OTD in Berlin History | 20 Jan 1942: The Wannsee Conference

20 January 1942: Today marks the anniversary of the odious Wannsee Conference.

The House of the Wannsee Conference
The House of the Wannsee Conference

Named for the south western suburb of Wannsee in Berlin where it took place, the conference is known for addressing and coordinating the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Here, plans were laid out for the mass, systematic murder of Europe’s Jewish population.

Reinhard Heydrich
Reinhard Heydrich

SS general Reinhard Heydrich – who called and chaired the meeting – communicated that this would amount to approximately 11 million Jews. His figure was not just with Nazi occupied countries in mind, however, but was intended to encompass all of Europe – including neutral territories like Switzerland and Ireland. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws would act as the criteria to decide who was considered Jewish and Heydrich summarized that the extermination camps in occupied Poland would be used for the killings.

The meeting brought together 6 high-ranking members of the SS and 9 senior government officials, including the state secretaries from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior.

The inclusion of government officials was key. Part of the conference was informing agencies that would be relevant to fulfilling the “Final Solution”. Despite careful euphemistic wording, the participants knew mass murder was their goal and the meeting wasn’t as much about whether the government would take part as it was how to organize policy to enact it.

The Nuremburg Laws
The Nuremburg Laws

Although violence and discrimination towards Jews began immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the Wannsee Conference signifies a clear, methodical shift towards highly organized extermination.

The villa in Berlin where the meeting took place now serves as a Holocaust memorial. Visit the House of the Wannsee Conference for more information.

 

 

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chris Moniz.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this January. See what else makes the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 16 Jan 1945: Hitler enters the Führerbunker

26 January 1945: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler entered the Führerbunker under the gardens of his Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

With the bunker acting as the final headquarters for the Nazis, Hitler was joined by much of his senior staff – as well as dozens of medical and administrative personnel. In April, 1945 – nearing the end of World War II in Europe – his long-time lover, Eva Braun and propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels would also take up residence here.

Plan of the bunker by Christoph Neubauer

The Führerbunker itself was actually a complex of two connected bunkers – the upper Vorbunker (1936), and the lower Führerbunker (1944). Made with the intention of withstanding the strongest known Allied bombs at the time, the Führerbunker was deeper underground than the Vorbunker (about 8.5 meters or 28 feet beneath the surface) and offered even more protection. The roof boasted almost 3 meters (9.8ft) of thick concrete.

Ruins of the bunker after demolition in 1947

Although Hitler attempted to make life underground more comfortable by bringing in furniture and oil paintings from the Chancellery, conditions were nonetheless desperate. The bunker laid underneath the water table of Berlin, creating a very damp environment and the unremitting noise from the bombings would make sleep difficult.

By April 16, 1945 the Soviet Red Army would enter Berlin, marking the beginning of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. As Soviet troops encircled the city, Hitler’s final visit to the surface above occurred on his birthday – April 20, 1945 – when he awarded young boys from the Hitler Youth the Iron Cross medal for bravery.

Less than forty hours after marrying Eva Braun in the bunker, Hitler and his new wife eventually committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chris Moniz.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this January. See what else makes the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 10 Jan 1927: Fritz Lang premieres Metropolis

10 January 1927: On this day in Berlin history, Austrian-born film-maker Fritz Lang premiered his polarizing but legendary silent film Metropolis.

Frits Lang's Metropolis movie poster
1927 UFA movie poster

The dystopian piece of science fiction was written and filmed during the interwar period of Weimar Germany along with his then wife, Thea von Harbou, who had written the original novel of the same name that worked as the basis of the eventual movie’s plot. The first showing took place in the biggest cinema in Germany at the time – the newly renovated Ufa-Palast am Zoo near Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten.

Although not necessarily the first science fiction movie ever produced – as is often mistakenly claimed – it was nonetheless among the first feature length films of the genre. Drawing imagery and themes from the German Expressionist movement of the time, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was greatly inspired by famous authors such as H.G Wells and Mary Shelley. It did, however, transcend its own artistic pigeonhole and was a significant influence on the film noir aesthetic that would eventually take Hollywood by storm.

Despite its modern reputation and high critical praise, Metropolis was initially met with mixed feelings. By the time of the world premiere in Berlin, the film’s length had already been significantly cut down – yet many still found it far too long and laborious. H.G. Wells himself described it as “silly” and derivative of both his own works and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Lang and Harbou in their Berlin apartment in 1923 or 1924, about the time they were working on the scenario for Metropolis
Lang and Harbou in their Berlin apartment in 1923 or 1924

Not everyone was so condemning, however. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels took the messages about the pitfalls of political bourgeoisie and their suppression of the “forces of Labor” to heart and, soon after the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, he informed Lang that Hitler wanted him to make films for the NSDAP.

Lang, being of Jewish heritage, and becoming increasingly dismayed by his wife’s growing sympathies towards the Nazi Party, finally left Berlin on July 31, 1933 and was a naturalized citizen of the United States by 1939.

