Horrors of World War II preserved in Berlin
BERLIN, Germany — World War II ended 70 years ago, and there’s no better place in Europe to view remnants of that war than here in Berlin, the birthplace of Hitlerism, Nazism and Fascism.
When this writer first came to Berlin in 1954 as an 18-year-old university student, parts of the city still lay in ruins.
But following the war’s end and many years later, the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reuniting of East and West Germany, Berlin has been rebuilt into a city of handsome, shiny steel skyscrapers, apartments and hotels.
Several WW II Berlin landmarks, though, are still standing.
One of these is the massive Brandenburg Gate, the western gateway to the city, that was completed in 1791. Consisting of 12 limestone columns topped with a statue of a winged Roman goddess of victory driving a chariot pulled by four horses, the gate was declared an official Nazi symbol by Adolf Hitler, and he often reviewed troops and gave speeches under its towering arch.
President John F. Kennedy, during his June, 1963 visit to West Berlin, mounted a platform to observe the Brandenburg Gate and East Berlin in the distance. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan ascended the same platform, looked through the gate onto the Berlin Wall and called out for Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow to “tear down this wall.”
Today, the gate, heavily damaged by Allied bombings during the war, has been returned to its original state, and visitors flock to the 224-year-old landmark through which marched the armies of Napoleon in 1806, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1869, the Kaiser in 1914, Hitler during WW II and the U.S. and its allies following the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Another remnant of WW II are the ruins of the neo-Gothic Kaiser Wilhelm Church, built in 1891. On the night of Nov. 23, 1943, the Protestant church was severely damaged by bombs dropped from 440 British Avro Lancaster bombers that also destroyed the Berlin Zoo and the sprawling Tiergarten park. Preserved as a poignant reminder of the horrors of war, the ruins lie adjacent to a new church and its soaring belfry tower.
Still another Berlin WW Ii site is the former Templehof Airport, that before the war served as a Prussian parade ground, a dirt airstrip in 1909 where aviation pioneer Orville Wright performed demonstration flights in a rickety wood biplane, and from where cigar-shaped lighter-than-air Zeppelin airships were flown in the 1920s and 1930s.
Rebuilt and greatly enlarged in 1941 by forced laborers to serve as Hitler’s gateway to Germany, it also had been a Luftwaffe headquarters and a U.S. military base and commercial airfield following the war. In 2008, it was closed to make way for the new Berlin International Airport in the suburbs that can handle large jet aircraft. The ornate, semi-circular terminal building that now contains a museum and art gallery is open to the public. The runways have been converted into a public park.
Further remnants of Nazism’s legacy are preserved at nearly a score of other sites in greater Berlin.
Among them are Bebelplatz, the square where Hitler and Josef Goebels supervised the burning of books written by Jews, pacifists and anti-Nazis; the lakeside villa at Wannsee where Adolph Eichman planned the extermination of Europe’s Jews; Martyr Memorial Church where Christian pastors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the anti-Nazi resistance; Atkion T4, the building where mentally ill and handicapped “superfluous” Germans were euthanized by gas; and the Grunewald Freight Yard Deportation Center where Jews were packed into cattle cars and transported to concentration camps.
Also still standing and serving as memorial museums are Wasserturn-Prenzlauer Prison, a former watertower where thousands of Nazi prisoners were killed by torture. hanging, shooting and beheading and Plotzensee Prison, where countless others, some as young as 14, were executed by hanging and the guillotine.
It also was at Plotzensee, in July of 1944, that more than 200 Germans involved in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler at his “Wolf’s Lair” command post in East Prussia, were slowly strangled by piano wire or shot to death. Among those executed was coup leader Lt. Col. Count Claus von Stauffenberg, 36, who had lost an arm and a leg during combat two years earlier.
Also preserved in Berlin is the Olympic Stadium, site of the 1936 Olympics presided over by Hitler. International sporting competitions are held in the renovated 75,000-seat arena and entertainers and musical groups including Bon Jovi, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones have appeared there.
One of Berlin’s best-known wartime relics, Hitler’s subterranean bunker, no longer exists, however.
Lying nearly 30 feet below ground, the concrete and steel bunker near Hitler’s offices in the Reich Chancellery consisted of 30 small rooms including Hitler’s conference room, dining room, sitting room, bedroom and bathroom. Two exits led to the street and one to a garden.
At 3 p.m. on April 30, 1945, as Soviet armies bombarded Berlin and prepared to storm the bunker, Hitler, 56, poisoned Eva Braun, 33, his long-time mistress whom he had married the previous day, also poisoned Blondi, his German shepherd dog, and then shot himself to death with a Walther pistol in the sitting room. The bodies of Hitler and Braun were wrapped in blankets, carried up to the garden and cremated by Hitler’s SS guards.
At war’s end, the bunker was partially destroyed by the Soviets to prevent it from becoming a Nazi shrine. The remaining ruins were cleared off in the late 1980s by the East German communist regime which then covered the bunker site with concrete. The site of Hitler’s last days now serves as a parking lot and playground for the residents of an adjacent apartment building.
Plans are currently in development to recreate five rooms of the bunker into an anti-fascist museum to be built at a small German town 300 miles from Berlin. The museum’s architect and director have ensured the public that the display will not become a place for idolic worship of Hitler and neo-Nazis.