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John Burke visits museums of last century


Schoolchildren learn about Nazi terror   © JOHN BURKE

It was the film Bridge of Spies that re-awakened interest in Berlin as a capital whose fateful history was still being written a generation ago.   During the Cold War, Communist and American agents  were swapped at the Glienicke Bridge, a border crossing between East Germany and the free enclave of West Berlin.

The city already had 200 museums as well as several monuments to its turbulent past , but it is unique for providing a dramatic insight into contemporary history. This leaves behind the famous Brandenburg Gate, erected in 1791, and the Victory Column of 1864 (stairs inside), both symbols of Prussia, as well as other historic landmarks – even the Radio Tower (lift inside) erected in 1926. Moreover, the vast museum of German history, housed inside the onetime Arsenal (Zeughaus), covers several centuries.

By contrast, several collections cover the period from 1933, when the Nazis became Germany’s strongest party, until 1994 when the four wartime victors ceased occupying West and East Berlin. Hundreds of exhibits and thousands of panels recapture, with English translations, what was the most eventful period not only for Germany but for most of Europe and beyond – and it has overlapped the lifetime of many visitors.  The most important museums, mostly free, are as follows:

Topographie des Terrors:  Although never president, Hitler pushed through a law that made him all-powerful. His dictatorship worked through a complicated network using the Nazi party, Gestapo and paramilitary SA and SS. The museum explains this mainly through black-and-white photography plus newspapers, charts and maps – also available in a 400-page book. The flat, square single-storey is on the site of the bombed Gestapo headquarters and opposite a preserved secton of the Berlin Wall.

The holocaust was planned in this room       © JOHN BURKE


Haus am Wannsee:  In 1942, fifteen officials met at a lakeside villa in Berlin’s most south-western suburb to plan what they called the Final Solution. Today, its 13 rooms display panels explaining how the Jews were rounded up and sent to such death-camps as Auschwitz. The genocide is shown in maps, charts, photographs and a few rare documents as well as stories of survivors.

Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand:  Underground opposition to Hitler culminated in the 1944 plot that failed to blow him up. This museum is in the Bendler Block, the old military headquarters, in whose courtyard  Count von Stauffenberg and other conspirators were summarily shot. Texts and photographs show that resistance to the Nazis came from Christians and Communists, trades unionists and intellectuals, military officers and civil officials.

Checkpoint Charlie minus the Wall        © JOHN BURKE

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie:  In 1945, the Americans, British, French and Russians occupied Germany. Berlin itself was divided into four sectors, but it was in the middle of the Soviet Zone. The Kremlin did its utmost to get its former Allies out of West Berlin and to stop East Germans fleeing there, as they could not cross the so-called Iron Curtain into West Germany.

The museum focus mainly on the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and not torn down until 1989. There are newsreels and photographs as well as exhibits, especially of methods used by refugees to get over, under or through the deadly barriers. This museum is located opposite what was the main crossing-point between east and west, so a replica of the Allied military post stands outside.

East Germany in a crowded space          © JOHN BURKE

Stasi Museum:  That museum about East Germany also includes an interrogation room and a cell for political prisoners, but the complete story of Big Brother watching you is in the old State Security (Staatssicherheit) headquarters. On three floors, there are videos and colour photographs plus equipment used for surveillance and espionage. The spymaster’s private office has been left untouched, complete with its hotline to Moscow.DDR Museum:  A museum by a River Spree landing-stage is about the regimented life in the so-called German Democratic Republic that collapsed in 1989. It is even more interactive, and one can open drawers and boxes to see videos, photos, models and examples of everything from shoddy consumer goods to compulsory military training. Postcards reproduce hoardings for Communist propaganda.

As sinister as the Gestapo   © JOHN BURKE

Alliierten Museum:  Located inside the former cinema for American soldiers, this  collection includes military badges, uniforms, vehicles, insignia and trilingual warning signs like YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WEST BERLIN. A neon-sign advertising Radio In American Sector is another reminder of the three allied armies that defended what was sometimes called the island of freedom.

Outside is a Hastings, flown by the Royal Air Force during the 1948-49 air-lift to blockaded Berlin, and a carriage of the French military train that went between Strasbourg and the former German capital. There is also a replica of the American tunnel in which British signalmen tapped the Red Army’s telephones.

British military headquarters was at the stadium built for the 1936 Olympics. All this and other sightseeing might be squeezed into three days, using a Welcome Card (25 euros). It covers Berlin’s buses, underground and suburban trains as far out as the old garrison town of Potsdam which is reached via the bridge at Glienicke.