 

You can learn more about Metropolis and Berlin’s rich film history at the Deutsche Kinemathek – the Museum for Film and Television at Potsdamer Platz.

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chris Moniz.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this January. See what else makes the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 27 Dec 1935 : Regina Jonas becomes first female rabbi

27 December 1935: On this day in Berlin history, Regina Jonas became the world’s first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi

Colourised image of Regina JonasBorn in 1902 and raised in the poor and mostly Jewish Scheunenviertel (barn quarter) to the North of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, Regina Jonas showed a remarkable aptitude for Jewish history and Hebrew throughout her schooling. Her fellow students remembered her speaking often of becoming a Rabbi.

In 1924 she brought this passion to the Academy for the Science of Judaism, and wrote her final thesis on the question “May a woman hold rabbinical office?” Her paper, a copy of which is still held in Berlin, did not seek to abandon Halaknah (the body of Jewish laws and ordinances derived from the Torah) but rather embedded her case for female ordination in the details of talmudic texts. She argued that “almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

Although some supported her ambitions, appreciating her evident knowledge and flair for interpreting the Talmud, other supervisors feared a scandal and a rift in the Jewish Community. It was not until 1935 that she finally was ordained by liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann.

By this stage, the Nazis had been in power for over 2 years, and life would become increasingly desperate for Berlin and Germany’s Jewish communities. This meant Jonas’ role as an educator, spiritual leader, and provider of pastoral care became increasingly vital. Even after her deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, she continued her rabbinical work, teaching and holding sermons.

In October 1944, however, she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered.
She was 42 years old.

“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938.

Sam WiszniewskiThis edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Sam Wiszniewski.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this December. See what else made the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 19 Dec 2016: Christmas Market Attack

16 December 2016: On this day in Berlin history, 12 people were killed and up to 100 injured in a devastating attack on the Christmas Market near Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

Tributes paid to the victims of the Christmas Market attack
Tributes paid to the victims

After a hijacked truck was deliberately driven into the crowd, an intense hunt ensued for the prime suspect, a 23-year old Tunisian named Anis Amri. The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant had issued Amri with instructions, and released a video of him pledging allegiance to ISIL’s then leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The trail led through the Netherlands and France, before police in Milan confronted a “very suspicious man” walking through the streets. When asked to provide identification documents, Amri drew his firearm and began shooting. One policeman was injured in the firefight, and Amri was shot dead.

Some voices on the right-wing of German politics blamed Angela Merkel’s asylum policy, which had seen large numbers of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria settle in Germany, for the apparent increase in the threat of Islamist terror attacks.

However, refugees and minorities in Germany remain far more likely to be the victims of, rather than perpetrators of terrorism. Between 2012 and 2016, extreme right-wing terrorist attacks against refugee homes in Germany increased more than 6,000% from 24 in 2012 to over 1,500 in 2015 and 2016.*

Since 2016, with heightened security and fortifications at Christmas markets in place, there have been no similar incidents in Germany.

*Source: Recent Trends in German Right-Wing Violence and Terrorism: What are the Contextual Factors behind ‘Hive Terrorism’? Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 12, No. 6 (December 2018), p. 79.

Sam WiszniewskiThis edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Sam Wiszniewski.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this December. See what else made the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 11 December 1941: Hitler declares war on the United States

11 December 1941: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States.

Hitler declares war on the United States
Hitler declares war on the United States. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-507 / unbekannt / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

Four days previously, the Japanese Empire had launched a surprise aerial attack on the US naval and army base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, resulting in a retaliatory declaration of war from Washington on Tokyo.

Franklin Roosevelt signs a declaration of war against Germany
Franklin Roosevelt signs a declaration of war against Germany. (Source: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information)

The regime in Berlin had not been informed in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack plans and, under the terms of the alliance between Germany and Japan, Germany was only obliged to declare war if Japan were attacked by a third country – not if Japan were the aggressor.

Nonetheless, following a meeting between Hitler and members of his inner circle in Berlin, he decided to declare war.

Historians have debated whether there was any logic to Hitler’s decision.

The German High Command perhaps saw the the United States entrance into the war as an inevitability, and hence sought to seize the initiative before the Americans were adequately prepared to defend themselves.

However, the move effectively guaranteed the industrial and military muscle of the United States being directed into the European theatre, meaning Germany would need to fight a war on two fronts that ultimately proved to be unwinnable.

Thus the historiographical consensus is that this decision lay somewhere on the spectrum between desperation – and lunacy.


This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Sam Wiszniewski.

It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

OTD in Berlin History | 2 December 1990: First All-German Elections since the Nazis

2nd December 1990: On this day in Berlin history, the first all-German elections were held in reunified Germany. It had been almost 60 years since the last one.

A German woman votes in the first all-German election since 1933
A German woman votes in the first all-German election since 1933. (Source: Bundesregierung/Harald Kirschner)

Since the end of the Second World War, the country had been divided between East and West – carved up along the geographical and ideological fault lines of the Cold War. In 1961, the historic capital Berlin had also been physically sundered by the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall.

