From One to 120,000 at Ravensbruck – Comprehending The Incomprehensible (Northern Poland & Berlin #19)

There were twelve German women and two of us standing in the rain in front of the Furstenberg Railway Station. A queue was forming for the only taxis to be found in Furstenberg. There seemed to be confusion among the Germans over who was going to take the taxis first. My travel companion and I were at a deficit of what to do. We could not speak German and had not booked a taxi. Fortunately, the kindness of strangers had come to our aid as the group’s self-anointed leader offered to take us in one of the taxis they were now bargaining for. All we could do was observe the procedures from a few feet away.

Several times the group glanced over at us. The leader, who had asked me a few minutes earlier if we were here for “the big day”, seemed to be referring to us in conversation with her female friends. We were more than glad to wait our turn. I was satisfied that she had offered us the opportunity to rideshare a taxi the 2.2-kilometer journey to Ravensbruck. The difference between a five-minute ride and trudging half an hour through a downpour was easy. I am not known for my patience, but I was ready to wait.

More than a memory – Commemoration ceremony at Ravensbruck

Living Links – The Human Connection
It turned out that the “big day” was the 78th Anniversary of the liberation of the Ravensbruck concentration camp put on by the Ravensbruck Memorial Museum. The events were held over several days and led up to the Central Commemorative Ceremony on this Sunday morning when one of the camp survivors, Ib Katznelson (ironically a man), would be speaking. Katznelson was imprisoned with his mother Karen in the camp. He was only two years old at the time. The problem for my friend and I was that the ceremony would almost certainly be in German. Thus, there would be no way for us to understand the proceedings. Nevertheless, the fact that we were visiting on this day of remembrance was cause for excitement and reflection. The anniversary commemoration was a reminder that as the years pass, there are fewer and fewer survivors of the concentration camps still alive.

Living links to one of the most heinous historical events in world history are dwindling by the day. The loss to history of survivors is incalculable. Despite all the archives, oral histories, documentaries, museums and historic sites, there is no substitute for the human connection. Very few of us will know when the last survivor who had firsthand experience of the horrors at Ravensbruck dies. And even fewer will realize what has been lost. It is said that time heals all wounds, but time also silences the voices of living memory. Not only are survivors of Nazi concentration camps dying out, but the opportunity to hear singular voices in a tragedy so vast is rare. The emotional excitement among the small group of Germans queueing for the taxis was palpable. Knowing that they, like us, had traveled by train on a Sunday morning under stormy skies to visit Ravensbruck showed commitment. Some things are too important to miss. For them, this had to be one of them.

Keeping history alive – Ravensbruck Visitor Center

Counted Out – A Mass Movement
Anyone who has come into even cursory contact with the history of Nazi concentration camps knows that the sheer mass of numbers is overwhelming. A little later this same day, I would receive the “Historical Overview and Map” brochure at the Visitor Center. The statistic given in the first three paragraphs of the opening section entitled, “The Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp (1939 – 1945) include: 120,000 women and children, 20,000 men, 1,200 adolescent girls and young women, 20 workshops, 40 satellite camps. (Sarah Helm gives the figure as 130,000 in Ravensbruck: Life and Death In Hitler’s Concentration Camp For Women) Considering that Ravensbruck is nowhere near as infamous as many of the larger concentration camps, these numbers are difficult, if not impossible to comprehend. The vastness of the slave labor and killing apparatus set up by the Nazis defies the imagination. It is easy to see the Nazi’s malevolent intentions in those great masses of numbers. It is much more difficult to distinguish the individuals who make up those frightening statistics.

We should never forget that a number such as 120,000 begins with a single individual and then builds from there. It starts with one woman, or with one woman and her daughter, or three sisters, or an entire multigenerational family of women. Slowly, inexorably, the numbers add up. The mind can no longer keep track. Just try counting to 120,000 without stopping. It is impossible. Now try comprehending that each of the 120,000 women imprisoned at Ravensbruck were individuals who saw and suffered unspeakable indignities. The only way to comprehend the human beings behind the ghastly numbers is through the stories of survivors. Having them come back to speak at Ravensbruck allows a window into the past that will soon close forever. As the German woman said to me earlier, this was a “big day.” I might have added that it is a fast vanishing one.

Broken link – Barbed wire at Ravensbruck

Discriminatory Practices – Violence Against Women
The commemoration ceremony at Ravensbruck helps keep the past alive. That is good because Ravensbruck often gets overlooked. The truth of the matter is that if the camp had not been specifically setup to hold women as prisoners, it would be largely forgotten in the vast catalog of Nazi crimes. Ravensbruck’s outlier status as a women’s concentration camp (men were also imprisoned, but in a much smaller proportion) has given it a longer life in the historical consciousness than many camps of similar size. Females suffered just as gravely as males did in concentration camps. This is widely acknowledged at other camps such as Auschwitz. What makes Ravensbruck a subject of special interest is the focus primarily on females.

Coming soon: Confounded By The Germans – From Furstenberg to Ravensbruck (Northern Poland & Berlin #20)

Gloom & Doom – Berlin to Furstenberg (Northern Poland & Berlin #18)

There were two reasons we were visiting Berlin. The first was Nefertiti. After meeting her at the Neues Museum, she stoically saw us off without so much as batting her one good eye. This was a form of semi-blind dating I had never experienced before and unlikely to ever again. Since there was my travel companion, me and Nefertiti, it was probably for the best that we took leave of her. The old cliche of “two’s company, three’s a crowd” made this impossible. Our other date was with a much darker destiny and would take place the next day. Sunday in Berlin arrived as forecast with leaden skies and scattered rain showers. This was a first for me.

Up to this point in my two trips to Berlin, I had been fortunate to avoid the gloomy weather which often besets the German capital. This morning was different. The sky was covered in clouds as a perpetual gloom fell upon the city. We arrived at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) well before our 8:48 a.m. departure by train to Furstenberg. This gave us time to consume enough breakfast rolls and coffee to sustain us through a dreary morning. Even if the weather had been better, I doubt my mood would have been much improved. Today’s journey would be to an extremely somber and serious historical site.

The last stop – Furstenburg (Credit: Global Fish)

Life Sentences – On The Fringes
Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau. The names of those concentration camps are familiar to anyone who has studied the history of Germany during World War II. They are as synonymous with the Holocaust as Auschwitz, Belzec, and Mauthausen, which were in other countries. There were also many lesser known, but no less deadly concentration camps spread across Germany. Anyone in Berlin who decides to visit a concentration camp often heads north of the city as I did in 2008. This is the location of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp I ever visited. Before visiting Sachsenhausen my idea of concentration camps was centered around the Holocaust.

