Sorry for the delay in getting this posted/written…
Let me just preface this by saying history is my WORST subject and I am writing this primarily based on notes from our free tour and my memory, so bare with me if there are some mistakes. Basically, most of the overall stories should be correct, but exact names or dates may vary (although I tried to write most of them down) - that's how I like history! Haha. Also, I'm pretty much going to explain it in terms of what we saw on our tour, so it's not really chronological, but it should basically flow with the sequence of our pictures. Sorry it got SUPER long, but now you can see why it took so long to write (see how much we are learning over here?!)...if you get too bored, skip down to the part about the wall...you can't have Berlin history w/o the wall. Enjoy!
BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON GERMAN/BERLIN HISTORY:
In case you are as bad at history as Danny and I were, I figured I'd give you a little bit of background. First of all, Berlin's name literally translates to Ber = swamp, Lin = city, so Swamp City (although we didn't really see many or any swamps, so…?) A long time ago (see I told you, no good at dates) what is now Germany was divided into smaller states, and Berlin was part of the state of Prussia. Otto von Bismarck, the Prime Minister of Prussia, felt that the states of Germany would be stronger if they united. The best way to unite, he decided, would be fight against a "common enemy." France was targeted and so began the Franco-Prussian War. This war lasted only about nine months, the German states defeated Napoleon III, and the German Empire was formed.
This easy victory indirectly led to World War I. Germany wanted to continue expanding its influence, and although allied with Italy and Austria, it slowly gained more and more enemies. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Germans were actually excited because they figured it would be a quick easy win, like the Franco-Prussian War and they would come out on top. Obviously, this is not what happened and Germany was held solely responsible for all the war reparations. Based on economic projections, it was predicted that it would take Germany until 1984 to completely pay off its war debts.
Germany's solution to this problem was to print more money. However, they didn't just print a few more marks, they just kept printing and printing and printing. Obviously, this lead to inflation but in this case it was not just inflation, it was hyperinflation. As we heard SEVERAL times - at the end of World War I, one United States dollar was worth about 4 German marks. By the beginning 1923, $1 U.S. was worth somewhere around 3,000 German marks. Only eleven months later, November 1923, $1 was equal to over 700 BILLION marks.
It was apparent that Germany was not going to get anywhere like this, so the United States stepped in to help give them funding. As a result, Berlin, especially, was able to rebuild itself and Germany began to thrive again. However, with the crash of the U.S. stock market, all that support was gone and Germany was once again in financial trouble…
This opened the door for Hitler, etc etc…we know most of that story (and for some Hitler info see below).
Berlin was heavily hit during WWII and when Germany finally fell, it was divided between the democratic nations and the communist Soviet Union. Berlin itself was a divided city where communism was practiced in the east and democracy ruled in the west. (See BERLIN WALL history below).
THE BRANDENBURG GATE & PARISER PLATZ
Our tour started off at the Brandenburg Gate at the Pariser Platz. This square also houses the new United States Embassy, the French Embassy, and the Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson dangled his baby). The Brandenburg Gate is a set of columns with a statue of a goddess being pulled by a chariot of horses. This gate was built when Berlin was still a part of Prussia by Fredrick the Great (see below). Originally, the statue on top was of the Goddess Irena, the goddess of peace. However, in 1806 when Napoleon marched into Berlin, he liked the statue very much and decided to add it to his "personal art collection," the Louvre. Obviously, this angered the Prussians very much (as did being taken over by the French) so they built up their military and ten years later stole the statue back. (I am sure there was some fighting dealing with gaining their freedom back too but we didn't learn about that.) They decided that the goddess could no longer be "Irena, the goddess of peace" so they added the eagle onto the staff and dedicated it to the Goddess Victoria, goddess of victory. According to our guide, the also named Pariser Platz that so that the military could "march all over the French" when they were training in the square. That is why, our guide claimed, the French embassy is so heavily secured and "paranoid" even being in a square named after their capital city.
THE REICHSTAG & HITLER'S RISE
On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building, the meeting place of the German parliament (which was really an inefficient group of artificial figureheads) was burnt down. The German "parliament" at the time did not have much power because their terms lasted less than a year so they were constantly being disassembled and reassembled.
The burning of the Reichstag was a significant event because it opened the door for Adolf Hitler to gain power. The fire was blamed on Marinus van der Lubbe who was an easy target because 1) he was mentally ill, 2) he was a known pyromaniac, and 3) he was a communist. This last point was what Hitler was able to use to his advantage. He told the German president, Hindenburg, that the communists were trying to overthrow the government and that they had burned the Reichstag to kick off their revolution. Hindenburg did not like Hitler (who was then the German Chancellor), but he disliked communism even more so he fulfilled Hitler's request to pass an emergency decree to give Hitler basically unlimited power to "counter the Communist attack." When Hindenburg died soon after, Hitler declared himself dictator and the rest is history!
What is little known about the Reichstag fire is that it was started from several different points INSIDE the building all at the same time. The only person who had access to the building at this hour was a national socialist - most likely working for Adolf Hitler.
When the Reichstag was rebuilt, a new element was added. The current Reichstag has a huge glass dome ("cupola") on its roof. Inside the cupola is a spiraling pathway that leads to its top where you can look out at the city. From nearby the Reichstag, you can look up and see people (primarily tourists) winding up the paths like ants! Vertically through the center of cupola is a series of mirrors that supposedly are there so the people of Germany "can look down and watch their government in action" and also the parliament can always look up and see who they are serving - although with the tourism now, it is not REALLY the case.
THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE
Danny already talked about this a little bit in his blog, but this memorial was only recently built in 2005. It was designed by a Jewish architect named Peter Eisenman. Although it was inspired by a Jewish cemetery in Prague where families are buried on top of each other, the architect really did not offer much explanation as to the memorial's symbolism or the significance of its design. When you see it, it is basically a bunch of gray stone blocks. Near the edges the start off short and they get taller and taller as you walk further in. The pathway also rises and falls. Apparently Eisenman wanted everyone to interpret the monument in his or her own way…
COMMUNIST "LUXURY" APARTMENTS
Our tour took us by the communist "luxury" apartments. The whole idea of this seems strange…"luxury" in a society where everything is supposed to be communal and equal. Well our guide described it as, "Everyone was equal, just some people were MORE equal than others." The luxury apartments were occupied by members of the Stasi as well as famous people and those who "brought honor to East Germany" (like the gold medalist ice skater - who later posed for Playboy). In Communist Berlin, there was about 1 member of the Stasi for every 64 citizens. Also 1 in 4 people were spies for the Stasi, so it really was like the book 1984 with "Big Brother is watching you"…
HITLER'S BUNKER & SUICIDE
As we stood looking the apartments, our guide told us that the location we were standing at (the parking lot) also had historical significance - below it was Hitler's bunker where he committed suicide. When Hitler went into hiding, he was apparently VERY paranoid. The underground bunker had reinforced concrete walls that were 4 meters thick. As he lived in hiding, he pretty much went crazy, planning attacks with troops that no longer existed, etc. He pretty much lived in denial that Germany was starting to lose. The day before he committed suicide, he married his long time girlfriend. (He had to appear single to the public to win more support - apparently the women thought he was quite a stud!)
On the day of his suicide, he had three cyanide tablets delivered to the bunker. He gave the first tablet to his beloved dog. Ironically, Hitler - the man responsible for the murder of millions and millions of people - could not watch as his dog died. His new wife took the second pill after dressing up in her finest makeup, jewelry and clothing so that she could "look beautiful for her husband even in death." Finally, when it was Hitler's turn, he decided he wanted to die "honorably" like a solider, so he shot himself in the head AND took the cyanide pill (just to make sure he got the job done).