But in the revolutionary Autumn of 1989 the gates of the wall finally opened.

Election Results: By Erinthecute – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

From that point a tumultuous few months ensued as West Germans celebrated a victory in the FIFA World Cup, East Germans effectively voted their socialist state out of existence – and the nation was finally made whole again on 3 October 1990.

The enthusiasm for reunification contributed to a resounding electoral victory for the coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and CDU leader Helmut Kohl – seen as the chief advocate and architect of reunification – was named Chancellor.

Helmut Kohl in Dresden, September 1990. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild)

This election was the first free and fair multi-party election to be conducted across the whole of Germany since the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Sam Wiszniewski.

It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this December. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

OTD | First Sunday of Advent: Origins of the advent calendar

Today, 29th November 2020, marks the first Sunday of Advent. Did you know that – like many aspects of modern Christmas traditions – the Advent Calendar is of German origin?

Two girls try to open a massive advent calendar at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin
Two girls try to open a massive advent calendar at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin

The simple tradition – started by Protestants after Martin Luther – began by drawing 24 chalk lines on a door and erasing one each day. Variations included 24 paper chains, lighting candles, and even receiving a piece of gingerbread. Additionally, families could hang a devotional image every day and this ultimately led to the creation of the first known handmade wooden Advent calendar in 1851.

Sometime in the early twentieth century (1902 or 1908, depending who you believe), the first printed Advent calendars appeared. These were followed in the 1920s by Gerhard Lang’s innovation of adding small doors to the calendars. Behind each door would be a picture or a bible verse, one for each day. During the Nazi regime, fairy-tale figures or Germanic gods replaced the original Christian symbols.

Today, Advent calendars are a tradition around the world. Some cities even create larger-than-life Advent calendars, where a real window is opened every day. The world’s largest Advent calendar can be seen in Gengenbach, Germany. Here, in the picturesque black forest, the Rathaus (Town Hall) is transformed into a calendar every year.

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Susan Grouchy.

It’s one of four noteworthy events she’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

OTD in Berlin History | 15 November 1884: The Berlin Conference & the “Scramble for Africa”

The Berlin Conference, as depicted by Adalbert von Rößler for the Illustrierte Zeitung.

15th November 1884: On this day in Berlin history, Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, called together the major European powers to divide and formalize the colonization of Africa. The Berlin Conference lasted until February 26th 1885.

Formed only in 1871, the German Empire was the new power on the block at this time and Bismarck hosted 13 other European nations, as well as representatives from the United States, at his official residence on Wilhelmstraße. There they discussed a cooperative policy for the African continent with the aim of ensuring peaceful negotiations between the colonial powers – especially with the new, powerful German Empire on the rise.

 

European claims in Africa, 1913. Today’s boundaries are shown. Yellow: Belgium | Green: Germany | Pink: Spain | Blue: France | Orange: Britain | Lime Green: Italy | Purple: Portugal | Grey: Independent

During the conference, European leaders mapped and formalized their claim to African territory and agreed to free trade between colonies, as well as prepared for future European claims in Africa. With no consideration for any of the cultural or linguistic borders already established, they remapped Africa. No representatives from Africa were invited to be present at the conference.

Whilst the Berlin Conference did not initiate European colonization of Africa, it did legitimize and formalize the process. Additionally, it sparked a new interest in the area and led to the so-called “Scramble for Africa”. In 1870, 10% of Africa was under European control – by the early 1900s, European states had claimed 90% of the continent.

 

 

 

 

 

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Susan Grouchy.

It’s one of four noteworthy events she’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day in Berlin History | 09 November: Day of Fate

9th November: Today marks the so-called Schicksalstag, also known as the Day of Fate for German history.

 

Philipp Scheidemann declaring the Republic of Germany from the Reichstag, on this day 1989

Most famously associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this date was to some a popular choice for the annual Unity Day celebrations. However, November 9th has a chequered history in Germany and the date marks many events unworthy of celebration.

On this day in 1918, at the end of WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne, ending the Hohenzollern rule of Germany and ushering in the chaotic and doomed Weimar Republic.

Before the Kaiser had even left Berlin, SPD member Philipp Scheidemann declared the Republic of Germany from the Reichstag.

Two hours later, the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht announced the formation of a Free Socialist Republic from the Berliner Stadtschloss.

 

Karl Liebknecht, who declared a Socialist Republic two hours later.

In 1923, November 8th-9th marked Hitler’s failed attempt to seize power in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch. 16 years later, the Party’s own commemoration of this event served as the stage for Georg Elser’s famous assassination attempt on Hitler.

In 1938, the night of November 9th-10th marked the Reichspogromnacht (Kristallnacht), in which synagogues and Jewish property were destroyed, hundreds murdered, and over 30,000 Jews arrested.

Due to this controversial history, instead of celebrating Unity Day on the Day of Fate, it was decided rather to celebrate on October 3rd – the official date of German Reunification.

 

 

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Susan Grouchy. It’s one of four noteworthy events she’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.