Berlin: Behind the facelift

Many traces of Berlin?s wartime suffering are disappearing in a wave of regeneration, but signs of 1945 are visible if you know where to look

Many traces of Berlin's wartime suffering are disappearing in a wave of regeneration, but signs of 1945 are visible if you know where to look

The last place on Earth you wanted to be in the spring of 1945 was in Berlin. Barely a day or night passed without an air raid. The sky had already fallen in on this city; now the ground was about to disappear under the advancing Allied armies approaching from east and west.

But it was to be the dreaded armies of the Soviet Union, much of whose population had been enslaved and brutalised by the Nazis, who were to arrive first. Berlin was the capital of the Third Reich. For six years cruelty and murder had spread out from here to engulf the continent. That April, cruelty and murder were coming home.

Today's Berlin is still marked by that catastrophic and unequal final battle. Here and there scars remain on view, despite the efforts of modern Berlin to fill the gaping spaces and cover its mutilations. Eventually there will be little left of the Berlin of April and May 1945.

At the entrance to Oranienburger Strasse in eastern Berlin, a doorway viciously disfigured by the fighting sits alongside the spanking new façades of fashionable stores. A tram rattles past. Back in 1945 the miserable Berliners were filling trams with rubble (no shortage of that) and parking them in the middle of the streets as barricades.

How long was that going to keep out the Russian tanks? "A minute," went the joke, "10 seconds for them to push past and 50 seconds for them to stop and have a good laugh."

Following the road west, and turning into Grosse Hamburger Strasse, you pass a house that was sprayed with lead from top to bottom. Someone has put up an iron frame against the wall surrounding a few of the holes; the word "Pax" is carved into the metal.

Walking south and over the river on to Museum Island, you confront columns that look as if they have been chewed on by some giant dog. The forlorn New Museum building and the streets around are so infested with bullet holes that you can almost hear the machine-gun fire as you run your eyes over them. If a patch of wall is clear, it's because it is a reconstruction.

Long after those blemishes have gone, the giant reminder behind Friedrichstrasse station will still be there. (Throughout the Cold War, this station was the railway junction between East and West.) In Reinhardtstrasse, set into a row of houses as if it were just an ordinary building, is a vast bunker. One crumbling wall reveals innards of rusting iron. This is reinforced concrete, made to take a direct hit; they'll never get rid of it. The impacts of Russian artillery are still visible. The scars that streak across the surface are shockingly violent, but barely a centimetre deep. The damage shows how the attackers resorted to trying to fire shells in through the arrow-slit windows.

A train ride away, and a short stroll down Rheinstein Strasse in suburban East Berlin, is a large yet unassuming building. But the arsenal of Russian tanks, assault guns and howitzers lined up in the garden outside are certainly extraordinary. An old plaque by the main entrance reads, in Russian and German: "Here on 8 May 1945, the unconditional surrender of fascist Germany was signed." This is the building where the war ended. Inside, the actual room where the surrender was taken has held on to the majesty of the occasion. On the walls are the original flags of the victors, which looked down on the brief ceremony; American, British, Soviet and French. A film runs in a loop showing Field Marshall Keitel shiftily adding his signature to the document.

Today this is the German-Russian Museum. The main exhibition about the war on the Eastern Front is in Russian and German only, but an accompanying English booklet gives you the idea. The maps and photos and profusion of weaponry speak for themselves anyway. How vast real guns look to people who have hardly ever seen them. Here is one of the armbands the home guard units in Berlin had to wear; "People's Storm Unit", it reads, ridiculously. In Berlin, Dad's Army really did go off to get blown to pieces.

Beside this is a German anti-tank bazooka. You cannot look at one of those things without seeing also the faltering, wrinkled hand of the grandfather who probably held it 57 years ago. Or the milk-white face of the boy who ran with it through this city's shattered streets. The German army had run out of soldiers by then, and was drafting 15- and 16-year olds. "Corn for sowing must not be milled," warned Goethe, echoed in the war by a grieving Berlin mother and grandmother, the artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Nearby are the instructions on how to use the bazookas, helpfully reprinted for a more general readership in the German national press in March 1945. Despite the illustrations showing a uniformed soldier holding the thing, the information is clearly aimed at Berlin's civilians: "Don't be afraid of enemy tanks, stay calm. And remember – the closer you get, the better your chances."

