The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

By Talia Silverstein

Today our adventures in Berlin took us through some of the city’s most famous historical sites. Our tour guide, Kathinka Minthe, walked us through many parts of the city, teaching us about the history, social discourse, and controversy that each place held. We started at the Reichstag Building, home to the German Parliament and finished at Museum Island where we saw Angela Merkel’s home. We visited the Brandenburg Gate, walked through Tiergarten, and explored The Memorial for the Murdered Jews. We walked along Hannah Arendt Straße to get to the site of Hitler’s old bunker, now a parking lot, and later saw Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, a section of the old Berlin wall. Around the corner was the Topographie of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie,  the site of a historic standoff. We wrapped up at the site of the infamous book burning, across the street from the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. The focus of our tour was to examine the ways in which these historical landmarks allowed us to discuss some of the “hidden” women of Berlin’s intricate history.

One of the topics discussed was remembering history without memorializing all of it. When you visit Germany, the first thing many American visitors think about are the sites where World War II, Nazis, and Hitler stood not so long ago. This horrific history is something every German citizen acknowledges and learns about, but many of the actual sites that had been part of the war are now new or renovated. The historical relevance of the war is not lost on people today. As Michael Stewart writes in Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma, “I came to feel that for many people, the memory of the entire war was condensed into a few images that were normally kept deep in the shadows of the cave, illuminated occasionally and incandescently before being enveloped gain in the penumbra of the past.” While this is a history that Berlin wants to make sure to remember, when it comes to memorializing an atrocity it is hard to find “positive” ways to do this. It seems to me that the people of Berlin are in a constant struggle between remembering and acknowledging atrocities without glorifying those who committed them. We cannot forget the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, but at the same time, Berlin must be able to grow and develop. The people of Berlin have made the conscious decision to memorialize some and destroy others. The sites most often destroyed were those with ties to the Nazi party to deter neo-Nazis from using the places as a pilgrimage sites.

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

A surreal moment during our tour was when we visited Checkpoint Charlie. None of the historical or original buildings are there at all. What remains are tourist-oriented museums designed to attract. The streets are full of stereotypical USSR and fake communist propaganda for sale. It was a space flooded with tourists hoping to see a piece of history. In the middle of the street a fake USSR checkpoint hut stands for people to take pictures with, of course only if they are willing to pay a fee. The line to take pictures by the hut stretched over a block and almost every tourist held in hand some piece of fake propaganda or were adorned in Cold War uniform replicas. It seemed like a cheesy a commodification not only of a difficult history, but also of the German/Soviet. Watching people capitalize on the hardships of millions left a pit in my stomach.

Further, the little proof we saw of accomplished women was hard to find and are usually newer and smaller. For example, during our tour on Tuesday, Carolyn Gammon showed us that the women’s wing in Humboldt University was only a tiny hallway. To build on this today, we learned about Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Her art depicts poverty, hunger, and working-class struggles. She was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, and had a small museum in her honor. We would’ve visited but, like a lot of Berlin, it was unfortunately closed for renovations. Another famous Berliner, Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher, has a street named after her. The last woman we saw at the Topographie of Terror was Stella Kubler, a Jewish convert to Christianity turned catcher, who went underground rounding up hidden Jews for the Gestapo. She was an open anti-Semite and was eventually charged with war crimes.

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Reflecting on the absence of women’s history, they truly are hidden. With a critical eye, you can begin to uncover the stories of these powerful and notable women. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti write in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom, “Internal contradictions, incompleteness, and obstinacy characterize the work of Rosa Luxemburg as well as that of Hannah Arendt […] Due to their respective Jewish and Jewish-Polish origins, their gender (which they hardly ever mentioned and when they did, only in private) and the prevailing historical-political situation, both women were strangers in a world whose imposing list of identifications they flatly refused.” As a Jewish woman who has grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, I can’t help but to recognize the importance of remembering this history.  As Stewart writes, “Rather than focus on the means of ‘forgetting’, ‘obliterating’, and ‘downplaying’ the past’ I focus on the ways in which, despite Gypsy ‘presentist’ rhetoric, the past is ‘remembered’ among Gypsy populations.” Until now, I have never understood the struggle for those who it so closely surrounds to be able to escape this history in order to be recognized as more than it.


Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Talia Silverstein is a rising sophomore from Port Washington, NY. She is planning on majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and double minoring in Political Science and Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She is passionate about her photography, drawing, and poetry. During her time at CC, she hopes to have more opportunities like this class that allow her to travel, explore, and participate in hands on learning. While in Berlin, she plans on getting lost as much as possible unless it makes her late to class.

