Winter Tales from Berlin

Once again we were off on another, if slightly more whirlwind, trip to Eastern Europe. This time the destination was Berlin, and the aim was a combination of site-seeing and the consumption of Glühwein, Schnitzel and Strudel.

We spent most of the first afternoon, and if I’m honest, evening, wandering around aimlessly. I’d like to claim that this was intentional, but it had more to do with a rubbish map and bad street signs. However we did manage to consume more Glühwein than a person probably should, and, albeit in the dark, got to see the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. In fact, I personally think this added significant ambience because at night the lighting makes both seem even more dramatic.

Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate

Monday was the only full day we had, so we had to make the most of it. The day started, as most do, with breakfast. We ended up in the fanciest tray service café I have ever been in; it had its own candelabra. It looked ideal! With the below freezing temperatures wewanted some sort of warm potato and sausage-based breakfast and this café had plenty of both. Except, upon ordering we were told that there weren’t any hot potatoes, despite a mound of them being on fairly prominent view. Having argued the point and lost due to linguistic inability, we conceded defeat and ordered sausage and cold potato salad, not ideal, but surprisingly nice.

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The Stasi Prison

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin is an incredible city and as a result of its united and divided history is packed with hundreds, if not thousands of sights to be seen, all of which have been a great influence on both great and terrible elements of European history. During the Cold War, Berlin was split into two, one part being in the Federal Republic of Germany (the West) and the other being the home to the Germany Democratic Republic (the East) government. The Berlin Wall was constructed in the 1960s and up until 1989 represented the metaphorical iron curtain which Churchill had referred to in his speech in Missouri in 1946.  Crossing from East to West and West to East was difficult and dangerous.  To be done legitimately one had to travel through what was known as Checkpoint Charlie.  However, for those wishing to cross undetected from East to West, to escape the terror and/or find their loved-ones, a risky journey over the Wall, during the absolute dead of night, was required.  Unfortunately, the majority who attempted this were killed by guards.

While West Germany, under the influence of the USA and Britain, rebuilt itself on capitalist principles, East Germany, under the influence of the USSR evolved with supposedly communist principles. However, in reality, the latter was no more than a rouse for a vicious regime which was merely a puppet to its puppet-master, Russia. This was particularly true during the period defined as Stalinism, 1928-1953.

One of the most terrifying elements of the East Germany regime was the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security (state police) which prevented East Germans enjoying a so-called normal life. The Stasi organisation and mentality were based upon Russia’s KGB and their terrorising techniques, not to mention their obscene censorship on seemingly everyday parts of life, are almost incomprehensible. Die Ausstellung (Stasi Headquarters) on Mauerstrasse (www.bstu.de) currently exhibits vast quantities of evidence collected by the Stasi, not to mention information on the brutal techniques used by the Stasi officers. Most interesting is the apparently never-ending amount of post confiscated. Unfortunately, at present, the exhibits are described in German only, but an English booklet is available for free from the reception desk.

In the guise of a fruit and vegetable van this would drive around Berlin and watch those suspected of being enemies of the people. The Stasi Officers would then bundle their suspect into the van, drive them around and to the Stasi Prison. Those on the street never suspected a mere fruit and vegetable van could be carrying such a dark secret. Those living near the prison never knew what the building or the vans were used for and never suspected what happened behind the prison's large gates.
In the guise of a fruit and vegetable van this would drive around Berlin and watch those suspected of being enemies of the people. The Stasi Officers would then bundle their suspect into the van, drive them around and to the Stasi Prison. Those on the street never suspected a mere fruit and vegetable van could be carrying such a dark secret. Those living near the prison never knew what the building or the vans were used for and never suspected what happened behind the prison’s large gates.

While a trip to Die Ausstellung is useful to explain the censorship of everyday life, the true terror of state prison and the regime is best understood on a visit to the Gedenkstätte Hohenschön-Hausen (Stasi Prison). The prison can be found by taking the M5 tram from Alexanderplatz to Freienwalder Strasse. When vacating the tram, follow the sign to the prison, past Lidl to the end of a road in the middle of a residential area.

The prison can only be visited when accompanied by a prison tour guide, usually historians or former prisoners. The site was used as a location to collect and confine men, women and children destined for the Soviet gulag until the Allies intervened in 1946. It then became a regular prison and when the Soviet guards handed over control to the Stasi, they eagerly embraced terror tactics including beatings, sleep deprivation and water torture previously used by their mentors. During the 1950s, physical torture gave way for mental abuse and prisoners suffered total isolation and sensory deprivation. So-called enemies of the regime were held captive right up until 1989 and the fall of the communist regime.

A visit to this former prison, perhaps more fittingly described as a death camp, truly evokes a feeling of how terrifying living under the East German regime was. While it is difficult to ever truly understand the thoughts or experiences of those who have suffered extreme terror and torture, whether it occurred at a British concentration camp in South Africa, a Gulag in Siberia, or indeed this Stasi Prison in Berlin, a visit to Gedenkstätte Hohenschön-Hausen does illustrate how, throughout history, human beings have inflicted evil upon their innocent peers. While no doubt not appearing on many top ten sights to visit in Berlin, for those searching for a deeper understanding of the human psyche, a trip to this Stasi Prison is a must. For more information visit www.stiftung-hsh.de.

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