The Best View in Berlin

Contenders for the best Berlin view - the TV Tower as viewed from Panorama Punkt
The TV Tower as viewed from Panorama Punkt | Picture by Shimri Toris

As BBS member, Nadav Gablinger says “Since Berlin is a flat city, from almost every roof you will have a beautiful view of the city.”

That’s the good news.

But just how do you choose the best Berlin view to wow your date, impress your Instagram followers or simply enjoy a new perspective?

We’ve compiled a list of 9 places to get that picture-perfect Berlin panorama, based on the recommendations of our members.

With options including rooftop eateries, historic war memorials, former spy stations, a quirky bar situated on top of a car park and a tower built on top of a disused bunker, you’re sure to find the perfect spot. Read on to find out which views are rated most highly by local guides.

Another view of Berlin from Panorama Punkt
Another view of Berlin from Panorama Punkt | Picture by Shimri Toris

The Best Central and Classic View of Berlin

Siegessäule / Victory Column

Built to commemorate the wars of German Unification at the end of the 19th century, the Victory Column was moved from its original location near the Reichstag to the Großer Stern under Hitler’s reign. For just a few Euros paid at the base, you can climb the 281 steps to the top for a stunning 360-degree view out across the Tiergarten.

“Perhaps the most rewarding is the view from the Victory Column, after squeezing past people up those narrow stairs; of course I am referring to pre-Corona times…”
Carlos Meissner

Panorama Punkt

Opened on Potsdamer Platz in 1999, Panorama Punkt offers excellent views of the city’s best-known landmarks. The most impressive views are from the rooftop, though you can also see a lot from the windows of the very comfortable bar. As well as views, this building boasts the fastest elevator in Europe – not that you get much time to enjoy it…

TV Tower

At 368 metres the Fernsehturm remains one of Berlin’s most striking landmarks, visible from all across the city. Still the tallest structure in Germany (and 3rd tallest in the EU), the TV Tower was completed in 1969 to mark the 20th anniversary of the GDR and was intended to symbolise that state’s power. For many the view is unparalleled. Why not pay a visit to the revolving restaurant too whilst you’re up there?

“The best view? Probably from the TV Tower but – a confession – I’ve never been up it!”
Finn Ballard

Monkey Bar

Visitors to the 10th floor of Bikini Berlin’s 25hours Hotel are in for a truly unique view from the Monkey Bar’s roof terrace. It’s called the Monkey Bar for a reason… Namely: from here you can see into the monkey enclosure of the neighbouring Berlin Zoo. Cocktail aficionados will feel right at home too, thanks to the extensive drinks list and expert mixologists.

Berlin view from Panorama Punkt including Tiergartern and Berlin Philharmonie
The Philharmonie and Tiergarten viewed from Panorama Punkt | Picture by Shimri Toris

The best off-the-beaten-track Berlin view

The Kreuzberg in Viktoriapark in… Kreuzberg

Opened in 1894, the Viktoriapark is in fact where you’ll find the original Kreuzberg (Kreuzberger Hill). The 66m (217ft) hill is topped with a cast iron monument commemorating the Wars of Liberation fought during the Napoleonic Wars and, in summer, is home to an artificial waterfall. The park is also located next to two vineyards.

Chiara Baroni and Sam Wiszniewski recommend this view.

Solar Restaurant, Excelsiorhaus

Inspired by the architecture of New York, Sobotka and Müller’s ’60s-built apartment complex is named after the Hotel Excelsior that used to stand in its stead before the Second World War. Today the building is home to 506 apartments and 39 businesses, including the much-lauded Solar Restaurant, where delicious food and drinks are served with a cracking view.

“The most interesting view, in my opinion, is from the Solar Restaurant in the Excelsiorhaus, which used to be the CIA’s spy station. In the basement there was a bunker that could hold 3100 people for 14 days.”
Nadav Gablinger

Klunkerkranich

Located on top of the Neuköllner Arkaden shopping centre, this hipster hangout is a much-loved spot to watch the sun go down at the beginning of a long Berlin night. Expect less polish than the roof terraces of Berlin’s pricier districts. Here, between the flowerbeds, you can enjoy drinks and Mediterranean-inspired food in a cosy, distinctly DIY atmosphere – all set to a soundtrack provided by local DJs.

“Klunkerkranich – impossible for visitors to pronounce and sometimes even harder to find. Get that pure Berliner Luft surrounded by plants, hipsters, and wooden crates while standing on top of Neukölln.”
Susan Grouchy

“Klunkerkranich has a special place in my heart because you’re in the thick of Neuköllln and it’s a great view of the TV tower to have while sipping on cheap lagers on a lovely patio!”
Chris Moniz

Aussichtsturm am Finkenberg, Döberitzer Heide

Brandenburg’s Döberitz Heathland was once a military training ground. Then, in the 2000s, the Heinz Seilmann Foundation transformed it into a 3,600-hectare nature reserve. On your way to the 15-metre observation tower – built on top of a disused bunker in 2011 – you can meander along pathways to take in the ground-level scenery and local wildlife.

“Worth the hike!”
Sam Wiszniewski

Teufelsberg

Literally translated as “Devil’s Mountain”, Teufelsberg actually comprises two man-made hills located to the south of Berlin. It was made by piling WWII rubble onto the shell of the Nazis’ never-completed Faculty of Military Technology. The site was then used as a spy station during the Cold War, before street artists and graffiti taggers made it there playground in the 90s.

“Teufelsberg is great because who doesn’t want to get a nice panorama of Berlin atop an 80 meter man made hill made of literal garbage? Plus the surrounding Grunewald forest is beautiful.”
Chris Moniz

A more philosophical view of Berlin…

According to Ben Fisher, sometimes it’s less about where you’re looking from and more what you’re looking at that matters.

“What makes for a great view? A skyscraper’s panoramic observation deck? A monumental building to have as a selfie background? Green meadows and tranquil river flowing nearby? I‘ll tell you where’s the best view in town – put on your worst outfit, grab a bottle of Sterni and hang around for 2 hours at the Warschauer Straße bridge, connecting Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, on a Saturday night. I’d argue it’s the best view in the galaxy.”

Whichever spot you choose to take in the city from on high, the truth is: the best view is up to you. As Jeremy Minsberg puts it:

“The best view in Berlin is where you find it. It can be at the Gate, a museum or a Hinterhof (back courtyard). Every day the view changes and expands”

Where’s your favourite view in Berlin? Did it make our list?

Discovering the Industrial History of Moabit

Berlin Guides Association Members in front ofthe Arminiusmarkthalle in Moabit
BBS Members in front of the Arminiusmarkthalle, Moabit – Photo by Alazne Artexe

At the end of June 2021, BBS member Bernd Breitkopf treated our members to his original ‘Industrial Moabit’ tour. Over the course of 2 fascinating hours, we made our way from Turmstrasse to the Tiergarten discovering traces of Berlin’s industrial history along the way.

As well as visiting the oldest house in Moabit and the Arminiusmarkthalle, and learning more about the 300 historical water pumps to be found in Berlin’s inner city, we heard about the life and impact of August Borsig…

Bernd Breitkopf demonstrates how to operate one of the istoric waterpumps in Moabit
Bernd Breitkopf demonstrates how to operate Berlin’s historic waterpumps – Photo by Alazne Artetxe

August Borsig was in the business of railway construction. 170 years ago, railway manufacture was one of the driving forces of industrialization in Berlin and the industry was of particular importance to Moabit – in more ways than one.

Interestingly, as Bernd enlightened us, Borsig also used the heat and steam from one of his machine factories to heat the greenhouses in a park that even impressed the Prussian King. On the plot of land on Stromstrasse between Alt-Moabit and the banks of the Spree, August Borsig had a spacious park laid out next to the ironworks, in which his home and various greenhouses were located.

