Shrewsbury School

GCSE History Trip to Berlin: an insider's view by Theo Simmons (Ch IV)

Thursday 19 April 2012

The group at the Reichstag

In the words of the eloquent Old Salopian and eager traveller Michael Palin, Berlin is a city that having represented a divided Europe in the past, now represents a Europe that is healing. It is quite different from many of the other major cities of Europe, in that unlike in London for example, there are still huge stretches of wasteland. The skyline is jumbled with the cranes carrying out their healing process, which rise above the squat multi-coloured ex-communist concrete blocks of the east and the more ordered stone streets of the west. Reminding one constantly, and perhaps equally acutely as the more tourist-friendly markers, of the city’s turbulent history.

However as a group of Boys shuffled baggage-laden through the semi-darkness of an early Thursday morning, towards the coach bound for Heathrow and subsequently the plane that would whisk them from their comfortable Easter egg snacking and deliver them into the hands of history, the German capital, and of course Miss Whittle, Mr Howarth and Mr Cook, I imagine the impending trip did not feature too heavily on the mind. What dominated mine in fact was: sleep. Breakfast. More sleep. Once doors of the bright, clinical, and surprisingly quiet Terminal Five beckoned though, we were all very much awake with the first stirrings of excitement for the days ahead. Slowly, tentatively we peeked our tortoise heads from the shells of home and holiday and changed into school gear. By lunchtime the old banter was once again in full flow.

Upon landing at Berlin in good time, a brief coach ride took us through the city to our hostel, on the eastern side. The area was not the prettiest part of Berlin, those areas we were to explore over the next few days. But the hotel proved to be perfect for our needs, practical and welcoming with good rooms. Tired but buoyed up by our fresh surroundings we hit the streets to walk the half hour into town and were met by our guide to the city, a young historian, a Londoner, but deep in his knowledge of the city and engaging in his delivery.

Over about two hours we were given a whistle-stop tour of many of the most important historical landmarks – the Reichstag, the crumbled wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Ministry of Finance (ex-Nazi base and fine example of grey, clinical but attractively symmetrical Nazi architecture) and the car park below which Hitler, deep in his concrete rat run, killed himself in 1945 – were among the stops. We returned to the hostel tired but already having seen good deal of the city, and ready for our supper and a solid night’s sleep.

The next day brought a morning visit to one of my favourite museums of the trip, The Jewish Museum. A museum architecturally built to hold some significance, with the inside corridors of the exhibition constructed with disorientating angles, to symbolise the pure chaos and fear of living in the Nazi regime. The main corridor lead to an exit which in turn opened onto perhaps the strangest garden I have been in. Much like the Holocaust memorial we saw the previous day, huge concrete blocks towered over you as you weaved in between them. The concrete walls of the garden stretched up to street level where the garden hedge was planted, giving a feeling of alienation and lack of security that those fleeing Germany in those times must have felt upon arriving on foreign shores.
A brief walk later and lunch on the go, we arrived at the Topography of Terror museum for our tour. As the name suggests, the museum was hard hitting, with the aim often being – as our German guide said – not just to concentrate on the victims, but to expose the men behind the terror and make sure they were clearly ‘shown to be responsible’.

Skipping forward in time somewhat, we visited Checkpoint Charlie, which was a bustling place. Very different from its past life. With a McDonalds on the street, it seems very clear – as Miss Whittle said perceptively – who ‘won’!

Our next stop felt as if it was in a day unto its own – a guided tour of the Reichstag at five. After going through security and being carefully eyed up by police and staff alike, once through the airlock into the very impressive building that is the German parliament, everyone was very welcoming, having established we were not a potential threat! Our guide was once again knowledgeable and obviously passionate about his subject, urging us to take an interest in politics in our own lives. The building itself proved to be amazing and steeped in history. It was certainly a highlight of the trip, and to literally ‘top it off’ (excuse the pun) the rooftop visit to the impressive Dome was equally as captivating with fantastic views of the city. After capturing a couple of fantastic ‘helicopter’ shots of Berlin in the bright late afternoon sun, we once again returned to the hostel with aching legs, but this time with the much welcomed aid of the efficient public transport.

There is nothing quite like standing on the spot of ritual torment for thousands of people, or where men were coldly and systematically killed. All in all Sachsenhausen concentration camp proved emotionally repressing for all of us. However once again we had an excellent guide, which enriched the experience, and increased our factual knowledge of the running of such camps. The guide was very good at knowing when to be objective as a historian and when the horror could not be dealt with in such a way. An interesting balance we all will have to learn to find and decide upon ourselves, as budding historians.

After the camp the story of Berlin museum seemed a little lighter, with interactive exhibits and modern design it helped lighten the mood a little. Before long, it was time to descend into darkness once again - to the huge nuclear bunker built by the Russians for the Cold War. A rather expensive and pointless failure for them, but very interesting.

The Wannsee Villa then tailed off what had been a heavy, but eye opening day. We walked its wooden floors, reading and listening to the personal accounts of some of the survivors whose families were affected and destroyed by the ‘Final Solution’, and we sat in the villa’s serene and beautiful gardens, next to the lake. The whole place looked, lit as it was by a soft, golden evening sun, too beautiful ever to have hosted such evil.

Sunday 15th meant the last day of the trip, and we were up earlier than usual to pack, and walk in to town again to really get the most of the day. A supplementary breakfast in a Berlin cafe followed for me, as well as the purchasing of a few postcards (the old habits of tourism die hard!). We explored the area around two huge churches for a while before beginning the half hour walk out of town, back to the hostel, and the coach that was waiting to transport us to the airport.

The trip had been one huge sheep dip in a city that over the days that we stayed there, steadily grew on me, and I think on all of us. Berlin is a city of contrast, culture and construction. All of which lend to it a sense of city in its formative stages. I am sure that in my lifetime it will steadily catch up with many of its peers in terms of development, and become an even more exciting place to be than it currently is. I would like to thank all the staff on the trip for planning it so we could really make the most of our time there! But when I look in my history textbook now, many of the places really do flicker into life in my memory.

Theo Simmons

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