Day: 66 & 67
Cities / Towns Visited: 32
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 17,557
Steps Taken Around the Word: 1,239,561
As out sixty-sixth day of travel was a life admin day, I’ll only take a brief moment to fill you in on the days details. After sleeping until midday, I then attempted to buy Skype credit but wasn’t able to pay with Paypal or my debit card as they both need mobile codes and both have my phone number information without the country code and thus it was being sent into the abyss of irretrievable information. It also caused me to be locked out of my Paypal account (of which I couldn’t get back into as they need to verify my identity by, you guessed it, sending me a mobile code). I then tried to get in contact with their customer service chat through Facebook, who, I kid you not, took eight days to get back to me simply to let me know that they couldn’t help and I’d need to call, although by this point Paypal had already unlocked my account (just putting it out there, but if you have an eight day long queue, you might need more staff). After buying it with our credit card, I then spent a fair amount of time using the aforementioned Skype credit to rant to my mother about the debacle. We then finally caught up on seven countries worth of postcards to ourselves, then ventured to the post office, to send home said postcards, and some souveniers, along with my partners broken video camera which has to be repaired in Australia in order to be under warranty. It is important to note at this point that we had attempted to send things earlier in both Austria and the Czech Republic, but seemingly no one makes small package boxes and stocks them at post offices. Much to our dismay either did Germany, thus we just bit the bullet and bought the smallest one we could, filling the empty space with scraps of cardboard from the waste paper bin. Our day ended with another, more successful, visit to the supermarket, and another load of washing. It was both a productive and counterproductive day, but at least we got most of what we needed to get done completed, we just didn’t manage to get any extra work done on travel planning or blog writing, as we had initially hoped.
The next day found us awake, slightly more refreshed, and ready to go and explore this city which has had such a notoriously checkered past in the last century. Grabbing a few bits and pieces for breakfast, we hopped on the train and headed into the city centre. Our first brief stop was the world infamous Checkpoint Charlie, the third crossing which stood along the Berlin wall in the 28 years it dissected the population from 1961–1989. For those unbriefed on the reason for the wall’s existence, the basic explanation is that after World War II Germany was separated into four sections, one each controlled by one of the major allied forces: the USSR, America, France, and Britain. Russia had the largest part, but although Berlin stood in their sector, the city itself was again split into the four sections. The Americans, French, and British remained allies and ran their western side as a democracy (the Federal Republic of Germany (FRD)) , with the hope that once Germany had found its feet again they could leave them to their own rule. The Russian’s however, brought communism into their sector(despite calling themselves the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and in no way being a democracy). After a large portion of their people moved to the west, they decided to build a barrier to prevent them from leaving. It began as a barbed wire barrier but quickly became a permanent concrete structure. Over time it was made stronger, and had a ‘no mans land’ style space between two walls in which the GDR guards were commanded to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape. It is important at this point to say that if you need to build a 12 foot tall wall and threaten death on your own people to make them stay, then your system of government is not successful. This checkpoint is not the original building, as that was destroyed when the wall was torn down, but it was the winner of a competition to rebuild a memorial on the spot, and closely resembles the original which stood here on the Western side of the fortification in the American sector. Although this was a hugely important crossing point, as for a long period it was the only open crossing for the general population to cross from the West to visit their relatives, lovers, and friends in the East, and for a brief period, where people from the East could visit the west, although this was very restricted, it is sad to now see it used as such a blatant tourist attraction. With its American ‘guards’ who pose with tourists for a fee, it almost feels like they are making light of the serious nature of what the spot represents, and because of this it was hard to appreciate it as we would have liked to.
From here we went to the first of three of the corners which intersect this crossing, and which house memorials to the Cold war period. Our first stop was the Berlin Wall Panorama; a 18 metre high rotunda which houses a full scale, hand painted, hyper-realistic work of art of composite images which combine to show how life on the western side of the wall would have looked from the perspective of an apartment looking out towards East Berlin. The work is by a Berlin native, who did in fact live in this exact situation during the Cold War years. After reading information about the wall and the artist, as well as looking at the large display of personal photos the museum has collected from private citizens who lived on both sides during this time, we were ready to walk into the other half of the circular building to view the pièce de résistance. Walking through the door and quickly climbing the stairs up to the viewing platform which sits around the height of a second storey window, we finally had the opportunity to really absorb how real this situation was for the countless Berliner’s who were unwillingly separated by this cruel work of communism. From the everyday elements, like the Shell petrol station; to the standard somewhat insensitive visitors taking photos of themselves in front of the art covered western side of the concrete border; to the sad image of one of the small platforms which were often erected on the western side so that people might be able to see and wave totheir loved ones in the east; and the confronting image of the GDR guards in the watchtowers who supervised the death strip and who’s guns made that name more than apt. The dim blue/purple light which floods the room gives an almost surreal feeling to the sombre exhibition. It was a fitting way to start our foray into educating ourselves on the history of the iron curtain, and a haunting image which will stay with me for a very long time.
From here we continued across to the Black Box Museum, which is another museum addressing the topic of the Cold War. Outside the building sits an example piece of the most successful design the GDR came up with for the wall; as they had to constantly upgrade it as people’s escape attempts became more elaborate. At twelve foot tall with support to prevent people ramming through it with vehicles, and rounded iron cladding on the top to make it impossible to get a handhold and pull yourself over, it was formidable to say the least. It has some fascinating displays, and a number of short films explaining the history of how Germany went from being under Nazi rule; through the 16 years of being broken into the four aforementioned sections without restriction of movement, as this was the time when the four powers tried to work together (read that as Britain, America, and France tried to get Stalin to be a reasonable human being); to the strengthening of the communist rule, Stalin deciding that he no longer wanted to work with the other allies like the petulant teenager he is, and the building of the wall. It also explained how the wall had not simply been built through the middle, but fortifications surrounded the entirety of West Berlin, closing off the road and rail routes, as Stalin tried to starve out the allies and force them to leave in order to control the entire area. This plan was of course unsuccessful, due entirely to the fact that the allies simply flew supplies in. It was fascinating to learn that the FRG couldn’t do anything to stop the building of the wall as the GDR were building it on their own sections of land. Although the most interesting fact I learnt on our visit there was the meaning behind the well know peace symbol. It is, in fact, a combination of two naval flag formations which mean ‘nuclear’ and ‘disarmament’, as at the time of its creation, after the nuclear bombings near the end of WWII, it was seen as the necessary action required to ensure peace.
Continuing on, we headed to the third corner located museum; the Mauer Museum (Mauer meaning Wall in German). This seemingly small house front, houses a massive museum, chock full of information on the Wall, amongst many other things. We walked in thinking it would only take us an hour or so, but the entire visit took us more than three hours, even taking into account that we didn’t take photos as you had to pay a fee to do so, and we figured we’d learn more without the distraction. The museum has been open since before the fall of the war, and was originally purchased for journalists to be able to cover the news from the battlefront, so to speak. It had the advantage of being directly next to Checkpoint Charlie and having an unobstructed view of the wall and the Eastern side. Now, I’m not saying that this museum is bad, but it seems that it had been adding to its collection for so long that its lost its flow. The portions in regards to the wall are truly interesting. There is an alcove dedicated to a Swedish man who worked for the foreign ministry and spent a large potion of the Nazi occupation in Hungary providing assistance and fake Swedish passports to Jews to help them escape. However, after the Russians came in and took over after defeating the Nazis, he was taken by the Soviet Army for interrogation and was never seen again. There is also a wealth of stories about the inventive ways in which people managed to escape from East Berlin into the West; from hiding in modified cars, to digging tunnels, to creating makeshift submarines or diving gear to go underwater, to flying a hot air balloon over the border. Equally there are numerous stories of failed attempts which resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred people over the duration of the walls existence (most were shot by GDR guards, but some also died from injury or suicide after failed attempts). There is also a section that explains some of the horrible things the GDR government and the Stasi did to those who attempted or plotted to escape, or even just applied to immigrate to the west. Many were thrown into prison, and some even had their children taken away from them and adopted out to others.
The top floor however, is a little disjointed, and none of it really has anything to do with the wall. Instead, it addresses other human rights violating governments, like the atrocities committed in North Korea to this day. It also has an entire room about Ronald Reagan, who did in fact give a stirring speech at the wall calling for its demolition, however I’m not sure it needed to go in depth about his personal life and the fact he owned a cattle ranch. The exhibition just seems to lose focus a little at the end. Not to say that the topics it covers aren’t fascinating, and worthy of the worlds attention and empathy, there is just too much written text. Like literally dozens upon dozens of huge boards of writing; it often felt like being inside a book. By the end you start to simply gloss over what your reading as your brain becomes incapable of absorbing anything else. I learnt a lot but I guess what I’m trying to say is that although it is definitely a worthwhile attraction and educational tool, it could do with a little reworking to make it more visitor friendly. As we exited through the gift shop we took the opportunity to purchase a small authentic piece of the wall, to help us to never forget the importance of humanity and the great gift of freedom. (Also I do recognise the irony in the fact that this blog is becoming in and of itself a series of large chunks of text; i just tend to waffle about topics of interest. Thanks for bearing with me though.
From here we had one last stop on this educational saga of a day; the Topographie of Terror. This special exhibition is located on the sight which once housed the head office of the Gestapo during the Nazi rule of the country, and thus our teachings were moved back a couple of decades. Outside the visitor centre stands a series of information boards (oh yes, more reading) which run through from the somewhat fixed election of the Nazi party, in which they forced out other candidates through threats and violence; as well as appealing to the lower class citizens and the high percentage of unemployed due to the massive debts the country was in after WWI. The manipulatively played on their fears to turn them against the minorities like the Jews, convincing them that the Jews were overcharging them and stealing their jobs. This was when the famed propaganda of the party began. the exhibit then ran briefly through the initial victimisation of Jews, including calling for boycotts of Jewish businesses, forcing them to charge less than what their products were worth, and naming and shaming anyone who patronised them. It also talked about the abuse, and often torture and killing of anyone who was connected to opposing political parties, thus making the country into a dictatorship. This section included a series of red poles on which were written brief storied about the torture, murder, and suicides of the aforementioned victimised persons. It was both confronting and heartbreaking to read the situations these innocent people were put into simply because they weren’t thinking or believing the ‘right’ thing.
Along the way there are a number of quoted texts from Goebbels’ (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister) private journal during the beginning of the party’s reign. Upon reading them it was hard not to think just how similar it all sounds to Donald Trump’s tweets; and I came to a terrifying realisation that a lot of the dialog Trump begins is so similar to the way Hitler and the Nazi party won over the majority in the beginning.
Eventually we made our way into the visitor centre, following the information boards in their well laid out sequential order. It really shakes you to the core to be faced with such victimisation. It was infuriating to read how many of the Nazi’s, who were willful participants to such gross violations of human rights and general human morality and ethics, came out the other side of WWII and simply went unpunished. I understand that the sheer logistics of finding and taking to trial every single member of the Nazi party and its employees was totally unfeasible in the wake of a world war, but it is still rage inducing to see such heinous acts go unpunished. Some of the offenders were even allowed to go back into positions of power like jobs in law enforcement, the legal system, government, and medicine. I honestly cannot even fathom how you could go to work everyday like everything was normal, when you knew your job was literally killing people, whether directly or not. It really just proves that if you give an inch to someone who is even the slightest bit hateful and violent, they’ll take a mile. I remember reading 1984 in Year 12, and as I stood in that room almost ten years later, all I could think was ‘this was barely a work of fiction, this book written only four years after the end of the Nazi rule was more non-fiction than anything’. I was so engrossed in reading through the information, that I was only halfway through the exhibit by the time the voiceover sounded the imminent closure for the day. Reasoning that entrance is free, we decided we would come back tomorrow morning and pick up where we left off. It seemed only fair to give as much time needed to discover the topic in depth. We must learn about it in its entirety and remember how it was able to occur, as it is our responsibility to never allow it to occur again.
We walked pensively back to the train, heading home to cook dinner and get some sleep. My heart was heavy as I drifted off. As an empath it is heartbreaking to read these stories of pain, suffering, and separation which have plagued this country for the best part of a century. From an outside perspective it is always easy to judge, and marvel in the fact that the people never rose up against the cruelty shown towards them and others; but then isn’t it always easier to speak when you’ve never been faced with it. Many of them knew very little of atrocities taking place; the media was strictly controlled, and the government lied to them, manipulated them with fear, and blinded them with a charismatic and well spoken leader. It is a testament to the fortitude of the survivors of the cruelty of the Nazis and the GDR that they continue to thrive and work hard to heal the damage done by so many evil people. Their history has so many recent scars purposely inflicted by the greed and power hungry appetites of man. However, if you look past the obvious signs of their history, you will see it is surrounded by the country’s flourishing future. Look not on Germany with pity or contempt, the majority of its people would rather look to its future, than wallow in its past. By all means, carry the lesson learnt, but we must all support them in their fervent march forward. Wounds are never healed by picking at them.