Hello again! Here is another post in my continuing attempt to finish my trip through Europe – eventually I will prevail, but things have been pretty busy in Edinburgh these last few weeks (more about that in perhaps a month or so :P). So, for a go at the 24th-28th of July, here is my post on the rest of my time in Germany.
I said goodbye to my lovely hosts in Munich early in the morning, and jumped on a train once more for the long haul up to Berlin, some 7 hours away. I decided that skipping right over the bulk of Germany was a bit of a raw deal, and so I planned a stop for a few hours in Nuremberg – home to the Holy Roman Empire’s parliaments and courts, some of the bloodiest witch trials in history, one of the earliest centres of Reformation and centre of the German Renaissance, and scene of the greatest rallies and the greatest Nazi trials. I would get a locker at the station, dump my heavy backpack, and venture out as I hadn’t done since York for a few hours before catching the late train onwards. I didn’t have a lot of a plan – my guidebook had just a little section on the city – but I figured I would take a walk through the medieval centre I presumed that it still had, maybe take a look at the castle, and then have a look at the museum about the trials. Seemed like a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
The first thing I noticed coming out of the station less than two hours later was a large gatehouse/fortificationy tower, and I knew this was a good start to a nice historic city. In fact, it turned out that most of the city was devastated during World War Two, and though the walls and the castle have been reconstructed, almost all of the city’s medieval and early modern construction is gone forever. I spent an enjoyable hour walking around what was left and what had replaced it, but I knew that my time was limited, so I planned a route to take in the major sights and still make it back for the 4:34 train. First up was the trial museum, some 2km away from the train station, adjoining the current prison and courthouse.
The trial museum did not take a short amount of time. The first issue was having an audio guide included in the ticket (all the signs were in German, and the other languages would be heard) – this is automatically a bit slower than reading signs in English (or a lot slower that not being able to read signs in German!) plus I, of course, had to go through and listen to absolutely every audio point in the place, because I’m a massive nerd for things of this variety (or any variety really). But in my defense, it was also really interesting! The museum went through the lead up to and preparations for the trials, and then, mainly focusing on the most major trial in which 23 surviving Nazi leaders were tried simultaneously for one or more of war crimes, crimes against peace, conspiracy to engage in warfare and crimes against humanity by a panel of eight judges from Britain, USA, USSR and France, explained the processes and participants that lead to verdicts ranging from acquittal to death by hanging. It then went on to explain the successive smaller trials of lesser officials by US personnel, show the subsequent development of international prosecution (including prosecution of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002). It was attractively and accessibly laid out, with floor diagrams showing where the different people sat, little displays on each of the defendants and judges, interactive computer displays and videos, and a wide range of information. In any event, I was so engrossed that I didn’t even check the time until I had spent four hours in there and had to run for my train to Berlin. A sterling success if I ever had one, though I will eternally regret not getting to the Castle, which is supposed to be amazing. Perhaps I will return in winter: Nuremberg’s Christmas Markets are world-famous.
I had two days in Berlin, and having long ago exhausted my appetites for generic amazing museums of world history and art (though Berlin has some very fine ones) I decided to spend them on 20th-century history: one day on the Nazis and one on the German Democratic Republic (DDR), a legacy of the post-WWII multinational occupation of Germany. Berlin is naturally extremely well-placed to deal with these things, being the capital of Nazi Germany and a divided city during the Cold War (most of the country was divided down the middle between Western occupation – Britain, USA and France – and Russian, but Berlin, though squarely in the middle of Russian-occupied territory, was itself divided, so that over time as the DDR became more Communist and more cut off, a little island of capitalist West Germany existed in the midst of East Germany. But more on that later). I was pretty excited, especially after visiting the tourist office and vastly expanding the already large list of monuments, museums and exhibitions to visit.
As I already mentioned, Berlin was the Nazi capital – home to not only the Reichstag (which I stumbled upon by accident trying to find an overland route to an interchange around a closed station on my late-night arrival, complete with a crowd of rained-on people watching a film about the reformation of the unified German parliament across the water with a mildy distracting light show) where the Nazi party was elected, gradually increasing their power by legal means, and then intimidated the members with paramilitants to pass the emergency act and give Hitler alone supreme sovereign power; but also the SS and Gestapo HQs, the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide, the Brandenberg Gate, and various memorials to victims of the Holocaust. I visited all these places on my first day.
The following day I devoted to finding out more about the DDR, of which I had essentially no idea. First up was the private (and thus not free *shakes fist at sky*) DDR Museum, located in an underground complex by the river. The displays were rather different than the previous day’s museums – less signs and wordy quotes and more artefacts, interactive displays and original DDR cars you could climb into and drive around a video game track. It was very busy and there was something of a carnivalesque atmosphere as people wound through the various sections, opening hidden displays behind doors and in drawers, enjoying seeing and often touching real things from the communist era, and laughing uproariously (just me?) at the many great jokes included in the exhibits. For your delectation, the sum total of notes I took on the DDR Museum: ‘Hilarious DDR Jokes’.
The president visits a factory in the DDR. The foreman sheepishly confesses that nearly five per cent of the products have failed to meet quality standards. The president replies, worried, “This is terrible news! Five per cent will not be enough to satisfy domestic demand!”
Quote from Vladimir Lenin: “There will never be a revolution in Germany. The Germans will only storm a railway station if they have first bought a platform ticket.”
Jokes about the very rubbish, very plastic and very hard to attain Trabant car:
– How do you double the value of a Trabi? Fill up the petrol tank!
– A Trabi owner asks the petrol station attendant for two windscreen wipers for his car. The attendant replies, “That seems like a good deal to me.”
– What do you call an accident between three Trabis? A Tupperware party!
– Why do Trabis have heated windows? To keep your hands warm while you push!
School canteen joke: We offer all diners an excellent range of options; you eat it or you leave it.
But seriously, the DDR Museum was a lot of fun, and worth being the only private museum I went to in Berlin. The interactive and innovative displays kept me interested for several hours, and I came out feeling as if I learned a lot about daily life in the DDR, from the cookie-cutter apartments to the industrial development, from the geography to the food shortages, from the hilarious sense of humour to the enormous number of people going on nude holidays.
Next up was a walk along the East Side Gallery, the largest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall, now a 1.2km street art gallery, with hundreds of large murals spread across it.
On my way from there to an outdoor exhibition on the Berlin Wall, I stumbled upon a train station exhibition in NurembergerstraBe on how the rail system worked when Berlin was divided, and lines would run between different countries that people wanted to get between but weren’t allowed to! It was awesome! It had explanations of the reasons why the stations were closed off, showed pictures of various security measures and the deserted stations, and told stories of daring escapes and violence from the DDR.
After this, I exited the station, to find myself right at the beginning of the exhibition, which stretched for several kilometres from the station, the vertex of a corner of the Berlin Wall that angled steeply away in both directions. (This is why it was such a popular point for escape – if you could get in, almost any exit would put you in the West). Almost all of the wall here has been demolished, but it is still incredibly poignant because this is the only place in Berlin where the ‘death strip’ is still visible. You see, the ‘Berlin Wall’ started out in 1961 as just one wall, but that was way too easy to breach. They experimented with a lot of different incarnations, but the end result was two walls, anti-tank barriers, guard towers, floodlights, barbed wire, and a huge empty band of fine sand, which both meant that people were really easy to see and that you could always see where they had been. Thousands of people attempted to escape across it, and over 130 people were shot and killed. The walk, now a long green path with tall rusty poles marking the location of the wall as visible to the West (the flat grey with round top we’re all familiar with) and with information and audio points scattered throughout. I learned about the houses that backed onto the Wall at the beginning, where people jumped from upper floors into the West; about the church that literally stood in the death strip and was closed to the 90% of its congregation that lived in the West, before being demolished in the late 80s, when the state was showing signs of cracks, people began attempting escapes again, and its obstruction of the nearby guardhouses’ view; and the many people that escaped, were caught, or were killed. The visitor centre also shows films every hour about life behind the Wall and about the Wall’s origins – why it only came about in 1961, for instance, and not before; and how the Wall is not just around Berlin, but also along the whole enormous border with West Germany in the western DDR. This exhibition is amazing and well worth getting into.