Travel: Exploring Berlin’s history

Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. Picture: iStock
Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. Picture: iStock
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With so many stunning sights in Berlin, Donald Nicolson likes to take in the city according to historical period

Walking around Berlin, you see evidence that the city has been the epicentre of the key events that shaped the history of Europe at every corner. Any traveller to Germany’s capital will struggle to try to keep the to-do list doable. So why not pick a period in German history that grabs you and be treated to a vast array of sights that fall under that heading?

An artwork on what remains of the Berlin Wall

An artwork on what remains of the Berlin Wall

I suggest the following: pre-1918; Weimar Republic (1919-1933); Nazi rule (1933-45); Cold War (1945-1989); and reunified Germany (post-1990).


The majority of must-see sights date back to before the First World War, which might come as a surprise, because we tend to associate Berlin with the events post-1918. Seeing the main pre-Great War sites is quite an economical task, because most lie in close proximity, on one of two main roads (Strasse des 17. Juni, and Unter den Linden).

Walking between the attractions can be done by starting in the west of the city at Schloss Charlottenburg. This 17th-century palace is the largest of its kind in Berlin, and shows off the trappings of wealth enjoyed by the Hohenzollern Dynasty, which ruled the Kingdom of Prussia, and then Germany, until the end of the First World War.

From there you can walk down to Ernst Reuter Platz, and then follow Strasse des 17. Juni, a long street named to commemorate an uprising in East Berlin in 1953, which cuts the Tiergarten Park in two. Continuing along the road, you reach the Siegessäule, a victory column with an angel on top, designed in the 1860s to celebrate the Prussian victory over Denmark. You might recognise it from its appearances in Wim Wenders’ films including Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close!

Heading east, you then reach the Reichstag, the German Parliament. This is no mere marvel of architecture, but is of massive historic significance to Germany as a whole. In 1933, not long after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag was set alight, something Hitler used as reason to remove civil liberties and then outlaw the Communist Party, to consolidate Nazi power. It remained derelict until 1999 when after renovation, including a new glass dome; it became the Bundestag, home of the parliament of the newly unified Germany.

Down from the Reichstag is the Brandenburg Gate, lying at the west end of Unter den Linden, the closest thing Berlin has to a boulevard. On top is a statue of a winged goddess riding a chariot pulled by four horses. For 28 years it lay behind the Berlin Wall, in no-man’s land. Spot the brick markings on the ground to see where the wall stood.

The statue of Frederick the Great, on Unter den Linden, is my favourite in the city. Like the man himself, the statue has had a chequered history; having been moved several times since its 1851 unveiling. The base features panels which commemorate great men of Friedrich’s time.

Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is an island on the river Spree, a Unesco World Heritage site, and home to five outstanding galleries including the Pergamon Museum, which features the Pergamon Altar (sadly closed until 2019). It is also home to the magnificent Berliner Dom (Cathedral). A church has stood on this ground since the mid-15th century.

To the south of the city is the district of Wannsee, and the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz; where Heydrich, Eichmann, and others met to discuss the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem”. The house, built during the First World War, is now a museum to the Holocaust.

Weimar Republic (1919-1933)

The magnificent Pergamon Museum opened in 1930, during the time of the Weimar Republic. Its standout attraction is the Pergamon Altar; a 35x34 metre edifice built in 2BC and taken to Germany at the end of the 19th century.

Nazi rule (1933-45)

The Führerbunker was paved over to make way for a car park. All that marks it is a plaque, with the only visible reference to Hitler, in Berlin. Tempelhof airport (which ceased to operate in 2008) saw its first flight during the 1920s; it is best known for its massive arc-shaped terminal building which was built after the Nazis came to power. The Olympiastadion was built for the 1936 Summer Olympics, and remains functional, having been renovated in 2006 for the World Cup finals.

Cold War (1945-1989)

There are few places left in Berlin to see the Mauer (the Wall). At the East Side Gallery, in Friedrichshain in the east of the city, you’ll find the longest continuous remaining section. Look out for the murals and powerful graffiti art. One piece, Curriculum Vitae, lists each year that the wall stood (from 1961 to 1989) and features pink splodges of paint that could represent bulletholes, one dot for each person killed trying to cross the wall in each year. Paradoxically, another memorial remembers those who fought to bring a Communist state to East Germany. Treptower Park has a memorial to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died invading Berlin. This features two massive triangular edifices made from red granite which represent the Soviet Union flag.

You’ll be able to tell when you are in the former Communist East Berlin thanks to the traffic lights, affectionately known as Ampelmännchen (“Little traffic men”). Wee chaps wearing what looks like a fedora, they have a much more assertive gait than their upright Federal Republic cousins. Shops sell good quality Amplemann souvenirs, part of a re-evaluation of Communism in East Germany, known as Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the former GDR, its food, culture, and cars (trabants).

Synonymous with the Cold War was Checkpoint Charlie, a border crossing which disappeared with Communism. Looking at it, you gain some idea of what the divided city was like.

But be prepared for some disappointment, as it was replaced by a 100 per cent faux version. Still, the sign remains as iconic as ever: “You are leaving the American sector…”

Fernsehturm, a television tower in the east of the city constructed during the Communist regime, looks like a giant cocktail stick with an olive pierced through it. Standing at more than 360m, it’s an excellent point from which to get your bearings in the east of the city.

As a historical hub, it is little surprise that Berlin attracted writers, artists and musicians over the years, with Bowie recording Heroes at Hansa Ton Studio while Iggy Pop worked on Lust for Life. Coming more up to date, U2 started Achtung Baby there in 1990.

Reunified Germany (post-1990)

Adjacent to Hansa is the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas; a memorial to the murdered Jews of the Second World War, which opened in 2005. This is simply a number of columns of blocks of varying heights built on sloping ground to give an illusion effect. One might be left to think that the past, like the columns, cast a long shadow.

The past is all around in Berlin, but that has not stopped modern architecture from rising. The best place to see this is at Potsdamer Platz, where Manhattan meets Berlin; the skyscrapers belie how this famous old town square lay derelict during the Cold War years when the wall cut through it.