Berlin lays its history bare

An Irishman’s Diary on how Germany is coming to terms with its past

It was hard to think of Nazi cruelties and terror as Berlin basked in mid-20s autumnal sunshine and pavement cafes were crowded. Yet a visitor interested in the city’s recent history can spend days reliving its grimmer periods and can only admire the willingness of the Germans to lay them bare for themselves as well as for visitors.

Millions are being drawn each year to the site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS near Potsdamer Platz to relive their grim history in the museum of the “Topography of Terror”. A clumsy title, but the new glass and steel building with its photographic and written records of what the Nazi police state perpetrated on European Jews and their own citizens who tried to resist is a chilling experience.

As you move around the exhibition, you come across groups of schoolchildren sitting in front of the macabre exhibits and being questioned by their teachers about what it means for Germans today. Under their feet are the remains of Gestapo torture chambers.

They also learn that many who were prominent in the Nazi terror apparatus slipped quietly into the shadows after the war and gradually re-emerged as respectable citizens.


About 100 metres away from the building is the longest remaining stretch of the outer Berlin Wall which divided the city from 1962 to 1989. Below the wall is an exhibition of the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto by the SS back in 1943. What a history the modern German student has to make sense of!

Beside the wooded Tiergarten park there is another side to the Nazi terror, a commemoration of those Germans who paid with their lives in opposing it. The German Resistance Memorial Centre is on the site of the former headquarters of the wartime army high command.

But while senior officers were overseeing Wehrmacht operations on the Eastern and Western fronts, others such as Count von Stauffenberg and Gen Olbricht were plotting to assassinate the man behind the Nazi domination of Europe.

Von Stauffenberg’s bomb failed to kill Hitler in his Wolf’s Lair hundreds of miles to the east. One can today visit the courtyard in the Berlin HQ where the leading conspirators were summarily executed on the night of July 20th, 1944. On the 50th anniversary, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened last July the latest version of the Resistance Centre which also commemorates other heroic Germans like the left-wing Red Orchestra and the students in the White Rose anti-Nazi movement in Munich who were guillotined for distributing anti-war leaflets.

Those living in postwar East Germany exchanged one tyranny for another. Again not far from the cafes and restaurants on the Unter den Linden, it is possible to visit the headquarters of the Ministry for State Security of the communist German Democratic Republic.

In these offices of the Stasi political police, the files stretch out to 111 kilometres in addition to almost two million photographs and 28,000 recordings. For students and teachers there are classes on all aspects of state security.

From the preserved offices of the Stasi, one can journey on to the most notorious Stasi prison in the former East Berlin, the Hohenschonhausen. Originally a canteen for a Nazi welfare organisation, the buildings were later extended by the communist dictatorship and the inmates forced to build an underground prison known as the “submarine”. On the cosmopolitan Unter den Linden itself in the DDR museum you can experience what it was like to live in a typical East Berlin home during the Cold War, sit in an ugly Trabant car and listen in on a bugged apartment.

And so it goes on. The German Historical Museum, in the historic Prussian armoury building near the Berlin Cathedral, is showing centuries of German history from Charlemagne to the fall of the Third Reich. How and why Hitler and the Nazis rose to power from obscurity is graphically described with items from the period.

You cannot accuse the Germans of ignoring the darker side of their history as they enjoy their current prosperity.