Friday, 31 December 2010

The German-Russian Museum Karlshorst

For most visitors to Berlin, Karlshorst is just one of the stops on the train route between central Berlin and Schönefeld Airport. The suitcase-laden tourists desperate to make their flight connection are probably unaware that just a short distance from this unprepossessing S-Bahn stop one of the worst chapters in modern world history drew to a close. The reason? During the night of 8th-9th May 1945, in the officer's mess of a former Wehrmacht Pioneer School in Karlshorst, the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces to representatives of the four Allied forces took place. The Second World War came to an end.

After the war, the Karlshorst suburb of Berlin became a Russian enclave, hosting as it did the Headquarters of the Soviet military presence in East Germany. Russian troops and their families lived here until the last Russian soldiers left in 1995. So as you might imagine, when a museum opened in 1967 in the building where the surrender was signed, it had a definite bias towards the role of the Red Army. The 'Museum der bedingungslosen Kapitulation des faschistischen Deutschland im Großen Vaterländischen Krieg 1941 - 1945' as it was called (or, Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the ´Great Patriotic War´ of 1941 - 1945), was given a more even-handed emphasis post-unification, and reopened in 1995 as the Deutsch-Russiches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst.

We visited it on a perishingly cold December afternoon, precariously walking the icy 1000m length of Rheinsteinstrasse from Karlshorst S-Bahn. A snow-covered Soviet tank stood guard beside the half-circle entrance to the museum, the building a grey functional box fronted with four plain Doric columns. There were few other visitors, or even staff. Granted, it was the day before Silvester and sensible people were doing their last minute NewYear's shopping or just keeping warm inside by the fire. But still, it didn't look like the museum was ever overwhelmed by visitors. Especially English-speaking visitors; the exhibition labels and information boards were all written in German and Russian. Apparently English visitors can pick up a folder of information sheets in their own language, but we didn't bother - more fun that way!

At the heart of the museum is the hall where the surrender was signed. It looks exactly as it did on that night of the 8th-9th May 1945. We know this because a looped black and white film recording the event is projected onto a screen in the hall. Well, not exactly the same - the footage of the military leaders arriving didn't show them having to plough through four foot of snow. It also looked exactly like my old school assembly hall - all wooden panels, parquet floor, and high curtained windows. Spooky.

Here you can see the three signed surrender documents (I suppose copies), translated into English, German and Russian. What the French representative had to say about a Gallic omission is unrecorded. What I didn't pick up on from information at the museum is that this unconditional surrender wasn't the first, but more by way of a ratification of a surrender that took place in Rheims on 7th May. There were a number of reasons for holding a second surrender:

  1. The Soviets wanted their Soviet Supreme Commander Georgy Zhukov to be involved in signing this historic document. Zhukov it was who'd led the Red Army West from besieged Russia, pushing back the German Wehrmacht and liberating Eastern Europe right up to the final Battle of Berlin. The earlier Rheims surrender had been signed by a Soviet liaison officer with the Allied Forces in Europe, General Susloparov, without the authority of Moscow.
  2. The Soviets also insisted that this historic occasion take place at the heart of where all the Nazi atrocities and destruction had sprung from, Berlin. 
  3. The British meanwhile felt that the surrender should be signed by a top military representative of the German Reich. The Rheims document was signed by Colonel General Alfred Jodl, who was deputy to Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. The Karlshort surrender was therefore signed by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht Keitel himself - i.e. get the organ grinder committed to the surrender, not the monkey. Both these Germans were later sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes, at the Nuremberg trials.
Anyway, the second surrender went ahead and is the one remembered here. To be honest, there isn't an overwhelming feeling of historical imperative about the space; that here, in this very room, the most horrific war of the twentieth century finally came to an end. It is after all just a large wood-panelled room, where German officers once danced with their wives or sat down at long benches to eat and drink. Or maybe I'm just thinking of my old school hall.

The rest of the museum is arranged on three floors and is fairly small. The emphasis is on the Soviet involvement in the Second World War - of course - and there are displays as you might expect of military uniforms, guns, field-kit, army medical equipment, flags and medals (all from both sides). A diorama gives an idea of the intense battle for the Reichstag, and there are interesting collections of propaganda posters and cartoons. There are also a couple of really rather good stained-glass windows in the Soviet Social Realism style.

