Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany, with a unique history. It is also the most species-rich in the world and the most-visited zoo in Europe. The 86-acre site next to the Tiergarten park has an abundance of trees and greenery; the animal houses are architectural gems and the enclosures are generous and well-kept. Famous inmates like Knut, the polar bear and Bao Bao the giant panda have contributed to the zoo’s international profile. In the 1980s, my children loved going to the Berlin Zoo and even had the opportunity to meet two baby tigers.
Cuddly baby tigers
The Antelope House
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten, to give it its full name, owes its existence to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who was a passionate animal-lover. Together with his first wife, Louise, he established an impressive menagerie on the romantic Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) on the Havel river and opened it to the public. After he died in 1840, his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was happy to gift this private zoo to the people of Berlin and in 1844, after three years of construction, the Berlin Zoo opened on its current site. Two great Berliners, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné were key players in the realisation of this project.
Zoo entrance in 1960
In 1869, Dr Heinrich Bodinus, director of the Cologne Zoological Garden, took on the management of the Berlin Zoo and until his death in 1884, he added many more species and built new exotic animal houses. Ludwig Heck, also from the Cologne Zoo, took over from 1881 when he was only 28 years old and was Director of the Berlin Zoo until 1931. These were golden years which saw the construction of the beautiful Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse and many more animal houses, including the stunning aquarium in 1913. In 1932 Heck passed the baton to his son, Dr Lutz Heck, and the zoo park was modernised again, with outdoor enclosures using natural stone. However, Heck Junior was a Nazi sympathiser who used forced labour as workers.
A memorial bust to Dr Lutz Heck and explanation of his political leanings
The fabulous Aquarium
By 1939, the Berlin Zoo boasted over 4,000 animals, belonging to 1,400 species. Only 91 animals survived the war, including the popular hippo, Knautschke, the elephant bull Siam and the chimpanzee, Suse. The bombing in 1943 and 1944 more or less destroyed the entire zoo and there are many apocryphal stories about what happened to the thousands of animals during the bombing. Elephants and Tigers were said be roaming the streets, with snakes and crocodiles hiding in dark corners. In fact, most of the animals died, but it is true that some of their meat was used to feed the starving Berliners. If you follow this link, you can read more about the zoo’s wartime story.
Elephant gate after bombing
Elephant Gate today
As the first female zoo director in Germany, Dr Katharina Heinroth took on the task of the rebuilding the destroyed zoo from the rubble and was able to build something better out of its tragedy. There was much reconstruction, but innovation was also born out of devastation. The zoo that emerged from the chaos was more progressive and mirrored the real habitats of the animals.
Berlin Zoo’s full name is the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – the same as the station opposite its ‘Lion’ entrance gates (Löwentor). During the city’s division from 1949 until 1989, the Zoo was stranded in West Berlin and its eponymous station served as the main transportation hub of West Berlin. At this point several U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines of city public transport intersected. The station also served as a starting point of long distance trains, and the city’s biggest bus terminal is still there. Its pop-culture prominence started in the 1970s when the area around the station became a sordid gathering place for teenage drug addicts and prostitutes. These days it is well-known for its Currywurst stand.
Curry 36 at Bahnhof Zoo
In 1955, the GDR opened its ‘own zoo’, the ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park), in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin, which at 400 acres is the largest landscaped zoo in Europe. This means that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a choice of two excellent zoos in the German capital. But there is something extra special about the Zoologischer Garten in the city centre. My recent visit was in glorious autumn weather. The zoo park couldn’t have looked better. There were no pacing animals in small spaces and Giant Pandas, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng looked very content exploring the undergrowth. The environment is as natural as possible with plenty of vegetation, rock, stone and water in evidence. We mainly stayed outside in the sunshine and a favourite enclosure was an aviary for sea birds where visitors can sit in a typical North German beach chair by the lapping water. The café facilities were excellent too, although they were not being tested to full capacity early on a Sunday morning.
