A thrilling new film, Bridge of Spies, had its November premiere in Berlin after being largely shot on location there. Based on events during the Cold War, it is now making the Glienicke Bridge a magnet for visitors to the German capital.
Berlin displays plenty of history anyway, even though Rome, Paris and London are far older cities. The German capital has no less than 200 museums as well as several monuments, and it is unique for providing a dramatic insight into contemporary history.
This leaves behind the famous Brandenburg Gate (below), erected in 1791, and the Victory Column of 1864 (stairs inside), both symbols of Prussia, as well as other historic landmarks – even the Radio Tower (lift inside) erected in 1926. Moreover, the vast museum of German history, housed inside the onetime Arsenal (Zeughaus), covers several centuries.
By contrast, as many as a dozen collections cover the period from 1933, when the Nazis became Germany’s strongest party, until 1994 when the four wartime victors ceased occupying West and East Berlin. Hundreds of exhibits and thousands of panels recapture, with English translations, what was the most turbulent period not only for Germany but for most of Europe and beyond – and it has overlapped the lifetime of many visitors. The most important museums, mostly free, are as follows.
Terror: Although never president, Hitler pushed through a law that made him all-powerful. His dictatorship worked through a complicated network using the Nazi party, Gestapo and paramilitary SA and SS.
The museum explains this mainly through black-and-white photography plus newspapers, charts and maps – also available in a 400-page book. The ultra-modern building stands on the site of the bombed Gestapo headquarters and opposite a preserved section of the Berlin Wall.
Wannsee: In 1942, fifteen officials met at a lakeside villa in Berlin’s most south-western suburb to plan what they called the Final Solution. Today, its 13 rooms display panels explaining how the Jews were rounded up and sent to such death-camps as Auschwitz. The genocide is shown in maps, charts, photographs and a few rare documents as well as texts that include the stories of survivors, some of whom emigrated to Australia. The villa is only six kilometres from that bridge where captured agents were exchanged.
Resistance: Underground opposition to Hitler culminated in the 1944 plot that failed to blow him up. This museum overlooks the courtyard in the old military headquarters where Count von Stauffenberg and other conspirators were summarily shot. Texts and photographs show that resistance to the Nazis came from Christians and Communists, trades unionists and intellectuals, military officers and civil officials.
Checkpoint: In 1945, the Americans, British, French and Russians occupied Germany. Berlin itself was divided into four sectors, but it was in the middle of the Soviet Zone. The Kremlin did its utmost to get its former Allies out of West Berlin and to stop East Germans fleeing there, as they could not cross the so-called Iron Curtain into West Germany.
The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie and Mauer Museum focus mainly on the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and not torn down until 1989. There are newsreels and photographs as well as exhibits, especially of methods used by refugees to get over, under or through the deadly barriers. This museum is located opposite what was an official crossing-point, so a replica of the Allied military post stands outside. Incidentally, only 1½ kilometres eastwards is the Australian Embassy at Wallstrasse 76.
DDR: This museum by a River Spree landing-stage is about the regimented life in the so-called German Democratic Republic that collapsed in 1989.
It is even more interactive, and one can open drawers and boxes to see videos, photos, models and examples of everything from shoddy consumer goods to compulsory military training. Postcards reproduce Communist posters.
Stasi: The above also includes an interrogation room and a cell for political prisoners, but the complete story of Big Brother watching you is in the old State Security headquarters. On three floors, there are videos and colour photographs plus equipment used for surveillance methods and espionage. The spymaster’s private office has been left untouched, complete with its hotline to Moscow.
Allied: Located inside the former cinema for American soldiers, this collection includes military badges, uniforms, vehicles, insignia and warning signs like YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WEST BERLIN. A neon-sign advertising Radio In American Sector is another reminder of the three armies that defended what was sometimes called the island of freedom.
Outside is a Hastings, flown to blockaded Berlin during the 1948-49 airlift that also included an RAAF squadron of ten Dakotas. Also displayed is a carriage of the French military train that went between Strasbourg and the former German capital. Most intriguing is a replica of the American tunnel in which British signalmen tapped the Red Army’s telephones.
British military headquarters was at the stadium built for the 1936 Olympics. This and a few more museums might also be squeezed into three days, using a Welcome Card (27½ euros). It covers Berlin’s buses, underground and suburban trains, but a mietme.de hired car might be quicker for going via Glienicke to the old garrison town of Potsdam.
There and away
Tegel airport is better than Schonefeld for flying into Berlin. Trains from London, taking 12 hours, cost from 118 euros return, while an all-Germany pass starts at 150 euros. Go to raileurope.com.au or telephone German Railways on: 00.44.8722.214.171.124. Hotel rooms can cost as little as 25 euros.
TOP IMAGE: Berlin Wall (By turtix, via Shutterstock.com)