At the end of a challenging year, BBS members reflect on what 2020 taught them about the city they know so well.
It’s no secret that Berlin has seen its share of upheaval over the years.
For millions of visitors annually, this fascinating history is one of the German capital’s biggest draws. Guests from all across the globe have flocked to Berlin, determined to unlock, explore and understand its complex past. Those lucky enough to experience the Hauptstadt with a skilled guide invariably leave for home having learned valuable lessons – not just about this city, but from it.
2020 was itself a historic year.
Beyond putting the brakes (quite rightly) on tourism, the global pandemic encouraged us to think differently about- well, almost everything. As tour guides, covid restrictions changed the way we engage with Berlin – professionally, of course, but on a personal level too.
Ten tour guides tell us what they learned.
What did 2020 teach you about Berlin?
That I really don’t have to venture far from home to appreciate most things Berlin has to offer. My block is like a microcosm of the city and from my apartment, you can witness the effects of hard-hitting history, appreciate world-class street art, enjoy dozens of international cuisines and experience wildlife of all varieties. Georgia Riungu
To appreciate the little things in life and take quiet time for reflection. Jeremy Minsberg
That the more slowly you walk around, the better you realise how full of ginkgo bilobas this city is. There are so many of them! The female trees’ fruits do stink a little bit, but both female and male trees are so beautiful in Autumn. It’s really something you should not miss out on! Alazne Artetxe
To appreciate the fantastic historic city I live in (and the free entrance at the German History Museum). Susan Grouchy
2020 has taught me that Berlin can handle actually going to sleep once in a while. Chris Moniz
How special it was that I spent 15 years working as a guide. I know the city in a way that people with “regular jobs” cannot know, because I’m always out and about, whether it’s seeing the sites in Mitte or travelling to pick clients up. I’ll never know another place as intimately as Berlin. These last 12 months I’ve missed all that exploring. Heather Mae Ellis
I enjoyed even more the fact that Berlin is a green city. What a delight to walk through all these beautiful parks with lakes! And the open-minded/freedom spirit – we are actually allowed to enjoy them, not like in France or other countries where you really have to stay home. Stéphanie Kieffer
It’s not a bad place to be during a pandemic. Jo Eckardt
Berlin is great in crisis. Who first comes to Berlin is puzzled by the rough Berliner ways. But when the going gets tough you’ll always find a helping hand.
BBS Member Ben Fisher’s first virtual tour was recently featured in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
On 8th November 2020, Ben’s remembrance event went ahead as scheduled. In previous years, he’s seen around 300 people sign up for the walking tour, which commemorates one of the most severe attacks on Jewish life Germany has ever seen.
Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions and a little innovation, last November’s tour was unlike any he’d done before. Over 6,000 people from all across the globe have now taken part in the Facebook-hosted experience!
What follows is an English translation of the article, written by Steffi Hentschke and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday 26th December. Read the original article in full (and in German) here.
Just get us out of here!
Immediate proximity despite great distances: Tour guides lead us through the world online
“When the lockdown forces improvisation: travel guides and tour operators are moving their business online. Not everything can be sold online – but some things that seemed far away before are now within reach.
Ben Fisher is standing on the deserted Kurfürstendamm, leaves are gathering on the footpath. It is 8 November. The sun is shining on this cold Sunday, one day before the anniversary of the Reich Pogrom Night 83 years ago. During the most severe attack on Jewish life in Germany since the Middle Ages, an estimated 1500 Jews were killed and thousands of synagogues burned down. To commemorate the event, Fisher, a 37-year-old Israeli who has lived in Berlin for five years, is offering this special city tour. “I will start directly with the days before the pogroms, and as we walk, I will tell you more about the history of the Jews in Germany,” he says in English, walking off in the direction of the former synagogue on Fasanenstraße. About two hundred people watch him, they are not there, but they are there live.
At the moment, the world can only be discovered from the sofa, and what sounds like a dreary new reality sometimes reveals unexpected possibilities. Interest in Berlin city guide Ben Fisher’s memorial tour has always been high, with up to three hundred participants signing up for it in recent years. But the video of his first virtual tour has meanwhile been seen by almost 6,000 people from the United States, Israel and Brandenburg. The tour does what historians have been calling for for years – a digital form of remembrance culture. Those who follow Fisher on his one-hour tour get to know Berlin from a Jewish perspective and are surprised to discover that even if the virtual trip does not provide any sensory impressions, the knowledge gained arrives on the sofa.