When the Nazis guarding the bunker heard the gunshot, they did not rush in to see what had happened. Instead, (according to our guide) they lit up cigarettes and took a smoke because that was something Hitler forbade them to do in the bunker. When they got down into the bunker and found the dead Hitler, they removed his body to follow his desires for his body to be burned. Hitler who had see the bodies of leaders like Mussolini hung up in public to be scorned did not want that for himself. However, as the soldiers were burning Hitler's body, the Soviets were marching into Berlin. As a result, the Communists actually found Hitler's body and were able to identify it through his dental records. They did not, however, disclose this information to their followers for nearly 30 years. The Communists needed its wary followers to believe that Hitler was still a threat so they would make claims of seeing him, even when they knew he was dead. The poor dentist who had #1) had to stick his fingers in the mouth of arguably one of the cruelest men of all time and #2) was forced to identify Hitler by the records of this was imprisoned in Moscow for the 30 years before the Communists confirmed Hitler was dead.
Also, the reason there are no remnants of the bunker is because the Communists destroyed it. First, they tried throwing grenades into it, but it was built to be a bomb shelter so that did not really have any effect. After a lot of hard work they were able to destroy the entire thing. This was important because they did not want any Nazi supporters to have a place to go to honor Hitler. This is the case throughout Germany - there are no memorials or monuments for Hitler anywhere.
WWII DAMAGE & FASCIST ARCHITECTURE
As you walk the streets of Berlin, there are lots of buildings with huge dents out of the sides of them. There are also lots and lots of empty lots. This is because nearly 90% of Berlin was destroyed during World War II. The holes and dents in the buildings were from bombs. As a result there is very little examples of fascist architecture anywhere in the city. We were able to see one building that had been the Air Force Headquarters - you'd think that as a military headquarters it would be a key target, but apparently there is some suspicion of some kind of agreement NOT to bomb the Air Force HQ because some of Germany's enemies did not lose theirs either.
The Fascist architecture is pretty bland. The building we saw looked strong and tall, but gray. Our guide said this was to make the individuals feel insecure and stronger as a nation. When the Communists took over this part of Berlin, they made the headquarters into their "Ministry of Ministries" (again like the book 1984). They painted a HUGE propaganda mural on the side of the building with lots of smiling faces and people of all occupations marching together making communism look like paradise. In front of the building, in contrast, there is what looks like a big pool of water, but is really a huge photograph of a protest to lower the work quota that occurred at that building.
And now, what you've all been waiting for…
THE BERLIN WALL (CONSTRUCTION AND OPERATION)
The Berlin Wall (or the fence that preceded it) was erected literally overnight. On the evening of August 12, 1961 Walter Ulbricht signed an order to close the border between East and West Berlin and to build a wall. At midnight that night, the East German army started closing the border with barbed wire fencing and the job was completed by the next morning. As our guide told us, a person could have been visiting his girlfriend in West Berlin that night and not been able to come back to his home in East Berlin for 28 years!
Obviously, the barbed wire fence was only a temporary divider. Two days later, the construction of a concrete was started. At first, the wall was just plain concrete so large trucks could just smash right through it. As a result, they began to use reinforced concrete blocks that were L-shaped so they could easily be place one next to another.
When you see the Berlin Wall, there is no barbed wire, nothing that looks to menacing at all. In fact, over the top of it runs a rounded tube (which turns out were sewage lines) and you wonder, "Why wouldn't more people try to climb this?" As it turns out the Wall was the last line of defense. On the East side, there was another barbed wire fence that ran parallel to the wall at a distance of about 100 yards. Between this fence and the actual Wall was what was referred to as the "death strip." This area was filled with freshly raked gravel, so that footprints were easy to spot. Huge lights shined down on the whole strip in order to prevent any shadows in which a person could hide. Also in the strip were trip wires, minefields, caves with aggressive dogs, and watchtowers where guards looked down prepared to shoot anyone trying to cross. Prior to the sewage lines being on the top of the Wall, our guide said there HAD been barbed wire, but that this had actually helped people escape…if you had already crossed one wire fence, somehow survived 100 yards across the death strip, you had no choice. People would actually grab on to the barbed wire with their hands, tearing them up, and use it to heave themselves over the wall. On the other side, there would be medical staff ready to bandage up your wounds and help you recover.