What differentiates this museum from any other war museum is that it tells a story a thousand miles away (literally) from the Hollywood version of World War II that I am familiar with. There is a room dedicated to the Siege of Leningrad, for example. This lasted for 900 days, from 1941 to 1944, during which the city was blockaded, bombarded, and slowly starved to death by the German and Finnish armies. By the end of the siege, some 632,000 people are thought to have died, with nearly 4,000 people from Leningrad starving to death on Christmas Day, 1941 alone. And I didn't know about it. Or I vaguely did, from one afternoon in a history lesson at school when I was more than likely staring out of the window or swapping notes on the back row. 

Another room is devoted to the victims of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps; yes, of course I knew about them. I can even name from memory, oh about a dozen of them. I've watched Schindler's List. I've read Ann Frank's Diary. I think I know about Nazi atrocities thank you. Well, a large map dominates one wall, showing how far the German army had occupied Eastern Europe and the USSR. The first thing that struck me was how far the Wehrmacht had swept, how much land they had over-run, what an enormous distance it is to the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow from Berlin. There for the first time, I had a scale of how far way Stalingrad was. And behind the advancing Eastern Front, hundreds of dots marking each extermination camp, each Jewish ghetto, each labour camp. Computer terminals tell you how many thousands of people ended their lives at each of those dots: shot, or gassed, or hung, or starved to death. I had no real idea. I could have wept.

This is the point; you think you know about the Second World War, but you don't. There is always going to be something to shock you to your core. More specifically, if you have grown up with Western and US historical narratives, then the whole Russian and Eastern European experience will be unknown to you, untaught in schools, hardly covered by popular Western culture and media.

The museum only took an hour and a half to look around, including a special exhibition by the Leningrad photojournalist Nikolai I. Chandogin, but it gave me a whole new perspective on what drove the Red Army to fight with such ferocity all the way to the gates of Berlin at the cost of so many soldiers. It was dark and cold when we left, but somehow the inconvenience of a few inches of snow on the pavement didn't feel like anything at all.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Guided Tour of The Berlin Wall - iPhone App

I have written my first iPhone app! If you have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad then you can now walk with me around Berlin on a tour of the inner-city part of the Berlin Wall.

I have written a tour that takes you from the Tränenpalast (the Palace of Tears) at Friedrichstrasse, along the Spree to the White Cross Memorials beside the Reichstag, up by the Brandenburg Gate and the Soviet War Memorial and statue 'The Caller', then carrying on up to Postadmer Platz and Leipziger Platz until you come to the longest stretch of extant Berlin Wall beside the Topography of Terror exhibition. Then you are guided to the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and finish at the poignant memorial to Peter Fechter, murdered whilst attempting to cross 'the Death Strip'.

Along the way you can hear my narrative guiding you through the history of the Berlin Wall, and see my photos of each of thirteen sights. The app works with your GPS to show you the best route along the tour, and tells you whereabouts you are in relation to each sight.

For more information, see the Berlin Wall Walk on and the Berlin Wall Walk on the Apple iTunes website. Or, just go straight to your iTunes store software and search for 'Berlin Wall Walk'.

The price to download is minimal - I don't expect to retire on anything I do sell! - and you don't actually have to be physically in Berlin to hear, read, and view my photos (just don't expect the GPS to work).

And that's not all! As a special promotion, I have a number of codes to give away, so you can download the app FOR FREE! Get them whilst they last by emailing me at

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Berlin Christmas Markets 2010

Nobody does Christmas as good as the Germans, and some of the best places to enjoy the festive season are the many Christmas Markets that spring up on any available town square. Here are some photos from Berlin Weihnachtsmärkte this year (click for bigger!). Pour yourself a cup of hot Glühwein, fill your head with the spicy smell, and imagine yourself here!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Friday, 3 December 2010

London Calling! NOT!!!

The BBC World Service is a venerable institution broadcasting un-biased news reportage around the world into countries where other sources of news are censored by totalitarian regimes. It also provides a lively debating platform bringing together comment from English speakers worldwide, as well as having good arts programs and sport coverage. I found it a useful link back to the homeland, having it gently talking into my ear as I rode the S-Bahn or walked in the forests.

But no more!

On 1st December, BBC World Service Berlin changed to a new transmitter, and now I can't pick it up any more. Even in the centre of Berlin, supposedly where the new transmitter is located, my iPod Nano's automatic station finder can't home in on a strong enough signal. Out here in Brandenburg, all you get is static and the odd tantalising snatch of English.

I complained to the BBC, and had the following reply:

On December 1 2010, BBC World Service changed its frequency in Berlin from 90.2 FM to 94.8 FM.  This move was undertaken as the most cost-effective for the BBC to retain a presence on FM in the city. In the current financial climate BBC World Service is facing significant reductions in its funding, and the cost of continuing to broadcast on 90.2 FM in Berlin has become prohibitive. Moving the transmission to 94.8 FM presented an opportunity for us to remain on air in the city.

The 94.8 FM transmitter is located in Schäferberg and the signal is intended to cover Berlin city centre and much of the suburbs. There is, however, reduced coverage of suburban areas in comparison with the former frequency, 90.2 FM, particularly in western and southern parts of the city. We can only apologise to listeners who are now having trouble tuning in, but hope that they will understand the circumstances under which the decision to change frequencies was made.
With best regards,
Audience Information
BBC World Service

So basically, it is all down to cost. Never mind the prestige-factor of broadcasting quality programmes into the far corners of the world (or, Germany at least), or the thousands of people who have learnt English from listening to it, or even UK holiday-makers wanting to know the English Football League results back home.

It's a great shame, but on the other hand it forces me to listen to local radio stations in German if I want to hear the news whilst out and about.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Sending Post from Germany Abroad

Christmas is coming (no, it really is; there is Stollen and Glühwein in the supermarkets already)!

So here's a quick post about posting using Deutsche Post.

I've been burned in the past by finding I am paying more to send a greetings card to England than I have paid for the card itself.

The first thing to note is that it costs more to send a card in a coloured envelope than a plain white or manilla one. The reason is that the contrast on the address isn't machine-readable, and/or that the bar-code they print on the envelope after reading the address isn't. i.e. even if you print the address on a white sticky label and stick it on, the machines can't read the barcode. Therefore they have to be hand-sorted, and that costs more. How much? Well, if you send a standard envelope (up to 23.5cm x 12.5cm) to a German address, it usually costs 55 cents. If you send it in a red Happy Christmas envelope though, it costs 90 cents. For post sent abroad, there is a similar hike in prices.

The second thing to note is that there is a steep price increase dependent on the size of the envelope. The same standard envelope costs 70 cents to send to the UK (1.70 to the USA). Now, say you have a colourful envelope and think you can cut costs by putting it into another envelope, for instance a plain A5 manilla one, you will find that you aren't saving anything at all. Quite the contrary! Sending an A5 (21.0cm x 14.8cm) envelope to the UK costs an incredible 3.40 euro (6 euro to the USA). I speak from experience of getting stung by this.

I'll not even start about the weight of the envelope. You can check out the cost of sending a greetings card (or any other kind of package) by using this postage calculator on the Deutsche Post website. Note that 'Briefumschlag' means a letter or card in an envelope, and that when you have chosen the destination (Großbritannien = Great Britain), the width (Länge) and the width (Breite), you should hit 'Porto Berechnen' (calculate the postal rate). Unfortunately there is no option to say if the envelope is 'bunt' (coloured) or not.

Standard paper and therefore envelope sizes can be found her.

By the way, all small envelopes sent to the UK from Germany go by Air Mail (Luftpost) so you don't really need to write this on the envelope or put on a sticker. Whereas post from the UK to Germany goes by ship and overland by default (and therefore takes a lot longer to arrive) unless you state otherwise (and pay more). Go figure.

Better still, send an e-Card instead! Admittedly your recipient can't hang them on a string over the mantlepiece, but on the other hand e-Cards don't gather dust and fill the dustbin (or paper recycling bin) in the new year.

