In the past century, few places have featured in the crossroads of human history as prominently as Berlin. While the happenings of everyday life have long since returned to normal with art and culture flourishing significantly, the weight of history still hangs heavy in some corners of the city.
Amongst the street art, the cafes, the public parks and the all-night nightlife, reminders of the Nazi regime and remnants of the Soviet Iron Curtain rise up and hang about, like somber ghosts of the past. While these sites are not the makings for a jolly tour, no words can truly do their necessity proper justice. For that reason alone, witnessing them yourself is a moral mandate of the 21st century. Here are a few of Berlin’s historic lessons that you can’t miss.
The picturesque public square Bebelplatz has been a gathering spot since 1743 under the rule of King Frederick II of Prussia. But, the square used to be known as Opernplatz, and it gained international infamy on May 10, 1933, as the site of one of the Nazi’s book burnings. At the time, the nationalist group known as the German Student Association hosted the affair, raiding the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft library and dragging its contents into the square, where they burned roughly 20,000 books. A crowd of over 40,000 had gathered to chant and cheer the spectacle.
Now, the square houses a pointed piece of art by Micha Ullman—a singular glass pane is situated in the cobblestones. Sunken into the ground underneath the pane, is an underground room lined floor-to-ceiling with empty, white bookshelves. Next to it, a bronze plaque reads, “That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people,” Hernrich Heine, 1820. Even without the weight of the words, witnessing this tomb of missing books is equal parts jarring and sobering, and the urge to attempt to right the wrong and fill the shelves is unrelenting.
Not every tale from this time is centered in loss or the evils of man. Some are indomitable tales of hope, lessons of decency in the face of monstrosity. Such is the case with Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind.
A blind brush maker, Otto Weidt was the owner of a brush-making factory that was deemed important to the war effort. With this classification for a factory full of equipment designed for the blind and a personal hatred for Nazis, Otto took it upon himself to resist and help in his own unique way—he provided employment and safety for blind and deaf Jewish people in their time of persecution. Throughout the war, Otto bribed Gestapo, falsified documents and ultimately hid his workers to help ensure their safety.
Today, the workshop has been preserved as it was then: brushes and machinery are on display, accompanied by pictures and documents providing context from the time. As stunning as Otto’s personal story is, the highlight of the museum is the collection of video interviews from the survivors he helped in historic Berlin.
While a number of Holocaust memorials and museums exist in Germany (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is also within Berlin, and also well worth a visit), one that tells the personal tragedy inflicted by the Holocaust concisely is the Wir Waren Nachbarn, or We Were Neighbors, Memorial. Located within City Hall, this exhibition is a meticulous collection and a showcase of over 150 biographies of Jewish people who had formerly resided in Berlin before either being forced to flee, being exiled or killed. While the exhibit does house the detailed stories of more famous citizens, such as Albert Einstein and Billy Wilder, the personal narratives of every individual—thoroughly reconstructed with firsthand accounts and photographs—lets you truly get to know each individual and family. The shroud of the time passed is lifted, and the loss feels freshly personal.
As fortunate for the world as the downfall of the Nazi regime was, the subsequent regime that came to replace them within East Berlin was a scarce improvement, and the city continued to be the center of geopolitical tension for the second half of the century. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik was a satellite state of the Soviet Union and unofficial frontline for much of the Cold War. The far other side of the political spectrum, the reality of city living was strikingly similar to the Nazis: oppression and fear within a ruthless police state. Nowhere allows a peek back into life behind the Iron Curtain as well as the DDR Museum.
Located within the former governmental district of East Berlin opposite the river Spree of the Berlin Cathedral, the DDR Museum is a sprawling time capsule of Berlin’s Cold War days. Housing over 200,000 artifacts from state-run daily life, the museum succeeds in demonstrating this surreal existence with the help of immersive interaction. Drive a Trabant car through a virtually simulated housing estate. Find yourself in a fully interactive living room where an antiquated television blares state-run programming. Flip through a magazine to peruse polyester uniforms from the Free German Youth organizations. Pick up a telephone to hear the foreboding click of your call being recorded.
Across the street from the museum, massive statues of Marx & Engels sit within a park—making for a thought-provoking foil to the physical (and ideological) distance and difference from the museum.
The driving engine to East Berlin’s police state was the Stasi—a secret police force with substantial Orwellian parallels. Infamous, feared, and efficient, the Stasi “sought to know everything about everyone” and came close—estimates are that one out of 10 East Germans was an informant for the Stasi. The organization had files of information on roughly six million East German citizens, over a third of the population. Citizens today can request to view their file from the Stasi Records Office.
While this organization may now be gone, their diabolicalness is not forgotten thanks to the Stasi Museum. Located within the former police headquarters, the museum houses their many tools of the trade: bugged church hymn books, bugged wrist watches, various fake beards and wigs for disguises, cameras hidden in buttons, stored odor samples of citizens for police dogs to sniff out on a manhunt and an anonymous-looking white mini-van used for discreetly arresting dissidents. In addition to these artifacts, much of their office space has been preserved, allowing for an authentic walk through the beige-carpeted lair of evil.