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.