History - World War II, Berlin
About halfway along Unter den Linden, on the southern side opposite Humboldt University and adjacent to the State Opera House, is a large rather bare-looking square. This is Bebelplatz, and it played a significant role in the inglorious story of the rise to power of the National Socialists. On May 10th 1933, more than 20,000 books by Jews, Communists, and Pacifists, including Bertholdt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and many others, all considered subversive by the Nazis, were looted from the university library on its west side and from elsewhere in the city. They were piled high in the centre of the square to be burned by members of the SA ("brownshirts"), SS, Nazi students and Hitler Youth groups, on the orders of the Nazi minister for propaganda and public enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels.
Today you can peer through a glass panel, set among the paving stones near the opera house, at Michael Ullmann’s underground art installation the Empty Library, with its rows of empty bookshelves a stark reminder of that awful day – although sadly on our visit the pane of glass was misted over and the installation very hard to see. Nearby a bronze plaque (see photo 3) commemorates the event, and next to it another carries a quote from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine:
"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen"
("That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people").
As well as the opera house and library the square is home to St. Hedwig’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. Across Unter den Linden classical statues look down on the square from the roof of Humboldt University (photo 2), as they would have done on the day of the book-burning. The university was founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810, although at that time was known simply as the University of Berlin, and later as the Friedrich Wilhelm University, only changing its name to that of its founder in1949. At its gates you are likely to see a book sale being held. The books sold are reprints of those burnt during the Third Reich and the sale is intended to show atonement for the university’s complicity in the burning.
Directions: About halfway along Unter den Linden - buses 100, 200 and TXL stop nearby. Französische Straße (U6) is a short walk to the south west
This building was a huge public air raid shelter during WW2 and is now the Chamber of Horrors. It now contains 3 different exhibitions on 3 floors. There are monsters, skeltons and medieval medicine on the upper floors. The lower floor contains an exhibition of the shelters’ original use during WW2. The upper floors are popular with children and the lower floor with the dads. The building has some unusual opening times so check out their website. The cost of entrance for an adult is 9.50 euros.
Address: Schöneberger Straße 23a
Directions: Just around the corner from S-Bhf Anhalter Bahnhof.
Bus M29 and M41
Phone: +49 (0)30/26555546
A new exhibition has opened at the Forced Labour Camp at Schöneweide. The exhibition charts the history of the camp, the history of forced labour during the Third Reich and personal accounts of those forced to work. This is a brilliant state of the art exhibition and well worth a visit the same as its related site the Topography of Terror Documentation Centre.
The Forced Labour Camp at Schöneweide is the last of its kind in Berlin. The reason the buildings still exist was due to the fact that it was built from blocks whereas as the other camps were built from wood. During 1944 there were 420,000 foreign workers in Berlin housed in 3,000 buildings. Some foreign workers worked as servants in private houses and they were housed in those buildings. Thirteen buildings were constructed between 1943 and the end of the war and unlike earlier buildings these were block built due to the now frequent air raids. They were used to house up to 2,160 civilian workers, females prisoners from concentration camps, prisoners of war and forced labour. With approximately 200 prisoners in each block they had to get up early to wash etc due to the lack of facilities. There was a pecking order at the camp with those from western Europe having one day off a week, a small wage and being allowed out of the camp on their day off. Those from eastern Europe had to work seven days a week and not being allowed out of the camp. There were armed SS guards at the camp for security. Workers from the camp had to work in such places the Pertrix battery factory, railway repair yards and the Pierburgs factory which made carburettors and fuel pumps for the military. Pertrix was not a nice place to work due to the harsh conditions. There were no protective clothing and poisonous gases from lead and cadmium. Prisoners from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were forced to work at Pertrix. As with the concentration camps many deaths occurred due to sickness, no heating, lack of food, the number of hours forced to work and the working conditions. After the war as this area was in the GDR the buildings were put to other civilian uses, including offices, vaccine laboratory, workshops and child care. The camp was rediscovered after reunification but the Documentation Centre was not opened until 2006. A number of buildings have been saved though some are still used by other businesses. Money has been tight but a donation from Pertrix has allowed a new exhibition to be opened on 07 May 2013 and unlike the old exhibits this one has an English translation. Barracks 13 is a slight distance away from the main exhibition site and is the best preserved of the barracks. Visits to Barracks 13 are only by guided tour which have to be arranged in advance, details are available via their website. There are public tours which are published on the website but these are only in German. There is a library for those wishing to carry out research. The exhibition is free including the guided tour of Barracks 13 and the camp is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. There have been attempts to set fire to the camp by Neo-Nazis and signposts to the camp had been turned around. .