May I be the first to wish everyone a Frohe Weihnachten und ein gutes Neues Jahr!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Berlin Festival of Lights 2010

It's the annual Festival of Lights in Berlin once more. Lots of cultures have similar festivals this time of year as the nights draw in and the biting cold of Winter start to become more imminent: Diwali, Samhain, er - the Blackpool Illuminations. But only Berlin's festival also has Glühwein on hand too, hurrah!

Here are a few snaps I took walking from Potsdamer Platz, by the Brandenburg Gate, along Unter den Linden, to the Berliner Dom (cathedral). Enjoy, and to hell with thinking about the carbon footprint of it all!

(p.s. click to biggify!)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Exploring Hackescher Markt

One of the many things that makes Berlin so enticing is that it is made up of so many areas with their own distinctive atmosphere and culture. A case in point is the area around Hackescher Markt, with its distinctive S-Bahnhof, eclectic market, eateries and bars, exotic night-life, cinemas, shops, and Jewish history.  

Outdoor restaurants beside Hackescher Bahnhof
Underneath the arches
The area gets its name from a Prussian General and Commandant of Berlin, Hans Christoph Friedrich Graf von Hacke. He was given the job in the late 1740's, by King Friedrich II, to lay out a market square and residences in what was then swampy marshland outside the city wall. Friedrich II was in the process at the time of having the old city fortifications torn down, and a new wall - for collecting duty on goods entering Berlin rather than defence - built further out from the centre (and you thought there was only the one Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989, didn't you?).

Hackescher Markt Station with the Fernsehturm peeping over the top.
Another view along Hackescher Markt
The buildings on Neues Promenade on the edge of the market square are pretty much original from the time of the establishment of Hackescher Markt, give or take a major rebuild and change of façade. In particular, the Weihenstephaner restaurant/Biergarten/Bierkellar at No.5 advertises itself as having a 'historisches Kellergewölbe' or historical cellar vault from 1749. 

Weihenstaphener Restaurant Hackescher Markt
By the way, the Weihenstephaner is a bit of Bavaria transplanted onto Berlin soil, serving those delicious brews from the Bayerische Staatsbrauerei (Bavarian state brewery) that claims is the oldest brewery in the world, having being founded in 1040. 

Next door to the Weihenstephaner at No.6 is the former entrance to Aufbau-Verlag, which was founded in 1945 with a remit of publishing Communist and anti-fascistic literature, and became the largest publishing house in the former East Germany (DDR/GDR). It moved out in 2009 but is still very much a respected publisher, albeit now in private ownership rather than a propaganda arm of the SED.

The literary tradition of Neues Promenade goes back a long way; for example, the Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte lived out his final years here at No.9/10. For this reason, an application was made to name the street Fichterstrasse in 1862, but this was turned down. Meanwhile, the house at No.1 was built for the poetess Anna Louisa Karsch in her old age. Her life was marked by poverty, but her poems drew the attention of King Friedrich II, mainly because she praised his campaigns against Silesia (in Poland) to high heaven. Otherwise, the beauty of her poetry brought her to the attention of Enlightenment figures such as Moses Mendelssohn, Herder, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and (inevitably) Goethe. The house at No.1 was built for her by Friedrich II's successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II, in 1787 and she lived there until her death in 1791. Called in her own time 'The German Sappho', she is considered the first female German poet to make a living by her writing. There is a memorial to her on the outside wall of the nearby Sophienkirche, with the inscription "Kennst Du, Wandrer, sie nicht / So gehe und lerne sie kennen" ("Do you not know her, wanderer? Then go forth and get to know her").

The Sophienkirche where Karsch ended her days was consecrated in 1713, before the creation of Hackescher Markt, and built on land donated to the Protestant congregation by the Jewish community ( the Protestants obviously having a cash-flow problem at the time). The fact is that this swampy area had already been colonised, growing up outside the Spandauer Tor - or Spandau Gate - in the fortifications thrown up to defend what were then the twin cities of Berlin and Cölln. These were enacted by The Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg beginning, in 1650, in response the the Thirty Years War (you'll notice all the nobles in the story of Berlin are called either Friedrich, or Wilhelm, or both). The undefended shanty town was known as the Spandauer Vorstadt, and inevitably it was originally a place for misfits who didn't enjoy the protection of the Berlin garrison, so no surprises that a strong Jewish community was established here.

