Much to our delight, we were greeted on our first morning in Berlin by snow, needless to say, we were very excited! Our first day took us on a walking tour, exploring sites related to Nazis rise to power and the memorials commemorating those affected. We began with the famous Reichstag, the parliamentary building. We discussed and understood the changes that the Reichstag underwent from when it was first built in 1894, to the fire of 1933, its ruin and decline, then reconstruction and decision to rebuild its iconic dome. The rebuilding and conservation show the importance the people of Germany place on the huge amount of history this building holds.
We proceeded to several monuments, under the shadow of the Reichstag, the memorials to the murdered members of the Reichstag, Sinti-Roma, homosexuals and murdered Jews. These poignant and thought-provoking sites of remembrance show the effort by the unified Germany to face up and accept its history, rather than attempting to forget. I think we all found connections and depth within these, whether it be the single new rose placed daily at the Sinti-Roma memorial or personally, the Jewish memorial, seemingly identical blocks but with unknown depth and capacity providing a maze of narrow alleys, with diminishing light which really overwhelming. Such a huge, and statement piece, unavoidable in the middle of the city. When the city was divided, the grand memorial dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who were killed capturing Berlin was left in the capitalist west, but as it was of such importance east-side soldiers passed through the Berlin Wall everyday to guard it!
We passed under the monumental Brandenburg gate on our way to the German historic museum, it was the site of huge celebration after the fall of the Berlin Wall showing the reunification, a symbol of peace and unity. It was the site of Nazi celebrations after Hitler’s rise to power, a vessel of soviet flags, it also showed the divided city, situated right on the ‘death strip’. At the museum we had an in-depth tour, including the actual ‘Treaty of Versailles’, President Hindenburg’s death mask and a lot of propaganda material….perfect for year 11 coursework!
Crossing to the Bebelplatz revealed the site of the book burnings and empty bookshelves placed under the street that could hold all 20,000 books burnt in the University Square. We headed via Checkpoint Charlie, to the ‘topography of terror’; the Reich security office during WWII, an insightful museum and Kristallnacht exhibition, along with the cells from its time as SS head-quarters. We rounded off the evening by visiting the Fuhrer Bunker, or in fact standing where the Fuhrer bunker was located. This underground location was the site of Hitler’s suicide and, just outside where he was cremated. After a day of visiting significant memorials to those who lost their lives, the direct avoidance of any kind of recognition was clear. The German authorities have done what they believe to be right, in honouring history and their past; even though it was troubled, bloody and turbulent, but here they have tried to eliminate any revival of the Nazi party by leaving this place unmarked.
Saturday felt like an early start, after quite a good night sleep, we travelled by train to east Germany, the German-Russian museum in Karlshot, site of the historic surrender of German armed force in May 1945. This museum explored the agreement, with documents as well as a host of maps showing the division of different territories and conditions from 1945 onwards. From here we proceeded to the Olympic stadium, definitely a favourite and a place Year 11 have recently researched in detail for coursework. We learnt about Hitler’s initial reluctance to host the games, persuaded by Goebbels as a brilliant propaganda opportunity and the introduction of the the torch relay, now an Olympic tradition. These games highlighted Aryan supremacy and this impressive colosseum-like structure allowed us to understand the projected image of the Nazis.
The Berlin Wall documentation centre showed the vast number of houses destroyed for the Soviets to build the wall, we heard resonating tales of one family’s desperate plea to escape the communist East, the different methods and lengths at which they went to, such as tunnelling. These true stories allow what you learn, just sitting in a class room to come to life, with vivid imagination and evoked empathy for these despairing East Germans. We ended the afternoon with a look at the structure and layers of the wall, we marvelled at the proportions and the shear difficulty that crossing them would entail. That evening we climbed the glass dome of the Reichstag, a magnificent structure with amazing architecture and views.
Our final day began with the East Side Gallery, a long section of the Berlin Wall featuring many murals with different meanings or depictions. From here we had a slightly sleepy tram ride to the Stasi Prison, a set of buildings that housed many prisoners during the Communist control of Eastern Germany. This was a fascinating tour, seeing the actual complex and cells, we learnt about the Stasi interrogation and methods of control, during the years you stayed in this prison you would not have seen a single other prisoner as well as the completely obscured view and impossibility of working out you were in Berlin. We ended our visit with the interactive DDR museum, a recreation and explanation of life during the Cold War. I think our favourite was the East-Berlin apartment and dodgy lift! Our travel to the airport was bittersweet, the end to a great trip but by the time we arrived back into Bath I think we all collapsed into bed.
As you can tell we had a busy schedule, but an amazing and unforgettable experience. We all considered the impact of actually experiencing the sites, monuments and locations we have all, or are going to learn about. Our conclusion? That visiting them is an unparalleled experience, one that is impossible to achieve in a classroom, even with our excellent teachers! It gave another dimension, new knowledge and understanding to the presentation and perspective that modern Germany has taken, the effort for all these to be preserved.
On behalf of the whole trip, I’d like to thank Mrs Pagnamenta, Mr Lacey and Mrs Kennet for giving up their time, organising and taking us on this wonderful, unforgettable trip.
by Darcy Gresham