Borsig was an active promoter of horticulture, having been a member of the “Verein zur Beförderung des Gartenbaues in den Königlich Preußischen Staaten” (Association for the Promotion of Horticulture in the Royal Prussian States) since 1835. He entrusted the creation of the park to none other than Peter Joseph Lenné, the ingenious landscape designer, while in-house architect Johann Heinrich Strack was responsible for constructing both the residential house (built in 1849) and industrial buildings.

With its many rare plants, the park was at least as famous in its day as the industrial works. Even King Frederick William IV was captivated by the garden paradise. After once paying a visit to the “Borsig Etablissement,” he is said to have remarked: “I would like to live like you, my dear Borsig, one day.”

BBS members on the Industrial Moabit excursion
Some of our members enjoying the first in-person excursion of the year

His admiration for the Moabit gem was justified, since on July 19, 1852, the first Victoria Regia blossomed  in Berlin in Borsig’s greenhouse. (The lily is native to Guyana and tropical South America.) It is also worth noting that park and greenhouse facilities were open to the public for a fee on Tuesdays and Fridays. The entrance fees went into the Borsig company’s workers’ disability fund.

August Borsig was only able to enjoy this and his entrepreneurial success for a few years, however. He died in 1854 at the age of only fifty as a result of a stroke. His grave is located in the Dorotheenstädtische Kirchhof, in the immediate vicinity of the place where his entrepreneurial activities began. His son Albert followed his father not only in the management of the company’s business, but also in the care and further development of the Moabit estate.

Thanks again to Bernd Breitkopf for the excellent tour, to Alazne Artetxe for the photography and to Konstanze Deeters for the report. Here’s to many more in-person events in our future!

Berlin Long Reads | Appetite for Destruction: The Strange Case of Berlin’s Disappearing Palaces

Berlin Palace under reconstruction, 2016

In the latest of our Berlin Long Reads, BBS Member Ryan Balmer takes a hard look at the changing face of the Berlin City Palace.

The Plastic Palace

Berlin Palace under reconstruction, 2016
Condemned forever to become? Photo by Another Believer, 2016 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Last month, on the 20th of July, the Humboldt Forum opened its doors to the public. Berliners seem to thrive on the stirring up of local controversy so it would be a bold claim to suggest that it is the most divisive architectural project since the city’s reunification in 1990, but I would go further than that and argue that the destruction of East Germany’s (the DDR’s) ‘Palast der Republik’ and its replacement with a ghostly pastiche of an 18th Century Prussian Palace to house the Humboldt Forum is more than the latest grumbling point for the denizens of the German capital, and is actually the latest manifestation of an ongoing battle for the soul of Berlin.  In 1997, Andreas Huyssen wrote that “Berlin may well be on the way to squandering a unique chance” when it came to filling the voids in the city’s landscape and collective memory. Two years later, Daniel Libeskind – who had just completed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and thus knew a thing or two about the difficulty of filling those voids – warned that the pressing of a “historical reset button” would produce kitsch. The Humboldt Forum’s opening within those plastic-Prussian facades confirms both of those concerns.

The art critic Karl Scheffler’s 1910 description of Berlin as a city “condemned forever to become and never be”  seems to pop up everywhere – especially when researching bitterly contested city developments in the last 30 years. It’s also something that tour guides tell their clients when they complain about all the construction in the city, in the hope that Scheffler’s wistful words are charming enough to distract from the seemingly constant soundtrack of jack hammers. Unfortunately, it underpins an attitude that is often used as a response to city projects that are invariably fraught with budgetary, administrative and sometimes even structural issues. After the initial grumbling comes the collective, defeated shrug – if our new international airport can open nine years behind schedule, then anything is (im)possible. This can be partly explained by the economic doldrums the city was in in the years following reunification. Until very recently, Berlin was seen by much of the rest of Germany (or at least the parts of the former West Germany) as something of a dysfunctional city and an economic disaster zone. To put it simply, Berliners expect a certain level of teething problems with every major project and the Humboldt Forum certainly had its share of those.

An opening that was two years behind schedule and questions over who was actually going to foot the bill for such an ambitious undertaking are issues that are par for the course for any project of this size in Berlin.  There was also an embarrassing resignation from a member of the advisory board who suggested that the Forum was being used as a way of avoiding tough questions regarding the provenance of items from Germany’s former colonies. Bénédicte Savoy suggested that there were desperate attempts to stop the “radiation” of these controversies leaking out, describing the project as “like Chernobyl”. None of this is ideal but we should not let those issues get in the way of a more fundamental problem – this building should not exist in the first place. It represents a continuation of a clumsy and damaging policy with regards to the DDR and the experiences of its former citizens. Furthermore it represents a turning back of the clock to a supposed ideal time in the city’s history, wiping away the footprints of subsequent eras both good and bad from the landscape and ignoring one of the city’s true strengths – the wild eclecticism of its buildings and the meanings that they impart.

A Palace Destroyed

Berlin City Palace around 1702
Berlin City Palace around 1702 – Engraving by P. Schenk, based on a drawing by S. Blessendorf

A residence of some kind had occupied the site since the late 15th Century but what is supposed to greet visitors today – unless they approach from the east and are met with Franco Stella’s incongruously contemporary facade – is an approximation of what the palace looked like in 1918, around the time that the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II was driven into exile by a population no longer willing to tolerate the carnage of the Great War. His dynastic ancestors the Hohenzollerns had ruled Brandenburg, Prussia and eventually all of Germany in various forms for centuries, but like many – though sadly not all –  old European royal families who had outstayed their welcome at this particularly tumultuous time in history, it was time to go.

Although the palace was repeatedly tinkered with and added to in the century leading up to the last Kaiser’s demise, it was Andreas Schlüter’s construction at the beginning of the 18th Century that forms the basis of what was rebuilt in recent years. Schlüter’s baroque design came to dominate and define the centre of what was still at that point a small provincial seat of power but one that was about to go through a great period of growth and change. Particularly in the latter half of the century when Frederick II or ‘The Great’ was on the throne, Prussia would begin to emerge as a significant European power for the first time. Around the palace can still be found architectural clues from these subsequent giddy periods in Berlin’s  history. Schlüter’s fingerprints are all over the former Zeughaus or ‘Royal Arsenal’ to the north-west of the palace, Karl Friedrich Schinkels neo-classical Altes Museum, built in the afterglow of Prussia’s ultimately victorious part in the Napoleonic wars lies to the North. Finally, to the north east we have the Berliner Dom, a somewhat garish but undeniably fun neo-renaissance cathedral ordered, unsurprisingly, in a fit of imperial chest beating by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Those last two buildings certainly have their flaws and detractors but what more than makes up for that is the stories they tell, the way it is possible to trace the history of the city through their forms. They fit into the Berlin tradition of statement architecture, of power and aspiration manifested through building.

To those with even a cursory understanding of Berlin’s history it seems almost redundant to explain why the 18th Century Schloss no longer exists. After a post-imperial period where neither the governments of the Weimar Republic nor the squalid dictatorship of the Nazis saw fit to use the building for any notable official capacity, it was horrifically damaged during World War Two and completely levelled in 1950 by Soviet / East German authorities with little appetite for rebuilding a structure steeped in a history that was widely seen at that time, including within other parts of Germany, as being partly responsible for two world wars.

The People’s Palace?

