Berlin, from Prussian heritage to the Nazis

I just came back from a trip to Berlin, my first one. I was so amazed by the city that I have decided to dedicate it several blog posts. Between history with the Prussians, the Nazis, the Cold war and the amazingness of the city nowadays, I just couldn’t fit everything into one post.

I went to Berlin to visit friends (with my rosbif boyfriend of course), and we decided to take a 4 hour walking tour in the city. Yes, 4 hours is long, but also totally worth it ! I always enjoy walking tours in every city I visit for the first time. Not only do you get a good overview of the city and its history, but also get some pretty funny and unexpected stories from the guides. Our guide in Berlin was called Sam, and he was just everything as I expected.

When you think about Berlin, you probably think about the Nazis, the cold war, the Berlin wall… everything but the Prussians, really. And yet, most of the magnificient buildings to see in Berlin were built under Prussian kings, mainly in a baroque style. Some of them were then re-used by the Nazis. So it made sense to start this serie on Berlin with a post about the Prussians and the Nazis.

Stunning Berlin, a Prussian heritage

Let’s play a little game first : can you guess in what year the Berlin Cathedral was completed ?

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

It looks really old, right ? And although the original building was built in 1750, it was only completed in 1905 !

The Berlin cathedral is located in one of the most stunning area of Berlin : the museum island.

The island counts 5 of the most renown museums in Berlin, and is located on the Spree river, right in the center of Berlin. The first museum of the island was comissioned in 1810 by King Frederick William III, but the idea of an island dedicated to culture and museums only came in 1841. The names of some of the museums seemed to amuse a lot our guide, in particular the New museum (1859), and the Old museum (I wonder how long it took them to come up with the names).

Standing on the bridge and contemplating the river and the magnificient buildings around, I could not help but wonder how the city looked like before WWII, where 90% of Berlin was destroyed. The museum island itself was destroyed at 70%. At this point, our guide had to warn us : if you see something that look like a bullet hole, then it is one. The battles of WWII have left traces on some of the most historical buildings of Berlin, including the ones on museum island.

Colonnes, Island museum, Berlin

Colonnes and bullet holes, Island museum, Berlin

During the cold war, the collections of the museums were divided between the East and the West. Berlin was located in East Germany, the soviet territory, but the city itself was divided in two (later on by the Berlin wall). The collections were reunited after the reunification of Germany, and the buildings on museum island were then restored. However, bullet holes are still very visible on all of the buildings.

Altes museum Berlin

Altes museum, Berlin, and its granite bowl

The Altes museum opened for the first time in 1830 and was restored in 1966. Its first purpose was to display the treasures of the royal family, but the front of the museum was used by the Nazis for some of their conferences, and Hitler himself stood on the steps of the entrance to give speeches to the crowd. But there were one slightly inconvenient detail for them : the massive granite bowl standing in front of the steps.

The story of that granite bowl itself is actually quite funny. It was commissioned by King Frederik III in 1826, as he wanted to be the proud owner of the World’s biggest granite bowl made of one single piece of granite (life goals, right?). It was created from a 700 tonnes weighing, red granite rock found just outside Berlin. But when they brought it back to the museum, they realized that the bowl was too big to go inside, so they simply left it outside the museum (that’s what I call a failure).

Its location was very inconvenient for the Nazis, who wanted to make space for their conferences, so they moved it on the side of the building, where it stood until the end of the war. The soviets then decided to put it back where it belonged, but they dropped the bowl in the process, which ended up broken in two pieces. They put the pieces back together, but the huge crack is still very visible in the granite, and what was once the biggest one single piece of granite in the World is no longer.

Burnt books and assassination attempt on Hitler

German Historical Museum, Zeughaus, Berlin

German Historical Museum, Zeughaus, Berlin

The Zeughaus, nowadays the Museum of German History, was built in 1706 as an armoury. But it is also the place of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler (one of many).

On 21 March 1943, Hitler, along with leading Nazi officials like Himmler, visited an exhibition of captured soviet flags and weapons. A German army officer named Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff conspired to commit a suicide bombing inside the building. To do so, he attached a bomb to his waist, and was planning on activating the device once inside, as close as possible to Hitler and the other officials. He had installed a timer on the bomb for 20 minutes. However, his plan failed when Hitler and the others left the building after only 10 minutes. Rudolf then managed to desactivate the bomb and survived, and his plan was not discovered until the end of the war.

The Bebelplatz was designed in the 18th century as a center of arts, by King Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great. This patron of the arts drawn up the plan of the place himself, including an opera house, a cathedral, a library and a royal palace. All the buildings were destroyed during WWII and rebuilt.

Bebelplatz Berlin

Bebelplatz, Book burning memorial, Berlin

But the place is better known nowadays as the site of first Nazi burning books in 1933, just opposite Humboldt University, where Karl Marx had been a student of Hegel’s. More than 20 000 books were burnt as they conflicted with Nazi ideology. You now find a « sunken library », or memorial : a glass plate on the floor, from which you can see empty bookshelves (for the 20,000 books).

From the Brandenburg gate to the bunker

Brandenburg gate

Brandenburg gate, Berlin

The Brandenburg gate must be one of the most famous place in Berlin. It also used to represent the separation between East and West Berlin, as the Berlin wall was passing right behind it. Built between 1788 and 1791, it was modelled on the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis. During the war between Napoleon and the Prussians, and after a victory in 1806, Napoleon ordered for the horses on top of the Brandenburg gate to be brought back to Paris. It was brought back in 1814 after a Prussian victory over France, and an iron cross was added to the statue as a sign of military victory.

Brandenburg gate horses

Brandenburg gate horses, Berlin

The history of the place is very long, but let me show you another building, located around the place, that is also world famous since 2002.

Hotel Michael Jackson Baby

Hotel in Berlin, Brandenburg gate

At a window of this very hotel, Michael Jackson presented one of his baby for the first time. I’m sure you all know what picture I am talking about. Well, it was there ! (See what I mean with funny stories only a walking guide would give you ?)

There are many other places and beautiful buildings to discover in Berlin, like the French and the German cathedrals facing each other (Berlin is full of French churches dating from Frederick the Great, as he was a French culture lover, but also because the protestants who had to leave France to survive after catholicism was declared the only religion of the country flew to Germany. One third of Berlin was French at the time).

French church, Berlin

French church, Berlin

But I will finish this first part with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located very close to the Brandenburg gate and Hitler’s bunker, where he killed himself on 30 April 1945 by gunshot. The bunker itself is a carpark today, and what used to be the entrance of Hitler’s headquarters (destroyed) is now a chinese restaurant !

The shelter had 18 rooms and was fully self-sufficient with water and electricity. Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, whom he married only a few hours before their death, shot themselves and their bodies got burnt, to make sure nobody would be able to use them and expose them on public place like they did with Mussolini’s. His body was formely identified by his dentist, however, the soviets, who arrived first at the bunker, took a very long time to confirm it to the public, which also helped nourrish the conspiracy theory that Hitler had escaped for Argentina for decades.

Credit photos: Peter Sharples

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