Today we are visiting a concentration camp and a political prison. Yesterday started all about a prison: it was called East Germany.
It’s pretty easy to recapture just how awful communism was in a few simple facts. In the 1950s something like one-in-five of the population of East Germany upped sticks and used the gateway of Berlin to escape to freedom and opportunity. Then, in 1961 their government decided to imprison the rest, and the Berlin Wall was built. Well, built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt: again and again reworked with one objective, to make escape impossible. Over the next 28 years some 5,000 people escaped that prison, most with fake papers; but, when you think about it, that adds up to 20-odd per annum. At least 139 people were killed trying to get over the wall. When the Hungarian government allows East Germans to cross into Austria, 50,000 fled.
That was the reality what we saw on Bernauerstrasse this morning. The wall itself, and all it stood for.
From its first victim, Ida Siekmann, killed jumping from a window, age 58, to the last, Winfried Freudenberg.
But no less to all those it imprisoned, including the guards themselves. In essence, in 1961, the people of East Germany were sentenced to life.
Heading back to town, we hit Museum Island. It’s not often I’m gobsmacked, but the Babylonian Gate is astonishing.
What really interested me was the Neue Museum. And not because of anything in it. Once more, there were bullet holes. Where you see them, you have the original structure; where you don’t, it means that something bigger than a Russian bullet came crashing in.
Come the war, most of Museum Island’s treasures were stored in bunkers. After, most found their way back. However, the great treasures of the Neue Museum were the so called treasures of Priam. Like many of the treasures of archeology, they were in essence booty: my definition of early archeology is in essence a load of rich blokes going on holiday and nicking stuff. Priam’s treasures wee, in fact, the treasures of Mycenae. The man who believed he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon was Heinrich Schliemann who, having seen it, nicked the lot.
In 1945, when the Russians hit town, as well as the ordinary Russian soldiers looting their way across Germany, so did the Soviet state. And Priam’s treasure was nowhere to be found. Well, it was somewhere: Moscow.
So much of Berlin is about what’s not there. After a meander through the Mitte, and two U-Bahn trains, we found ourselves in Ku’damm: Berlin’s shopping Strasse. But we headed to a nondescript and somewhat run down ’60s shopping centre. And a pretty average museum.
The real interest was the multi-storey car park. Well, what was under it. So, no one fear: if a nuclear war breaks out, we’ll be OK. Well, would have been.
Head further on Ku’damm, and you would soon find KaDeWe, what was once the largest department store in the world. It was Jewish owned, so it was taken over by Nazis; then it was bombed.
En route is the Kaiser Wilhelm church. Well, a striking modern building this acts as both church and memorial. And, the bombed tower of the original. A fragment of the Berlin that survived.
Back at KaDeWe. In 1950, it being in the western sector, it reopened. 200,000 Berliners attended its reopening. When it came to socialism versus capitalism, the Berliners voted with their feet and their wallets or purses.
And there’s almost nothing left of the wall. Just down the street from our hostel is a kilometre or so long stretch of graffitied wall known as the East Side Gallery. It’s famous picture is of Brezhnev and Honecker snogging: God Help Me Survive This Deadly Love.
And what is it now? A place where tourists pose for a snap. So when in Berlin….