Address: Britzer Straße 5, Berlin-Schöneweide
Directions: Signposted from Schöneweide Railway Station but see above.
Phone: +49 (0)30 6390 288 0
I first learnt about this WW2 bunker via VT Member johnjoe55. The bunker was originally built in 1942 and was meant as a refuge against allied air raids for nearby railway workers. The walls and ceilings were more than 1 metre thick and the building has 5 floors, with each floor divided into 8 chambers with seating space for 3000 people. After the end of the war the building has had a number of uses including a shelter for the homeless, storage space for food a night club and its present use being the most unusual as a family home and depository for the owner’s large art collection. The building has had a complete makeover and comes complete with penthouse, swimming pools, garden and 3,000 squares metres of exhibition space. The owner Christian Boros has a contemporary art collection of more than 400 pieces. Pre-arranged visits can be made to view the art collection via the below website.
Address: Bunker, Reinhardstrasse 20, Berlin
Whilst searching on the internet for bunkers in Berlin I came upon this website that wetted my appetite. Later on I watched a TV program about the numerous tunnels, bunkers, flak towers and buildings that were used as shelters and the new Germania. I was aware of the flak towers that had been constructed for defence during WW2 but that’s where it ended. I therefore made up my mind to visit the remaining flak tower in Berlin. Most people are unaware of its existence because after WW2 the flak tower in Humboldthain Park was partly blown up on the southern side by the French. The explosives only damaged about half the tower and the concern was that if the rest of the building was blown up it would fall on to the railway cutting below blocking the line. Therefore it was decided to cover over the building with debris and earth to hide it. The 3 flak towers formed a triangle to defend the airspace over Berlin. The park was reconstructed and things seemed to settle down over the years. Over the passage of time a new interest has been born into the history of the tower. The tower in Humboldthain Park was the last of the 3 towers to be built in April 1942. It was originally planned to build 6 towers but lack of materials and cost halted the project. Each flak tower had a command post that was located 300 to 500 metres away and they were linked by underground cables. The command posts were also known as L-Towers had powerful radars and range finders on the roofs. The flak tower had a huge twin barrelled anti aircraft gun on each of the 4 corners. The Humboldthain Flak Tower only had 105mm flak guns until late 1943. This information from the command posts was processed and communicated to the roof top of the flak towers and distributed to the four large corner tower mounted Flak 44 128mm twin mounted flak guns, these had a range of 15,000metres. These guns were protected by smaller calibre machine guns. All three pairs of towers were fitted on their lower platforms with various light flak guns generally of the 20mm and 37mm calibre range, primarily for offensive operations that could engage small low flying allied aircraft. All the weapon systems on both flak towers are also capable of fulfilling a defensive role against both ground and airborne targets. The tower had a compliment of 160 men to man the guns. Towards the end of WW2 the towers were used as a shelter by the general public and they could hold thousands of people. All 3 towers survived the war but the rush was on afterwards to destroy them in case they became a symbol to the Nazis.
I went on a group tour with an enthusiastic English speaking guide, who was happy to answer any questions and processed an excellent knowledge of the history of the tower. A warm coat and sensible footwear are advised. The website gives good directions where to purchase tickets for the tours. Check times & dates for the various tour tours as some are closed during the winter.
Address: Berliner Unterwelten e.V. Brunnenstraße 108a
Directions: The ticket office is located in the southern entrance of U 8 Gesundbrunnen Subway Station. Tickets should be purchased at least 15 minutes the tour starts.
Phone: +49 (30) 49 91 05-17
This group of figures, designed by Will Lammert, was the first memorial in Berlin to the Jewish victims of the Nazis. Thirteen sculptures originally intended for the foot of the stele have stood in the Old Jewish Cemetary in Berlin Mitte since 1985.