One of the lesser known, but just as important story are the political prisoners, ethnic minorities (mainly Slavic in origin), and prisoners of war confined in concentration camps. In this regard, Sachsenhausen opened my eyes to more of the Nazi’s murderous activities. At Sachsenhausen 50,000 of the estimated 200,000 prisoners died, the majority of whom were Soviet soldiers taken prisoner on the eastern Front. On our journey to Furstenberg we passed right by the Oranienburg Railway Station which is only a short bus ride away from Sachsenhausen. We did not stop there on this day. Instead, our focus was a bit further to the north. We were headed to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp which held female prisoners during the war.

Into the abyss – Gate at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Credit: Travelinho)

The New World – Changes & Challenges
The further northward we traveled, the worse the weather. What had been a steady drizzle soon turned to drenching rain. The countryside outside the window was not exactly scenic either. Flatlands, waterlogged fields, gloomy forests and very few settlements. This was the heartland of northeastern Germany, a place where few tourists go. My friend peered out at the sodden landscape, and said, “this area was always very marginal.” Later when I returned home, I did a bit of research on this part of Germany. From north of Berlin to the Baltic coastline is the least populated area in the entire country. Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Pommern (Mecklenburg-West Pomerania) are ranked 14th and 15th in per capita income of the sixteen states in Germany. Like other intensively agricultural regions in advanced western nations, mechanization has sounded the death knell of farm employment.

Employment in northeastern Germany’s agricultural economy hung on longer than most due because these regions were east of the Iron Curtain. The German Democratic Republic operated collective farms until the wall fell. Agriculture in northeastern Germany collapsed right along with it. For instance, in the decade following the collapse of communism, farm employment fell from 200,000 to 20,000 in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Those jobs were never coming back. By the looks of this landscape there was not much to like about the area unless you were a large landowner, an outdoorsman or a duck. The latter would have been about the only thing that found this rainy day preferable. Despite the monotonous scenery, the hourlong train ride to Furstenburg went by quickly.

Nothing in particular – Countryside in northeastern Germany (Credit: Thomas Kohler)

Rain Check – The Kindness of The Strangers
As soon as we stepped off the train, the drenching rain turned to a downpour. Neither me nor my friend carried an umbrella. We were ill-prepared to deal with this kind of weather. Conversely, our fellow passengers, most of whom also disembarked at Furstenburg, were wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas. Furstenburg suddenly felt a very long way from Berlin. The downpour made what little we could see of the town look forlorn. Rain droplets fell from the station roof as our fellow passengers began to gather on the other side of the station. My friend and I stood near them wondering what exactly to do next. We had two choices. Our initial plan had been to walk the 2.2-kilometer distance to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. I have always enjoyed strolling through small towns and villages in Eastern Europe. The day before, a half-hour walk did not seem difficult when we were planning our journey beneath sunny skies. Even though we knew rain was in the forecast, the weather reports said it would be intermittent. The opposite was turning out to be true.

My impatience got the better of me as we stood watching the rain droplets dance across the pavement. I said to my friend, “well we could walk it.” This was both a statement and a question. I wanted to know if he would be up for the walk. His response was negative. Coming to my senses, I felt relieved. Beginning to feel desperate, I decided to ask a tall and attractive German woman what she would recommend for getting to Ravensbruck. Her friendliness was disarming. “We are going there as well. There are only a couple of taxis available. You can go with us.” Then she said, “are you here for the big day.” I had no idea what she meant, but I planned to find out.

Coming soon: From One to 120,000 at Ravensbruck – Comprehending The Incomprehensible (Northern Poland & Berlin #19)

Ignorance Is History – The Berlin Wall Learning Curve (Northern Poland & Berlin #17)

Guide: “Have you learned anything about Germany’s division or Europe’s division after World War II?”

Teenager: “No”

Everything old becomes new again, particularly when it pertains to history. I could not help but think this while visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strase. Younger Europeans face a reckoning with the future in much the same way their elders faced a reckoning with the past. Europe has been enjoying an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity (with some notable exceptions) since 1989, but if history teaches us anything, it is that nothing lasts forever and in Europe peace is one of them. History has returned with a vengeance. The truth is that it never went away. Now Millennials and Generation Z’s in Europe are being forced to take notice. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is demanding as much.

An Invaluable Lesson – Learning at the Berlin Wall Memorial

Lessons Learned – A Threat Assessment
While almost all the decisions pertaining to the Ukraine-Russia War are being made by an older generation of European leaders (mostly baby boomers), it will be the younger generations who will have to live with the consequences of those decisions for decades to come. No can know what the future holds, but in Europe it looks ominous. Younger generations of Europeans can take heart from their more recent history, in particular the time period beginning after the Second World War leading right up through today. This period built the foundations for the peace and prosperity that Europe has largely enjoyed since 1989. For younger Europeans who have very little idea of this history, learning about it can make the future less frightening.  
For younger Europeans there is a whole world waiting to be discovered. A world that recently existed within the living memory of their elders, but with which they have had no living experience. A world of division, conflict and threats to human existence. The Cold War world. One where the threat of Armageddon loomed over every geopolitical crisis. A world where the stakes were so high that a series of wrong decisions could result in the destruction of civilization. A world that paradoxically was quite different and strangely similar to the one in which they live today.  If only younger generations knew more about this world they could learn from the lessons of recent history. This will help them navigate the threats that are beginning to resurface.

Looking the other way – The Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate in 1983
(Credit: Siegbert Brey)

Generational Trauma – Presenting The Past
Younger Europeans, except Ukrainians and those from the former Yugoslavia, have no experience with war. Even a conflict as recent as the Cold War is almost totally foreign to them. I discovered this while standing atop the lookout tower at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There I overheard an extraordinary conversation. After climbing ten flights of stairs to get a birds-eye view of a section of the Berlin Wall and the area where it once stood, I came upon a German tour guide leading an Italian family around the city. As the family gazed over the scene laid out before them, the guide asked two young brothers (estimated ages 10 and 14), “Have you learned anything about Germany’s division or Europe’s division after World War II?” Only the teenager answered with a puzzled “No.” The guide then launched into an explanation of why there had once been a wall dividing East and West Berlin. I felt a bit sorry for him because the Cold War is not easy to explain.

