After viewing the colorful murals of the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery, we tackled the task of visiting two of the city’s museums dedicated to die Mauern: The Topography of Terror and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
The Topography of Terror consists of two parts. The open air portion of information panels, interviews and photos stretches along a section of the Berlin Wall, right in the shadow of the Nazi-built Luftwaffe (Ministry of Aviation) building, where Hermann Goring held court. There’s a more traditional museum nearby, with library archives, study rooms, lecture halls, bathrooms and a cafe, that was built on the grounds where the Gestapo and the SS headquarters once stood.
In a city full of war memorials and museums, I thought the Topography of Terror was particularly well done. It’s one of the few exhibits that specifically walks you through the connections between Germany’s Weimar Republic right after World War I to the rise of the Nazi party and persecution of the Jews and other groups to the Soviet establishment of East Germany and the Stasi policies that kept the population in fear. I read every panel.
It’s such an age-old question when it comes to Nazi Germany: What would you have done as your country descended into racist and genocidal policies? We all like to think that we’d take a stand on the side of good, instead of letting evil take a foothold. But the Nazis made their laws and propaganda campaigns so insidious and far reaching that many people went along not only out of fear but out of complacency. It makes you search your soul and your own family tree a bit. What did my own ancestors do for civil rights, for example? (Not much). What am I doing specifically to protest discriminatory policies going on now, such as the laws being passed against gay marriage, or against laws such as the Patriot Act that chip away at our personal freedoms? Big questions – which is exactly what an effective museum is supposed to make you consider. If you’re going to Berlin, the Topography of Terror is a must-do.
As I noted with the Ampelmann, Berlin is awash in ostalgie, highlighting its Communist past through kitschy bars, stores and fashion. On the tourist front, if you’ve ever wanted to buy a fake Russian fur hat, a copy of the former Soviet flag or a gas mask, Berlin’s the place to do it.
Our last stop along the Berlin Wall took us down to Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous guide house that represented the divide between West and East Berlin for so many years.
At one time, this sign provided a stark view of Cold War tensions and global unease. Now it’s a place where people pose for photos, then head off to the McDonald’s that is right next door. It’s proof of how history actually moves faster than we think it does.
To be honest, we were disappointed with the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Although it had some interesting stories about East Berliners attempts to cross over the Berlin Wall, the museum exhibits appeared extremely disorganized and in no particular chronological order.While the museum has some historic significance – it opened in a private apartment in 1962, shortly after the Wall went up – as a non-violent statement against Russian control, its layout and overall feel can’t compete with more modern learning experiences offered elsewhere.
If you only have time for one museum about the Wall, I’d choose the Topography of Terror instead.
If you’re not a museum type, there are some other places to view bits and pieces of the Wall. There are some graffiti ed panels up in Potzdammer Platz, a former dead zone while Berlin was divided that’s now bustling under German reunification.
Or you can trace the brick line that marks where the Wall once stood that runs throughout the city.