The sculptor Will Lammert (1892-1957) joined to KPD (German Comunist Party) before Nazis rule of Germany, also, his wife was a Jewish. In 1933 he was forced to emigrate to Paris, escaping from Nazis prosecutions. After only a year spent in Paris he was expelled from France and forced to flee again, this time to Soviet Union. Meanwhile, almost all his works in Germany were destroyed by the Nazis, after the press was stirring up hatred against Bolshevist artist with close Jewish relations. His work was declared "entartete kunst", degenerate art.
Lammert was allowed to leave Soviet Union only in 1951. After returning to Germany (GDR) he dedicated himself to his composition of the memorial site at the former Ravensbruck concentration camp. Some of his design, however, were realized only after his death in 1957.
Platform 17 at Grunewald Railway Station is a memorial to the 50,000 Jews from Berlin, who were transported from this station to various concentration camps during World War 2. The 2 platforms have been re-laid with metal grilles, which have cast along the edge the numbers, dates and camps the Jews were sent too.
Address: Grunewald Railway Station, Berlin
Directions: Take the S7 train to Grunewald Station and then follow the signs.
Grosse Hamburger Strasse was one of the main streets in the Jewish Quarter of Berlin until the rise of the Third Reich.
On the site of the former cemetery, which was destroyed during the war, there now stands a memorial sculpture of men, women and children awaiting there unknown fate and an accompanying plaque. The site was used as a collection point during the war, for Jews waiting to be transported to the concentration camps.
Address: Grosse Hamburger Strasse
To most people the name Johann Georg Elser is unknown unlike the name Claus von Stauffenberg. Both tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler by setting off bombs and both failed for different reasons. Elser had worked as an engineer and a carpenter and used these skills to make and hide his bomb. Elser opposed National Socialism and did not trust Hitler's claims to want peace. With war breaking out on 01 September 1939 this made Elser more determined to complete his plan.
Every year on the 08 November Hitler attended the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall in Munich to give a speech to the surviving veterans of the Putsch. Elser had attended the anniversary speech in 1938 and had judged the security at the hall as poor and decided he would try to assassinate Hitler the following year when he gave his speech. Elser went to Munich weeks before the annual speech and regularly attended the beer hall hiding in the building each night. Each night Elser slowly hollowed out a pillar behind the speaker's rostrum intending to place a bomb inside it. Hitler's speech's were usually long winded affairs that went on for hours. Hitler had intended to fly back to Berlin after the speech but fog caused the flight to be cancelled. Due to the inclement weather Hitler started his speech earlier than usual so he could travel back to Berlin by train. The speech was also much shorter than usual and Hitler left the Beer Hall, 13 minutes before the bomb exploded killing 8 and injuring 63.
Luck was not on Elser's side and he had already been arrested before the bomb went off as he tried to cross the border into Switzerland. As the parts fell into place and suspicion fell on Elser, he was tortured, confessed and was sent to the Sachsenhausen and then Dachau Concentration Camps. As the war was drawing to a close, Elser was shot dead on 09 April 1945 at Dachau and this was made to look like the results of an air raid.
As Elser and the assassination attempt, which could have changed the course of history, become more well known several memorials have been erected. One of those was inaugurated on the 08 November 2011 in Wilhelmstraße adjacent to where Hitler's Reich Chancellery once stood . It was designed by Ulrich Klages and the sculpture is a 17 metre high silhouette of Elser and is lit at night giving it an eyrie appearance as you pass it. Close to the sculpture are information boards detailing the assassination attempt.
Address: Wilhelmstraße 51, 10117 Berlin
Directions: Wilhelmstraße junction with An der Kolonnade
This huge Soviet War Memorial and cemetery took 1,200 workers over 3 years to construct and contains the bodies of 5,000 Soviet soldiers who were killed during the battle for Berlin. The focus of the memorial is a 12m tall statue of a soviet soldier with a sword and holding a child, and standing over a broken swastika. Beneath the statue is a room covered in mosaics where wreaths are laid. In front of the statue is a central area lined on both sides with 16 sarcophagi, one for each of the Soviet Republics. The central area contains the remains of 5,000 Soviet soldiers that were killed during the battle for Berlin. In front of the central area are 2 portals in a stylised flag, that are clad in marble taken from the former Reich Chancellery, these are flanked by two statues of kneeling soldiers. This is one of the larger memorials in Berlin covering an area of 10 acres. As part of the agreement when the Soviets left the memorial is now looked after by the German Government and after renovation a few years ago it has been well looked after.
