Tag Archives: Modern History

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Between October 22nd – 28th 1961 the eyes of the world were focused on Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin during the years of the Cold War. A stand-off between American and Soviet tanks could have resulted in quite possibly, WWIII, but both sides had the sense to realise the consequences and serious conflict was avoided.

I’m sure that many of you will know how all this came about, but I think it’s worth repeating anyway.

The background to the drama goes back to the end of WWII when Germany was divided up by the four main countries responsible for its defeat – Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Although they were united in defeating Nazi Germany, the differences in ideology between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union had been obvious for quite some time. Really, it was just a case of agreeing to disagree while they defeated the common enemy of Nazi Germany.

At the end of the war Germany was divided up into West Germany, (controlled by the Western alliance), and East Germany (controlled by the Soviet Union). Berlin, which was situated deep inside the Soviet sector, was also divided up by the victors into West and East Berlin.

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The Topography of Terror

The Outdoor Gallery, Berlin Wall and Air Ministry Building

The Topography of Terror

The Topography of Terror is both an outdoor and indoor museum on the site of the former Nazi headquarters for the Gestapo and SS.

It lies at the intersection of Wilhelmstrasse and Niederkirchnerstrasse, and covers the area once occupied by the Prinz-Albrecht Palais.

The area around Wilhelmstrasse was the main centre for the Nazi administration, and although Hermann Goering’s former Reich Air Ministry building (now German Finance Ministry) still towers over the Topography of Terror, most of these buildings have long gone.

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Wilhelmstrasse

The Former Air Ministry Building

Wilhelmstrasse

If the outcome of WWII had been different, and London had been beaten into submission instead of Berlin, then imagine if you can, what Whitehall would look like now: Wilhelmstrasse is (or was) Berlin’s ‘Whitehall’.

The road runs for one and a half miles between the Marschallbrucke on the River Spree down to Hallesches Tor in Kreuzberg, but the most interesting part from a historical point of view, is the section between the bridge and Niederkirchnerstrasse where the Berlin Wall split the city into two.

Originating from the time of King Frederick William I, this once wealthy residential thoroughfare, developed into Prussia’s main government district with many of the buildings being taken over by the state, including the Palais Schulenburg for Otto von Bismarck’s Chancellery.

At the end of WWI, the area came under the control of the Weimar Republic, but on 30th January 1933 there was a new Chancellor – Adolf Hitler, who immediately set about building a new chancellery for the Third Reich at the junction of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss Strasse.

After Hitler’s suicide in the Chancellery bunker and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the street found itself within the Russian sector as far as Prinz Albrecht Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Bomb damage and the Battle for Berlin had left the area in tatters, and as neither the Russians nor East Germans had any reason to save whatever was left, the land where Prussian palaces once stood, was now either part of No-Man’s Land separating East and West Berlin or built upon with Eastern Bloc architecture.

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The Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial

The Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial

There are three Soviet War Memorials in Berlin, one in Treptower Park, another in Pankow, and this one in the Tiergarten, which is probably the most well-known of the three, and unveiled just two months after the fall of Berlin to the Soviet army in May 1945.

The Battle for Berlin cost 80,000 Soviet lives and over 2,000 of them are buried here at this large memorial not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Ironically, after the partition of the city into 4 zones, the monument fell inside the British sector.

All parties agreed to allow it to be guarded by two Soviet soldiers, which it did until 1993.

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The Siegessaule

The Siegesaulle

In the middle of The Tiergarten at Grosser Stern, stands the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, and if you’ve got €3 – and the energy – it’s possible to climb the 285 steps to the viewing gallery that sits just under Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory.

The monument was designed by Johann Heinrich Strack, and the 8.3m golden statue on top of the column was added by Friedrich Drake and represents both the Goddess of Victory and Borussia, the Latin name for Prussia. Her face is supposedly based on Drake’s daughter and known as the Goldelse (Golden Else), or roughly translated as ‘Golden Lizzie’.

