the House of Ministries, and before that, it was Goering’s Airforce Ministry. This place, on the corner of Leipziger and Wilhelmstraße, is where the revolt actually took place, and where the official memorial is located.


The revolt started when construction workers from Stalinallee (current Karl-Marx-Allee) protested against the raising of performance norms by another 10% – without additional compensation. One after the other, different sectors of the economy joined in the protests, until it all ended in tears.


Socialist-realist mural at current Federal Ministry of Finance


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



Today, the 17th of June is not Germany’s national day anymore – that is now the 3rd of October, the day of official reunification. But the victims of the people’s uprising are still remembered, and honoured, at the memorial of the 17th of June.

My new story published on slowtravelberlin.com


Happy and proud to mention that my latest piece, on the curious institution that is the Berlin State Library, got published on http://www.slowtravelberlin.com. As one friend mentioned, it’s amazing how the story of a country can be told through a library! Thanks, as ever, to Paul Sullivan and Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe, for their encouragement and editing support.

Read the story here:

Books, Beethoven, and Berlinka – the Berlin State Library

My earlier stories for Slow Travel:

The Kronprinzenpalais – the Crown Princes’ Palace

Touring Berlin’s Airports

Living History at the Dead Emperor’s – at Museum Huis Doorn



I revisited Museum Huis Doorn last weekend. This country house, in a wooded area on the banks of the Rhine near Utrecht, is where Kaiser Wilhelm II ended up after seeking refuge in The Netherlands in November 1918. From the date of his forced abdication onwards, he never travelled far from Doorn. He spent his days chopping wood (yes, really), and never gave up hoping to be able to return to the Fatherland as Kaiser. He died at Huis Doorn, at the age of 82, in 1941.


His remains are still there, in a purpose-built mausoleum in the museum grounds. Occasionally, groups of Prussian nostalgists come from Germany to lay wreaths at his coffin – the last occasion was the Kaiser’s 155th birthday in January 2014. The picture below is taken through one of the mausoleum’s windows, and is probably as close as you’ll get to seeing an actual dead emperor on this blog!


When I visited, the house grounds were taken over by a living history event depicting daily life in WW I – both in the armed forces as well as at home. I didn’t know this, but there’s a distinction between living history and historical reenactment: whilst the latter is more about getting the details of the battles right, the former focuses on depicting daily life, costumes, and arts and crafts as close to the historical original as possible, usually with an educational purpose. For the event at Huis Doorn, living history groups had turned up from Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany.


Now you should know that, as a trained historian, I usually even frown upon historical novels, because of the poetic license that I imagine their authors to take. I like my history unfrivolous and hard-core. But I was fascinated by the living history people. The ones I spoke to really knew their stuff and also were able to put their roles into context. I spoke to a German guy called Siggi, who played the role of an ensign in the Prussian army. He had a great beard and a wonderful banner showing the colours of his regiment.


I was curious how ‘military’ these guys actually were, so I asked Siggi if he had ever served in the army. It turned out he’d served in the Bundeswehr for four years as an NCO at some point. Because he’d been a sergeant-major during his stint in the modern army, that’s the historical uniform he also liked to wear when role-playing, because it was what he identified with most. But many of his fellow role-players had not served in the army, or if they had, wore any uniform they chose. According to Siggi, there were no set rules for this.


When I asked Siggi what he imagined the biggest difference there would have been between life in the modern army as opposed to 100 years ago, he immediately said ‘discipline’ – the discipline to which soldiers were subjected to back then was much stricter than today. Transgressions which would have lost you a weekend’s leave back then would not even be noticed today.


For depicting life ‘back home’, the organisers had chosen to represent the upper classes: ‘grand-mère’s birthday on the lawn’, complete with croquet, cucumber sandwiches and deferential staff.


All very Downton-esque and beautifully done. For the people in this group, it meant sitting in their lawn chairs the whole afternoon, making conversation about grand-mère and other family matters, and as far as I could see they never dropped their roles. An interesting point in the proceedings arrived when a ‘Dutch officer’ began explaining the uniforms of four ‘Prussian soldiers’ to the public. This took place in front of grand-mère’s marquee and gave a nice contrast between military life and aristocratic hedonism.


As the Kaiser himself loved to dress up in all kinds of military uniforms, and certainly showed a lot of awareness of Prussian history (see Berlin’s Terracotta army – the Statues of the Kaiser’s Victory Boulevard), I am sure he would have approved of such an event at the home where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life.


As you’ve probably been able to read between the lines, this hard-core historian was very much won over by the commitment and hard work that the living history people put in their displays. Will I find some funny dress and join them? Probably not, if only because I’d probably get bored after 15 minutes of sitting still. Will I go again? Definitely – there’s a lot to learn by viewing these displays and talking to people who are so passionate about their chosen period.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.