Ever since I was old enough to learn about it, I’ve had an interest in the second world war, I remember the first proper time it sparked curiosity within me was during the first time I watched saving Private Ryan, when I was 10 years old. In the opening scenes after they fight their way off the beach, Sargent Horvath reaches down and grabs a handful of soil and places it in a tin marked ‘France’, and I remember asking my parents, why they were fighting Germans in France, it was from then that i would be forever interested in that moment in history.
Now, 18 years later I still have that same interest, and I had been reading at the time a book by Anthony Beevor about the fall of Berlin to the Russians in world war two, so I was curious to see what had survived the destruction that this city had gone through. By 1945 the Allies had pushed through France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, encircling what remained of their armed forces in Berlin, for the Reich’s last stand. For the Western Allies (America, Great Britain, Canada etc) Capturing Berlin was no longer an interest, Eisenhower knew it would come at too high a cost in lives, and that the capital was sought after by the Soviets, desperate for revenge for the atrocities committed during the German invasion.
A month of fighting between the desperate defenders and the attacking Soviets saw the city in ruins, Stalin literally poured soldiers, tanks, and explosives down on the city, most of the buildings in the city were levelled, only the stronger stone structures remained, and were used as defensive positions for the Germans, the most famous being the Reichstag where the battle for the city reached its end…
We arrived by plane at Schonefeld airport, our hotel was on Friedrichstraße so we had to take the train system, after spending what seemed like forever trying to buy tickets (public transport is confusing in foreign countries!) we boarded and set off for the hotel! I’d like to point out that during our entire time there, nobody ever checked our tickets and there were no barriers to get in/out of the stations like in the UK, apparently paying your fare is less mandatory, and more voluntary??
For this trip I primarily used my Nikon F2 with Kodak Tri-X black and white film, I didn’t want to be lugging a big DSLR around all day and maybe get mugged for it, and I just love this camera anyway! Among the many places we visited there was of course, the Reichstag, which has been completely restored, besides some Soviet graffiti around the rooftop, you would hardly have known that anything had happened there, unlike Museumsinsel (Museum Island) the Island on the Spree river which holds many of the cities historic museums. These huge stone buildings, notably the stone columns outside the Neues Museum and a building on the opposite side of the river are littered with the scars of machine gun and artillery fire!
We also took a train ride to visit the Olympiastadion (olympic stadium) which was built by the Nazi’s for the 1936 Olympics, the building from the outside, besides the addition of the roof remains barely unchanged since then, the Original Olympic bell is still there and on display, the soviets set the original bell tower on fire during the war, which weakened the structure leaving it dangerous, british Engineers demolished the tower and the Bell fell the 77 meters to the ground leaving it with a crack, incapable of ringing since then. The bell has a huge Nazi Reichsadler Eagle holding the olympic bells and a swastika remains on the side after the motto “I call upon the youth of the world”. There was something rather chilling about seeing these emblems, there are a few old government buildings around the city which still have the Reich Eagle (reichsadler) stone emblems in their design and it really brings it home that this very much happened. in some ways i’m surprised that they haven’t removed them, yet also glad they haven’t tried to erase it.
A short walk from the Reichstag is the Holocaust Memorial, a plot of sloping land covered in nearly 3000, 7ft by 3ft concrete blocks, they vary in height from a few inches, up to 15 feet tall, the whole area is grey, and strongly resembles a graveyard, I found a rose laid on one of the blocks which you can see in the photos, as well as a photo of charlotte walking between the taller blocks, you can get an understanding of how powerful the monument is.
We also visited the Topographie des Terrors museums, which has been built on the land which once held the headquarters for the Gestapo and SS, it explains how the Party came in to power and lead the country to war. The Berlin Wall also runs right through this plot, and a long section of it has been preserved there, you can see in my photo above a section of the wall vandalised with the word “madness”, the building overlooking behind it is the old Nazi aviation Ministry..
Another reason I wanted to see Berlin, was the work of Don Mccullin, early in his career, in the dawn of the cold war he visited Berlin when the stalemate between the Western allies and the Soviet Union was centred in this city. The Russians controlled the East of Germany, the Allies controlled the West, and the city was divided between America, Great Britain, and France in the West, and the Soviets on the East. Many residents of East Berlin didn’t want to be under the thumb of Soviet oppression and would defect to West Berlin, and free, western ideals, the authorities in control of East Berlin, the communist GDR built the wall encircling, and cutting off West Berlin from the East (and the rest of germany) to combat the exodus. Obviously the Allies didn’t take too kindly to the Soviets penning them in under armed guard, and so the Cold War met its climax. The boarder around West Berlin was 96 miles long, it began as barbed wire but later the wall was built, with armed guards, watchtowers, minefields, antitank ditches, and blockades, anyone trying to cross no mans land was shot. Don Mccullin’s work was in the early days of the stalemate, using a Medium Format TLR he captured some beautiful images around checkpoint charlie, the most famous and documented area where East met West, tanks of either side aimed at each other. I wanted to see the places I had seen so many times in photograph’s of a long gone era..
On a lighter note, we also visited and Berlin Zoo, where we watched a male arctic wolf dining on a bone right in front of us, and had a stroll through the Tiergarten. The food and chocolate there was lovely, and I found an Analogue camera shop there which was brilliant, filled with processing equipment and film which was a third the price as it is in this country!
For most this is a very unconventional holiday, but we really enjoyed it, and it was good to learn some history!