Also, (and I really DON'T remember the details of this) but at one point, East Germany thought that they could pretty much cut West Berlin off of all supplies since East Berlin and East Germany surrounded the city entirely. This, however, resulted in an operation from the democratic nations where a plane dropped supplies into West Berlin every 90 seconds! So much for that idea!
There were several checkpoints along the wall where people could pass from one side to the other - only they could not pass easily. It required specific paperwork and good reasoning to go across. Sometimes tours were allowed from one side to the other, but they were strictly monitored. One of the checkpoints was Checkpoint Charlie. This checkpoint was largely for diplomats and foreigners and today is really just a big tourist trap. They still have it set up like a "checkpoint" and you can even get your passport stamped for a euro or two and have you picture taken with German and American "guards".
The most interesting thing our guide told us at Checkpoint Charlie were some of the crazy stories about people who managed to cross the border. The first story was about a young man from West Berlin whose girlfriend lived in East Berlin. He drove a very small convertible and he figured out that if he ducked down while driving it with the top down, it would be low enough to squeeze under the gate at the checkpoint. He practiced driving ducked down and finally, one day, drove to the other side (although I think he may have gone from West to East Berlin on permission). When he picked up his girlfriend, she said she would only come if he could bring her mother as well. Well, the young man thought about it and as our guide put it "would win either way…if he put the mother in the trunk and successfully got her across, he'd be a hero to his girlfriend; if he put her in the trunk and she got shot up by the guards and the checkpoint, he wouldn't have to worry about having a mother-in-law!" Anyway, he did manage to successfully drive under the gate with his girlfriend and her mother and they escaped into West Berlin. This method, however, only worked this one time because after it the guards reconstructed the roads to the gate so that cars would have to zigzag to get there and it would be impossible to gain the speed necessary to sneak under the gate.
The best story (but read this carefully because it is a little tricky to follow) was about a young German man who was really good at faking an Austrian accent. Remember that they were more lenient about letting foreigners cross than letting German citizens cross the border. Well, one day, he goes up to the checkpoint from the East side and in his best Austrian accent says, "Please sir, I am a student from Austria studying in West Berlin. Today, I came to East Berlin on a bus tour, but my mother is sick and I just got word that she is dying. In my haste, I left my papers on the bus, but please…you have to let me go back to West Berlin so I can see her before she dies."
The guard looked at the man and said, "Sir, this is an international checkpoint. I cannot just let you cross. You better go back and get your papers."
"But please, there isn't any time…she is dying. I need to cross."
Well this argument goes back and forth for a little while - the guard holding tough and the young man starting to worry because his plan isn't working. Finally, the guard says, "Let me go check on this…I'll be back." And he leaves the young man under the supervision of two other guards.
The young man is pretty much freaking out - if he gets caught as a citizen of East Berlin trying to illegally cross to the West Berlin, he'll probably be killed and his plan is NOT working. Well, the other guards who are supervising him are up for some amusement and they see that the young man looks really worried so they ask him, "Sir, what is your story?"
Well, suddenly a lightbulb goes on in the young man's head, "Sirs, I am an Austrian student living in EAST Berlin. I had some business in West Berlin and got word that my mother is dying. In my haste, I left my passport and papers in my hotel room in WEST Berlin but please…she is dying and I really need to cross."
The guards look at each other and give (kind of) the same response, "Sir…this is an international checkpoint - we'd suggest you go back to your hotel room in West Berlin and go get your papers."
"You're right," says the man and he walks freely into West Berlin.
HOW THE BERLIN WALL FELL IN ONE DAY
That's right…the Berlin Wall which stood as a menacing barrier between East and West Berlin - and extended its influence across the country of Germany literally fell in ONE day. I'm going to try to leave out some of the details so the story isn't quite so long, but it's really pretty amazing so I want to make sure you get a feel for it too - so bare with me.