Berlin-Mitte, Marx-Engels-Platz: Palast der Republik
Berlin-Mitte, Marx-Engels-Platz: Palast der Republik – CC BY-SA 4.0

The DDR government, faced with a gaping void  in the historical centre of Berlin, opted to fill it with a new type of palace, one explicitly for the people.  Emily Pugh suggests however that it was also a resurrection of the pre-Nazi model of the Kultürhaus – a model of a community hub for meeting, education and entertainment that was briefly popular among German socialist communities. The Palast der Republik was home to the DDR Volkskammer (Peoples or Parliamentary Chamber) as well as a huge congress hall  but what brought the crowds – 11.8million visitors in the first year alone, according to one west German media outlet – were the cultural and leisure facilities: the exhibition spaces, numerous cafes and bars, the youth club, the discotheque and the bowling alley. This  choice of location and the radical departure from the styles evident on the surrounding buildings is surely what one would expect from a regime that portrayed itself at that moment as breaking from all of the old, rotten tropes and ideas that had brought not only Germany but Europe to its knees. It was an example of the kind of statement architecture that had characterised the immediate surroundings for centuries but unfortunately for some was a statement made by a type of regime and in a particular style that decades later was deemed to have no place in such a prestigious location.

There were predictable howls of derision from western media at the time. Despite  the often clear overlap of influences and styles with contemporary projects in west Berlin such as the enormous ICC Congress Hall opened three years later, Pugh asserts that “many critics assumed that GDR architects, and thus architecture were utterly cut off from developments in the rest of the world”. Some critics also seemed to ignore that, despite the supposedly radical ideas of its architects, the building actually was  most clearly influenced by a loose grouping of styles under the umbrella of modernism that briefly thrived in Berlin decades earlier in the pre-Nazi period. Surely a building that made a link, a historical continuity with such a lauded architectural period from the city’s history deserved pride of place? This was not a view shared of course by those who were perhaps content to see that brief flourish of utopian design for the people be washed away by jackbooted reactionaries in the first place.

These opinions are not restricted to a time when Cold War tensions could perhaps be viewed as mitigating the more extreme responses to the Palast der Republik by western critics. An article in the Economist from 2015 casually describes the building as an “architectural atrocity.” However, the positive description later in the same article, of the upcoming Humboldt Forum as an “agora of globalisation” would perhaps suggest a certain political bias on behalf of the writer.

There was another element of criticism of a kind that would come to characterise  the uneven East / West German relationship both before and after the unification process. The DDR citizens visiting – and reportedly rather enjoying – their visits to the Palast der Republik were derided by some western critics as being too easily distracted by low-brow pursuits such as drinking and socialising in the bars to even notice how supposedly garish and cheap the building was.This approach helps form a dangerous and unhelpful template of DDR citizens – if they were not shown to be suffering under the supposed unrelenting misery of communism, if they appeared in any way to be making the most of whatever they had, they were often depicted as naive and uncultured. Years after its demolition, there is also an attempt to misrepresent how the Palast der Republik was actually used. Wolf Burchard points out the irony in the fact that “while its architectural style was a clear repudiation of its predecessor’s elitism, it became the stage for all the great celebrations and banquets of the communist elite.”. This part is certainly true, but it is of course only half of the truth and deliberately obscures and ignores the popular use of the Palast der Republik.

The Palast der Republik was closed in September 1990, near the end of that chaotic period between the opening of the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall and the unification of the now sixteen German states. The building was not only inseparable from an undeniably corrupt, oppressive and collapsed regime but was also riddled with asbestos.  The latter issue was one it had in common with the ICC, although the hulking congress hall still stands in the far west of the city today, awaiting renovation or repurposing, and was given the deserved and all-important status of ‘historical monument’ or ‘Denkmalschutz’ back in 2019. After the asbestos was carefully removed from the Palast der Republik, a resolution was passed in 2002 to demolish what was left.

A Palace Condemned

Zweifel, Palast der Republik, 2005
Zweifel, Palast der Republik, 2005 – Jula2812 – CC BY-SA 4.0

When Andreas Huysmann wrote ‘The Voids of Berlin’ in 1997, the debate to rip down the Palast der Republik and build some approximation of the old Prussian palace was very much underway. Huysmann warned that the 1990s rush to remove or change many of the monuments, buildings and symbols of the DDR was often (but not always) unnecessary, arguing that it represented a ”a strategy of power and humiliation, a final burst of Cold War ideology” It would, at the very least, he suggested, create an increase in rose-tinted Ostalgie – the nostalgia for the East (Ost) that many former DDR citizens were beginning to feel in the economic slump of the late 1990s. At the time of Huysmann’s essay, disaffected Germans living in former DDR states were drifting into the arms of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) – a party that emerged from the ruins of the SED, the Marxist-Leninist ruling party of the DDR. If only Huysmann could have seen twenty years into the future when many of those same regions would become the centres of power of a new party that tapped into feelings of resentment, humiliation and fear that have festered in some of those areas since unification. The AFD  (Alternative for Germany) party, Germany’s most successful far-right party since the war, has exploited those very feelings to make enormous gains particularly – but not solely –  in these areas in the last federal  election. It should be said that the party’s often rabid anti-immigration stance forms the core of their platform but their reactionary populism also seems to have won them a great deal of support from those in the former DDR states disillusioned by the modern German state.

Carol Anne Costabile-Heming sees the decision to replace the Palast der Republik with the home of the Humboldt Forum as symptomatic of a worrying trend “to reject structures and practices from the former East in favour of the perceived ‘better options from the west” which, apart from a further stripping away of the identity of the DDR state and its former citizens,  “distorts the memory of the historic space through the erasure of the DDR’s presence.”. Beyond that, she warns that turning the clock back to the final spasms of the German Empire purposely avoids conforntation and discussion not only of the DDR and its victims but also the Nazi period.

As the debate raged throughout the 1990s about whether to preserve the Palast der Republik or to rebuild the royal palace, the motivations of the various interest groups in favour of the latter option began to emerge.  Naturally, a subject of this nature attracted a predictable array of fringe fantasists excited by a return of Royal Prussia or Imperial Germany . It’s fortunate that, for the time being at least, these extreme desires remain popular with the kind of clammy-palmed soap-dodgers who have little influence outside of internet message boards. The most impactful of the interest groups responsible, such as the Berlin City Palace Sponsoring Association, instead claim to be fundamentally concerned with restoring the architectural balance of the area, as if there was a specific moment in time that these buildings, with their disparate styles and meanings all made some kind of harmonious sense. But by turning the clock back to a particular point in time, they are explicitly favouring that era over others. How can this possibly be viewed as an unpolitical act? How is it possible to deride Ostalgie whilst gazing, misty eyed into a distant past when the people simply had to cross their fingers and hope that whichever interbred monarch occupied the throne at the time wasn’t one of the mad ones that seem to pop up with alarming frequency?

Palace Politics

Berlin Palace under reconstruction, 2016
Photo by Another Believer, 2016 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The fundamental problem with nostalgic gestures is that they are almost always grounded in a fantasy, which at its most harmless can result in a Disneyfication of place and meaning and at its  most dangerous can help to feed the type of nostalgic populism oozing out across the globe at this precise moment. The very idea of a Berlin ‘golden age’ is preposterous in the first place. Even between the two wars during that brief flourish of possibility beloved by many on the left – the Weimar Republic – great swathes of the population were pretty miserable, for the most part. The vast majority of Berliners were too busy trying to feed their children to have the time or energy to appreciate the burgeoning  artistic, political and sexual revolutions happening around them. At least though, the ideas that were emerging were seeking to improve conditions for the masses rather than to display symbols of wealth and power for their own sake. Walter Gropius in his 1919 ‘Manifesto of the Bauhaus’ promised “the new building of the future…..which will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith” (Kolocotroni et al 302) If we must look into Berlin’s past for inspiration, it should be into the city’s rich history of revolutionary and avant garde design. Gropius, by the way, was not some kind of fanatical futurist, intent on smashing the old in order to build the new – he notably intervened to stop the demolition of  the former Museum of Applied Arts, built by his uncle in 1881,  showing that it is indeed possible to wish for a broad and representative range of styles in Berlin´s architectural landscape.

