On 27th January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, and each year since 2005 the date has been commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This blog is dedicated to the memory of all those who died during this inhuman period of European history.
The Holocaust is largely remembered for the genocide of 6 million Jews, but there were also an estimated 11 million others including Slavs (mainly Poles and Russians), Roma, political and religious dissidents, homosexuals and the ‘incurably sick’.
My inquiring mind into why Europe descended into so much chaos during the 20th century has led me to some dark places – and here’s another one – but unlike Auschwitz, there are no gas chambers or mass graves here; in fact, this lovely villa perched on the shores of the Großer Wannsee, couldn’t be more different.
For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.
The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.
Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.
When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.
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.
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.
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.
Berlin is a city that has seen many contentious projects over the years but The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has to be one of the most controversial of all. It wasn’t just because it covers part of the site where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had his office, but for a variety of other reasons.
The memorial was conceived by journalist Lea Rosh and designed by New Yorker Peter Eisenman. The area is about the size of three football pitches and just a few minutes away from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide on 30th April 1945. Being flattened during the war, the site is in an area of high real estate value, which for some was probably a lost opportunity to make a good deal of money, but the Berlin authorities did the brave thing and endorsed the project with the hope that it would help the city come to terms with its inauspicious past.
Built between April 2003 and December 2004, the monument consists of 2,711 slabs of concrete known as ‘Stelae’ arranged in a grid pattern on sloping ground which Eisenman wanted to be an “uneasy, confusing atmosphere”. Apparently, he got his idea from the overcrowded Jewish cemetery in Prague.