Three Eras of German History in Berlin

For 37 years the School’s History trips have been packed with intriguing history, extraordinary experiences and a great deal of fun and humour, and this year was certainly no exception. After a 12 week term, another week of outdoor history in December sounds like madness. But as Franz von Suppe said in 1800: "Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin." ("You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.")

We were lucky enough to visit sights from three different eras of German history; pre 20th century, Weimar and Nazi Germany and the Cold War. 

We learnt much about Fredrick the Great and the Hohenzollern family of Brandenburg-Prussia. We went up the impressive victory column marking Bismarck’s three great victories over the Danes, French and Austrians, and had a great view of the surrounding Tiergarten and up the 17th of June Street to the Brandenburg Gate. In East Berlin, we saw the two churches in Gendarmenmarkt; one built for German nationals and the other for foreigners to try to draw them into the country. Possibly one of the most important squares in Berlin is Bebelplatz, which has the Humboldt University with famous alumni such as Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and the Brothers Grimm, as well as the copper roofed St Hedwig’s Cathedral and the Berlin Opera House. It was the site of the 1933 burning of books by the Nazi Party, and to mark this each year the students have a book fair. However, the Zeughaus Museum was where the early history came to life with a huge exhibition documenting German history.

We were lucky enough to visit the glass dome of the Reichstag built by the British architect Norman Foster to display the openness of the new German Parliament. Nearby we also saw the Jewish memorial positioned on top of Hitler’s bunker which brought feelings of unease and sorrowfulness. The Topography of Terror is a modern museum built on what used to be the SS headquarters displaying the stories of horror under the Nazi regime. The building is alongside the Luftwaffe headquarters, which ironically is the only Reich building not to be bombed by the RAF.

We spent a morning south west of Berlin to visit Wannesse where the Final Solution became a reality. It was spine tingling to visit the place responsible for such a horrific act. The guided tour of the Olympic stadium, the place of Jesse Owens’ famous 1936 heroics in front of Hitler and, more recently, where the French football star Zidane committed his notorious head butt in the 2006 World Cup final, was a real highlight.

The Cold War is a period of history which may not even be over yet with current Russian relations as they are. But from 1945 to 1989 Berlin was the centrepiece of the West versus East stand-off and no place more so than Checkpoint Charlie, where we were told the stories of East Berliners escape attempts, how tanks stood off barrel to barrel, long and tiresome border crossings, and how Khrushchev would ‘squeeze America’s testicles’ there and, more recently, how Oundelians tried to smuggle jeans into the East to make money.

We were also able to visit Cecilienhof Palace, the site of the Potsdam Conference at which Berlin and Germany were divided up between Churchill, Stalin and Truman. We had two very moving and disturbing trips to Hohenschonhausen Prison and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We heard how the Stasi would try to mentally break down prisoners. We learnt about Jimmy James and his courageous escape attempts from Sachsenhausen in WW2, before it was liberated and then used by the Russians as their concentration camp until 1952.  

The history was not the only plus of the trip. We had delicious meals every night at five different restaurants and were able to visit the large Christmas Markets to enjoy the curry wurst on offer and do some last minute Christmas shopping. But above all, making the trip so special, were the Oundle History department staff who not only got us all into the right places for the right time, but also made the trip so engaging and stimulating. Special thanks must go to Mr Pedley for leading the trip so well (even if his speech at the final dinner lasted two hours!) and Mrs Herring who managed the all the logistics of the trip to perfection.