Rather than bullets, bombs, and battles, the guide was attempting to explain how a bunch of concrete slabs divided a city, a continent, and much of the world in half. This was not the kind of history that is likely to appeal to a generation raised on a western culture that values entertainment more than education. His history lesson was necessary. The Cold War should be compulsory for everyone learning European or World History. It is unfortunate that those Italian boys seemed to be learning about it for the first time. I doubt they are the only ones in Europe who have yet to learn the basics of a conflict that defined every aspect of the Europe they live in today.

For decades I have been hearing about American’s ignorance of history. One survey after another shows that historical knowledge is decidedly lacking among all age groups in the United States. The ignorance of history gets more pronounced in younger generations. I can personally attest to that as I have spent much of my career working in the field of public history and historical interpretation. I can also attest to the fact that millions of Americans have a love for history. They are eager to learn more. I believe the same goes for Europeans of all generations. I do not think knowledge of Cold War history in Europe is much better than in the United States. America was on the frontlines of the Cold War, as was Berlin. Parts of Europe may seem like they were on the fringes of that decades long struggle, but even Italy had a border with the Iron Curtain (Yugoslavia).

Shades of history – The Berlin Wall Memorial

Combating Ignorance – Guided By The Truth
Lack of historical knowledge is a disease that has spread across the western world. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Ignorance is a byproduct of a poor education system. No matter what country someone lives in, ignorance of history can have dire consequences. Just as troubling is the rise of fake history, where fallacies that concern the past are promulgated. Look no further than Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a real nation for the consequences of lies masquerading as truth. Historical knowledge is vital.

Sites such as the Berlin Wall Memorial are invaluable as historical teaching tools. Those young Italian brothers may not have known about the Cold War, but they were able to receive an invaluable history lesson. I found it gratifying that their parents hired a guide to help them understand Berlin’s recent history. It was obvious that the parents wanted their sons to learn about history in the city they were visiting. The parents made the right choice to get a guide to help those boys learn about the Berlin Wall, Europe’s shared history and the Cold War’s place in it. Everyone in Europe and the United States should be so lucky.

Click here for: Gloom & Doom – Berlin to Furstenberg (Northern Poland & Berlin #18)

Forgetting To Remember – Backs to The Wall In Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #16)

Just thirty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall occupied a central place in world affairs. Twenty-five years ago, it occupied a central place in world history. Today the Wall is little more than a historical afterthought for most of the world. That includes the city that it once so infamously divided. The Berlin Wall is not quite as extinct as the dinosaurs, but it has been headed in that direction since the day it fell. There have been a few successful attempts to save and memorialize portions of the Wall, but these historical forget me nots are rare in comparison to the obliteration that has already taken place.

Preserving history – Section of the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strase

Fear & Loathing – Tearing Down The Wall
If you want to see the Berlin Wall, the best place to do so is in the United States. A 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine estimated that only 15 miles of the Wall still exists today. The overwhelming majority of that total cannot be found in Berlin. It is believed that there are more original sections of the Wall now in the United States, then in Germany, let alone Berlin. The largest still intact section in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. This section of the Wall is 1.3 kilometers in length. To put that in perspective, consider that the wall was originally 155 kilometers (96 miles) in length, with 27 kilometers separating East and West Berlin. That means the longest still intact section of the Wall is less than five percent of its original length (1.3 km divided by 27 km = 4.8%). At this rate there will be hardly anything left of the Wall in the not-too-distant future.

The pace of change in Berlin’s urban landscape is so rapid that it threatens to obliterate all traces of the Wall. The recency of the Wall works against preservation efforts. The Wall never looked historic and was lacking in any kind of architectural aesthetic value. It looked exactly like what it was, a large barrier meant to keep people apart. One way of looking at the Wall’s erasure is to compare it with a much lesser-known section of another historic wall in Berlin. The original 13th century Berlin City Wall stretched for 2.5 kilometers. A 150-meter remnant can still be seen in the city’s Mitte District. That means 6% of the medieval city wall still exists today. In other words, a greater proportion of the Berlin City Wall (Stadtmauer) exists than the Berlin Wall. Astonishingly, the City Wall has survived better over the course of eight centuries than the Berlin Wall has in the past 34 years. This speaks volumes about the rapid rate of change in modern times. It also says something about the distaste or indifference many Berliners still feel towards the Wall.

A Piece of History – Berlin City Wall (Stadtmauer) in Mitte

Fear & Loathing – Tearing Down The Wall
If you want to see the Berlin Wall, the best place to do so is in the United States. A 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine estimated that only 15 miles of the Wall still exists today. The overwhelming majority of that total cannot be found in Berlin. It is believed that there are more original sections of the Wall now in the United States, then in Germany, let alone Berlin. The largest still intact section in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. This section of the Wall is 1.3 kilometers in length. To put that in perspective, consider that the wall was originally 155 kilometers (96 miles) in length, with 27 kilometers separating East and West Berlin. That means the longest still intact section of the Wall is less than five percent of its original length (1.3 km divided by 27 km = 4.8%). At this rate there will be hardly anything left of the Wall in the not-too-distant future.

The pace of change in Berlin’s urban landscape is so rapid that it threatens to obliterate all traces of the Wall. The recency of the Wall works against preservation efforts. The Wall never looked historic and was lacking in any kind of architectural aesthetic value. It looked exactly like what it was, a large barrier meant to keep people apart. One way of looking at the Wall’s erasure is to compare it with a much lesser-known section of another historic wall in Berlin. The original 13th century Berlin City Wall stretched for 2.5 kilometers. A 150-meter remnant can still be seen in the city’s Mitte District. That means 6% of the medieval city wall still exists today. In other words, a greater proportion of the Berlin City Wall (Stadtmauer) exists than the Berlin Wall. Astonishingly, the City Wall has survived better over the course of eight centuries than the Berlin Wall has in the past 34 years. This speaks volumes about the rapid rate of change in modern times. It also says something about the distaste or indifference many Berliners still feel towards the Wall.

Life goes on – Eastside Gallery with the Berlin Wall in the background

Universal Contempt – A Painful Part of the Past
The Wall was loathed by people on either side of the divide. Celebrations took place during its destruction. No one cared much about preserving the Wall in the years following its collapse. This is understandable. Why preserve such a painful part of the past? One that cost freedom lovers their lives and separated families. Contempt for the wall was nearly universal. This has not stopped Berlin from protecting many other historical sites from the 20th century that were just as distasteful. For instance, those associated with the Third Reich. The Wall is not held in the same regard. The process of erasing the Wall from Berlin’s cityscape has been taking place since it fell in 1989. The physical wall has been almost completely torn down. The mental space that the Wall once occupied in the collective conscious of Germans, Europeans and the world has now shrunk to the point where it almost ceases to exist.

