Here’s the thing: As much as I enjoyed our recent trip to Berlin, I’m not sure I’d rank it as a top romantic destination.
There’s just too much depressing recent history. Sure, we could have concentrated on the city’s modern art and design scene, opting to spend our time at the city’s clubs and restaurants. But my husband and I are both history nuts, so we felt the need to visit the Wall and the museums connected to World War II and the Cold War instead. Plus Berlin is filled with so many memorials and monuments that it’s hard to ignore its Nazi past, even if you wanted to.
We stumbled upon the Bebelplatz Memorial above as we walked back to our hotel from the Mitte, for example. It’s an underground room of empty library shelves, representing the Nazi book burning ceremony that took place on May 10, 1933 by members of the SA, the SS and Hitler Youth groups. More than 20,000 books were burned in front of Humboldt University. A plaque at the memorial now reads: When they burn books, they ultimately burn people. It’s chilling.
Curious to learn more, we went on a Third Reich tour by Original Berlin Walks. The 3 hour tour cost only 12 Euro, less if you have one of the city’s excellent WelcomeCards, which gives you big discounts on transportation, museum entrances, tours and more (we received ours courtesy of the Berlin Tourism Office but the cards only cost 16.90 euro to 29.90 euro, depending on the length of time you buy it for). Our tour, led by Chris, an American who studied recent German history in Berlin, started at the Wilhelmstrasse – at one point, one the city’s most infamous streets. Although it’s currently occupied by basic apartment buildings, the Wilhelmstrasse once housed the offices of the Nazi Chancellory, the Nazi Finance Ministry, the Propaganda Ministry and other government buildings under Hitler’s control.
From the Wilhelmstrasse, we walked north to Unter den Linden, perhaps Berlin’s most famous boulevard. Built by Prussian kings as a bridle path, the tree-lined street became a shell during World War II as Berlin’s citizens cut down the linden trees for firewood. Our walk along the street ended at the Brandenburg Gate, where our guide showed us photos of huge Nazi rallies held in front of the Berlin icon, a symbol of German unity.
From the Brandenburg Gate, it’s a short walk to the Reichstag, the historic seat of German government. Here, we learned about the machinations of the Nazi Party and how Hitler was able to seize control of the government. What’s scary about the Nazi rise to power is that it actually took place legally. Fueled by the country’s discontent with World War I reparation payments and spiraling inflation, the Nazi party gained seats in the Reichstag under the Weimar Republic and controlled 32% by Jan. 1933. As head of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in a coalition government, appointed by President Paul Hindenberg.
Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, the Reichstag caught fire. Hitler blamed the fire on communists and used the event to get Hindenberg to sign the Reichstag fire decree, which nullified many German civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of the telephone and postal service. In addition, anyone who opposed the government could legally imprisoned; the concentration camp Dachau opened in March 1933 for political prisoners.
Outside the Reichstag is a memorial to the 96 opposition members of the government who were killed by the Nazis.
From the Reichstag, we walked south toward Potsdammer Platz. Along the way, we passed the Holocaust memorial, a series of raised stones known as the Memorial to to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The design was inspired by the Talmud, with each of the 2,711 slabs representing a page in the Jewish holy book. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial’s uneven surfaces are meant to be an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, representing a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. There’s an underground information area that holds the names of all the Jewish Holocaust victims.
I’ve written about the Topography of Terror already. The outdoor museum is built upon the former site of the Gestapo and the SS headquarters, which have been torn down. Still dominating the landscape: the Nazi’s former Ministry of Aviation. The Wilhelmstrasse building screams “Fascism” – it’s monolithic, imposing and nationalistic in its design. The Ministry, which spearheaded the production of Germany’s powerful Luftwaffe force, was headed by Hitler confidant Hermann Goring and later by architect Albert Speer. The Ministry is one of the few Nazi buildings that survived the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1944, and today it houses Germany’s Finance Ministry.
The final stop on our Third Reich tour took us to a parking lot not too far from the Wilhelmstrasse. This normal-looking plot of land was the site of the Fuhrerbunker, where Hilter and Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945. The bunker itself lay more than 26 feet underground and had about 30 small rooms. Hitler had moved into the bunker about four months before his death, enjoying safety and daily amenities such as tea, even as Berlin underwent copious bombing.
Hitler apparently feared that his body after the war would suffer the same fate as Mussolini’s, which was hung upside down from a petrol station in Milan. So he gave explicit instructions to his top aides to burn his body after his death. As word came that the Soviet Army was closing in on Berlin, Hitler shot himself, and Braun bit into a cyanide pill (other top Nazis also killed themselves; propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels even had his children poisoned before he and his wife took cyanide. The Soviets exhumed Hitler’s remains and kept them in East Berlin until the KGB destroyed them completely in 1970.i
Several attempts were made to destroy the actual bunker, both by the Soviets and the East German government. Since the end of the war, governments in Berlin have feared that the site would turn into a neo-Nazi shrine, so the location was left unmarked until 2006. Today, there’s an info board in front of the parking lot, but not much else.
You’d think that after all that, Don and I would have learned enough about the Nazis. But no, we decided to check out the Jewish Museum, which several of my friends told me not to miss. And they were right – the Museum is not only informative, but evocative. Created by architect Daniel Libeskind, the building is specifically laid out to resemble a warped Star of David and the corridors are supposed to make you feel uneasy. Libeskind included several memorials in his design, including the one above, Fallen Leaves, which is made up of 10,000 iron faces.
While all of the historical information we took in was incredible, it took an emotional toll on my husband and I. There’s just no way that you can tour Berlin’s Nazi sites and museums without coming to the conclusion that most Germans were culpable in the rise of Hitler and the majority carried out his fanatical and genocidal policies without question. In the Jewish Museum cafeteria, I covered my face with my hands. “So basically, most humans are evil,” I said to him. “Pretty much,” he replied. As I said, not exactly grounds for romance.
Of course, most people don’t want to immerse themselves in Berlin’s Nazi and Communist history as we did. If I was going to do it again, I’d tell people to space out the history with trips to the Tiergarten and hikes around Potsdam. (and indulge in plenty of bratwurst from street vendors). Berlin has so much to offer that there’s no need for anyone to avoid the city because they fear it might be depressing.