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The New Berlin Walking Tour

By Melissa L. Barnes

From the Reichstag building made out of chocolate to Hitler’s bunker to the site of the World War II book burning—for 3 hours today, we toured one of the busiest areas of Berlin and learned about the history of Germany.

Hotel Adlon

Hotel Adlon [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

We began at the Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson infamously dangled his youngest son, Blanket, over a balcony. Across the street from the hotel, we saw the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, and we explored the potential meanings of the wordless art memorializing the heinous attempted extinction during World War II—memorials remembering others who lost their lives are spaced out around the same area. The memorial consisted of blocks of varying size, reminding me of coffins, with spaces wide enough for us to walk between each wedge of concrete. Peter Eisenman, the architect who designed the memorial, refused to answer questions about the meaning of his memorial other than the fact that his inspiration was drawn from Jewish cemeteries.

Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

Kaimara in the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

Ximena offered her interpretation that walking through the memorial signified the unpredictability Jewish people faced during the Holocaust. When walking through the memorial, I could see other students I know and then I would quickly lose them behind the pieces of concrete; I can only imagine being separated from family members and loved ones, seeing them for a moment, and probably never seeing them again and never knowing exactly what happened.

Hitler's Bunker

Blaise (left) and I (right) Standing Four Meters above Hitler’s Bunker

We then walked to the site of Hitler’s bunker, which is now covered with earth and a “car park” or parking lot. We were standing 4 meters above his bunker and saw the playground that is now at its former exit. Next to Hitler’s underground bunker is the site of the former Nazi headquarters, which was demolished by the Soviets. When the tour guide told us that we were currently standing on top of Hitler’s bunker, I actually felt a little sick to my stomach.

The Slide Placed at the Former Exit of Hitler’s Bunker

The Slide Placed at the Former Exit of Hitler’s Bunker

I did not expect to be so close to history and deeply sad, disturbing tragedy. I was expecting to witness the consequences of World War II, but not necessarily the actual location of Hitler’s final act of violence. As a psychologist-in-training, I am intrigued with the psychology of war, but my research has focused more on the victims of war not the personal aspects of the perpetrators of war. Suddenly being thrust into the setting of Hitler’s direct decision process caught me aback.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

The Berlin Wall is much, much shorter than I thought it would be and the tour guide correctly said, “Most of you were probably expecting something like the Great Wall of China.” However, our tour guide taught us about “The Death Strip” and the differences in life experiences between those who lived in East Berlin and those in West Berlin. For example, those in East Berlin likely never actually saw the concrete wall because of the underground mines, sand-hidden spikes, and “shoot-to-kill” policies strategically placed well before the wall.

On our way to the ending point of the tour, we briefly stopped to look at chocolate-made buildings, but were not allowed inside the store for some reason. I tried taking a picture of the chocolate-made Reichstag building; however, the store’s windows were too glossy to take pictures.

Heinrich Heine Quote in the State Opera Square

Heinrich Heine Quote in the State Opera Square

After this, we walked to the square in which Joseph Goebbels endorsed and led the burning of books written by authors not approved by the National Socialist administration. Within the square there is a plaque that features a quote from Heinrich Heine in German claiming, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” However, Heine was talking about the Spanish Inquisition not the Final Solution. When we were talking about this quote, I thought about the letter Audre Lorde and Gloria I. Joseph wrote to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Lorde and Joseph discuss the implications for community silence that perpetuate the ignorance leading to particular historical events and boost the likelihood that these events, such as violence, war, and discrimination, will re-occur. Just as Heine observed the process of burning people during the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of books by Goebbel led to the subsequent burning of unaccepted people by the National Socialist administration.

Heidi Giving us the "Key Talk”

Heidi Giving us the “Key Talk” [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

Our official tour ended with Heidi giving an impassioned speech about our use of the apartment keys. We are currently staying in two separate apartments, and the FemGeniuses I am living with only took one out of three sets of keys when we left for the tour—I brought the key, yay me! Heidi subsequently lectured us on the importance of bringing all of our keys, since we just about locked ourselves out of our apartment because I almost gave Heidi my key so that she could retrieve her laptop bag after the tour.

Our Tour Guide Rob McC and I

Our Tour Guide Rob McC and I [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

Our unofficial tour ending consisted of our tour guide, Rob McC, showing us the way to our first bar/biergärten experience with many of us enjoying our first drink in Germany! Thank you, Rob McC!

 

 

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Me and Kadesha

Me and Kadesha [Photo Credit: Blaise Yafcak]

This fall, Melissa will be starting her final year as a student at Colorado College, double-majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology. This fall, she is planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology.