My name is Jim and I arrived in Berlin from the University of Minnesota in 2005 to complete my bachelor’s degrees in German History and German Studies and to use the research facilities at Berlin’s Freie Universität to write my thesis on the rise of Nazism after World War I. Upon finishing my studies, I decided to stay in Berlin and have been guiding full-time in Berlin, Potsdam, and Dresden since 2007.
Over the years, I’ve worked with several reputable companies from not just Berlin, but all across Europe, leading various private tours for groups large and small. I’m a licensed guide at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, where President Harry S. Truman, Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (and later Clement Attlee) attended the Potsdam Conference from July 17 – August 2, 1945. I regularly take my guests on an exclusive tour in and around the palace, which many historians consider to be the site where the Cold War was ushered in after WWII.
I’m also a founding member of the Bündnis Berliner Stadtführer e.V. (Berlin Guides Association – BBS) and have served on the Board of Directors in various capacities over the years. I hope that my extensive knowledge in German history and easy going Midwest manner will make your tour with me an enjoyable experience!
20 July 1944: On this day in Berlin history, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg – along with the help of a number of other co-conspirators – attempted to assassinate the Nazi dictator and launch a coup d’état in “The 20th of July Plot”, a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie, a.k.a. The Plot to Kill Hitler.
At this time, Allied forces were stalled in Normandy and several members of the German Army General Staff and Army High Command feared that Hitler was leading Germany and its people into the abyss.
Over the course of WWII, senior staff officer Stauffenberg came to realize the criminal character of National Socialist policy. Following a severe injury that cost him an eye, his entire right hand, and two fingers on his left hand, Stauffenberg was transferred to the General Army Office of the Army High Command in September 1943. This is when he came in contact with a circle of opponents of the Nazi regime, including his new superior, General Friedrich Olbricht, who’d been a driving force behind the military efforts toward staging a coup against Hitler since 1938.
Olbricht informed Stauffenberg of his plans of a coup and put him in contact with Ludwig Beck and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler who, by July 1944, had created a circle of a range of senior German soldiers and officials committed to the idea that only the murdering of Hitler would create the conditions for a successful takeover of power.
So on this day – 74 years ago – Stauffenberg made his way to the so-called “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia (current day Poland) and was able to smuggle a time bomb in his briefcase. He succeeded in taking it into the meeting with Hitler, which had been transferred from a concrete bunker (where the effects of the blast would have been deadly) to a small wooden building on ground level. Stauffenberg primed the bomb to go off with his three remaining fingers, pushed his briefcase under the oak map table and left the meeting (and building) to answer a fictitious telephone call.
Unfortunately, someone else present around the table, possibly irritated at stubbing his foot on the case, pushed it further under the table where it stopped behind a thick oak support just before the bomb went off.
The explosion killed four people, destroyed the building, but left Hitler dazed, deaf, his clothes in shreds, and with an injured arm.
By this point, Stauffenberg was on his way to catch a flight back to Berlin, but had seen the explosion from a distance and assumed right away that the assassination had worked. He arrived at the War Ministry where he and his co-conspirators tried to take over the building; but as news began to filter through that Hitler was not dead, the situation was suddenly reversed. Stauffenberg was soon shot – but not killed – arrested and then taken with his co-conspirators to the War Ministry courtyard and executed by firing squad.
Unfortunately, Hitler’s power would now reach a new peak in Germany. The Nazis’ wrath of revenge for this attempt on his life was initially aimed at those directly involved in the attempted coup with more than 170 people – in at least 55 trials before the People’s Court – sentenced to death.
Upwards of another 150 people involved in the coup attempt, or merely “suspected”, were initially imprisoned without trial and eventually murdered as late as April 1945.
Moreover, in August 1944, this attempt on Hitler’s life prompted him and Heinrich Himmler to launch “Operation Thunderstorm” which called for the arrest of all politicians from the former Weimar Republic, in order to prevent a potential democratic reconstruction in Germany. This resulted in the imprisonment of more than 5,000 people – many of whom did not survive.
Stauffenberg, and all of those who helped him in the plot to kill Hitler, put their lives on the line to end the National Socialist dictatorship of Germany in July 1944. And if the war had stopped shortly thereafter (and it’s quite possible that it may not have – but if it had), millions of military casualties and innocent lives could possibly have been saved, as it’s very likely that it would’ve provoked the Allies to at least reconsider their Unconditional Surrender demand of Nazi Germany.
At any rate, Stauffenberg and those who assisted him, are heroes for trying to end the life of the most ruthless, blood-thirsty, evil men in history.