Before Ben Fisher came to Berlin, Germany was the forbidden country for him, as he writes about himself on the website of the Berlin Guides Association. “Today I think the city is the most exciting place ever,” he says in a conversation via Video Call, a few days after the tour. Like his colleagues, he has had to make do without an income for months. But offering city tours online was not an option for him until recently. Only the second lockdown forced him to improvise, and a memorial tour was already planned. “I’m overwhelmed by the response and have to process that first,” says Fisher, thinking about what he can learn from his first attempt. “Maybe it takes the connection with education to get people excited about it. Classic sightseeing, on the other hand, doesn’t work online.””
If you missed it, you can still access the full tour on Facebook by clicking above.
Visit Ben’s profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.
BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg’s virtual tours of Berlin have made the news – not once, but twice!
Jeremy has given private tours in Berlin for decades and decided to pivot to digital tourism in March 2020. Since then, he has “become an event” and now offers a range of customisable tours on a variety of topics – from classic sights, to Third Reich to LGBTQ history.
“I thought I might try something completely different, and think outside the box. The technology exists to make it possible, so why not tour virtually?”
On 15th December 2020, The Local published ‘A new way to travel’: How one guide is showing off Berlin through virtual tours. In the piece, Berlin-based Tamsin Paternoster wrote about her experience joining a tour of “monuments just twenty minutes away from [her] front door.” The journalist was one of twenty international guests who tuned in for a tour of sights including the Victory Column, Tiergarten and Schloss Bellvue – all via Zoom. Read the full article here.
“I help people stay close together.”
On 24th December 2020 – as the second wave of the coronavirus led to increased restrictions across Europe for the holiday period – Euro News picked up the story. Titled ‘Meet the tour guide who is bringing Berlin to locked down travellers’, Kate Brady’s piece includes clips from one of Jeremy’s popular virtual Berlin city tours – as well as an interview, in which he shares his motivation for going digital. Click here to watch the news clip.
With the pandemic necessarily hampering most people’s travel plans, guides across the globe are turning their hand to virtual tours. We spoke to two tour guides in different corners of the world to find out how they have made the move from in-person to virtual tourism.
In an hour-long conversation, Shira Kleinman and Alessia Nencioni Farias shared their virtual tours insights and experiences with our members. Now we would like to share them with you.
As Shira says, it’s a scary time for guides.
“We’re used to being outside pointing at things
and now suddenly we’re inside pointing at things!”
Of course, there’s far more to great guiding than simply pointing. This is especially true when making the initial pivot to virtual tours. The good news is that you don’t need to be a tech expert to take your tours online.
In this hour-long conversation about how Shira and Alessia made their careers virtual, learn:
Some foolproof quick fixes for slow internet connections
Why offering virtual tours can take the sting out of cancelled travel plans
How you can add layers of atmosphere and a little bit of kitsch to make tours more personal
… and much more!
You’ll also enjoy micro-demos of 4 easy-to-use platforms to host your own virtual tour – whether you’re in lockdown or not.
Shira Kleinman is an educator and licensed tour guide based in Haifa, where she runs Tours with Shira.
Alessia Nencioni Farias is a licensed tour guide in New York City, where she runs Barefoot New York.
If you enjoyed this insider look at tourism in the times of corona,
This month, it was our great pleasure to interview US travel guru, Rick Steves.
Since COVID-19 has hampered the travel plans of many, those in the industry have been urged to think differently about how and why we do what we do. This has led to some brilliant conversations.
In an hour-long conversation with Berlin Guides Association President, Matt Robinson, and BBS member, Wouter Bernhardt, we discussed travel as a political act and the art of tour guiding.
What’s more, we hear from Rick about his mission to broaden people’s horizons, what it was like to travel in Eastern Europe as an American during the Cold War, and – of course – why Berlin has such a special place in his heart.
Watch the full, unedited Rick Steves interview on our YouTube channel now. Alternatively, you can listen to an edited version of the conversation on The Low Season podcast by Wouter Bernhardt (available wherever you get your podcasts).
With the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and thus the collapse of the German Empire at the end of WWI, revolution broke out everywhere and political movements on both the left and right erupted like a stick of dynamite throughout Germany.
Amid the chaos, violence, power struggles and the possibility of new opportunities, one of the key democratic institutions of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 was the establishment of the council – which had been popular organizations first invented in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Like Germany at the onset of January 1919, the councils were a sign of desperate conditions and a search for new forms of political representation in the age of high industrialization and total war. There would be sailors councils, workers councils, workers and soldiers councils, and even councils organized by artists and by agricultural workers.
Their activities were often confused and chaotic – their politics rudimentary – but they were everywhere, and they were a grassroots form of democracy that allowed a wider range of political participation that was addressed in a broader range of issues that had ever existed in Germany before.
