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.

What 2020 taught the Tour Guides

what 2020 taught Berlin tour guides

At the end of a challenging year, BBS members reflect on what 2020 taught them about the city they know so well.

It’s no secret that Berlin has seen its share of upheaval over the years.

For millions of visitors annually, this fascinating history is one of the German capital’s biggest draws. Guests from all across the globe have flocked to Berlin, determined to unlock, explore and understand its complex past. Those  lucky enough to experience the Hauptstadt with a skilled guide invariably leave for home having learned valuable lessons – not just about this city, but from it.

2020 was itself a historic year.

Beyond putting the brakes (quite rightly) on tourism, the global pandemic encouraged us to think differently about- well, almost everything. As tour guides, covid restrictions changed the way we engage with Berlin –  professionally, of course, but on a personal level too.

Ten tour guides tell us what they learned.

 

What did 2020 teach you about Berlin?

That I really don’t have to venture far from home to appreciate most things Berlin has to offer. My block is like a microcosm of the city and from my apartment, you can witness the effects of hard-hitting history, appreciate world-class street art, enjoy dozens of international cuisines and experience wildlife of all varieties.
Georgia Riungu

To appreciate the little things in life and take quiet time for reflection.
Jeremy Minsberg

That the more slowly you walk around, the better you realise how full of ginkgo bilobas this city is. There are so many of them! The female trees’ fruits do stink a little bit, but both female and male trees are so beautiful in Autumn. It’s really something you should not miss out on!
Alazne Artetxe

To appreciate the fantastic historic city I live in (and the free entrance at the German History Museum).
Susan Grouchy

2020 has taught me that Berlin can handle actually going to sleep once in a while.
Chris Moniz

That there are still so many places I need to visit!
Wouter Bernhardt

How special it was that I spent 15 years working as a guide. I know the city in a way that people with “regular jobs” cannot know, because I’m always out and about, whether it’s seeing the sites in Mitte or travelling to pick clients up. I’ll never know another place as intimately as Berlin. These last 12 months I’ve missed all that exploring.
Heather Mae Ellis

I enjoyed even more the fact that Berlin is a green city. What a delight to walk through all these beautiful parks with lakes! And the open-minded/freedom spirit – we are actually allowed to enjoy them, not like in France or other countries where you really have to stay home.
Stéphanie Kieffer

It’s not a bad place to be during a pandemic.
Jo Eckardt

Berlin is great in crisis. Who first comes to Berlin is puzzled by the rough Berliner ways.
But when the going gets tough you’ll always find a helping hand.
Yan Katz

“I’m overwhelmed by the response.’ | BBS Guide’s Remembrance Tour in the Press

BBS Member Ben Fisher’s first virtual tour was recently featured in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

On 8th November 2020, Ben’s remembrance event went ahead as scheduled. In previous years, he’s seen around 300 people sign up for the walking tour, which commemorates one of the most severe attacks on Jewish life Germany has ever seen.

Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions and a little innovation, last November’s tour was unlike any he’d done before. Over 6,000 people from all across the globe have now taken part in the Facebook-hosted experience!

What follows is an English translation of the article, written by Steffi Hentschke and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday 26th December. Read the original article in full (and in German) here.

***

BBS Member Ben Fisher's virtual tour featured in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Just get us out of here!

Immediate proximity despite great distances: Tour guides lead us through the world online

“When the lockdown forces improvisation: travel guides and tour operators are moving their business online. Not everything can be sold online – but some things that seemed far away before are now within reach.

Ben Fisher is standing on the deserted Kurfürstendamm, leaves are gathering on the footpath. It is 8 November. The sun is shining on this cold Sunday, one day before the anniversary of the Reich Pogrom Night 83 years ago. During the most severe attack on Jewish life in Germany since the Middle Ages, an estimated 1500 Jews were killed and thousands of synagogues burned down. To commemorate the event, Fisher, a 37-year-old Israeli who has lived in Berlin for five years, is offering this special city tour. “I will start directly with the days before the pogroms, and as we walk, I will tell you more about the history of the Jews in Germany,” he says in English, walking off in the direction of the former synagogue on Fasanenstraße. About two hundred people watch him, they are not there, but they are there live.

