A History Student’s Guide to Berlin

We did it again. We went against the strict itinerary of the spreadsheet, adding an extra night in Berlin at the expense of one in Prague. Such a move had Rory on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in his eyes I had exchanged cheap beer for history but, as a self confessed history geek, there wasn’t much of a discussion. Fear not, any stress inflicted on Rory after our disregard for the spreadsheet was easily rectified with the prospect of a litre tankard of beer in a Berlin beerhall! Unfortunately, an extra day in Berlin also meant an extra day of having to put up with Rory’s awful german accent.

Suitably reassured and plan readjusted we quickly set about creating a plan, filling our three days with historical sites and museums. Berlin was our penultimate stop so we were determined to make the most of it!

Rory and a Litre of Beer.jpg

Berlin is historically significant in many ways and this history, despite its tragedy, has always been a great interest of mine. Yet, before this summer, Berlin was a thing of textbooks to me. Learning about the Reichstag fire in the classroom and standing before that very building are two very different experiences. Berlin simply oozes history and for those with an interest in its past it is an amazing experience. I realise just how much of nerd I am portraying myself as, but I promise I won’t start reciting historiography learnt by heart for my A levels… Rory has already been subjected to that, although this was after that litre of beer, so I imagine the process was as painless as possible!

Georgia Outside the Reichstag.jpg

We initially booked the Novum Select hotel because of its location, being just a few hundred metres from a train station it gave us an ideal base to navigate around the city. The points of interest that we wanted to see were scattered throughout the city, so we mainly used the U-ban to move around, a definite must if you want to explore all of Berlin. By some happy coincidence, the hotel happened to be right beside the East Side Gallery. Being located just a quick stroll away from this part of the remains of the Berlin Wall  was certainly an added bonus. The wall itself is covered in artwork of various different styles, a colourful portrayal of freedom and liberation. I was amazed by just how much of the wall still exists, a very real reminder of the current threats coming from the US leader. Not entirely satisfied with just seeing the wall, I wanted to visit the museum dedicated to the history of it. This museum, the Palace of Tears is free to get into and tells of the story of East and West Germany during the Cold War. Perhaps most poignantly there are several real life tales recorded by those who lived on either side of the wall, worked at the border or escaped from East Germany. A really interesting little museum whether you’re a cold war expert, or like Rory need an excuse to escape the sun for an hour!

Berlin Wall.jpg

Germany is famous for many things, from lederhosen to cars, unfortunately, Nazis and Adolf Hitler must also be included in this. Once again there are several free museums that may be of interest to all and not just history students! The Topography of Terror is a museum dedicated to this area of history, covering the basics for those who are less familiar with the details, but also going into great detail on multiple aspects. The photographs and original documents displayed in this exhibition made the whole experience more real, something you cannot achieve from textbooks. Given the great tragedies caused by this regime, namely the slaughter and mistreatment of many innocent people, memorials and tributes are scattered throughout Berlin. For instance, there is a small memorial to one side of the Reichstag, dedicated to the political prisoners of the Nazi regime. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is perhaps the most well known site of remembrance. Unfortunately, when Rory and I visited there was very little security at the site and we witnessed countless children playing hide and seek in amongst the pillars, others jumping across them, as well as, a handful of people enjoying a picnic atop this memorial. A site that deserves more respect and thoughtful reflection has sadly become nothing more than a selfie spot to some. I don’t wish to judge others or to come across as trying to take a kind of moral high ground but if we are to truly understand this tragic history and learn from the horrors, the victims certainly deserve more respect.

Jewish Memorial.jpg

Our third and final day in Berlin Rory and I agreed we would spend the majority of visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The camp itself is located quite some way from the centre of Berlin, accessible by the public transport systems though you certainly need to set aside at least half a day to do. Entry is free of charge, audio guides can be rented for just 3 euro and there is also the option of a guided tour both from the camps visitor centre or from external groups. Rory and I opted to take the audio guide which was hugely informative and took us over four hours to navigate around what is left of this awful Nazi creation. There are some recreated barracks but the majority of what remains are the foundations of these buildings. This vast empty space with looming watch towers around the perimeter created a very eerie atmosphere. The experience on the whole is both harrowing and sobering, a visit that was difficult but one that I am very glad to have done.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Berlin was a city that I have long wanted to visit and it certainly did not disappoint. Whilst my motivations were largely history orientated there is definitely something in this city for everyone. I’m sure Rory would have very happily sat in beer halls, sampling the local brews for three days had I not been dragging him around countless museums! I think we have just added another city to the now very long list of those that we would love to return to!

Brandenberg Gate.jpg

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