And out of this fray of dramatic change and political uncertainty rose the voices of Social Democratic Party leader Philipp Scheidemann, and famed radical socialist antiwar activist, Karl Liebknecht, as well as his co-leader, Rosa Luxemburg.
Scheidemann, acting on behalf of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had proclaimed a German republic from the window of Berlin’s Reichstag building at the end of WWI, which would establish democracy for the first time in Germany’s history with the founding of the so-called Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, just just blocks away, Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic from the window of the Berlin city palace, which had just been the dynastic seat of the Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, Prussian kings and German emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for centuries.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht had previously founded and led the Spartacist League – a Marxist revolutionary movement established toward the end of WWI which would lay the roots of the establishment of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on January 1, 1919.
Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s chief aim was simple: They believed that power and wealth should be shared equally among the population. The KPD would quickly refuse to participate in the parliamentary elections, preferring instead to place its faith in the workers’ councils, as expressed in the former Spartacist manifesto:
The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: Bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? For the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in the socialist sense of the word. Dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather, it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate – dispossess of property – the capitalist class through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat.
In short, Germany’s post-war revolution fostered two perceivable paths forward: Social democracy or a council republic – with the latter being similar to the one which had been established by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
In the first week of January in 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg decided that the SPD led, young republic was tenuous and vulnerable enough to challenge, so they launched an armed rising in Berlin with the the aim of overthrowing the provisional government and creating a soviet republic.
“Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction” – Rosa Luxemburg
On 5 January, their movement occupied public buildings, called for a general strike and formed a revolutionary committee. They denounced the SPD led provisional government and the forthcoming elections. A few days of savage street fighting took place as workers with rifles haphazardly swarmed the streets of Berlin.
With the model of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia happening before their eyes, the mainstream Social Democrats feared that the revolutionaries might institute the kind of ‘red terror’ that was now taking place in Russia. According to historian Richard J. Evans:
“Afraid for their lives, and conscious of the need to prevent the country from falling into complete anarchy, the SPD sanctioned the recruitment of heavily armed paramilitary bands consisting of a mixture of younger men, and known as the Free Corps (Freikorps), to put down any further revolutionary uprisings.”
Significantly outnumbering the Spartacists and having the backing of the republic, the Free Corps came storming into to Berlin to suppress the uprising.
Liebknecht and Luxemburg retreated for their lives and escaped to an inconspicuous neighborhood apartment building at Mannheimerstraße 43 (today Mannheimerstraße 27) in the heart of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district.
After laying low for a couple days, it was on this day – January 15, 1919 – that Wilmersdorfer Bürgerwehr (vigilance committee) members Bruno Lindner and Wilhlem Moering – along with three others – arrived at Mannheimerstraße 43 just after 8:00PM. They rang the Marcusson family’s door bell, where the two had been seeking refuge, forced their way into the building and up to the apartment where Liebknecht and Luxemburg were.
The men had been tipped off and the source of where they’d gotten their information of Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s whereabouts is still uncertain today.
Before the two Spartacus leaders were arrested and eventually taken to the famous Eden Hotel for further questioning, (Liebknecht was first taken to a nearby school in order to determine his identity), Luxemburg had quickly borrowed a pair of wool socks from Mrs. Marcusson before venturing out into the cold Berlin January night.
After hours of torture and interrogation while in police custody, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s lives would be brutally brought to an end at the hands of the Free Corps who had been egged on by the mainstream Social Democrats looking to protect the young republic from the leftist movement; revolutionaries in a number of other German cities were also put down or summarily murdered to eliminate any future threat to the new republic.
While being transported to Moabit Prison, Liebknecht was shot in the back after the car he’d been riding in had pulled over to the side of the road not far from the Eden Hotel. His body was then taken away.
After being gruesomely beaten with a rifle butt and shot in the head, Luxemburg was flung into Berlin’s Landwehrkanal (a canal running east to west immediately south of the city center). Four and a half months later, after the canal’s ice had thawed, Luxemburg’s body was found and Mrs. Marcusson of Wilmersdorf would immediately recognize her stockings and other items of clothing on the corpse when pictures of the body surfaced.
These events would ultimately create a very troubled atmosphere for the next few months and they’d also leave a permanent legacy of bitterness and hatred on the political left for the next several years. Moreover, they would decidedly doom any kind of cooperation between Social Democrats and Communists in Germany’s new republic.
Mutual fear, mutual recriminations and mutual hatred between these two parties became their only common ground with one another from that point onward. And when it came time to combat the rise of National Socialism in the national government years later, representatives of the Social Democrats and Communists still weren’t able to put their differences aside.
Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1
Uwe Soukup, “Luxemburg und Liebknecht: Das letzte Versteck,” Der Tagesspiegel, January 11, 2010
Weitz, Eric D. (2007). Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5
As part of our commitment to furthering and enhancing our education as ambassadors of German history, the Berlin Guides Association took its monthly excursion to the city of Weimar last month to explore all its rich history and to learn more about the city’s reputation as a center of art and culture.
Around 20 of our members took a tour of the city and followed the traces of its classicist and post-classicist past, as well as the traditions of its modern movement – which included the city’s famous Bauhaus history.
Furthermore, our guides visited the Weimar Theater which was the birthplace of the so-called Weimar Republic – Germany’s first attempt at democracy which lasted from 1919-1933. This was the venue where the 423 delegates of the first ever democratically elected National Assembly of the Republic convened from 6 February – 30 September 1919.
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial
Thursday, December 6, 2018
The following day our members ventured just a little over 6 miles northwest of Weimar to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial site where they received a private tour from one of the camp’s guides.
In operation from 1937-1945, this camp was first established by Heinrich Himmler’s SS to detain political opponents of the NSDAP, persecute Jews, Sinti and Roma, and imprison the so-called “enemies of the state” – such as, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-convicts, and various other people deemed “unfit” for German society in the Third Reich.
After the onset of WWII, Buchenwald became an important place for so-called “undesirables” from all across Europe to be sent to. Around 280,000 were imprisoned at Buchenwald and its 139 sub camps and more than 56,000 would perish there as the result of torture, medical experiments, exhaustion, and murder.
When the Americans reached Buchenwald in April 1945, Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower recorded: “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.”
Our guide did a fantastic job uncovering the realities of life and death in the camp while also unraveling the complex history of not only the Holocaust itself, but also how the Soviets turned Buchenwald (located in their occupation zone after the signing of the Nazi unconditional surrender) into a so-called “Special Camp” for their own enemies, political dissidents and others whom they felt necessary to imprison.
If you travel to Germany in the future, a visit to Weimar and or the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial is definitely worth considering. From Berlin, it takes roughly 2 1/2 hours to reach by train; and from Munich, a train journey will take just under 3 hours.
(A special thank you to Berlin Guides Association member, Maria Bergman, for providing the pictures for this blog post).
Halloween in the Hauptstadt: Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Today is Halloween and in a city with a past as tumultuous as Berlin’s, people often wonder where the haunted places and spookiest corners around the German capital are.
The Citadel in Spandau is an old 16th century fortress which some sentimental Berliners might tell you is still haunted by the “Weiße Frau (white lady) of Hohenzollern” today.
Years before Berlin became a royal and eventually an imperial capital, it served as the official seat of the Margraviate of Brandenburg – a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire – after the House of Hohenzollern took over as prince-electors in Berlin from 1417 onward.
Joachim II Hector of Brandenburg served as prince-elector from 1535-1571. He was a robust leader who was concerned about the interests of his principality and was extremely generous to his servants.
Not so particularly kind to his wife, however.
In the same year that he became prince-elector, he married a lady from Poland named Hedwig. In 1549 she was involved in a tragic accident, severely injuring her abdomen and making it very difficult for her to walk. Joachim II consequently decided to have a relationship with a lady named Anna Sydow, who would eventually live in the Grunewald hunting lodge (which Joachim II had built) west of Berlin and gave birth to two of the Elector’s children there.
Ten years before Joachim II died, he made his son, Johann Georg, promise him to protect his beloved mistress, Anna Sydow, long after he was gone. But as soon as Johann Georg came to the throne in 1571, he went against his father’s wishes and had her immediately arrested and taken to the Spandau Citadel where she was imprisoned until her death in 1575.
Just days before Johann Georg passed away in 1598, he supposedly saw her spirit appear to him as a “Weiße Frau” who would subsequently return to haunt the halls of the Spandau Citadel in the years thereafter.
But finally in 1709, while the Berlin City Palace was being reconstructed, the skeleton assumed to be Anna Sydow’s was found. It was then given a proper burial with the hope that the Spandau Citadel would no longer be haunted.
Yet according to another legend, Anna Sydow was walled in alive at the Grunewald hunting lodge, which means that the skeleton assumed to be hers in 1709 could very well have been the remains of someone else.
Either way, if you happen to visit the Spandau Citadel in the future, be sure to keep your eyes open for the Weiße Frau who could still be haunting the fortress’ halls today.
Happy Halloween from the Berlin Guides Association!
