Ghosts of the war

The scars of Germany's darkest hour are all over Berlin. Beyond the history books, the monuments and the museums, the subtle reminders of the most destructive war in human history are scattered about the city.

Allied generals walking down the Straße des 17. Juni, Berlin, 1945

Stepping stones to remembrance

Some of Nazi Germany's most abominable legislation came from Berlin. It is no surprise that the Allied media portrayed it as the root of all evil.

Aktion T4, the secret programme that enabled forced euthanasia of German citizens got its name from its birthplace on Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin. A memorial to its 70 273 victims was erected where the program was formerly administered.

The fate of the European Jews was sealed at the Wannsee conference, some 20 kilometers from Berlin. It is still possible to visit the house where the conference was held.

Over twelve years, more than a hundred thousand Berliners - Jews, homosexuals, artists, pacifists - were deported by the nazis. Most of them would not live to see the end of the regime.

Since a 1992 initiative by artist Gunter Demnig, over 48 000 marked stones have appeared before the houses of German citizens who were deported and murdered. Over 3000 Stolpersteine exist in Berlin alone, each of them commemorating a victim.

Here lived Ehna Cohn. Born Weichmann in 1893. Deported in 1943. Murdered in Auschwitz.

The full list of Stolpersteine can be found along with pictures on Wikimedia Commons.

The women who moved mountains

The suffering of Berlin's citizens did not end with the capitulation of Germany. In some areas of the city, up to 30% of buildings were irreparably destroyed and even running water became a luxury for some Berliners. With the closing of hostilities began a long reconstruction process.

Berlin in 1945

Few men were spared from the previous six years of fighting. In addition to the 4.4 million military casualties, over 2 millions Germans were held in other countries as forced labour. As a result, the bulk of the reconstruction effort was undertaken by women.

Trümmerfrauen in the ruins of Berlin, 1945

Trümmerfrauen in the ruins of Berlin, 1945

The Trümmerfrauen spent years clearing the debris from street fighting and Allied bombing raids. The several million cubic meters of debris eventually formed mountains, most of which still remain to this day.

The hills of Volkspark Friedrichshain and Volkspark Humboldthain are among them. One of them, Großer Bunkerberg, is the site of the Friedrichshain flak tower. After attempts at demolishing the massive concrete structure, the Soviets resorted to burying it with debris.

The partly demolished flak tower in Friedrichshain before its burial

The partly demolished flak tower in Friedrichshain before its burial

The buried Friedrichshain flak tower in 1950

The buried Friedrichshain flak tower in 1950

In the French sector, the Humboldthain flak tower suffered the same fate, but it is still possible to see and visit the partly buried flak tower.

The Humboldthain flak tower

The Humboldthain flak tower

There are six other debris mountains in Berlin alone, and several more across Germany.

Deliberate understatements

On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide with his wife, Eva Braun. Their corpses were taken out of the Führerbunker in Berlin Mitte, doused with gasoline and unceremoniously cremated.

The last known picture of Hitler, taken in front of his bunker's entrance two days before his suicide.

Hitler leaves his bunker for the last time, two days before his suicide. His body would be cremated a few meters from there.

Despite deliberate efforts to make sure his corpse would never end in enemy hands, his charred remains were discovered by a young Soviet private. It was taken out of Berlin in great secret by the NKVD and reburied several times over the following decades. There is only one living man who knows the final location of Hitler's remains, and he vowed to take his secret to the grave, lest it becomes a site of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis.

The bunker in which Hitler killed himself was partly demolished, then filled up and buried. The location remained an unmarked parking lot until 2006 World Cup, when a sign was added in front of it.

Ruin value

In 1938, Hitler commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Speer, to design a new Chancellery that would be "suitable for a Greater German Reich".

The new building was intentionally designed to inspire awe. In order to reach Hitler's 400 square meter office, one had to walk across a 145 meter long gallery. It featured giant doors flanked by massive bronze statues and tall red marble walls draped in swastika flags

Inside the New Reich Chancellery

Inside the New Reich Chancellery

It was not unusual in post-war Germany to recycle debris in new constructions. After the devastating firebombing of Dresden, burned bricks from the original Frauenkirche were reused in its reconstruction.

The rebuilt Frauenkirche with blackened stones from the original building

The rebuilt Frauenkirche with blackened stones from the original building

The badly damaged Reich Chancellery was demolished by the Soviets to make room for an apartment complex. Instead of adding the rubble to one of Berlin's debris mountains, it was used with great symbolism in the construction of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptow. The monument was unveiled exactly 4 years after the German capitulation to honour the 81 000 Red Army soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin.

The two pillars were built with marble from the New Reich Chancellery

The two columns were built with marble from the New Reich Chancellery

Some other buildings, on the other hand, were not demolished. Only a few hundred meters from Alexanderplatz, you can find the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche. The church was left mostly untouched after it was gutted by Allied bombs in April 1945, and its interior was turned into an open air theatre.

The damaged spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Kurfürstendamm was also left untouched as a reminder of the destructive nature of war.

There are several buildings in Berlin that are still peppered with bullet holes from the street fighting in 1945. Redditors have pinpointed a few more buildings that still show those scars.

Between guilt and remembrance

German veterans of the War are not celebrated or honored, and even remembering their suffering seems to be at odds with how Germans are taught about their own past.

As described in great detail elsewhere, there was hardly any distinction between veterans and the general population in 1945. Every man capable of holding a weapon was thrown against the Allied steamroller as the war neared its end. The last-ditch Volkssturm saw children as young as 13 on bicycles with panzerfaust racks sent to destroy Soviet tanks.

While American and English veterans were returning home to be greeted by cheering crowds, there was no one to welcome German soldiers in a community that was on the brink of total collapse. It wasn't until the German economic miracle that the discourse about Germany's past could be reopened.

"The greater sacrifice" by Albert Reich, 1943

The Greater Sacrifice by Albert Reich, 1943

It's now possible for Germans to share their side of the story and enrich history with tales that were downplayed and even silenced for decades. Hopefully, this new openness will help us understand how so much evil was brought upon the world and ensure it never reoccurs.

  1. Chris said (4 Apr. 2016):

    Awesome page. Came her from your Reddit link. I love WWII history, but only get to see the sanitized, American Hero version.

  2. Nicolas Bouliane said (5 Apr. 2016):

    Stick around then! I’ve been working on an article about the liberation of Paris for a few months. There is also an article about the Berlin airlift that is much better written than this one in my recent posts.

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