To this day, the history of the area is reflected in the street names. For example, the pedestrianised lane running parallel to the S-Bahn line is named Am Zwirngraben:

Am Zwirngraben and the entrance to Hackescher Markt S-Bahn
This is because originally there was a moat (Graben) running along here in front of the city walls, from which a cotton twine mill (Zwirnmühle) got its water until the moat was filled in and the S-Bahn line built in 1877. In fact the S-Bahn line from Am Kupfergraben, across to the Museum Island, through Hackescher Markt, Alexanderplatz Bahnhof, and all the way to Jannowitzbrücke Bahnhof follows what was once the city wall and moat.
An der Spandauer Bruecke
For a similar reason, the road from here towards central Berlin is named An der Spandauer Brücke ( at the Spandau Bridge), because it ran across a stone (later iron) bridge over the moat to the Spandau Gate in the city walls. For many years the bridge was lined with unofficial booths selling tourist tat to pilgrims visiting the Heilig-Geist-Kapelle hostel just inside the city. The bridge and gate were also sacrificed to the S-Bahn in 1877, but 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose':

Tourist stall outside die Hackeschen Hoeffe
Not that there's anything wrong with selling tat to the tourists: for many years the British Council had a shop and offices here too.

The building in the background above is another good reason to come to Hackescher Markt - it is one of the entrances to die Hackeschen Höfe. These are eight inter-connected courtyards ('Höfe') built in 1908 as an experiment in housing in what had become a densely over-populated Berlin: when originally built there were eighty living apartments with en suite bathrooms, indoor toilets, balconies, and coal-fired central heating. Nowadays, after being restored in 1997, the courtyards contain smart restaurants, boutiques, a cinema, and so forth in airy, light-filled, art nouveau spaces. By way of contrast, you will also find here the Anne Frank Centre Berlin on Rosenthaler Str., and the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt ('museum of the workshop for the blind of Otto Weidt'). Anne Frank I'm sure you are only too well aware about, but perhaps not Otto Weidt. Follow this link to the Otto Weidt page on the Jewish Virtual Library for more information.

The memorial plaques for former Jewish  residents of apartments are particularly and poignantly dense on the pavements around Hackescher Markt:

Street plaques to previous Jewsih residents deported to Auschwitz
In German, these brass covered cobblestones are called Stolpersteine - 'stumbling blocks' - and are were originally conceived by artist Gunter Demnig. A translation of the plaque on the far right in the photo is: 'Here lived Uri Aron. Year of birth 1942. Deported 1943 Theresienstadt (concentration camp). Murdered in Auschwitz." There are around 3,000 of these plaques in Berlin, and many more again in other cities across Germany and other countries where the National Socialists carried out their crimes.

On a more positive note, not far from Hackescher Markt, on Oranienburger Straße, is the marvellous Neue Synagogue with its restored Moorish-style golden dome once again gracing the Berlin skyline.

The Neue Synagogue
I could go on for another thousand words if I spiralled out from Hackescher Markt into the surrounding area, which is sometimes known as the 'Scheunenviertel'. This means 'the barn quarter', because hay for a large cattle market on Alexanderplatz was stored here by order of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg. He's the person you'll remember had the original city fortifications built, and he ordered the highly inflammable hay to be stored well outside the walls of the (mostly wood-built) city, thank you very much. I'll leave that for another blog, but before I go, just a word or two about the Hackescher Markt  S-bahn station.

The elevated S-Bahn line here runs along the former city wall and moat, and the station was opened in 1882. It was originally called 'Börse' Station, because the city's stock exchange used to stand nearby. Then, in the DDR times, it was renamed Marx-Engels-Platz station. Only in 1992 did it get its current name after the adjacent Hackescher Markt square. It is one of the best-preserved stations from the original electrified urban light-railway (Bellevue is another good one), with interesting Gothic brick and ceramic work.

Whether you visit Hackescher Markt for its night-life, day-life, history, or as a launch-pad into the Scheunenviertel, you cannot but agree that it is a unique part of Berlin. Thank you, Graf von Hacke!