Address: Treptower Park
Directions: You can catch a train to S-Bahn Treptower Park or bus #265 from the city centre.
Gedenkstatte Plotzensee is a place of quiet reflection of what horror took place in the name of so called Nazi justice. The original prison was built between 1868 – 1879 and covered an area of 22 hectares and could accommodate 1,200 prisoners. When the Nazis came to power they set up the notorious People’s Court and the convicted prisoners where sent to various prisons including Plotzensee. An execution shed was set up next to the central prison building called House III, where prisoners were brought before execution. Under the Nazis the number of executions rose with over 1,000 taking place in 1943. After the failed plot to kill Hitler on the 20th July 1944, those who were thought to have been responsible were put on trial before the People’s Court. Most of the trials took place before the notorious Nazis judge Roland Freisler and were mere formalities with little chance for the accused to defend themselves. Many were sentenced to death and were hung with chicken wire in the exection shed at Plotzensee and the event filmed for Hitler to view. After the war House III which had been damaged by allied bombing was knocked down and the memorial built.
Address: Plötzensee Memorial Center Hüttigpfad
Directions: Bus 123 to bus stop "Gedenkstätte Plötzensee"
Yet another of those moving Berlin sights, this was a must for me. In the middle of the square just outside the Humboldt University's legal faculty is a monument in memory of the awful nazi book burning of 1933, when Jewish, socialist and other so called "non-German culture" books were burnt here by order of Propaganda Minister Goebbels. The famous Heinrich Heine quote from 1821 of "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." (in German "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.") stands out on a plaque in the middle of the paving stones and there is always someone there to look. Next to it is an underground library with shelf after shelf completely empty. A very thought provoking and wonderful monument to remember a sad event.
Directions: Along Unter den Linden, next to the Opera.
The Bendlerblock was originally built to house the German Naval Offices and it was extended to house the Headquarters of the Wehrmacht during WW2. The story would have ended there, had the courtyard not been used to execute some of the failed conspirators, involved in the plot to kill Hitler on 20th July 1944 including Claus von Stauffenberg. There is a memorial to the executions in the courtyard. The profile of the building has recently been raised after the screening of the film Valkyrie some filming of which took place at the building. On the second floor of the building is an exhibition to the history of German anti Nazi movements. The whole exhibition, which is free to visit, is all in German but audio guides are available for free, an id needs to be left. The first floor is used for special exhibitions that are regularly changed.
Address: Stauffenbergstraße 13 - 14
Directions: Entrance through the commemorative courtyard
Phone: +49-30-26 99 50 00
The German-Russian Museum is housed in the former School of Pioneers in the Karlshorst District of Berlin. The building has a historical significance because the instrument of surrender was signed in the former officer’s mess on 8/9th May 1945 that ended WW2 in Europe. The museum covers major parts of the history between Germany and the Soviet Union before, during and after WW2. A copy of the surrender document is on display, together with a uniform of Marshall Zhukov, a film of the signing of the surrender document and the officer’s mess is laid out as on the night of surrender. The staff at the museum are friendly and some English is spoken, there is a small café, cloakroom and entrance to the museum is free. The exhibits only have information in German and Russian so it is essential to purchase a guide book in English that gives an overall explanation of the various rooms and exhibits. Outside the museum there are some artillery pieces and vehicles. This is a little known museum but a must for anyone with an interest in the history of WW2.
Address: Zwieseler Strasse 4, Berlin 10318
Directions: Its on the corner with Rheinsteinstrasse. Its about 20 mins walk from Karlshorst Station or take the #396 bus.
Phone: +49 30 501508-10
This was a controversial memorial when it was first thought of and was almost never constructed. It was erected in 1995 and consists of 18 polished stainless steel plates 9 metres wide and 3.5 metres in height. The memorial commemorates all the Jews from the Steglitz District who were sent to concentration camps. The memorial has the names, addresses and dates of birth of the victims, of which few survived the war. From some angles the memorial almost disappears and is difficult to see. The memorial reflects what is happening around it and signifies that life goes on. The downside to this was on the day I visited a market was taking place and the memorial was surrounded by boxes and stalls. I felt that another location free of market stalls but busy with people may have been better.
Address: Hermann-Ehlers-Platz, Steglitz
Directions: Opposite Rathaus Steglitz U-Bahn Station