At the moment, the world can only be discovered from the sofa, and what sounds like a dreary new reality sometimes reveals unexpected possibilities. Interest in Berlin city guide Ben Fisher’s memorial tour has always been high, with up to three hundred participants signing up for it in recent years. But the video of his first virtual tour has meanwhile been seen by almost 6,000 people from the United States, Israel and Brandenburg. The tour does what historians have been calling for for years – a digital form of remembrance culture. Those who follow Fisher on his one-hour tour get to know Berlin from a Jewish perspective and are surprised to discover that even if the virtual trip does not provide any sensory impressions, the knowledge gained arrives on the sofa.

Before Ben Fisher came to Berlin, Germany was the forbidden country for him, as he writes about himself on the website of the Berlin Guides Association. “Today I think the city is the most exciting place ever,” he says in a conversation via Video Call, a few days after the tour. Like his colleagues, he has had to make do without an income for months. But offering city tours online was not an option for him until recently. Only the second lockdown forced him to improvise, and a memorial tour was already planned. “I’m overwhelmed by the response and have to process that first,” says Fisher, thinking about what he can learn from his first attempt. “Maybe it takes the connection with education to get people excited about it. Classic sightseeing, on the other hand, doesn’t work online.””

***

If you missed it, you can still access the full tour on Facebook by clicking above.

Visit Ben’s profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

“How can I bring Berlin to people?” | BBS Guide’s Virtual Tours Make Headlines

BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg’s virtual tours of Berlin have made the news – not once, but twice!

Jeremy has given private tours in Berlin for decades and decided to pivot to digital tourism in March 2020. Since then, he has “become an event” and now offers a range of customisable tours on a variety of topics – from classic sights, to Third Reich to LGBTQ history.

BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg giving a virtual tour at the Brandenburg Gate
BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg giving a virtual tour at the Brandenburg Gate

“I thought I might try something completely different, and think outside the box. The technology exists to make it possible, so why not tour virtually?”

On 15th December 2020, The Local published ‘A new way to travel’: How one guide is showing off Berlin through virtual tours. In the piece, Berlin-based Tamsin Paternoster wrote about her experience joining a tour of “monuments just twenty minutes away from [her] front door.” The journalist was one of twenty international guests who tuned in for a tour of sights including the Victory Column, Tiergarten and Schloss Bellvue – all via Zoom. Read the full article here.

“I help people stay close together.”

On 24th December 2020 – as the second wave of the coronavirus led to increased restrictions across Europe for the holiday period – Euro News picked up the story. Titled ‘Meet the tour guide who is bringing Berlin to locked down travellers’, Kate Brady’s piece includes clips from one of Jeremy’s popular virtual Berlin city tours – as well as an interview, in which he shares his motivation for going digital. Click here to watch the news clip.

Jeremy Minsberg

Visit Jeremy’s profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

The New National Gallery is reopening | Friends of BBS

One of the many things to look forward to in 2021 is the reopening of Berlin’s New National Gallery, which has been closed since 2015.

George Grosz is one of the featured artists in the New National Gallery's collection
“Stützen der Gesellschaft”, George Grosz (1926)

Dedicated to 20th century art, the museum’s collection is international in scope, but gives you a particular sense of the vibrancy of Germany’s (and Berlin’s) art scene after World War I, and its renaissance after World War II.

Berlin became a hotbed of Expressionism in the 1910s and 1920s. The group of artists (including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) known as the Brücke (Bridge) moved from Dresden to Berlin in the years before World War I. In their own ways, artists like George Grosz and Christian Schad depicted the strangeness of Weimar-era Berlin, characterized as it was by both right-wing political violence and social liberalism.

And while they may not be household names, post-war German artists in both East and West became incredibly influential. The most famous, Gerhard Richter, was up until recently the top-selling artist alive.

Neue Nationalgalerie / New National Gallery
Neue Nationalgalerie / New National Gallery

The museum itself is an icon, designed by the famed Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Although he was not averse to taking commissions under National Socialism, the Nazis wouldn’t have him – and so he emigrated to the US, where he made great contributions to the skylines of both Chicago and New York.

The National Gallery, which opened in 1968, was the only building of his to be constructed in Germany after his emigration, and the only museum he ever built.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is one of our valued partners.

Click here to discover more Friends of BBS.

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.