In the late 1980's, the Communists in the Soviet Union decide to make Communism more "friendly." They implement these three basic beliefs - on of which is "transparency" meaning you tell the people what your plans are, utilize the media, etc so they feel included. Well, the leader of East Berlin and East Germany felt they were above these three points - they felt East Germany was thriving and so they did not need this new setup. The people living in Communist Germany, however, we NOT content and they did not exactly feel like they were thriving. They began to see that they had power in numbers and started throwing protests and rallies requesting lower work quota, higher pay, etc. Many of these rallies took place in Leipzig and were usually stomped out. When the East German police and government got in a pinch, the Soviets would always back them up and send support.
The people of East Germany, apparently, liked the ruler of the Soviet Union, so the East German ruler invited him to Berlin to do a joint speech, selfishly hoping to regain some popularity among the German people through public association with this popular figure. Ultimately, he is hoping this will help stop the protests in Leipzig which now are occurring once a week. However, at the speech, the East German leader publicly scorns the Soviet Union's three pillar policy and says that East Germany is so strong they do not need that - probably trying to instill national pride in his people, but still very insulting. As a result, the Soviet Leader says that the Soviets will no longer support East Germany or provide any reinforcement. The next week, another Leipzig rally occurs and in the end the East German leader is pretty much forced to step down.
East Germany immediately forms a new government which starts by agreeing to implement the Soviet Union's three pillar policy for Communism and to immediately enact the "transparency" pillar, they schedule a press conference for November 9, 1989. That same morning, the new government has a meeting in Leipzig to discuss necessary reform - the obviously need to do SOMETHING to regain the support of the people. One young politician volunteers the idea to "allow vacation travel between East and West Germany."
At first, everyone thinks this is preposterous. They argue that if they let East Berliners cross into West Germany, none of them will return and the Communist society will fall apart. The young man, however, has a real plan. He says, "No, no…we'll SAY we are opening travel between the East and the West, but really we will require all this paperwork and clearance that it will take people years to actually be able to go. In a couple years, a few people will have been able to go across, but most people will not. The bottom line is the people will THINK they have more freedom so they will be happy."
Everyone discusses this plan and they agree that it sounds like a good idea. The plan probably could have worked too except one man decided wasn't at the meeting…Günter Schabowski, the man who was giving the press conference that evening did not attend the meeting. He supposedly spent the day preparing for his press conference, rehearsing certain questions, making sure he looked good…right before he left for the conference, his secretary came in with a memo from the meeting in Leipzig. She said it was important and he should read it, but he dismissed her because he was preoccupied trying to prepare. Instead, he put the memo in his pocket without even looking at it. He made the general announcements he had prepared and then opened the floor up for questions. When the press asked him what the new government was going to do differently, thinking of the note he opened the memo in his pocket and read aloud to the crowd, "East Berliners will be allowed to cross the border." Suddenly, everyone in the audience was at full attention…this was breaking news.
"When Mr. Schabowski?" he was asked. The new rules were supposed to go into affect the next day, November 10, 1989 in order to give the border patrol time to be notified and prepare. However, Schabowski did not know that. He skimmed the memo and the only date he saw was the date of the meeting, November 9th.
"As far as I know effective immediately, without delay."
So many people heard Shabowski's announcement on television that within a few hours, thousands and thousands of East Berliners had packed possessions and were lined up at the border patrols, desperate to cross to the other side to see family members and friends they had been separated from for years. The border guards, who had no idea what was going on and were used to a quiet shift, looked outside and were shocked. They were told to tell the crowd that anyone with all their paperwork would be free to cross (thinking not many people would have all their paperwork). Well, a couple of people did and once they opened the gates for one or two, they couldn't very well hold back the other thousands, so everyone stormed across the border.
People spent the weekend with their friends and relatives on the other side of the wall and had "the craziest party Germany has ever seen." On Monday, they had to go back to East Berlin to their homes and jobs and lives, but the damage was done. The idea of the wall had been shattered and it would be impossible to reconstruct it. That's how, as our guide put it, "The Berlin Wall, which stood for 28 years, got taken down single-handedly by one man in one day!"