Panda at play
Sitting at the seaside
‘Forest Hut’ café
Berlin Zoo’s website has all the details of opening times, ticket prices. feeding times and special events. There are opportunities to see into the zoo from outside as well. The path from Zoo Station into the Tiergarten runs alongside the camel and bison enclosure and the Bikini Berlin shopping centre has a terrace with great views of the monkey enclosures. To get a panoramic view of the whole site, take the lift to the Monkey Bar on the tenth floor of the Bikini Berlin Hotel or book a penthouse room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with its ‘Zoofenster’ (zoo window) tower.
Elephants and Zoofenster tower
Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie is an exquitiste three-storey showcase of 19th Century European art. It is also one of the German capital’s iconic buildings and part of the ensemble of the five fabulous museums on the island in the River Spree. The great Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who designed the first of these museums, the Altes Museum (1823-30), had a vision of Berlin as ‘Athens on the Spree’ and the Alte Nationalgalerie certainly fits this bill. A neo-classical temple raised on a plinth, decorated with antique motifs and surrounded by colonnades, it sits majestically above the River Spree providing an elegant counterpoint to the bulk of the Berliner Dom on the other side of the bridge.
The Alte Nationalgalerie, July 2018
The building was originally designed by the August Stüler, one of Schinkel’s pupils, following sketches made by King Friedrich Willhelm IV (1795-1861). The Prussian King was known to be rather a romanticist and he dreamt of creating a ‘sanctuary for art and science’ on this site opposite the palace. His equestrian statue now commands the top of the grand stone staircases above the entrance to the Alte Nationalgalerie.
The grand entrance
Walking through a colonnade
August Stüler died in 1865 and his plans were realised by another of Schinkel’s pupils, Heinrich Strack. The Nationalgalerie, as it was then called, was ceremoniously opened to the public on 21st March 1876 for the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm I, becoming the third museum on the island in the Spree. It originally housed a substantial art collection bequeathed to the Prussian state by a banker and consul named Johann Wagener in 1861 and a display of cartoons by Peter von Cornelius.
Photo from 1912
The primary objective of the gallery had been to collect contemporary Prussian art; above the columns is the inscription: ‘Der Deutschen Kunst’ (‘dedicated to German Art’). But after 1896, a new director called Hugo von Tschudi, acquired major works by French Impressionists. This ended the collection’s focus on Germany and caused considerable conflict with the Kaiser. In 1909 Ludwig Justi took over as director and many Expressionist works were added as well. When the National Socialists came to power, Justi was dismissed and in 1937, the collection suffered badly from the Nazi purging of ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) when hundreds of 20th Century works of art were either sold abroad or destroyed.
Goebbels views ‘Entartete Kunst’
At the outbreak of war in 1939, the Berlin museums closed to the public and their contents were removed for safekeeping. Despite allegedly being fireproof because of its sandstone and iron construction, the Nationalgalerie suffered severe damage during the bombing, especially after a direct hit in 1944. Only some of the interiors on the ground floor survived. The building partially re-opened in 1949 and restoration continued until 1969.
Destruction and partial reopening in 1949
By now all the museums on Museumsinsel found themselves in communist East Berlin and although many of the works from the Nationalgalerie’s pre-war collection had been returned, there were scores of others that had landed up in West Berlin. The contents of all Berlin’s museums and galleries ended up being arbitrarily divided between East and West Berlin depending solely on the place to which they had been evacuated during the war and in 1968 a second Nationalgalerie opened in West Berlin.
Neue Nationalgalerie in West Berlin
When I visited the original Nationalgalerie for the first time in 1985, the Neues Museum alongside it was still a pile of rubble and it was a rather gloomy and forbidding place. The inside was as grand and ornate as its exterior, with marble floors and pillars and beautifully decorated ceilings, but the lighting was poor and the whole atmosphere was sombre and dull, despite its impressive collection which in those days included works by great German artists such as Schinkel, Friedrich, Menzel, Blechen and Schadow, French Impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Rodin and 20th Century works by socialist artists and sculptors such as Dix, Nagel, Kolbe and Kollwitz. I noted at the time that Goya’s ‘Maypole’ was hidden away in a corner and that one small room contained three enormous canvasses which needed ten times the space to be appreciated.