The Berlin Guides Association is comprised of professional, expert guides working in Berlin, throughout Germany and across Europe. Our passion is sharing our knowledge of German history and culture with visitors to Berlin and from around the world. We are Berlin’s official tour guide association.
Visit our website for more information and to check out our tour page: https://berlinguidesassociation.com/tours
September’s BBS Excursion: Exploring Berlin’s Jazz History
Last week one of our wonderful guides, Anja Gellenkamp, led a group of two dozen eager explorers through the streets of Berlin-Mitte to uncover several forgotten entertainment venues that once defined Berlin’s heady Jazz scene of the 1920s and 30s.
As opposed to the more raucous American styles to have been found in places like New York and Chicago, Berlin-Mitte was renowned for its more conservative – watered-down – version of ‘Jass’ – so-called ‘Berliner Melange’. Equally, the windy, blues-jazz that could’ve been found in smoke-filled bars up and down the Mississippi River was always a long way from Berlin’s Spree River!
Many Berliners, however, were fascinated by American jazz during the Weimar Republic because Jazz from America meant modern, at a time when Germany was on the front lines of a political and societal revolution following WWI. If Berlin didn’t quite have the exact same noises and rhythms as New Orleans, Kansas City, or Chicago, it didn’t really matter at the end of the day. Jazz was modern, it was exciting and Berliners enjoyed it with as much empathy as those jazz enthusiasts on the other side of the Atlantic did.
One of the ‘forgotten venues’ our group found was the Weisse Maus – pictured now as the Quartier 205 shopping mall. Once home to famous Weimar era dancer Anita Berber and an extreme version of Schadenfreude Theatre where visitors would be invited on stage to embarrass themselves with unusual acts.
“The most beautiful place is always in the bar (Der schönste Platz ist immer an der Theke),” as Toni Steingass, the German singer and song writer, sang in 1950.
There’s a certain kind of bar in Berlin that offers coziness and an undeniable sense of content.
Whereas Vienna has its coffee houses, London its pubs, Paris its Bistros, and Barcelona its Bodegas, Berlin has its Eckkneipen (corner bars) which have been synonymous with an unmistakable popular way of life that’s rooted in the city’s historical development.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed Berlin into an economic powerhouse and the city’s size expanded dramatically. Additional suburbs began to develop as the population continued to increase, and Berlin thus became a largely working-class city.
Despite the city’s initial efforts to increase its housing, workers often lived in dark, damp, poorly heated and ventilated dwellings that soon became the breeding grounds for rampant disease, violence, and crime.
It was absolute misery for several of Berlin’s new working-class.
After putting in an exhausting and physically demanding 12-hour shift, one could rarely relax in such a horrendous place at the end of the day.
Therefore, to unwind and to avoid the misery at home, workers gathered for a bump and a beer (a glass of beer and a shot of hard liquor) at the nearest Eckkeneipe where they could relax – as if they were at home – and wash down their hopeless fate with other like-minded people.
Eventually, living conditions would improve and most people wouldn’t have to rely on their local Eckkeneipe to find solace after a long day’s work (unless if they were deliberately trying to avoid a particular person at home!). Yet, the Berlin Eckkeneipe had given its patrons a sense of belonging to a community – a community in which everybody had an identity among each other in a very large and overcrowded city.
By 1931, the renown German author, Erich Kästner, supposedly counted 20,100 Eckkeneipen throughout Berlin.
Today there are probably around 2,500 Eckkeneipen throughout the German capital. Because of the city’s booming real estate market and the fact that former undesired neighborhoods have now become trendy hangouts among a new age of residents in Berlin, there’s been a dramatic change in the demographics of those who visit an Eckkeneipe today. A bunch of older folks sitting on barstools, drinking as much as they can and smoking like chimnies have now become a dying breed. There’s now a whole new demographic of people who just want cheap beer, a chance to play darts or pool, and blast Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on the jukebox.
Yet, “Long Live the Berlin Eckkeneipe” means that, despite our changing world, tradition and behavior together don’t change. Today when you enter the front door, it’s customary to say “Hallo” or “Guten Tag” to everyone with whom you make eye contact because most regulars who frequent an Eckkneipe simply expect a proper hello from each patron who walks in.
Times may have changed, but tradition doesn’t.
Head to an Eckknesipe while you’re in Berlin. Usually, there’s just one person running the bar, so don’t grow impatient if it takes a minute or two for him or her to get to you. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a special art when it comes to pouring an Eckkeneipe beer, so be patient after you’ve ordered.
Feel free to strike up a conversation with the person nearest to you because remember, it’s all about feeling content and relaxed as if you were at home.