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The Sony Center

The Sony Center

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz must have been an architect’s dream. The square was divided up into four separate areas which were to be redeveloped by four different developers, one of which was the area now occupied by the Sony Center.

During the ‘Golden Twenties’, the site was occupied by ‘The Esplanade’, one of Berlin’s most prestigious hotels. Frequented by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, the hotel was even used by Kaiser Wilhelm II who entertained guests in one of the hotel’s magnificent halls.

90% of the hotel was destroyed by allied bombing raids in the winter of 1944/45, with the Kaisersaal (as the hall became known) and the breakfast room the only rooms to survive. After restoration of what was left, it once again fell into disrepair following the building of the adjacent Berlin Wall.

After the Wall came down, what remained was listed as a historical monument, which created a problem for the architects of the new Sony Center. The outcome was that the Kaisersaal was moved 75 metres and incorporated into the new design behind a glass wall, and the breakfast room was dismantled piece by piece and re-created for the new Café Josty, the original being a popular Potsdamer Platz meeting place for artists in the early 20th century.

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Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz

At a point where five roads converged at the old Potsdam Gate, Potsdamer Platz became the busiest and most recognized intersection in Germany – if not Europe. It became so busy that Europe’s first recognised traffic lights were installed in 1924 to help keep things moving.

Its heyday was during the Roaring Twenties, when film stars such as Marlene Dietrich helped catapult Berlin onto the world stage of show business. It was the place to be and be seen. Grand hotels were built to accommodate the rich and famous, as did luxury stores, bars, and restaurants. The inter-war years had been good to Berlin, but it wasn’t to last.

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Alexanderplatz

Friendship Among Nations Fountain

Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz, or Alex, as it’s known to Berliners is a windswept pedestrianised plaza doubling up as a meeting point and transport hub in what used to be East Berlin.

It was the downtown centre for the locals when it was behind the Iron Curtain, and now one of the main focal points for the united Berlin of today – and no visit to the city would be complete without visiting Alex.

The square was the communist authority’s idea of a modern cityscape, and although it’s had its fair share of critics over the years, it wouldn’t surprise me if there wasn’t a fair number of people who wouldn’t want to see it change too much either.

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The Tower of London Pt 5 – Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red

The Tower of London Pt 5 - Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red

To commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I the Tower of London created an art installation called ‘Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red’.

From July to November 2014, the moat around the tower was covered with 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each of the British and Commonwealth personnel who were killed in the ‘War to end all Wars’.

The creator was Paul Cummins, with assistance from designer Tom Piper, and the idea was to sell all the poppies for £25 each with the proceeds going to service charities.

The poppies were hand made in Cummins’ factory in Derbyshire, where the unknown man who coined the words of the installation came from. In his will he wrote the words “The blood swept land and seas of red, where angels fear to tread”.

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The Churchill War Rooms

The Prime Minister's Room

The Churchill War Rooms

 

Not as conspicuous as the nearby Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey, Churchill’s War Rooms is a must see for anyone interested in where Britain’s top brass and politicians directed the Second World War from.

Even before the outbreak of war, it was decided that these decision makers wouldn’t abandon London and its people, and so the basement of the Office of Works building opposite St James’s Park, was adapted and strengthened to suit its new purpose.
Officially known as the ‘New Public Offices‘, but unofficially as just ‘George St’, the corridors of this subterranean nerve centre became a bunker, with a cabinet war room, private rooms for the prime minister and chiefs of staff, a map room where plans were worked out, and several other rooms that would help to facilitate the war effort.
From 27th August 1939 until the lights finally went out on 15th August 1945, a total of 115 cabinet meetings were held here.

At the end of the war the rooms were left just as they were, and in 1948 they were given the status of a historic site. In 1981, the incumbent Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decreed that the public should have access to this historic site and the Imperial War Museum opened the doors to the Cabinet War Rooms in 1984. In 2005 the Churchill Museum was added.

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