Even for me, a person who lived through much of the Cold War and spent seven years working at a historic site dedicated to keeping its memory alive, the Wall languishes somewhere deep in my memory. It does not seem nearly as important as it once was not so long ago. Despite, or perhaps because of, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the resulting horrors of war that have once again returned to haunt Europe, the Wall has been largely forgotten. The division between eastern and western Europe has shifted further eastward. Currently, the new Wall is a natural rather than a manmade one. It runs along the Dnipro River and Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Berlin is safely secure within the western world and will remain so well into the future. Perhaps that is why the Wall feels more like a relic than a representation of the world we live in today. Going back to Berlin, I had an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Wall.  

Coming soon: Ignorance Is History – The Berlin Wall Learning Curve (Northern Poland & Berlin #17)

Separation Anxiety – Berlin Beyond The Wall (Northern Poland & Berlin #15) 

Berlin has become a city of the future. It is the hub of hip Germany with a youthful vibe. Creative types from all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities come to the city looking for inspiration and to reimagine the world in which we live. Berlin is also the capital of a reunified Germany which has spent the past thirty years cultivating peace and prosperity, in a largely successful effort to escape its deeply disturbing past. Like the rest of Germany, Berlin has become a forward-facing city. The dark shadows of history will always be there, but Berlin has proven that they do not have to define you. The future for Berlin and the rest of Germany holds challenges, but it is as bright as it has ever been.

For someone like me whose frame of reference for Berlin is the Cold War and the immediate aftermath, it is almost impossible to see Berlin as anything but as a product of the past. In Berlin history is ever-present and palpable, at least for my generation. A weird thing happened to Berlin on the oath to peace and prosperity, its history has now aged. The past no longer holds the city hostage. In Berlin, history can still be found on many a street corner, but that history is now more likely to be found in a textbook. The Berlin Wall is distant and remote. It can even seem antiquated as I found out during my recent visit to the city.

Moving along – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse

The Unthinkable – Distant History
When I first visited Berlin in 2008, I could hardly wait to catch my first glimpse of the Berlin Wall or what little was left of it. The Wall was iconic for my generation. I grew up during the 1980’s, a time when the Cold War was constantly in the news. And if the Cold War was in the news, then Berlin was not far from the headlines. The Cold War may have matured by the time I was a teenager, but tensions between the United States and Soviet Union still escalated to frightening levels. Many have forgotten just how fraught relations were between the two superpowers in the early 1980’s. The paranoia of Soviet leaders, in particular Yuri Andropov, coupled with the anti-communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan were a toxic combination which threatened to spiral into an armed confrontation. The U.S.- Soviet relationship was marked by mutual mistrust and assumptions about the other side’s behavior that could have led to a catastrophic miscalculation.

The tensions of that time are obscured by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his superpower summits with Reagan which went a long way towards de-escalation, arms control and eventually the collapse of communism. Thankfully, the Berlin Wall was a casualty of that historic event. Less fortunately for history enthusiasts, much of the Wall was obliterated. For those who lived through the final decade of the Cold War and its strangely peaceful conclusion, the Berlin Wall was a tangible link to that period and the city of Berlin’s role as the epicenter of that conflict. Berlin without the Wall was once unthinkable. That was true even after the Wall fell. While small portions of it were preserved and still stand today, those hardly did justice to the Wall’s influence upon the city. The Wall was Berlin for twenty-eight years and will always be that way for cold warriors.

Past Is Present – Where the Berlin Wall Once Stood

Dividing Lines – Points of Contention
Berlin could have always existed (and did) without the Wall, but the Cold War could not have existed without it. I can say with confidence that if those of my generation were asked to name the one thing that comes to mind when the Cold War is mentioned, most historically aware individuals would say the Berlin Wall. For younger generations it is difficult to imagine Berlin’s centrality to the Cold War and the Wall’s centrality to Berlin. There were airlifts, military standoffs and multiple diplomatic crises in Berlin from 1945 – 1961. The Wall’s construction was the culmination of these events. It became the static symbol of geopolitical separation anxiety. Television films, news shows, and documentaries all hammered home the point that Berlin could be the trip wire for World War III. The Wall kept two warring ideological views of the world at arm’s length from one another in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

Divided Berlin had been a point of contention since the end of World War II and would continue to be until 1989. The Berlin Wall was symbolic of a divide that stretched all the way across the world. Berlin was the epicenter of that division. Tensions radiated outward from there. For those living in Berlin the wall was a physical barrier separating the eastern and western parts of the city. To the world, the Berlin Wall was the dividing line between American and Soviet spheres of influence. For the average American, the Berlin Wall was a psychological barrier. East of it was a forbidden world of police states and oppression, west of it was the free world. In my teenage mind, everyone was forced to choose sides. It was an either/or proposition. Either you were for us or against us. 

Fading shadows – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse

Passing Away – A Quaint Notion
Returning to Berlin, I could not help but be struck by how in my mind the Wall has transformed from a living entity to a piece of distant history. The physical and psychological barrier that once loomed larger than anything else in the world had now shrunk into the distant past. The Wall seemed like a quaint notion, one that had grown less relevant with the passage of time. I no longer felt an intense urge to go see it as soon as I arrived in the city. My travel companion, who unlike me had lived through the entire period of the Wall had no interest in visiting it. He said, “I heard about it every day for years.” That had been enough for him. It was a different matter for me. Despite my growing indifference I decided to go visit a section of the Wall. This visit would be less about what I might see and more about what I might feel, if anything.

Coming soon: Forgetting To Remember – Backs to The Wall In Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #16)

Buried Beneath – Digging Into The Fuhrerbunker (Northern Poland & Berlin #14)

Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unequivocal verdict been rendered. The failure of Nazism is symbolized by the fact that parking lots, apartment and office buildings are now located on the site where the Adolf Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich buried itself in Berlin. The Fuhrerbunker* was the last refuge of Naziism and the final resting place for a sinister experiment that destroyed entire swathes of Europe, including the nation from which it arose. In the oppressive atmosphere of his private quarters, Hitler delivered the coup de grace by gunshot. Blowing his brains out in one final, desperate act. In that moment, Hitler could no longer deny the truth he had tried to ignore for weeks. The capital of his evil empire was being transformed into nothing more than a pile of rubble.