Back in central Berlin, the "Topography of Terror" exhibition on Niederkirchner Strasse stands on the exact site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Pictures on display there explain just what the Russians were avenging. Next door is the Martin-Gropius-Bau, its entrance flanked by two statues. The fighting in the war blew the limbs and heads off both of them, and they have deliberately been left like that. Inside, a shop sells postcards depicting Berlin's history, including one of a red flag being raised over the Reichstag.

Quite why Stalin chose to raise the victory flag over the Reichstag is a mystery, since this parliament building was actually the symbol of vanquished German democracy. Still, Stalin didn't know much about democracy. A huge painting in the German-Russian Museum shows idealised scenes of triumph in front of the Reichstag, painted by a Soviet artist: cheering Russian soldiers swing from the pockmarked pillars at the entrance, and dead German troops lie on the steps.

Today, tourists queue up on the Reichstag steps for an elevator ride to Norman Foster's glass dome. You can also wander on the roof, and use your postcard to locate the exact spot where the flag was raised for the immortal photograph.

On the Street of 17 June, just around the corner from the Reichstag and past an emasculated classical statue that took a few bullets itself, is a Soviet memorial. The first two tanks to break through the German defences are mounted on plinths, with an inevitably epic-looking brass Russian soldier between them. The real memorial is further east, though, in the middle of Treptower Park. Here, a Russian mother bears her pain with a clenched fist at her chest, surrounded by weeping willows. In front of her, two giant marble-plated concrete triangles

representing red flags are dipped in honour of the 5,000 soldiers buried in a vast sunken graveyard beyond, in five mass tombs topped by giant metal wreaths. Walk past them and you stand at the foot of an artificial hill where, towering above you, a Red Army soldier holds an outsize sword in one hand and a rescued child in the other, a shattered swastika under his boot. Despite the repair work that hides part of it, the intensity of conflict cannot be concealed.



Track down the traces of 1945



Bunker on Reinhardtstrasse. Nearest underground (U) and overground (S) station is Friedrichstrasse. Cross the bridge north from the station, second street on the right. You can only see this bunker from the outside. The only bunker/air-raid shelter in Berlin open to the public is the Anhalter station bunker at Schöneberger Strasse, entry €6.50; nearest S, Anhalter Bahnhof. Walk down Schöneberger Strasse, entrance on the right.

The Topography of Terror Museum; free exhibition on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters. Contains information about these organisations, including material on the last days of the war. Niederkirchner Strasse; nearest U, Kochstrasse; nearest S, Bahnhof.

Martin-Gropius-Bau; museum with alternating exhibitions. Niederkirchner Strasse; as above.

The Reichstag; Platz der Republik 1; free entry to the dome, daily 8am-12pm, last entry 10pm. Nearest S, Unter den Linden; take west exit, through Brandenburg Gate; it's on your right.

German-Russian Museum, Berlin-Karlshorst, the site of the surrender of Nazi Germany; Zwieseler Strasse 4, nearest S, Karlshorst. Take the Treskowallee/Rheinstein Strasse north exit; open 10 am-6pm, Tuesday to Saturday. Free. English guide available for groups of over 10, by prior arrangement; phone 00 49 30 5015 0810. A useful English brochure is available for €2.

Soviet War Memorial, Strasse des 17 Juni; nearest S, Bahn Unter den Linden; Bus 100 from Zoo station.

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park; nearest S, Treptower Park, take south exit, walk south-east down Puschkinallee. A giant stone arch with inscriptions in Russian and German marks the entrance to the memorial on your right.

Oranienburger Strasse/Grosse Hamburger Strasse; nearest S, Oranienburger Strasse (also recommended for restaurants and cafés).

Museum Island; home to the New Museum, Old National Gallery, Pergamon Museum and Old Museum, all of which bear scars of the fighting. Nearest S, Hackescher Markt; take west exit and walk south over the river at the Friedrichsbrücke bridge and you're on Museum Island.

The author organises walking tours of Berlin examining the traces of 1945; e-mail him at berlinhistory@yahoo.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk