Tag Archives: Political

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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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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Federal Row – The Bundestag

The Federal Chancellery Building

Federal Row - The Bundestag

 

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990, an opportunity arose to bring the Federal government back to where it belonged in Central Berlin.

I don’t suppose it took much deliberation as to where to locate the new parliament. The Reichstag may have been battered and bruised from the events of the 20th century, but it was still standing, and the wasteland that was left surrounding it created a blank canvas for developers who could no doubt envisage a new dawn for a new Germany in the new millennium.

Politics isn’t an exciting subject for many people, but rarely has politics been boring in Germany, and if you venture into this part of the city, which is more than possible, then it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking at.

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The Scottish Parliament Building

The Scottish Parliament Building

On 12th May 1999, after a wait of 292 years, Scotland once again had its own Parliament, but it took another 5 years for the brand spanking new Parliament Building to be officially opened.

From start to finish the building was controversial and its location and design were immediately criticised. It was due to be completed in 2001 at a cost of between £10m-£40m but overshot both by a considerable margin and was eventually opened in 2004 at a cost of around £414m.

The designer, Enric Miralles, died in 2000 at the age of 45 and never got to see the finished article, which was a shame because he put a lot of thought into the design. His concept was a brave one. His plan was to incorporate a group of modern buildings in a traditional setting in a way that only an artist’s mind can work out. The problem is of course, that not everyone can see what he was trying to achieve.

From a personal point of view, even though I don’t fully understand what was going on in his head, I do actually like the building. There are some aspects of it that I don’t like but overall, I think he made a pretty good fist of it. Whether it stands the test of time is a problem that most modern structures face, and obviously only time will tell.

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Grey Street and Grey’s Monument

Grey Street and Grey's Monument

The image of Newcastle as a shipbuilding city with a party town atmosphere tends to hide the fact that it has some wonderful classical buildings, especially in the area known as Grainger Town.

Richard Grainger was the man behind the area’s development in the first half of the 19th century, and one of his most notable achievements was the construction of Grey St, which runs over the top of the Lort Burn.

The Lort Burn used to flow openly downhill to the Tyne, but eventually became just an open sewer until the lower section was transferred underground with the construction of Dean St over the top of it in 1749.

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County Hall and the London Eye

County Hall and the London Eye

Next to the London Eye on the Lambeth side of Westminster Bridge is the former County Hall, which in my view, is the best-looking building along the South Bank section of the Queen’s Walk.

Work started on the colonnaded building in 1910 to house the offices of the London County Council (LCC) which was formed in 1888. Unfortunately, WWI held things up and it wasn’t finished until 1922. The adjacent north and south blocks were added in the 1930s and the whole complex is now a Grade II listed building.

1965 saw the LCC give way to the newly formed Greater London Council (GLC) which during the 1980s came into conflict with Margaret Thatcher, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister.

During this period the GLC was a Labour controlled council led by the controversial Ken Livingstone. ‘Red Ken’ as he was dubbed by the press, took the opportunity of the location of County Hall to get under the government’s skin. Situated just across the river from Parliament, the GLC raised large banners highlighting the unemployment figures for all to see.

Margaret Thatcher’s response was to add to the unemployment figures by abolishing the GLC, and Red Ken found himself looking for another job.

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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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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

King Charles St

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

 

Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always been intrigued by what goes on in the ‘corridors of power‘.

What do those ‘Mandarins of Whitehall’ actually do?, and is our destiny really at the mercy of those men in grey suits?

A few years ago I was looking down on those bastions of government control from the London Eye and they looked even more mysterious somehow, so when the opportunity to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) arose during London’s Open House Weekend, I was determined not to miss it.

Obviously I wasn’t the only person curious to see what it was like inside because there was a huge queue to get in, largely because of the security checks that were taking place due to recent terrorist activity in London and elsewhere.

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Whitehall

The Treasury

Whitehall

 

The Houses of Parliament may be the most obvious landmark of British politics, but the real corridors of power are trudged by the grey mandarins of Whitehall. This is where the Treasury, Foreign Office, and the Cabinet Office, amongst others, make some of the country’s most important political decisions.

Sandwiched between these large buildings of Portland stone is Downing St where the Prime Minister resides at No.10 and the Chancellor next door at No.11. For security reasons there isn’t much to see because everything is well guarded by gates, barriers and armed police.

The Ministry of Defence has its offices here and some of the other buildings used to belong to The Admiralty and War Office. Even the Metropolitan Police had their original headquarters at the famous ‘Scotland Yard’.

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