The only thing left was for the Red Army to put Naziism out of its misery. Hitler decided to do it himself on April 30, 1945. That was the end of Naziism and the beginning of a new Europe, the one that slowly rose from the ashes. In the years after the war, the Fuhrerbunker lay dormant and largely dead to history. It remained that way right up into the late 1980’s. Attempts to demolish it were not very successful. After the Berlin Wall fell, the area above the bunker underwent redevelopment. This led to part of the bunker being destroyed. What is left has been effectively sealed off, but that does not mean there is a lack of interest. The bunker is never far away from the minds of history enthusiasts, curious tourists and Germans searching for the spot closest to where one of history’s most heinous regimes was finally extinguished.

Studying history – At the signboard for the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin

Searching For A Signboard – The Anonymity of History
Most history enthusiasts have a bunker mentality. One that has nothing to do with the Fuhrerbunker’s ruins which lie beneath the streets of Berlin. Instead, this one is most often found at their homes. Secure behind fortress walls built of bookshelves, the historically minded hunker down with their tomes of history. Information is both the weapon of choice and a defense mechanism used to guard against anything which threatens to infringe upon their passion. I should know after spending what amounts to years of my life with my head buried in history books. This bunker mentality often lacks peripheral vision. History is not just found between the pages of books, academic articles or archives, it can also be found in places. That seems obvious enough, but how many of us seek out the places of history rather than the pages from history? Seeing the exact place where a historical event occurred adds an invaluable level of context. This is as close in proximity as anyone will ever get to the past.

The opportunity to visit a place where history happened or at least as close as we could get to where it happened was why my travel companion and I took a five-minute walk from Potsdamer Platz on a Monday afternoon to a quiet side street. The weather was warm and sunny. Berliners were out in force enjoying the day. Our focus was to find a place I had been 15 years before. Specifically, a signboard that stood above where the Fuhrerbunker was once located. From memory, I faintly recalled an anonymous neighborhood and nothing else from that visit. The most impressive thing about the place was the lack of impression it made upon me. There was no way I would have been able to find the signboard again without directions from Google Maps. Not because it is hidden, but because it is so anonymous.

Ruination – Bunker ruins after a demolition in 1947 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-M1204-319)

Deep In The Heart – Shrine of Shame
A visitor might assume that the only object associated with the Fuhrerbunker would be much more prominent. It is not. Some of this has to do with the strange geopolitical netherworld that Berlin inhabited after the war. Both East and West Berlin were looking to move away from the trauma of the way and tyranny of the Nazis. Curiosity about the Nazi past was buried as deep as the Furhrerbunker. Berlin was caught in the crossfire of a Cold War. There were much more important things to worry about then final resting place of Naziism. Furthermore, no one wanted the Fuhrerbunker to become a shrine for neo-Nazis or disillusioned Germans that might lament the Third Reich’s destruction. This was understandable and still holds true today. The bunker would have been demolished, but attempts to do so were costly, time-consuming and hardly worth the bother. Berlin had more important things to worry about, such as the future. .

The rise of the Fuhrerbunker back into Berlin’s historical consciousness came courtesy of foreign tourists. Prior to the 2006 World Cup being held in Germany, a signboard was installed with historical information on the bunker’s location, layout and history. This is as close as anyone will ever get to the actual bunker other than construction workers who have come across parts of it while digging in the area. My friend and I found the sign after wandering around a parking lot outside of an apartment building for several minutes. There was a group of school students standing around the sign. All the students were listening with great interest as one of their fellow students spoke. This was not surprising. One of the paradoxes of Hitler and the Nazis, is that despite, or because of their heinous activities, interest in their history has always been extremely high. My friend and I were also bound by curiosity, but we did not carry the weight of this history the way Germans do. Their reaction to the sight would likely be very different from ours. Less fascination and more shame.

Dead & buried – Layout of the Furhrerbunker (Credit: Christoph Neubauer)

Defining Progress – The Triumph of Normalcy
When the student got through speaking everyone gave him a round of applause, that included us even though we could not understand a word he said. The signboard was filled with information, but the narrative was rather boring. Because the sign was the only thing on the surface associated with the bunker it still attracted visitors. To a limited extent, the Fuhrerbunker may still exist, but the development which stands above it gives no hint of that. If not for the signboard, there would be nothing to see. That makes sense. Nazism and Hitler died in the Fuhrerbunker, Berlin lived on. The city grew into something none of those responsible for bringing destruction upon it could ever have imagined. Apartments, offices, parking lots, crosswalks, courtyards, a lady walking her dog, a man sitting on a bench. In other words, normalcy. Naziism and Hitler had to die so Berlin could become like any other city. And that, more than anything else, is called progress.  

*Note: The Fuhrerbunker was an air raid shelter that stood near the Reich Chancellery in the center of Berlin. It was constructed in two phases. The Vorbunker (forward bunker) in 1936 and the lower Fuhrerbunker which was completed in 1944. Hitler’s private quarters were in the Fuhrerbunker.

Click here for: Separation Anxiety – Berlin Beyond The Wall (Northern Poland & Berlin #15) 

Showerheads & Sustenance -The Eccentricities of Two Travelers (Northern Poland & Berlin #13)

Showerheads! That was the problem again and again and again. In Gdansk, in Berlin, then again in Gdansk, in Olsztyn, and once again in Gdansk. The showerheads were never the same, they were detachable, they were never properly mounted. Adding to that, the water pressure was uneven. Nothing was consistent in these European bathrooms. Every design was different. Bathrooms were a continual problem. Some places skimped on the toiletries, others tried to distract you with stylistic niceties, but the essentials were lacking. Form over function reigned supreme. The little things were overlooked. The towels were too small or too few. The toilet paper ran low and then ran out. Bathrooms are supposed to be a sacred space, but these greeted their patrons with contempt. Never mind worrying about holding onto your wallet, losing a passport, wrecking the rental car, or missing the train. The usual travails of travel were nothing when compared to the incredible array of minor irritations in the bathroom.  And at the pinnacle of these problems were the showerheads.

Risky Proposition – A Shower in Poland

The Shoelace Solution – Nozzles & Hosels
Everybody has their thing. Those small eccentricities which are meaningless to someone else, but which we secretly hold dear to ourselves. Take for instance, my travel companion who was obsessed with the showerheads in our guest houses and hotels to the point that it preoccupied him. The annoyance grew with each new place. At our last two accommodations, the first thing he did after setting his suitcase down was to head straight for the bathroom to examine the showerhead. I could not help but laugh. The showerheads drove him absolutely nuts. I told him this and he agreed with me. At one point I was commandeered into an extended trek around a Gdansk shopping mall in search of the ultimate solution to all our showerhead problems. It was quite simple, all we needed was a pair of shoelaces. Finding and helping him purchase a pair of shoelaces was a moment of immense satisfaction for me. Mainly because I wanted to see just what kind of manic engineering he had in mind. He was certainly up to the challenge.

My friend somehow managed to rig up the shower apparatus to stay firmly in place by using shoelaces to keep the nozzle connected to the hosel (rhyme unintended). After he did this, I was informed that it would prove of great benefit to me as well. This act of benevolence was lost on me for two reasons. The first was that I had already taken a shower that day. Secondly, my idea of a good shower is one with running water. Soap, shampoo and even the most tepid flow of water are more than enough to satisfy my personal hygiene. When it comes to showerheads, we are exact opposites. This has its advantages. One of the reasons my friend and I travel so well together is that we complement each other psychologically and emotionally. Where he cares, I could care less. And when I am emotional, he is even tempered. That is unless it concerns a showerhead.

Tied in Knots – The Shoelace Solution

Habit Forming – Roadside Citadels & Freshly Baked Goods
To be fair, my friend’s mania for shower power is matched by own strange eccentricities. I am a creature of habit to the point that it is physically painful for me to not partake of at least a few repetitive practices while traveling. Because overseas travel is a major disruption to my normal routine, I am forced to compensate through a variety of methods. For example, I alleviate stress while driving by stopping at innumerable petrol stations. For reasons that escape me, I find these to be comforting. They are the highway version of provincial train stations. Everyone is headed somewhere else, an idea that fascinates me. Even the staff look as though they long to leave as soon as possible. A petrol station is a small slice of humanity in perpetual motion. Without ever mentioning this freeway fetish to my friend, I subjected him to endless stops and starts at these roadside citadels. The petrol stations were always there when I needed them. The neon signs, the dutiful clerks, the loitering travelers, the banal conversations, all appealed to me.

My most comforting travel habit in Eastern Europe involves going to get food first thing in the morning. I refuse to suffer a continental breakfast that involves watery orange juice, Danishes filled with mortar, coffee that causes the shakes, and death in a bun warmed over. Fortunately, there is a magnificent alternative, the bakery. I cannot tell you the amount of joy that bakeries on brisk mornings in northern Poland brought to me. The scent of freshly baked pastries, sweet rolls covered in a smattering of powdered sugar and other hot out of the oven delicacies are the culinary equivalent to an aphrodisiac for me. The dark side of this desire occurs when I do not get my hands on a bagful of freshly baked goods by eight a.m. I can barely conceal my anger.

Simply the Best – Baked Goods in Poland

The Eternal Wait – More Than A Mouthful
One morning in Olsztyn, I could not find a bakery open. This sent me on an impromptu tour of the city center as I dashed around every backstreet and alleyway. My hunger grew as my search became futile. After twenty minutes of walking in circles, I scented the wonderful aroma of baked goods wafting down the street. I had finally found an open bakery. There was only one problem. A line stretched out the door and down the street. I secured my place with no less than fifteen people in front of me. The wait was excruciating. Every couple of minutes another satisfied Pole would emerge from the bakery grasping a bag full of goodies. It did not take me long to go from envy to anger. By now it was past 8:30 a.m. and I still did not have my breakfast at hand. Of course, this was a first-world problem, but at that moment I could have cared less. I wanted my baked goods and would stubbornly stand on that sidewalk for an eternity to secure them.

After what seemed like forever, I was finally allowed inside to select a substantial proportion of Danishes and rolls. Marching back to the guest house, I could not have been happier or hungrier. I usually do not like to eat and walk at the same time, but I could not resist devouring several rolls along the way. When I arrived back at the room, my friend had already showered. His shoelace contraption must have worked rather well because he did not offer an opinion on the showerhead. Instead, he said “you sure were gone a long time.” I replied, “Yeah, I had trouble finding a bakery.” I was too busy stuffing my mouth full of rolls to say anything else. Showerheads and sustenance had saved us.

Coming soon: Buried Beneath – Digging Into The Fuhrerbunker (Northern Poland & Berlin #14)

Casting Shadows – Nosferatu In Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #12)

In a bit of sinister serendipity, Nosferatu was alive and doing rather well in Berlin. I discovered this while searching the internet for anything Nosferatu related to see in Berlin. It just so happened that it had been a century since Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens) debuted in Berlin. In honor of the film’s centennial an exhibition entitled “Phantoms of the Night: 100 Years of Nosferatu” at the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenburg Museum was on display. The museum’s permanent exhibition focuses on surrealist artwork.

An exhibition on Nosferatu was right in line with the museum’s collection. Oddly, the museum is located across from the resplendent Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. Could there be anything more surreal than a Baroque palace a short distance from artwork dedicated to the shadowy art of surrealism? In another strangely serendipitous connection, the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenburg’s building once housed the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, including the famous Nefertiti Bust. This was about the only connection between Nefertiti and Nosferatu I could find, but it was certainly a good one. Berlin never ceases to astonish with the juxtaposition of the weird and wonderful.

A Haunting Image – Count Orlok in his element

Difficulties & Danger – Nosferatu & World War I
My travel companion and I were headed to the exhibition just in time. This was the Nosferatu exhibition’s final day. It would fill the gap left for me when I was unable to visit the main exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) earlier in the day due to ongoing renovations. I had hoped to revisit part of the main exhibition that covers the German Imperial Army during World War I. Visiting the Nosferatu exhibition would be something entirely new and in its own way just as ominous as anything having to do with the war. Intriguingly, Nosferatu had its own connection to the war, one that some say helped lead to the film.

The First World War brought German soldiers into contact with different peoples and cultures. The war was a breeding ground for exotic and often violent interactions. Communications between soldiers and civilians were often fraught with tension. Soldiers assumed civilians were spying, while civilians eyed soldiers with suspicion. Fear of the dreaded “other” was rampant. Young men with guns in a foreign land, no matter how well-disciplined, are a recipe for draconian activities. Interactions with civilians were at best difficult, and at times dangerous. Many German soldiers had unforgettable experiences, ones that they would remember long after the war. One of the more bizarre experiences happened to Albin Grau, a German soldier who would later go on to produce Nosferatu.

Night at the Museum – Poster for the 100 Years of Nosferatu Exhibition

Powerful Impressions – Supernatural in Serbia
Grau was part of the Imperial Army’s campaign in Serbia. During the winter of 1916, Grau met a Serbian farmer who claimed that his father had been a vampire and member of the undead. On the face of it, the story sounds utterly ridiculous. Plenty of people make supernatural claims with very little supporting evidence other than their beliefs. In this case, the farmer managed to make a powerful impression upon Grau. It might have had something to do with the fact that Grau had a fascination throughout his life with the occult. He would have been highly receptive to the farmer’s story. Their interaction begs the question of what exactly Grau was doing in a discussion about vampires and the undead with a farmer during a military campaign. Whatever the case, the farmer’s story stuck with Grau. Five years later, it would prove to be an inspiration for Grau’s work on Nosferatu.

Grau would end up being responsible for the production design, costumes, and the eerie aesthetics that have made Nosferatu a classic of German Expressionism. My travel companion and I would soon see for ourselves expressions of this shadowy world when we turned up at the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenburg in the mid-afternoon. The museum is housed in a grand mid-19th century edifice. An unintentionally surreal setting for an exhibition on a horror film.  The exterior of the building was festooned with banners and posters promoting the Nosferatu exhibition. Once inside, the corridors darkened. The exhibition focused on the effects Nosferatu had on the visual arts and culture of that time. There was a wide array of artwork that can only be described as strange. After looking at several of the artworks, my friend said to me, “the Germans have a really weird streak.” I could not agree more. In my mind, part of the shock value of surrealist artwork in Germany is because of the common stereotypes associated with Teutonic tidiness and an obsession with order. Surrealism is a counterpoint to this kind of excessive rationalism.

Count Orlok’s Castle – Illustration from 100 Years of Nosferatu Exhibition

Deadly Effects – The Outsider
When it comes to Nosferatu, Germans were forced to confront their worst fears. Count Orlok (the main character who is often mistaken as Nosferatu) is a cringe inducing creature. Part man, part myth. Orlok is the feared outsider who brings along with him rats and pestilence. This has deadly effects on everything and everyone who is unlucky enough to encounter him. It is important to remember that the movie was made not long after the Spanish Flu pandemic which ravaged Germany as it did much of the world. This came on the heels of another apocalypse in the form of World War I. In Germany, fear ran even deeper than it did in western societies. The Germans lost the war and suffered a pandemic. Their very existence seemed threatened. The projection of this fear was often existential.

Fear of outsiders and what they might mean for the future of German society no one could say, but judging by Nosferatu the answer was clear. A change for the worse would probably be the result. Nosferatu crystallized many of those fears on the silver screen. The artwork on display in the exhibition showed the effect that Nosferatu had on the visual arts of Germany. On the one hand, it was strangely fascinating. On another, it was terrifying in the extreme. Seeing images from the film and Orlok’s profoundly creepy image projected on the walls in the exhibition was a reminder of just how deep the fear could run. And in Nosferatu, as in Germany, that fear was largely realized.

Coming soon: Showerheads & Sustenance -The Eccentricities of Two Travelers (Northern Poland & Berlin #13)

Nefertiti to Nosferatu – Decadence & Desire in Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #11)

From Nefertiti to Nosferatu is a journey few would dare to take, let alone in a single day. Going from the pinnacle of beauty to the depths of terror is a daunting task. Now several weeks removed from that improbably journey, I still find it hard to believe that it ever happened. Berlin was the setting for a surrealist version of beauty and the beast. From a queen to a count, from fertility to mortality, from the splendor of Ancient Egypt to the decadence of Weimar Germany all in a matter of hours. My travel companion and I managed to go from peering at a priceless artifact to darkened halls illuminated by grainy images of the grotesque. TIS was a neck snapping, head spinning experience of nightmarish proportions. And it could only happen in Berlin.

Spectral image – Count Orlok in Nosferatu (Credit: F.W. Murnau)

Nightmarish Proportions – Turning Towards The Morose
The closure of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) for renovation was deeply disappointing for me. The only saving grace was that I had a backup plan. If there is one thing my travels in Eastern Europe have taught me, it is to always have a backup plan. This plan had come to me the night before while my travel companion and I were staring listlessly at the walls in our 10th floor hotel room. Nothing quite inspires ennui like learning to settle in for a multi-day stay at a former communist youth hostel. The glory days of the Pioneers had long since passed. Capitalism replaced communism as the hostel transformed into a hotel.

For a hundred Euros a night we had the distinct displeasure of being reminded that sea foam green was still considered a stylish color in an outlying area of East Berlin. While my friend lamented the pitiful allotment of bath towels provided by the hotel, I became hopelessly addicted to store bought vats of Swedish vanilla custard. It was under the influence of lassitude that our conversation turned to horror movies. I cannot recall what brought about this topic. Maybe it was the nerve-wracking bus road from the Polish border to Berlin that same day. Defying death multiple times might have been the reason that our conversation took a turn towards the morose.

Ominous presence – Orava Castle

Mortality Rate – The One & Only
Any horror film discussion in Germany is bound to reference F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens). This was Deutschland’s very own version of Dracula, one that would come to haunt audiences across the world. The similarities with Bram Stoker’s classic work of diabolical fiction were so close that Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. There was no money to be gained by this legal endeavor since the studio which made the movie, Prana Films, had already gone bankrupt. Reputedly, the cost of marketing Nosferatu was greater than the cost of shooting the film. Nosferatu was the one and only film Prana ever produced. Because of the lawsuit, all prints and negatives of the film were to be destroyed. With characteristic German thoroughness that is just what happened inside the country.

A strange thing happened on the way to oblivion, several copies of Nosferatu already existed abroad. The film would rise again from the depths and become a cult classic in darkened movie theaters and homes around the world. One of the reasons is because Nosferatu is a masterpiece of German Expressionist Cinema. Murnau’s film has the sinister aesthetics that were the essence of Weimar Germany’s cultural dark side. Like all great films, Nosferatu creates a world all its own. Much of this is due to the work of Max Schreck who plays Count Orlok. Anyone who has seen the film cannot help but be haunted by the spectral presence of Orlok, who has talons for fingers, a robe/gown/overcoat as his leisure wear, a shaved head, bulging eyes and hooked nose. No one, not even Bela Lugosi, has ever made a vampire come to life in such a phantasmagoric way as Schreck did with his performance.

A legend grew from the film that Schreck was indeed a vampire. This myth became the core of the 2002 film, Shadow of the Vampire. Willem Dafoe’s role as the sublimely horrific Schreck garnered an Oscar nomination. Nosferatu still exerts a powerful influence on the horror genre today. While Count Orlok may have died when exposed to sunlight at the end of Nosferatu, he has lived on in the nightmares of many. As aficionados of classic horror films, both my friend and I had seen Nosferatu. I even owned a hard copy of the film. In recent years I had traveled to Orava and Cachtice Castles in northern Slovakia, shots of which I later discovered were used in the film as stand ins for Count Orlok’s castle.