The sheer range of possibilities that opened up post-unification was bound to create and foster division. As Lutz Koepnick put it: “In particular the remaking of Berlin into a capital city of both collective memory and trans-national appeal seems to be on everyone’s mind”. Scheffler’s description of Berlin always becoming but never being was of a very different city but it remains useful in understanding the ongoing battle fought over every single one of these contentious locations. It’s worth bearing in mind that two of the most admired buildings to have been completed within that period faced some tough opposition from exactly the same kind of forces that backed the rebuilding of the Schloss.

Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a moving and powerful work that speaks to (almost) everyone who enters but it required the Berlin authorities to make a giant leap of faith for it to happen in the first place. The job of building the museum  was given to a man who had never actually built anything up to that point and upon being awarded the contract promptly handed back a request for double the budget he had been allocated. More importantly, in the face of suspicion from those appalled by the deconstructivist approach, what Libeskind provided the city with, is a provocative building that refuses to provide either easy answers or redemption. James Young suggests that the aim of the building “is not to reassure or console but to haunt visitors with the unpleasant  – uncanny – sensation of calling into consciousness that which has been previously – even happily – repressed” That such a design was accepted and embraced is testament to the fact the tradition of radical architecture and design still has a place in Berlin.

Neues Museum Berlin after reconstruction, 2009
Neues Museum Berlin after reconstruction, 2009 – Photo by Lenie Butler – CC BY-SA 3.0

Slightly more recently, the reconstruction of the Neues Museum –  a short walk from the Humboldt Forum and tucked behind Schinkel’s Altes Museum – was also a subject of much debate.  Of the then five museums on the island, the Neues was the one that suffered the most devastation during the war. Restoration work only began very slowly in the 1980s but it wasn’t until 1999 that David Chipperfield was selected to rebuild the museum. Although his proposal was far less challenging than Libeskind’s was for the Jewish Museum, it also faced great opposition from similar quarters. Chipperfield’s idea was to maintain and restore as much of the old structure as possible but in an honest and poignant manner, making no attempt to hide the history of the building but never overwhelming or distracting from the collection itself. It’s a masterpiece and widely viewed as such these days but because Chipperfield did not embark on a faithful reconstruction, the Gesellschaft Historisches Berlin e. V.  (Historical Berlin Society) contacted Unesco and suggested that Museum Island should be put on the list of sites in danger of losing their Unesco Heritage Status. This same group that had behaved like an apoplectic toddler in this case was predictably one of the key backers of the rebuilding of the palace that now houses the Humboldt Forum.

None of these arguments are going to go away any time soon, and neither should they. It is healthy for a city to have opposing voices making themselves heard – certainly more healthy than the dominance of a mindset that favours rolling back to a fantastical and fictional point in Berlin’s history when everything was just right.  Where exactly does that road end? Should we also destroy all of the remaining Nazi era structures in the city because they too are symbols of a brutal regime – one that, let’s not forget, was far, far more brutal than the DDR? We still use the old Olympic Stadium from 1936, for example. Perhaps though, it is allowed to stand because in its clumsy neo-classicism it just about fits into the narrow field of styles acceptable to the kind of traditionalists and reactionaries behind the rebuilding of the palace.

Signs of the Palast der Republik in the Humboldt Forum – Photo by Ryan Balmer

I visited the Humboldt Forum a few days after it opened and despite my obvious prejudices found myself rather enjoying the experience at first.  Although Stella’s interior is occasionally reminiscent of an airport terminal, it is not without its charms. It was also quite poignant to see such a large number of people (presumably) enjoying the place, especially after such lengthy, bleak periods of Covid lockdown. There are frequent nods to the old Palast der Republik, in the form of displays and even some of the old signage directing people toward the bowling alley and the youth club. It all feels rather tokenistic, I thought, but better than nothing. Tucked away on an upper floor however, was a small terminal where one could watch footage of the events that took place in the Palast der Republik during the strangest time in its history. In the brief interim period between the removal of the asbestos and its complete destruction, the Palast der Republik was used for the staging of wildly innovative performances and exhibitions including one where visitors could explore the temporarily flooded building in little rubber boats. One of the clips that I and a gaggle of frowning German pensioners huddled around was of a concert held there in 2006, by the Berlin industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten (‘collapsing new buildings’). The footage was incredibly raw and affecting not just because of the incredible racket made by Neubauten but precisely because of where it was shot. It represented a brief period when the shell of a people’s palace was being used exactly as it should, as a showcase for all of the variety, innovation and freedoms that Berlin excels at, rather than a narrow idea of how the city should be viewed.

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Ryan Balmer Berlin Tour Guide

This Berlin Long Read was written by BBS member, Ryan Balmer.
Visit his profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.
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Bibliography

  • Young, James E ‘Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin: The Uncanny Arts of Memorial Architecture’ Jewish Social Studies New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), pp. 1-23 (23 pages)
  • Burchard, Wolf ‘Royal Remains’ Apollo Magazine, March 2016
  • Huyssen, Andreas ‘The Voids of Berlin’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 57-81
  • Pugh, Emily ‘Architecture, Identity and Politics in Divided Berlin’ University of #Pittsburgh Press
  • Koepnick, Lutz ‘Forget Berlin’ The German Quarterly , Autumn, 2001, Vol. 74, No. 4, Sites of Memory (Autumn, 2001), pp. 343-354
  • Costabile-Heming, Carol Anne The reconstructed City Palace and Humboldt Forum in Berlin: restoring architectural identity or distorting the memory of historic spaces? Journal of Contemporary European Studies Volume 25, 2017 – Issue 4: City Margins, City Memories
  • Koloctroni, Vassiliki et al (eds) ‘Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents’ University of Chicago Press
  • ‘Berliners Wary as €600 Super-Museum is Latest Project to Overrun’ The Guardian, June 6th, 2019
  • ‘What would the Kaiser Say?’ The Economist vol 415 issue 8942, June 13th 2015

On This Day | 26 May 1940: The Battle of Dunkirk begins

Have you heard of ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ or seen Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film on this remarkable mass evacuation?

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation | Image via the Australian War Memorial

26 May 1940: The ten-day Battle of Dunquerque which would culminate in the flight of Allied forces from France across the North Sea to the British mainland began on this day in history.

After the winter-long stalemate nicknamed the ‘Phoney War,’ the German Army had moved with astonishing speed – not least, new research concludes, due to the quantity of amphetamines they were consuming – and meticulous planning, occupy the Low Countries and bypass the Maginot Line on which France had relied.

The capitulation of France within weeks had marked for Germany one of the most spectacular military victories in world history. As the Germans ploughed on toward Southern France and the calamity worsened, both French troops and the British Expeditionary Force found their efforts at counter-attacks frustrated and, to evade total encirclement, were compelled to retreat.

British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk
British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation | Image via Imperial War Museums

After a visit to Paris left him dismayed by the despondent state of French high command, Churchill began planning ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the evacuation of 338,000 troops by sea. Civilian fishing vessels and lifeboats (the ‘little ships’) were pressed into action to assist the Royal Navy.

The soldiers, strafed by the Luftwaffe, abandoned their weaponry and leapt homewards. Thousands of French troops were captured, to become prisoners of war. Almost all the best troops Britain and France had to offer had been either evacuated to the United Kingdom or had been killed.

The Germans sliced their way south, toward Paris, like a knife through butter.

Yet the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands led the Battle of Dunkirk – described by Churchill as a ‘miracle’ – to be received as a success back at home. Following the German capitulation in 1945, Dunkirk become emblematic of an indomitable British fortitude – and pluckiness.

This edition of On This Day in History was written by BBS Member Finn Ballard.

It’s one of four events he chose to remember this month. Take a look at our blog to see what else is covered.

Berlin Long Reads | Different Shades of Red: The Weimar Republic and the Divided Left

In the latest edition of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member Campbell Bews explores the rift between the SPD and KPD – from ideological cracks to the conflicts, betrayal and violence of politics in the Weimar Republic.

A column of swastika-helmeted troops snakes into a dark Berlin. Their boots clap loudly on the cobblestones as they march in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate and close in on the Reichstag. They lower the flag of the Republic and replace it with their own, deposing the elected government. Workers who awake to see the takeover heckle the paramilitaries and are fired on in reply. The sun rises on a Berlin under occupation. The date is the 11th of March 1920, the ‘Kapp Putsch’ had just begun.

Their forceful occupation of Berlin allowed the Free Corps (returning WWI proto-fascist militias) to seize the capital but not to hold it. The forces on the left, united in opposition, mobilise against it. Social Democrats, Communists, and trade unionists cannot prevent the military takeover, but they can deny their labour. A general strike brings the usually bustling city to a standstill, as trains refuse to move, the electricity is turned off and the economy grinds to a halt. Wolfgang Kapp, the eponymous putsch leader threatens, begs and attempts to bribe them back to work, but to no avail. With declining prospects, Kapp negotiates a surrender. The united left has defeated the coup in less than 100 hours.

The Kapp Putsch was defeated by a united Left
Free Corps militia hand our leaflets during the ‘Kapp Putsch’
| Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R16976 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

The Kapp Putsch stands as a mirror opposite to the Hitler seizure of power 13 years later. Instead of fighting a united front, Hitler was faced with a fractured left-wing opposition, which he was easily able to overcome. The strength of the left was similarly powerful in both Kapp’s and Hitler’s seizure of power. In the 1920 election (held three months after the coup) the SPD, Independent SPD and Communists (KPD) won a total of just under 42% – a near high point for the Weimar Republic. In the 1933 election (held just after the Reichstag fire, under suppression by the Nazi led government), the SPD and KPD won just under 31% – a drop but still a broad coalition of the population. Added to the left’s strength were their own armed groups, returned WWI soldiers councils in the 20’s and party paramilitary groups Iron Front (SPD) and Alliance of Red Front-Fighters (KPD) in the 30’s. Undoubtedly Kapp and General Lüttwitz were not as tightly organised as the Nazis, but they may have succeeded had the left not so vigorously opposed them.

So why was there no coordinated opposition against Hitler? A simple answer would be that there was very little coordination. Even on the day that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, the majority of the SPD executive committee dismissed an alliance with communists, fearing they would co-opt the resistance and draw away their supporters. The KPD on the other hand, made little to no distinction between the Nazis and the ‘social fascists’ in the SPD. It is clear that between the two right-wing coups there emerged an unbreachable gap between the two left-wing parties. This piece will explore how this rift came about, beginning with ideological cracks within the SPD of the German Empire and pushed further apart by the conflicts, betrayal and violence of Weimar Politics.

1871 – 1914 Big tent of the SPD

Communists and social democrats were all contained within the broad church of the SPD during Bismarck’s German Empire (1871 – 1918). Due to the Party’s appeal to the urban proletariat, their support grew in lock step with the German Empire’s own rapid industrialisation. On the eve of the First World War in 1914, they had 1,085,905 members, 90 daily newspapers and were the largest political party in the Reichstag. However, the system created by Otto von Bismarck ensured that the reins of power remained in the hands of the conservative Prussian military aristocracy, so while the SPD were able to (often indirectly) influence policy, they could never truly govern.

Without the pressure of governing, they could focus on building a party bureaucracy and managing internal ideological disputes. Like many traditional labour movements, it was divided much between its ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ wings of the party. The ‘minimalists’ favored winning gradual improvements for working people within Germany by working within the system and winning voters at the ballot box. They occupied much of the bureaucracy of the party and therefore the leadership, such as union leader turned party chairman, Friedrich Ebert. On the other end of the spectrum were the ‘maximalists’ who favored global solidarity with the working class and Marxist revolution to overcome the system, which featured prominent leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But while the gap between their political outlooks was extreme, their collective commitment to the party’s ethos of debate settled by compromise and common cause meant the party’s frictions stayed within the party. That was until the earthquake of the First World War.

Friedrich Ebert was the head of the SPD and first president of the Weimar Republic
Friedrich Ebert

1914 – 1918 SPD at war: Nationalism or Socialism?

Whether to support or oppose the war was the most momentous decision in the SPD’s history and created an impossible split between the two factions. According to maximalist socialist doctrine, maintaining international solidarity among workers was a paramount, so therefore an imperialist war was unthinkable. However, the minimalists understood that in 1914 Germany, the war was seen as a righteous defence of the German fatherland. If they committed themselves to principled socialist opposition, they would jeopardise their gradual gains and doom themselves to electoral suicide and state repression. The high tide of war washed away almost all opposition. Voting to approve war credits, SPD co-Chairman Hugo Haase declared: “We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need.” The party leadership agreed to a suspension of regular politics out of national solidarity, effectively aligning with the militaristic state and neutering their opposition.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.
German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.

 

Many of the ‘maximalists’ were disgusted by their party’s capitulation. Their response was limited by state and SPD repression. When they called for strikes and an end to the war in 1914-15, the party imposed new editors for their papers and the police jailed their leaders. Karl Liebknecht, who voiced his opposition in the Reichstag to financing the war in December 1914, would have his parliamentary immunity revoked and he was later jailed. His incarceration did not stop his organising, as he and Rosa Luxemburg would found the group eventually known as ‘The Spartacists’. In the January 1916 charter, Luxemburg pushed against the SPD’s support of the war and called it a ‘betrayal’, but believed in taking over the party rather than beginning anew.

The War became the fulcrum point for relative popularity within the workers movement. While the war went well, the institutional minimalists held sway, but as it became a bloody quagmire, the maximalists began to predominate among workers. In this way, both factions were strapped to a horse of which they had little control. Each year the First World War dragged on, the circumstances tilted in the maximalists’ favor. Every winter brought new misery, as the turnips replaced potatoes and sawdust replaced flour. In 1916, Germany produced 23 million tonnes of potatoes (half of their pre-war crop), and by 1917 the general population was only receiving 1000 calories a day – 40% less than at the start of the war. Despite deteriorating conditions, the German Army was on the verge of victory on the Eastern front and Chairman Ebert clung to the hope that victory on the battlefield would solve the crisis.

The German defeat of the Tsarist regime, the Revolution and the subsequent treaty of Brest-Litovsk would instead have the opposite effect Ebert intended, helping the revolution spread into Germany. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the toppling of the Tsar shifted the centre of socialist politics from the institutional gradualism of Berlin to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninism of Moscow. This influence would be particularly important for the later KPD as their policy became almost entirely dictated by the Soviet Union. The focus on national politics within the SPD was viewed with disdain by Lenin, who saw an international revolution as inevitable.
Shortly after victory in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks set about spreading propaganda into the POW camps of the Imperial Germany Army. They released these 165,000 soldiers back into Germany to spread revolution. A wave of propaganda flooded west from Russia – even Soviet ambassador Adolf Joffe arrived in Berlin with a briefcase stuffed with revolutionary pamphlets. This agitation of the workers would bear fruit. When Germany erupted into revolution in 1918, the revolutionary slogan of ‘peace and bread’ and demands to form workers and soldiers collectives would be on many lips.

1918 – 19 Revolution and consolidation: Two views of Weimar

The 1918 German Revolution unleashed by mutinous sailors in November spread like a contagion infecting workers, soldiers and then the population at large. It was a movement united against the German Empire and the war, but not on which system would replace it. On the 9th of November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, which left the leaders of the SPD and the Spartacists attempting to get in front of events and direct them. From the balcony of the City Palace Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic; from a window of the Reichstag Philip Scheidemann (SPD) declared just a republic. In the throes of their own revolution, the Russian Revolution loomed large. Ebert was at pains to consolidate the toppling of the Kaiser into a liberal democratic republic, and prevent a further ‘social revolution’ which he professed to ‘hate like sin.’ Rosa Luxemburg saw the inclusion of the liberal parties as proof that the SPD had become ‘lackeys of the bourgeoisie.’ The Spartacists aimed for social revolution, which included the expropriation of property from major businesses and land from the major estates. They pledged to not do so by force ‘except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany.’ The fight over the Great War was over, but the SPD and Spartacists seamlessly shifted to another binary struggle, whether to support or overthrow the liberal republic.

While the two parties had competing aims, they had wildly different resources to achieve them. As the largest pre-war party, the SPD had an established press organisation, leadership among the unions, clear hierarchical power structures within the party and leaders within the union movement throughout Germany. They did not seek to find common cause with their former left wing allies and instead used this power to present the Spartacists as the worst excesses of the Russian revolution. One SPD leaflet claimed they would “incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands.” The Spartacists on the other hand were a new and diverse coalition; a far left faction first within the SPD then the Independent Social Democrats (USPD – a wing of pacifist SPD members who had broken from the party in 1916) and by December 1918 a faction of the newly established Communist Party (KPD). They drew their strength from the demobilised soldiers and young people who flocked to their rallies hungry for action. A number of hardliners within the SPD advocated provoking these supporters and took the provocative step of attempting to remove their leftist choice of Berlin police chief. Pushed by the SPD and their radical supporters, Karl Liebknecht felt that waiting until the majority of the proletariat was on their side was untenable. When Spartacists called for rebellion on the 7th of January they could command 500,000 protestors but their lack of organisation meant they could only command a few thousand armed supporters scattered throughout Berlin.

Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919
Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919

 

The Spartacist uprising and its subsiquent defeat and murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 (covered brilliantly by my colleague here) would make enemies of their rivals on the left. The SPD’s accommodation of big business, the army and liberal parties to establish the Weimar Republic left it with few friends to their left flank to support them politically against the Spartacists. Looking right, Ebert instead turned to the power of the army to crush the uprising. A combination of Free Corps (right wing militias) and regular army units were given the order and flooded into Berlin. Spartacist rebels occupying buildings were shelled into submission and then given no quarter as their leadership were sent scattering. Through likely torture of a confidant, the locations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were revealed. Once the Free Corps had seized their enemies, they were never going to be allowed to leave alive. They were brutally murdered on the 16th of January, less than two weeks after the rebellion had begun. Ebert had managed to save his republic, but only by sacrificing his former comrades to anti-republican right wing militarists. Their blood would always stand between cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats.

The Weimar Republic was stained with the blood of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
Soviet-zone stamp commemorating Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

 

1919 – 1923 Early KPD: ‘Theory of the offensive’ and the ‘United Front’

The destruction of the Spartacists further motivated the KPD to overthrow the Weimar system, but their righteous fury was not entirely shared by their voters. Many workers did not support further revolution, as shown by the Berlin union workers from AEG, Schwartzkopff and other factories who met in Humboldthain to call for an end to the Spartacist uprising, in favor of inter-left solidarity. Even after the uprising’s bloody end, the SPD base within the unionised workforce remained steadily behind them. Workers remained loyal to the party they had always voted for and in the 1919 Federal Elections the SPD had their best ever showing of nearly 38%. Despite this, the KPD were encouraged by the Comintern (the communist international organisation dominated and funded by Moscow) to attempt to follow a ‘theory of the offensive’, and wait for an opportunity to overthrow the government. One such opportunity came after they had combined with the USPD and SPD to defeat the Kapp Putsch in 1920. A 50,000 strong ‘Ruhr Red Army’ of KPD workers, having participated in the general strike, refused to demobilise which led to Ebert again calling in the army. The Ruhr uprising was followed the next year by the ‘March Action’, which featured an attempted general strike and several uprisings throughout the country. These local movements lacked national support to bring about revolution and were again crushed by the army. Voters did not respond well to what many saw as attempted coups. The 1921 ‘March Action’ particularly damaged their reputation and cost the party nearly half of its supporters in a matter of months.

Walter Rathenau was the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic
Demonstrators in front of the Reichstag following Walter Rathenau’s murder. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00099 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

Fearing a further erosion of support, the KPD shifted away from the ‘theory of the offensive’ towards a ‘united front’ policy seeking inter-left solidarity. The two years between 1921-23 and a brief moment in 1926 saw the golden period of cooperation between the members of the communists and social democrats. This realignment was in part to increase their support but also a response to the increasing threat of right-wing terror, as paramilitary groups like the Organisation Consul assassinated over 350 opponents in the early Weimar period. Their 1922 murder of foreign minister Walter Rathenau prompted seething outrage and mobilisation of millions of republicans and leftists who rallied throughout Germany to condemn the violence. The KPD led a push to unite with the SPD and USPD to protect the republic against rightist terror, which was labeled the ‘Berlin Agreement’. Furthermore, the KPD was able to influence many SPD members to support the 1926 referendum to expropriate the nobilities’ land without compensation (reminiscent of the contemporary Deutsche Wohnung enteignen campaign). The SPD leadership were sceptical, but were pushed to support the movement by the popularity of the idea with their supporters. The referendum gathered 14.5 million votes but fell a few million votes short of succeeding. This initiative and the Berlin Agreement demonstrated that even after the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, a policy of inter-left cooperation was effective at mobilising for common goals and against shared enemies. Unfortunately, this was a brief phase and changes within the Communist Party would undermine further coalitions.

1924 -25 The rise of ‘Social Facism’

The Communist Party of Germany was born in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and as such, was always heavily influenced and funded by the Soviet Union. With Lenin’s death in 1924, however, it increasingly came under the iron grip of Joseph Stalin. The Comintern had always encouraged world revolution, but was transformed into a tool for Soviet Union foreign policy goals. From 1925, Stalin was concerned with the Weimar Republic’s financial reliance and closer ties with the capitalist West. He purged intellectuals from the ‘right’ faction of the KPD who proposed solidarity with the SPD in favor of leaders who would shift course with Stalin’s whims. The former dock worker turned firebrand communist organiser, Ernst Thälmann was such a man.

Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.
Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. | CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Thälmann became party secretary in 1925, and hardened the rhetoric against the SPD who he labeled ‘social fascists’ at every opportunity. He took his cues from the Comintern’s 1924 assertion that: ‘fascism and social democracy are two sides of the same instrument of big capitalist dictatorship’. This was more than a rhetorical shift. In the 1925 second Presidential Election (following the death of Friedrich Ebert), the pro-Weimar Parties decided to unite behind the Christian Centre candidate Wilhelm Marx against the rightist monarchist, general Paul von Hindenburg. The right faction within the KPD counseled that they should not run a candidate in order to not split the left wing vote. However Thälmann overruled them and decided to stand for election, winning 2 million votes. Wilhelm Marx was therefore denied the KPD support, and lost to Hindenburg by a margin of 750,000 votes. Thälmann’s equivalence between social democracy and fascism meant that he did not see the danger in handing the Weimar Presidency to a militarist who would eventually give the keys of power to Adolf Hitler.

1929 – 1933 NSDAP Rising: The approaching storm

As the storm of Great Depression would begin to sink the Weimar Republic, and the monster of National Socialists (NSDAP) would emerge, and the divisions within the left would deepen. The NSDAP made a sudden re-entry into politics in the 1930 elections when they took 18% of the vote and from then on they would (almost) always increase this share. Their popularity led to thousands joining their SA militia as they sought battle with their enemies on the left. Ernst Thälmann was energised by the street battles against the Nazis on one hand, whilst on the other sharing their aims of bringing down the Weimar Republic. They formed a voting block with the NSDAP to bring down the SPD Prussian state government and a motion of no confidence against Heinrich Brüning, two decisions that greatly favored the Nazis. Thälmann assumed that the Nazi toppling of the republic would usher his party to power. As he said in 1932: “Hitler must come to power first, then the requirements for a revolutionary crisis [will] arrive more quickly.” It was comments like this that led some in the SPD to treat communists and Nazis with equivalence. Leader Otto Wels declared in 1931 “Bolshevism and fascism are brothers. They are based upon violence, upon dictatorship, even if they may still appear socialist and radical.” The SPD attempted to thwart the Nazis by working with any democratic parties in the Reichstag, but as more anti-republicans were elected, their choice of potential allies declined. This led to the strange proposition of supporting the candidacy of Hindenburg (the lesser evil) against Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. Intransigence on both sides meant concentrating on the wrong foe, all while the right grew in strength.

