This week our students Libby, Roxana and Dominic took us on a tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. We started the tour in the subway station, which during East German times had been a “ghost station” — because it lay in the East, it was a place that West German subways passed through but did not stop. Sometimes armed guards could be glimpsed in the darkened stations, but otherwise they were silent. Now they’ve been restored, and the U8 train stops at all the stations between Moritzplatz and Voltastrasse once more!
Emerging at street level, we entered the memorial site, which stretches for several blocks. The park encompasses what was formerly the ‘death strip’ – the space in between the two halves of the wall that divided East from West. Our tour guides directed us toward the many markers of structures that once existed on the site, including escape tunnels (right).
One of the most remarkable structures to have inhabited the death strip was an entire church, paradoxically named the Church of Reconciliation. It was demolished in the early 1980s by the East German government, but the foundations remain (left) and are now incorporated as relics in the park. A chapel has been built on the site to commemorate the many who died trying to escape over the wall.
Another portion of the park contains a reconstruction of the wall as it existed during East German times. This consists of a wall on the east side, then a large expanse of sand and barbed wire, and then finally another concrete wall on the west side. From the viewing tower that is part of the memorial museum (below), you can look down into this reconstructed portion.
Perhaps what is most amazing about this site is that it’s one of the only places in Berlin that you can tell there was ever a wall at all! The rest of the city has been so thoroughly sutured back together that you really have to hunt for the traces. This park preserves the memory of the terror that the wall once represented for Berlin’s citizens.
The student tour this week brought us to Treptower Park, home to …
… houseboats (one of three colonies in Berlin) …
An observatory built for a world’s expo in the park around the turn of the century, and later supposedly used by Einstein …
… and an absolutely massive Soviet World War II memorial and cemetery. Since the park lies in what was formerly East Berlin, it was a natural choice for the Soviets to honor 7,000 of their men who died here. The site is now under the official protection and care of the German government, thanks to a line in the treaty signed by the Soviets in 1989.
The main attraction is a 38-foot statue of a Soviet solder saving a child, posed over a broken swastika. Though it’s a bit over the top, one can’t help but think about the staggering number of men buried here. It’s another sobering facet of Berlin’s complex, and often tragic, history.
This weekend we traveled to the beautiful city of Weimar, home of Goethe, Schillar, Liszt, and the birthplace of the Bauhaus! Our first stop on Friday afternoon was the Bauhaus museum – a small but unique little space with treasures from the first years of the school’s existence. Unfortunately the Bauhaus school was forced to leave Weimar after the Nazi party gained power in the state of Thüringen in 1924.
This opened a difficult chapter in Weimar’s history, and on Saturday we visited the nearby site of Buchenwald concentration camp.
The most striking thing one finds on entering the camp is the view: the camp is set in the middle of the forest (Buche means “beech” and Wald means “woods”), on a hill that allows a view across the valley. It’s difficult to believe that such horrible things could transpire amidst such natural beauty.
The original barracks are no longer extant – most are now marked with dark loose stones, but one has been rebuilt in its original form. One of the few other buildings still standing on the grounds is the crematorium, which was strangely located adjacent to a little petting zoo built for the children of the SS.
The Goethe Eiche – Goethe’s Oak – was an oak tree left standing in the camp by the SS. The prisoners named it in remembrance of Goethe’s trips to this same forest. It was damaged in an Allied bombing in 1944 and subsequently chopped down.
Buchenwald was also used as a Soviet internment camp after the war. It’s thought that about 7,ooo people died during this time in the camp’s history, and they were buried in unmarked graves in the woods surrounding the site. Because Thüringen became part of East Germany, the deaths were not acknowledged during the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall finally allowed the victims’ families to speak up and publicly remember their relatives.
The Soviets left another highly visible legacy: a huge memorial to the camp’s liberation, on a hill overlooking Weimar. Buchenwald’s many layers of tragic history gave us much to consider …
The class was free to spend the rest of the day exploring the town. Chance and I took a stroll through the park and admired the “Roman House,” the amazing landscape and the first Bauhaus demonstration house, the Haus am Horn.
Today we left Weimar and headed back to Berlin, with a stop in Dessau to visit the most famous site of the Bauhaus, their school building, designed by Walter Gropius and built in 1925-6. We got a fantastic tour from a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, and I think our students might almost be convinced that Modernism isn’t all horrible … (those of us who study architecture are already sold).
We couldn’t have asked for a more lovely day to see this truly seminal piece of architecture. This week we dive into the study of the specter that haunts both the history of the Bauhaus and Buchenwald: the Nazis and their influence on Berlin and Germany.
Our day trip to Potsdam featured more of our favorite 19th-century designer, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. (You probably think we’re just obsessed with him, but believe us – he truly was great!) We began at the St. Nikolaikirche near the city center. It was begun according to plans by Schinkel, but finished by his student Ludwig Persius.
Berlin isn’t the only city that is rebuilding past monuments – here you can see that Potsdam is also busily rebuilding its royal palace (across from the Nikolaikirche), as a home for the state parliament. Meanwhile, East German buildings on the other side of the square are slated for demolition and replacement.
A trek across Potsdam and through Sanssouci park brought us to another Schinkel site, this one built for a very elite audience – the crown prince.
Schinkel built a tiny summer palace (really the size of a summer home) for the prince, who was a prolific artist and designer himself. Together, they fashioned what the prince referred to as “Siam” – a utopian space filled with rich symbolism, much of which is now lost on those of us without the proper classical education!
Schinkel also designed a house for the court gardener, which later became a billiards room, tea lounge and general garden leisure space for the prince and his friends.
We took some leisure time ourselves – to contemplate the connection between human constructive activity and that of nature, as Schinkel intended – before heading off on our own walks through the rest of Sanssouci park. Next week: Berlin around the turn of the century!
Our students Annie, Melissa and Rachel took us on a tour of Viktoriapark this week. As they explained, the park is home to the “Kreuzberg” (literally “Cross Mountain”) and gives its name to the surrounding neighborhood. The “Kreuz” – really a monument to the wars of liberation against Napoleon – was designed by this week’s featured 19th-century starchitect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
It’s a bit of a climb …
… but it’s worth it! There are beautiful views of the city, and of course, a lovely gothic monument to admire as well.
Schinkel isn’t the only artist to have left his mark (whether officially sanctioned or not) on the park. Our guides showed us an artwork commemorating a recent act of sexual violence in the park, another in honor of the uprising of Communist workers in 1953, and one (a spray-paint-covered statue of Heinrich von Kleist) that attests to one of Berlin’s biggest vandalism issues – graffiti. As in the rest of Berlin, Viktoriapark is packed with history, and our tour guides did a lovely job of uncovering some of that for us.
On Friday we took a trip about an hour outside of Berlin to a magical place called the Pfaueninsel – Peacock Island – for a class retreat. Our goal wasn’t to engage with official historical narratives so much as to relax and be together in a beautiful natural setting!
After riding the S-Bahn to Wannsee, we got to ride on a classic double-decker bus that took us through the woods to the entrance to the island.
Our first stop on the island was Schloss Pfaueninsel, erected for King Friedrich Wilhelm II and his mistress Wilhelmine Enke in the 1790s. Built from wood, it’s supposed to look like a white ruin on the island of Capri!
Of course, the first thing everyone looked for on the island were the eponymous peacocks – and the students found, and were chased aggressively by – a whole flock of them!
The island contains no end of sublime vistas and interesting architectural follies. It was formerly one of the many pleasure grounds of the Prussian royalty, replete with ridiculous attempts at the picturesque. For instance:
A “dairy” in the form of ruined Gothic church, where the king and his mistress could first play at milking the cows before going upstairs to drink milkshakes in an ornately decorated salon!
The island has some quirky modern works, too …
… and there are allusions to buildings that are no longer there, as well. A palm house designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel once stood on this site, but it burned down in the late 19th century. A pleasant little palm garden pays homage to the absent building.
Though it was sunny, the weather was quite cold and windy. By lunchtime, we were thankful to sit down in the cozy Wirtshaus zur Pfaueninsel and enjoy some delicious home-style German food. Schnitzel, wild boar, Klopse (meatballs), Flammkuchen and pumpkin soup were all on the menu, accompanied, of course, by generous helpings of potatoes!
As we headed home, I couldn’t help thinking about the royals who had once frequented the island. What were their lives like? How would they have experienced the space? We’ll be finding out more about how they lived this coming week, when we visit Park Sanssouci, home to several royal Prussian palaces.
I'm a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center. I'm thrilled to be teaching the CHID Berlin program with Prof. John Toews! You can contact me at naraelle [at] gmail.com, or find out more about me at www.naraelle.net.