Parting shot – Salzspeciher in Lubeck (Credit: Johannes Maass)

Orlok’s Haunts – The Lubeck Connection
During our discussion of Nosferatu, I could not help but do an internet search for directions and train times from Berlin to Lubeck in northern Germany. In the film, a property agent by the name of Thomas Hutter is hired to assist Count Orlok in purchasing a home in Wisborg. The building used for Orlok’s home was part of the Salzspeicher (salt storehouses) in Lubeck. For several centuries these warehouses had been used to store salt. A commodity which made merchants in Lubeck extremely wealthy. Luckily, the salt warehouses survived World War II intact. They can be visited today.

My travel companion and I only had a handful of days in Berlin, one of which was mainly dedicated to visiting Ravensbruck, 80 kilometers north of Berlin. We would not have enough time to visit Lubeck, but that did not keep me from secretly plotting plans that might somehow make this happen. Trying to connive a way to see the places where Max Schreck and F.W. Murnau created a cinematic masterpiece of enlivened the evening. Unfortunately, I could not make a visit to Lubeck work. It would not fit within the time constraints of our itinerary. All hope was not lost. What we needed was yet another plan. Perhaps there was something else we might be able to see in Berlin related to Nosferatu. After all, Berlin was where the film first premiered in Germany exactly one-hundred years ago. It was not long before I found a connection.

Coming soon: Casting Shadows – Nosferatu in Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #12)

Taking A Bullet – Nightmare At The Deutsches Historiches Museum (Northern Poland & Berlin #10)

After seeing Nefertiti, the other exhibitions at the Neues Museum were a letdown. I only had my impatience to blame. Making my way to the Nefertiti Bust a mere fifteen minutes after entering the museum guaranteed that all the other exhibits would pale in comparison. I had reached the proverbial too soon. It was all downhill from there. Meanwhile, my travel companion did make a second trip back to the bust to get another look. That was a good idea because our photos would not do Nefertiti justice. The Neues Museum made sure of that.

Casting shadows – Deutsches Historisches Museum (Credit: Miriam Guterland)

Distant Idea – The Rules Based Order
My friend and I were both irritated by the less than stellar photos we took of the bust. That was not for want of trying. The museum’s photo policy pertaining to the bust was one of the strangest I have ever experienced. Pictures were allowed throughout the museum with a single exception. No one was allowed to take photos of the bust in the room where it was displayed. All photos of the bust had to be taken from an adjacent room.  There was always at least one museum staff member keeping watch to ensure no one broke this rule. That did not keep people from trying. In the short period I was in the exhibit room or another room nearby, I heard the staff chastising several who attempted to take a surreptitious photo. The restriction made little sense because photos were still allowed, but only from a distance. This led to some odd photo opportunities.

Anyone taking a photo could get the reactions of other museum goers when they first saw Nefertiti. Rather than expressions of awe or surprise, most of the people I observed were trying to figure out how to get a closeup photo without getting caught. The wow factor was somewhat mitigated by those distractedly fingering their phones. I never did mange to figure out why visitors were allowed to take photos from another room, but not a closeup. Maybe it was for preservation purposes, but the bust was well protected by a thick layer of glass, cameras, and the ever-present staff. I decided that the restriction had more to with the German mania for rules, uber-organization and a rarely concealed rage for order. After all, what would Germany be without rules? The answer is Berlin, except for its museums.    

Tracer Fire – A Nightmare of Possibilities
Liberated from ancient Egypt after seeing Nefertiti, I had my mind set on visiting another nearby museum, one that I had been to fifteen years before. The Deutsches Historisches Museum was a magnetic presence pulling me towards it the moment I set foot on Museumsinsel (Museum Island). While my travel companion went off to visit the Pergamon Museum, I was fixated on the thought of seeing one specific artifact at the Deutsches Historsiches Museum. The bust of Nefertiti was fascinating, but it was a distant second in my pantheon of must-see artifacts on Museum Island. I had a long-standing fascination with a German Army soldier’s helmet taken from the field where he had fallen at the Battle of Tannenberg at the beginning of World War I. I can still recall the moment I first saw it, among an array of wartime artifacts. The helmet was the one that captured my imagination.

If there was one theme to this trip that tied Berlin and northern Poland together for me, it was Tannenberg. In a week we would be standing on the battlefield. The closest I could get in Berlin to the battle was at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The German soldier’s helmet showed the results of a direct hit by a bullet. There was a large hole in the front of the helmet. This representation of the war’s violence elicited a visceral reaction in me the first time I saw it. The hole in that helmet had stayed with me ever since then. Anytime I came across the Battle of Tannenberg, my first thought was of that helmet. The soldier never stood a chance. And no matter how well prepared and trained he may have been for combat; it did not matter. Fortune does not always favor the brave. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. The effect of seeing that helmet was startling in the extreme.

I have seen thousands of World War I artifacts in the Austrian, Hungarian, and French National Military Museums, the National World War I Museum in Kansas City and Montenegrin National Museum in Cetinje. I have seen a tour guide stick his hand in the ground on the Somme Battlefield in northern France and pull shrapnel from the earth. I have seen the bullets and belt buckles being sold by artifact collectors at the Saturday market in Ypres, Belgium. I have seen the bloodstained tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated. I have seen horrifying photos of the disfigured faces of soldiers in the Kobarid (Caporetto) Museum, I have seen the austere German graves at Langemarck, the endless rows of crosses at the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, the bullet holes in the fortresses at Przemysl, I have seen so many tragic representations of the war that I have become largely numb to them. And out of all those faces and places, graves and traces, the one that has stayed with me the longest and that I believe will haunt me to my dying day is the soldier’s helmet with the hole in it at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum).     

Standing up to history – Sculptures on the roof of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (Credit: Dosseman)

False Entry – Denial of Access
Why is this so? Perhaps because seeing it was so unexpected. The artifact stood out from all the other ones in the exhibition. It demanded to be seen. No explanation of what it represented was necessary. Germany from 1914 – 1945 can be understood through the hole in that helmet. I just had to go back and see it again. I was not going to be denied or so I thought. It turned out that the exhibits were being revised. The galleries were closed except for a forgettable temporary exhibition. Not only would I not get to see the soldiers helmet this time, but I might also never get to see it again. That might be for the better. Judging from the way that helmet haunts me, once must have been enough.

Coming soon: Nefertiti to Nosferatu – Decadence & Desire in Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #11)