Weimar Republic Presidential Elections of 1932
Presidential Elections of 1932 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13355 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

With the depression worsening in 1932 and the system fraying under an endless round of elections, the left had one last chance to resist before their destruction. An ‘Urgent Call for Unity’ was demanded in a letter by public intellectuals including prominent artist Käthe Kollwitz, and writer Heinrich Mann calling for a ‘united front’ within the KPD and SPD. Communists from outside the Comintern supported this view, such as exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who called for ‘a comprehensive and systematic general offensive’, asserting that Thälmann’s ‘united front from below’ (grassroots action with SPD voters but not the party) was not enough to resist fascism. Within the SPD, there was growing panic with the situation. Friedrich Stampfer, a member of the executive committee and previous anti-communist, began to advocate for a common front. He attempted to go straight to the source of political power and carry out negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Chintschuk, aiming to normalize relations with the KPD. However they came to nought. There was one massive roadblock preventing a final, last ditch defense against Fascism; the intransigence of Joseph Stalin. According to historian Robert C. Tucker, Stalin viewed the SPD’s foreign policy preference for Britain and France as a larger threat to the Soviet Union than a potential fascist Germany. He was the architect of the KPD’s aloofness to an alliance. This decision would be a massive blunder in the short term, with the complete annihilation of the KPD, and in the medium term, when Hiter’s armies came close to doing the same to the Soviet Union. When Thälmann finally opened his eyes to the threat of fascism it was too late. KPD leadership penned an open letter to mobilise with the SPD on the 27th of February 1933. The next day the Reichstag would burn and within a week the majority of these men would be in concentration camps or exile.

The strength of the Fascist movement in the 1930s was such that their eventual victory even at the time seemed inevitable. Inter-left solidarity was a slim hope but it was all they had. The leadership of the SPD can be held mostly responsible for turning a factional rivalry into a heated feud, when they provoked and then violently ended the Spartacist uprising. It was the influence of the Comintern on the KPD, however, which made any practical healing of this rift impossible. Stalin made a calculated trade-off; destroy the Capitalist Weimar Republic in exchange for sacrificing the KPD to the nascent Nazi state. There are contemporary parallels that can be drawn from this sorry history. We live in an age of growing authoritarianism and unprecedented economic and ecological challenges and yet building political coalitions has rarely been more elusive. An intensive focus on personal and ideological differences often means we are unable to see common goals and combat mutual threats. The communist and social democrat rivalry is one of the many examples of just how ruinous this can be.

***

Campbell Bews

This Berlin Long Read was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.

Visit his profile using the link about to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

***

Bibliography:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm

https://web.archive.org/web/20110718232941/http://www.ebert-gedenkstaette.de/ebert_leben1918.html

Bois, Marcel ‘March separately, but strike together!’ the communist party’s united-front policy in the Weimar Republic

Boes, Tobias.Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

Broue, Piere The German Revolution 1917 -23

Hett, Benjamin Carter The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

Lemmons, Russel Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory Hardcover – Illustrated, March 1, 2013

Smaldone, William Confronting Hitler: German Social Democrats in Defense of the Weimar Republic

Tucker, Robert C, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941

Joachim Neumann talks Tunnel 57 with BBS members

Berlin Wall Memorial by David Montero
Berlin Wall Memorial | Photograph by David Montero

On Tuesday 18th May 2021, members of the Berlin Guides Association seized a very special opportunity: an online encounter with Joachim Neumann, a witness to the history of the Berlin Wall who took part in the building of several escape tunnels underneath it. In the 90-minute session, Neumann gave us a fascinating account of the challenges of the ‘conspiratorial’ activities, the moral implications and the tunnel-building itself.

After leaving East Germany with a ‘borrowed’ Swiss passport in late 1961, Neumann became part of a group of young people in West Berlin who dedicated much of their free time to helping other East Germans to escape from the GDR. They started out as just eight like-minded people, mostly close friends or relatives. The tunnels they built were improvised, narrow and often unstable. Neumann, being a student of civil engineering at Berlin’s Technical University, was in charge of planning & construction.

Joachim Neumann was involved in digging Tunnel 57
Tunnel 57 location marker | Photo by N-Lange CC BY-SA 3.0

Over 130m long, they went underneath the Berlin wall, the border fortifications and the restricted-access residential zones close-by. Many of the escape helpers had personal motives for digging up to 10m deep into the Berlin soil, like wanting to help friends who had stayed behind. In Neumann’s case it was his wife-to-be (who had been arrested and imprisoned for over a year in the GDR after her first failed escape attempt).

He managed to get her out, together with 56 other people through the famous “Tunnel 57”.

The escape helpers relied on a large informal support network, among them the messengers who had to get information to people in East Berlin waiting for a chance to escape. These couriers had to be foreigners or Germans from West Germany, as West Berliners were generally not allowed to visit the other part of the city in the 1960s.

In his later life as an engineer, Neumann specialised in this field of construction and was even involved in the building of the Channel Tunnel between England and France!

This meeting with Joachim Neumann, coordinated by Alazne Artetxe, was organised by Edo Schreuders from the Berlin Wall Memorial.

This piece was contributed by BBS Member Konstanze Deeters.

Learn more about organised escape assistance at riskingfreedom.de.

On This Day | 22 April 1945: Liberation of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

22 April 1945: On this day in Berlin history, KZ Sachsenhausen– recognized as the nearest concentration camp to the city of Berlin- was liberated by the Soviet Army. There, Soviet and Polish troops found approximately 3,400 prisoners, most of them seriously ill.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp gate, bearing the words "Arbeit macht frei"
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp gate, bearing the words “Work sets you free”

On the day prior to liberation – in order to avoid being surrounded by the oncoming Soviet army – the remaining concentration camp guards left Sachsenhausen taking approximately 33,000 prisoners on a death march in the direction of the Ostsee.

Despite the best efforts of military doctors and other former prisoners, at least 300 of the prisoners liberated by the Soviet Army at Sachsenhausen died in the months following their liberation due to the effects of extreme malnutrition and other medical conditions related to their incarceration.

Almost immediately, the Soviet Army began investigating the crimes that had been committed at Sachsenhausen. One of the most significant figures brought to justice as a result of their investigation was the last commandant of Sachsenhausen, Anton Kaindl who was sentenced at the Soviet military tribunals in Berlin-Pankow in November 1947.

Sachsenhausen Camp Commandant Anton Kaindl
Camp Commandant Anton Kaindl

Kaindl was responsible, not only for organizing the 1945 death march from Sachsenhausen, but also for the death of an estimated 30-35,000 of prisoners from Sachsenhausen. These people were either executed in and around the main camp of Sachsenhausen, at sub-camps or transported to other camps specifically to be murdered during the “camp clearances” from February to April of 1945.

Kaindl died during his imprisonment in a labour camp in the Soviet Union in 1948.

The process of bringing the perpetrators of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to justice is a process which continues into 2021. On February 8th of this year, an unnamed former guard was charged with 3518 counts of accessory to murder during his time as a guard there from 1942-1945.

Learn more on the official Sachsenhausen Museum and Memorial website or join one of our guides on a tour of the site.