‘Maypole’ by Francisco Goya
Fast forward 33 years and the Berlin art scene is unrecognisable from the dark days of the city’s division. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the German capital, there had to be a major reorganisation of the city’s museums and galleries and there are now six national art collections in Berlin, each dedicated to its own artistic remit and located in three separate boroughs of Berlin. They are the Alte Nationalgalerie (home of the original Nationalgalerie on Museumsinsel), the Neue Nationalgalerie near Potsdamer Platz (the former West Berlin Nationalgalerie), the Hamburger Bahnhof (Museum for Contemporary Art Berlin), the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, Museum Berggruen and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. If you follow this link to the website of Berlin State Museums you can explore the history and contents of each collection.
Schadow’s ‘Two Princesses’ greet visitors to the Alte Nationalgalerie
Between 1998 and 2001, the historic building of the Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel underwent extensive renovation and restoration and reopened in 2001 to become arguably one of the most beautiful art galleries in the world.
The contents have stayed true to their original roots, featuring 19th Century art ranging from the ‘Age of Goethe’ to the Realist movement. The collection includes numerous Romantic and Impressionist masterpieces as well as having a stunning collection of paintings by the German Realist master, Adolph von Menzel. This artist was very much admired in his day and at his funeral in 1905, the Kaiser walked behind his coffin.
‘At the Beer Garden’ by Adolph von Menzel
This summer, the Alte Nationalgalerie is running a special exhibition called ‘Wanderlust’ – one of those compound German nouns, like Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude, which needs no translation. At the end of the 18th Century, Rousseau’s call to “get back to nature” and Goethe’s Sturm und Drang poetry, were part of a reaction against the rapid social changes that began with the French Revolution. ‘Wandern’ – taking long walks in the countryside – became a central motif in painting, both as part of Romanticism’s love of nature and as a symbolic exploration of new paths and of life’s journey itself. Artists began to discover nature for themselves, exploring it on foot and looking at it from new angles. The ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition has great current appeal as travelling on foot has become part of the ‘slow’ movement that advocates decelerating our pace of life.
Poster for the exhibition
Starting from Caspar David Friedrich’s masterpiece ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, a loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, ‘Wanderlust’ brings together around 120 works since 1800 that depict walking. Some are from the Nationalgalerie’s own collection and others from significant museum collections in Europe and the USA. They include works by Friedrich, Blechen, Schinkel, Dahl, Courbet, Hodler, Renoir, Nolde, Gauguin, Kirchner, Dix and Barlach. The exhibition shows how powerful the motif of the wanderer was in 19th Century art. Certainly it was a prominent feature of German Romanticism – an era when poets like Heinrich Heine roamed remote corners of the country and Franz Schubert composed his ‘Winterreise’ based on nature poems by Wilhelm Müller.
‘Alpinist’ by Karl Heinrich Gernler
The artworks in ‘Wanderlust’ are grouped in themed rooms on the first floor of the Alte Nationalgalerie. There is a good explanation of the various headings, which include: The Discovery of Nature; Life’s Journey; Artists’s Wanderings; Caspar David Friedrich and Wandering; Landscapes of the Wandering North of the Alps; Works on Paper; The Promenaders; Italy: Land of Longing; Departure. Below are a few of the photographs I took in the ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition but you can follow this link for a photo gallery of the exhibition. If you don’t make it to Berlin before 16th September when the exhibition finishes, many of the works in ‘Wanderlust’ are from the permanent collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie. Among its treasures are moody landscapes by Romantic heart-throb Caspar David Friedrich, epic canvasses by Franz Krüger and Adolph von Menzel glorifying Prussia, Gothic fantasies by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and an interesting selection of French and German Impressionists.
‘Landscape with a River Valley’ Richard Wilson
‘Gothic Church Ruin’ by Carl Blechen
‘Walk among Flowers’ August Macke
‘Winter’ Emil Nolde
Berlin has an incredible 175 museums to choose from.‘20 Berlin Museums That Will Blow Your Mind’, a list recently compiled by the website Hostelworld, is a great place to start . But you won’t find one of my own top favourites here – the Märkisches Museum. This museum about Berlin’s origins and history is just off the tourist trail and attracts less hype. Its impressive red-brick Gothic-style building rises like a cathedral in a secluded park by the River Spree, in an ancient corner of the city. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was locked away in East Berlin, far from the madding crowds and today it still retains an authentic air of ‘Old Berlin’. It’s a place where you can time out to steep yourself in Berlin’s past and appreciate a stunning historic collection in a unique setting. This museum is the real thing; it even has its own U-Bahn station on line U2.
The Gothic-style exterior
Sections of the Berlin Wall outside the museum
But I would encourage you to visit the Märkisches Museum soon; there are plans to close it down for renovation and a new permanent exhibition is being created. Whilst it needs updating, this museum has a nostalgic feel to it which may be lost in the process of modernisation. The museum’s distinctive building is very much in the style of architectural precursors from the north of Germany and the Brandenburg region. In the Köllnischer Park behind the museum, there is even a bear-pit which until 2015 was home to a pair of brown bears, as symbols of the city of Berlin.
The bear-pit (Bärenzwinger) in 1984
The word ‘märkisch’ refers to the area which surrounded Berlin – the ‘Mark of Brandenburg, (English: Margravate), now the Federal State of Brandenburg. ‘Margrave’ was originally the medieval title for the military commander who defended one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a kingdom. The interior of the museum definitely has a medieval feel, with the Gotische Kapelle (Gothic Chapel), the Zunftsaal (Guildhall) and the Waffenhalle (Weapon Hall) as particular highlights.
The Weapon Hall and the Gothic Chapel
The exhibits go back as far as the Bronze Age and there are some fascinating large-scale models of Berlin as it has developed since the 13th Century.
The original settlements of Berlin
The permanent exhibition, ‘Here is Berlin!’, invites you to stroll through the streets and districts of the city and experience how Berlin has changed since it was founded in 1237. The English information boards are really clear and helpful and the carefully-chosen exhibits include important sculptures and paintings.
The Humboldt brothers
The Borsig factory in 1842
The room with an original wooden ‘Kaiserpanorama’ is an absolute must. Here you can sit at one of 25 stations, each with a pair of viewing lenses and watch a series of 3D images of Berlin life in the early 20th Century. The animation in these historic scenes is gripping.
Sitting at the Kaiserpanorama
Another museum highlight is the wonderful collection of historic musical instruments and at 3pm on Sundays visitors can hear some of them in action. There is also an interesting exhibition illustrating the museum’s meticulous research and documentation methods and a creative area for children.
Historic barrel organs – and their players
If you manage to fit in a visit to the Märkisches Museum before 25th February, you can still catch their excellent Special Exhibition: ‘Berlin 1937. In the Shadow of Tomorrow’. By 1937, the National Socialist regime had permeated every aspect of everyday life and yet there was a false sense of calm in Berlin. The fascinating photographs and exhibits are clearly explained in English and as in the permanent collection, you can sense a meticulous sharing of expertise. No dumbing down here. At the end of your visit, there is a small bookshop and a café in the courtyard outside. Both are low-key, uncommercialised Berlin experiences.
A walk in the park 1937
Poster for a 1937 exhibition
Finally, it is important to explain that the Märkisches Museum is the main part of the ‘Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’. This foundation of Berlin city museums, governed by public law, was set up in 1995 following the reunification of the German capital in 1991. The aim was to bring together into one foundation the two major historic museums in the eastern and western parts of the city, as well as several smaller ones. The Märkisches Museum was originally founded in 1874, but its current building in Berlin-Mitte dates back to 1908. The Berlin Museum, founded in 1962 in West Berlin, was housed in the former Superior Court of Justice building on Lindenstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg. This building was handed over to the newly-founded Jewish Museum in 1999. There are now five museums belonging to the Stadtmuseum Berlin: the Märkisches Museum, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraim-Palais, the Knoblauchhaus and the Museumsdorf Düppel. For further information and opening times, visit the Stadtmuseum’s website at https://www.en.stadtmuseum.de/our-museums
The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .
Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.
Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.
Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.
Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’
From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!
Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.
Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.
Weidammer Brücke in 1881
Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache, once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.
Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden
Neue Wache around 1900
Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).
Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820
On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.
Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz
I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.
In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.
Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.
The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien
Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.
Aerial view of Neuruppin
And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Barge trip through the Spreewald
One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English:
What’s in a name? In the case of Checkpoint Charlie, with its personification of a notorious border crossing at the Berlin Wall, it immediately conjures up visions of soldiers, spies and daring deeds. ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, ‘Octopussy’, ‘Goodbye Lenin’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ all have famous scenes shot at Checkpoint Charlie. Now it is one of the top tourist attractions in the German capital; the place where visitors hope to feel the chill of the Cold War. But it’s impossible to really sense the tension unless you experienced it for real. All that remains of this historic landmark is a small wooden replica hut and a line of cobblestones to mark the path of the Berlin Wall.
Checkpoint Charlie 2017
Aerial view, 1980s
When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, there were three military checkpoints between West Germany and East Berlin, all given names according to the NATO phonetic alphabet. Checkpoint Alpha was at Helmstedt, on the border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Checkpoint Bravo was at Dreilinden, on the border between the GDR and the American Sector in West Berlin.
Map showing crossing points into the GDR, including Helmstedt
Checkpoint Charlie was the military border post between the American Sector in West Berlin and East Berlin (the Soviet Sector) and was located at the junction of Friedrichstraβe with Zimmerstraße and Mauerstraße (which for older historical reasons coincidentally means ‘Wall Street’). All foreigners, diplomats and members of the Allied Forces entering East Berlin on foot or by vehicle had to use the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. This was where Soviet and US tanks confronted each other in October 1961, while politicians negotiated Allied military access to East Berlin.
The border post hut where visitors to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s. Tourists can usually pay a small fee to have their photo taken in front of the hut with the ‘fake’ soldiers’ on duty, but the day I was there a couple of weeks ago, two Ukrainian singers were entertaining the crowds with their poignant freedom songs. These days Checkpoint Charlie has become synonymous with demonstrations by groups who feel oppressed.
The area around Checkpoint Charlie has an excellent permanent open-air exhibition as well as the inevitable souvenir shops and street vendors. On the corner of Kochstraße is the Mauermuseum (opened in 1962), bursting at the seams with fascinating exhibits telling the story of the Wall and the incredible escape attempts – many of which failed. Around the corner in Zimmerstraße, a memorial stele marks the place where 18-year old Peter Fechter bled to death while trying to climb over the Wall in 1962.
Memorial to Peter Fechter
Soviet and GDR souvenirs
There are two relatively new indoor additions to the tourist attractions at Checkpoint Charlie and I tried them both out on my last visit. The weather was damp and grey, so I was especially glad to ‘come in from the cold’. First, I tried the Asisi panorama of ‘The Wall’ which opened in September 2012. This cylindrical steel rotunda stands at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße and the artist Yadegar Aisis uses his 270° panorama, 15 metres high and 60 metres wide, to show everyday scenes on both sides of the Wall in the 1980s, when Asisi lived in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. I am usually sceptical of such commercial ventures but having also lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, it was quite an emotional experience and worth the €10 entrance cost. Follow this link for more information.
On the other side of the road is the ‘BlackBox’ exhibition on the Cold War. This is a multi-media experience on a smaller scale, more like a pop-up museum and only costs €5 entrance. There is plenty of film and newsreel footage and every historic event is well-explained and fully-documented. I found myself engrossed in all the details of other flashpoints of the Cold War: Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Prague and Poland. But most of all, I was back at Checkpoint Charlie in the 1980s, feeling the frisson of fear as we negotiated the chicanes, knowing that there was a machine gun trained on our vehicle from a slit in the wall on the tall building to our right.
Cold War BlackBox
When you reach the end of the exhibition there is a photo booth where you can email a Checkpoint Charlie souvenir photo of yourself to friends. It was free, so I just couldn’t resist…. For more details and pictures of the BlackBox follow this link.