Away from the hip clubbing strips of the vibrant German city exist some of the most stark, eerie and incredibly moving wartime monuments from across the western world
BERLIN has always been known as a city with a checkered past, but many young travellers now remark on its hipster vibe and all-night clubs. However, you don’t have to look far past the modernity of the new city to find remnants of its history.
It has gone through many different styles of government — dictatorships to democracy — and has evolved into a metropolitan city proud of some of its history, and acknowledging and remembering the rest.
Here’s some highlights of a two-day trip to the city.
BERLIN creates the ultimate choice. Do I drink the cheap beer or explore the city which featured some of modern history’s most significant moments?
Eventually, after some serious internal debate, history won out and I was on my way to a walking tour of the city, starting from the Brandenburg Gate.
Despite being in Europe, if you’re an Australian, you’re bound to find other Aussies travelling around. I joined the walking tour and immediately heard an accent from home.
Our guide had moved to Germany from Melbourne, and ended up running tours.
As we raced through the city — despite being called a walking tour, the 2.5 hour journeys tend to move fairly quickly with little time to meander — we saw many sites including a large section of the Berlin Wall.
Built by troops in the Soviet controlled East Berlin in 1961 to keep Easterners from moving into West Berlin and, in turn, being able to move into the rest of Europe and the world, the wall remained in place until finally being torn down in 1989.
From there we walked on to Checkpoint Charlie, where diplomats and soldiers had to pass though if they wanted to travel into and out of East Berlin while the wall was in place, and the site of Hitler’s Bunker.
This was the grim location where Hitler hid out towards the end of World War II and ended up committing suicide inside. It has since been caved in to stop it becoming a site for neo-Nazis to congregate.
Along the way we also stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The interactive memorial allows visitors to walk among the 2711 concrete blocks, all different sizes, shapes and angles, and determine their own meaning from it.
The black blocks grow taller as you pass through, casting long shadows in the aisles.
Cast against the blue sky, the memorial stands out as a sea of concrete and reminds visitors of the atrocities committed during WWII.
THE next day I stuck with the history lesson and travelled to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
While it is free entry, and the public transport system is fairly easy, I opted to go on a tour as this meant the guide talked us through all the different areas of the camp.
Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp to be set up in the area.
Originally created in 1936 to house political prisoners, the camp continued running throughout WWII and then onwards into the 1950s under Soviet rule.
While some of the camp has been turned into memorial forests and other beautifully quiet places, the majority remains a stark reminder of what horrors were seen there.
Most of the original stone walls are still in place and barbed wire marks the no-go zones.
In the medical block, the tiled benches where prisoners had medical experiments performed on them look ready for the next person to subject to its horrors.
The yard is dry and dusty with little grass to soften its appearance. Not all of the buildings remain. Giant rectangles filled with stones mark out where many of the boarding houses would have been, and some buildings have been redone to look like the originals.
But it is the foundations of a building just outside of the originally planned complex that is the most sinister.
Each room leads into another, until they reach a room where the walls are double bricked.
These rooms would have been soundproofed.
Prisoners were lead through the different areas, being told they were going for medical treatment, only to then be ordered to stand against a wall in the soundproof room where their height would be measured.
Once standing there, an SS soldier would shoot them dead.
Two prisoners would come in and clear away the body and clean the room, before the next person was told their height would be measured.
The horrors of places like Sachsenhausen are hard to imagine.
The visit brought different things to each member of the group, some needing to take a break while tears flowed down their faces.
For an Australian who had been taught relatively little about Nazi concentration camps in high school, the efficiency of the killing shocked me.
But it was scary to realise, as our guide pointed out, the Nazis were not aliens who dropped into Germany in WWII, and then disappeared afterwards.
Their treatment of prisoners of war was not all that different to others in other periods of time — the stories of German death marches not dissimilar to Japanese death marches in a different sphere of the same war.
The difficult thing about visiting a place like Sachsenhausen is how to describe the experience afterwards.
The best word I can come up with is worthwhile.
The atrocities of WWII need to be remembered, and visits to places like Sachsenhausen help to remind people why this can never be allowed to happen..
The oddly still scene at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Checkpoint Charlie Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
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