Lizzy Mason
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Elizabeth Mason. It’s one of four events she has chosen to remember this month. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else makes the cut.

On This Day | 11 April 1986: Rudi Dutschke is shot

11 April 1968: On this day in Berlin history, at approximately 4.35pm, Rudi Dutschke, figurehead of the student protest movement, was shot 3 times while leaving his home at 140 Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin.

Rudi Dutschke
Rudi Dutschke was shot 3 times

He was on his way to the local pharmacy to fetch some medicine for his 3-month-old son. He was first shot in the cheek which knocked him off his bicycle, and then while on the ground, Dutschke was shot twice more in the head and shoulder.

His attempted assassin was identified as Josef Bachmann, a 23-year-old blue-collar worker originally from Saxony, with ties to an active Neo-Nazi group at the time. After shooting Dutschke, Bachmann fled the scene and attempted to commit suicide in a nearby basement by taking sleeping pills before being captured by the police. Dutschke was brought to the Westend hospital in critical condition but ultimately survived the attack.

Dutschke’s attempted assassination shocked both moderates as well as those would emerge as extremist elements within the student protest movement. An attack on Dutschke, someone who transcended the different groups within the student protest movement, was seen as an attack on them all.

Anger was particularly aimed against the Axel-Springer group who were seen as responsible for Dutschke’s attack. It was believed that the demonization of the student protest movement- being portrayed as terroristic and the Trojan horse of communism, directly lead to his attempted assassination.

Rudi Dutschke's bike, left at the crime scene
Rudi Dutschke’s bike, left at the crime scene | Image by: Polizei Berlin CC BY-SA 4.0

As the spokesman of the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) and founder of the APO (Außerparlamentarische Opposition), Dutschke- became a particular focus of Springer media attacks and was labelled as “Red Rudi.”

The same night, approximately 2000 protestors descended on the Axel-Springer building on Kochstrasse, near Checkpoint Charlie. The protest soon turned into a riot with some participants throwing cobblestones breaking the windows, while others set Springer delivery trucks on fire with Molotov cocktails.

 

For more context: watch ‘German Terrorism: The 60’s students protest movement and the RAF‘ on YouTube – an online lecture Elizabeth gave fellow BBS members in 2021.

Lizzy Mason

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Elizabeth Mason. It’s one of four events she has chosen to remember this month. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else makes the cut.

Six of the Best Films set in Berlin

Best films set in Berlin
Image by Cineberg

Just because you can’t join us in-person doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the city’s history and culture from home. With that in mind, we asked our members to tell us some of their favourite films set in Berlin.

Though most found it difficult to choose just one, they did not disappoint. Our shortlist includes madcap comedies and oppressive dramas, films set on both sides of the Wall and all over the city (especially the last one!).

Read on for six of the best films set in Berlin, as recommended by Berlin tour guides.

Three Films Set in East Berlin

Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others (2006)


Although he was born outside of East Germany and was only 16 when the Wall fell, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck made his directorial debut with this highly authentic and incredibly personal film about Stasi surveillance. The film was applauded internationally, even winning the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Georgia Riungu: “One of my all-time favourite University classes was called ‘Perceptions of National Identity in German Cinema’. That’s when I first saw the utterly gripping Das Leben der Anderen – I was totally blown away!”

Top Secret! (1984)


Action comedy Top Secret! comes from the makers of Airplane. Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is an American rock star who’s been sent to the DDR to perform in a festival. Little does he know the whole event has been organised by the East German government in order to divert attention from a military plot to reunite Germany under their rule…
Nadav Gablinger: “This is the movie of my childhood. It has (almost) no connection to reality, but it has given me many hours of laughter.”

Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)


Wolfgang Becker’s award-winning tragicomedy follows the story of an East German family whose matriarch – a fierce devotee of the Socialist cause – falls into a coma just before the Wall comes down in 1989. She wakes in June 1990 and her son (Daniel Bruehl) is under strict doctor’s orders to protect his mother from any news that might cause fatal shock…
William Mollers:“Ostalgie triggers me emotionally. I always cry.”

Two Films Set in West Berlin

One, Two, Three (1961)


In Billy Wilder’s political comedy, a high-ranking Coca-Cola executive (played by James Cagney) is saddled with the unenviable task of keeping an eye on his boss’s 17-year-old daughter (Pamela Tiffin). Hilarity and disaster ensue in what Variety described as “a fast-paced, high-pitched, hard-hitting, lighthearted farce that packs a considerable wallop.”
Jeremy Minsberg: “It captures a point in West Berlin with humour and love.”

Herr Lehmann / Berlin Blues (2003)


We first meet Kreuzberg bartender, Frank Lehmann, drunk on his way home from work. It’s Autumn 1989 and – though the story is set shortly before the Fall of the Wall – this film isn’t about the seismic historical change that’s coming. It focuses instead on the mood of disaffected young adults at a very particular, oft-forgotten time. For a faithful and humorous portrait of everyday life in SO 36, look no further.
Chiara Baroni “It shows a Berlin which is no longer there, but was still present when I watched it in 2000. Kreuzberg, the Kneipen, the sense of helplessness this city offered in those years. It was like a playground for adults.”

… and a film, set in post-reunification Berlin

Lola Rennt / Run, Lola, Run (1998)


Lola (Franka Potente) has twenty minutes to get her hands on 100,000 Deutschmarks and save her boyfriend’s life (Moritz Bleibtrau). Written and directed by Tom Twyker, this iconic experimental thriller, was a firm favourite at the festivals and has inspired many a pop culture tribute.
Sam Wiszniewski: “It shows Berlin at an interesting historical moment that’s not Third Reich or DDR.”
Finn Ballard: “I have a soft spot for ‘Run, Lola, Run,’ now that I have given a couple of tours of the movie’s locations!”

And there you have it! Six Berlin film recommendations for your next movie night.

Is your favourite among them?

International Tour Guide Day | What makes guiding in Berlin so great?

Today – Sunday 21st February – is International Tour Guide Day. This time last year, our members were out and about, leading some of Berlin’s best guided tours. This year, we’re reflecting on what it is about working as a professional guide in the German capital so special.

Reflecting on International Tour Guide Day
Photo by BBS member, Georgia Riungu

This International Tour Guide Day, we’d love to know: What’s the best thing about being a tour guide in Berlin?

Apart from the validation? Meeting people from everywhere, and occasionally hearing strange personal stories from guests about their own Berlin histories, adding colourful depth to the city‘s history you read in books.
Sam Wiszniewski

Exploring the city on a daily basis, continuing to learn and study its history and meeting new people.
Chiara Baroni

Being outside and meeting people.
William Mollers

Sharing my passion of history and love of the city, and getting to know people, whom I can help, entertain and learn from, and on the off chance – even bond with.
Carlos Meissner

Being a tour guide, every day is different and new. It is exciting to show guests Berlin through my eyes and experiences.
Jeremy Minsberg

As a tour guide I have the privilege of getting an immediate response to my work. If I do a good job/tour (and I do my best to tailor the tour to my audience), I see it right away. People laugh, cry, argue and get involved in the tour.
Nadav Gablinger

To see the recognition and understanding in visitor’s faces when they visit places and experience up-close stories they have read so much about.
Finn Ballard

In a city full of contradictions, there’s always an interesting story to be told. Nothing is “just” the way it is – you can always uncover and expose sides hidden to the eye, and use them when trying to understand our present.
Ben Fisher

“There’s no place like it” is a massive cliché, isn’t it? It’s true though! Berlin is legendary. The history is infamous and the contemporary is fascinating – but it’s complex and there are layers. So taking the time to unpack all that and make it accessible for a guest – through stories and exploration – is incredibly rewarding.
Georgia Riungu

Wondering what to get the guide who that showed you everything this International Tour Guide Day?

A review- even long after your tour- is always a wonderful way to show appreciation.