Today, in the courtyard where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were brutally murdered on July 20, 1944, is the entrance to the Memorial of the German Resistance Museum, which informs us about those individuals and the network of peoples who risked their lives standing up to National Socialism during the Third Reich.
16 April 1945: On this day in Berlin history, the Soviet Union unleashed three fronts from 45 miles east of Berlin to launch the “Battle of Berlin” – the last major offensive of WWII in Europe.
Under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the unyielding 1st Belorussian Front began its strategic offensive around 3:30AM with a devastating amount of artillery bombardment at the Seelow Heights on the banks of the Oder River (today’s natural border between Germany and Poland). Over 900,000 Red Army soldiers – with more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces – fought tenaciously against some 100,000 German soldiers and their over 1,000 tanks and guns.
After four days of fighting and after suffering tremendous losses of over 30,000 soldiers, Zhukov’s Front had forced its way through the outer defensive ring around Berlin and prepared to make a pincer attack to the north of the city. Meanwhile, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front was moving up with support from the southeast (the goal was to link up the 1st Belorussian with the 1st Ukrainian to establish a full encirclement of the city).
In short, taking a look at the total numbers as they were at the onset of the Battle of Berlin 75 years ago today, the 3 fronts (2nd and 1st Belorussian Fronts and the 1st Ukrainian Front) consisted of around 2.5 million men – with over 6,000 tanks, 25,000 pieces of heavy artillery and more than 7,500 planes – to attack the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich.
On the German side, their forces consisted of around 1 million ‘men’ (many of whom were teenagers or younger), 1,500 tanks and armored vehicles, around 10,500 artillery pieces and backed by more than 3,000 fighter planes.
The imbalance in forces was compounded by the fact that – according to the British historian Ian Kershaw, “Many Germans were young, ill-trained recruits, while the air-strength was purely nominal since so many planes were grounded through lack of fuel. Only the three concentric rings of deep-echeloned fortifications barring the path to the capital gave an advantage to the defenders.”
By the early morning hours of April 20th, Zhukov’s forces had taken Bernau bei Berlin (just outside the northern borders of Berlin) and at around noon, his units’ guns opened up fire directly on Berlin. It’d now only be a matter of days before the capital of the “Thousand Year Reich” would fall to the Red Army.
2 July 1955: On this day in Berlin history, Berlin’s second zoo – the Tierpark – was opened in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin by East German President Wilhelm Pieck.
With the devastation of the end of the Second World War still fresh on their minds, many East Berliners were eagerly waiting for some kind of positivity to present itself as they continued to clear away debris and mitigate housing shortages. This finally arrived on August 27, 1954 when the Parliament of East Berlin decided on the ambitious plan to build a zoo despite the many hardships that confronted the city at that time.
When the Allies carved up the city after WWII, Berlin’s original zoo, dating back to the 1840s, had wound up in the British Sector of Occupation and it was becoming a constant thorn in the GDR’s side that their citizens were journeying over to West Berlin when they wanted to visit a zoo. After all, a zoo can somehow be seen as a part of a ‘real’ capital; and since the East German Government had declared East Berlin its de facto capital, what better reason was there for them to erect their own?
The plan was quickly put into action and the place chosen for this development was the overgrown Schlosspark Friedrichsfelde, which is about seven miles east of Berlin’s city center. This area’s home to the Friedrichsfelde Palace which was built under the reign of Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg (who’d later become the first King in Prussia, Friedrich I), as well as the residence of Prince Augustus Ferdinand who was the youngest brother of Frederick the Great. The land offered an exceptionally spacious 410 acres (160 hectares) to work with, dwarfing the 85 acre (35 hectares) zoo in West Berlin.
What’s interesting about the construction of the Tierpark is the fact that it was actually built by the citizens of East Berlin themselves. Because construction workers couldn’t be taken away from important job sites that were essential to post-WWII rebuilding and redevelopment, the East Berlin City Council called on volunteers. Men and women grabbed their shovels and headed up to Friedrichsfelde, sometimes going before or after their ‘real’ jobs to pitch in. Thousands of East Berliners, including pupils and college students, put in over 100,000 working hours of their free time to build the zoo.
After just seven months of construction, the zoo became the new home to some 400 animals when it opened on July 2, 1955. It’d quickly begin to boast the fact that it had more exotic animals than the zoo in West Berlin, thanks to the ‘socialist brother countries’ like China who supplied the alligator, “Mao”, and Vietnam who provided the female elephant, “Kosko”. Tigers and polar bears from the Soviet Union would eventually follow too.
Today over 9,000 animals live in Tierpark Berlin and over 1.5 million Berliners and tourists visit annually.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin history was contributed by BBS member, Jim McDonough