Berlin: A classroom with a view
A walking tour isn't just a great way to see Berlin, it's also a capital way to learn about its history
People go to Berlin for all sorts of reasons. There's the clubbing and the street art, the bars and cafés, the insouciant hipsters who punctuate its population as they cycle by in their layers of grey marl. The food is great, prices are low and it is exceptionally beautiful. But most of all, when people go to Berlin, they go for the history. Because Berlin is historic – irrepressibly, unignorably so.
It's impossible to think of Germany without experiencing flashbacks to history lessons. The two wars, the Nazis, Hitler and the Third Reich. In Berlin, there is a wealth of sights to match, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Holocaust Memorial, to the car park under which Hitler died (isolated in his bunker, before it became a place for cars to come and park on it).
For the Third Reich enthusiast, there's no shortage of opportunities. But there's another history, too – one that is all-too-often overlooked. After the First and Second World Wars ended, there was another war – one that left Germany and its capital city divided: the Cold War.
As Britain and the rest of Europe settled into a humdrum world of peacetime recovery, Germany found itself split in two. In the West, there was the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) under the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer and the protection of the Allies. In the East, there was the German Democratic Republic (GDR), little more than a Soviet satellite.
Berlin lay in East Germany, but as the historic capital it was also divided: West Berlin officially was FRG, East Berlin was GDR. The divide gave rise to one of the most brutal – and fascinating – totalitarian systems in history. To keep their population in check, the East German authorities monitored virtually every aspect of day-to-day life. This was the era of the Stasi and – of course – the Berlin Wall. It was captured beautifully by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, and satirised in the Bafta-nominated Goodbye Lenin!. And yet it remains a time that the average Brit knows comparatively little about. Dwarfed by the monstrosity of the Nazi regime that preceded it, red Berlin tends to be eclipsed – in GCSE textbooks and in broader culture.
Which is why, on a recent trip to Berlin, I found myself standing at the Brandenburg Gate one sunny but (very) cold morning, waiting for Barry McKeon, my tour guide provided courtesy of Sandeman's New Europe Tours. McKeon, a former law student at Trinity College, specialises in Sandeman's Red Berlin Tour: a guided look around some of the key sights and symbols of the city's 41-year division.
I was determined to make up for what my education lacked – without resorting to dusty textbooks. This wasn't my first experience with New Europe Tours. This time last year, I joined one of its "Free Tours" of Berlin. At the time it seemed a weird thing to do; I don't think I'd ever been on a guided tour in my life, so deterred was I by the bumbag-clad, sheep-like versions I'd seen in London. But a friend recommended the Free Tour so emphatically that I set my prejudice aside for a moment. The tour, I reasoned, would be a quick and easy way to tick a few must-see boxes.
It was. It was also riveting. Much of the credit lies with our guide for the day. His enthusiasm, knowledge and presentation were quite staggering. There's no up-front fee – payment comes in the form of tips, offering an incentive to make the three hours you spend on the tour as enjoyable as possible. Each stop along the way – from the Holocaust Memorial to Checkpoint Charlie – was accompanied by a detailed back story. At the end, everyone paid what they wanted. We gave everything we could.
Unlike the Free Tour, the Red Berlin Tour costs money. But not much. It is €12 (£10) for a ticket – €10 if you're a student. You book online and then meet your guide at the Brandenburg Gate. For a private tour, which is what we were lucky enough to experience, it gets a little more expensive: €165 for a group of up to 30 people. You start off in central Berlin and then dart around, taking in the former Soviet Embassy, the Palace of Tears, the death strip and Karl-Marx-Allee, Europe's last great street. Hopping on and off the underground, you see more of Berlin and its past that you could ever hope for unaccompanied.
And it's fabulous – or, at least, our experience was. McKeon's knowledge was exhaustive. His delivery was droll. My favourite bit, rather grimly, was the death strip. Tucked away in residential Prenzlauer Berg lies the only remaining part of the horrible expanse that once stretched between the outer wall and the Berlin Wall proper.
Of course, we could have gone alone. But if we had, we probably wouldn't have known that the houses next door were banned from keeping ladders on their property. Or that every time they had a visitor, they had to register with the Stasi. Or that, despite it being the anniversary of the wall's fall that week, there had been no major celebrations: the date the wall fell, 9 November, holds special significance in the German calendar. It's the same date as the Beer Hall Putsch, which first brought the Nazi Party to prominence, and the same date as Kristallnacht, when more than 1,300 German Jews were massacred.
Having McKeon on hand meant there was no traipsing round looking for addresses and no disappointing moments when you realise you're visiting a dud. He spent four hours with us, showing us around. By the time I left, I swear I could have sat an exam – and passed with aplomb. As learning curves go, you don't get much better than that.
For more information on New Europe Tours visit neweuropetours.eu
Well tread: Three other tours to brush up on the past
Old City Tour, London
Revise home-grown history with a tour that takes in St Paul's, The Tower of London and The Royal Exchange.
Venture back through the centuries, visiting the historic Marais, the Luxembourg Gardens, and Notre Dame.
Spanish Civil War – Madrid
Learn about the "first battle of the Second World War", visiting Plaza Espana and the Senate.
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