Pin me & save for later!
Have you ever wanted to visit a city solely for its past? Even if its past bore witness to some of modern history’s most horrific and unfathomable events? Well, that’s how it was for me with Berlin. Having written off visiting Germany for years until I fell in love with Munich and its beautiful buildings back in 2016, I then became keen on visiting the German capital. Even though I had been reading books about the Holocaust for years, it was around this same time that I became very interested in World War II from a resistance/civilian population angle, as in life under Nazi occupation. And then the more times I watched the 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies, the more intrigued I became on learning about the “two Germanys” and the “two Berlins,” especially since for the first four years of my life, these two entities still existed. Berlin for history lovers would end up describing me to a T.
During my time in Berlin I (naturally) took a food tour and checked out multiple Christmas markets, but it was its history that I came for. And so I’ve put together a guide that will showcase some of the city’s top historical sights- some known, a few off the beaten path. And although Berlin’s history spans more than 800 years, I’m primarily focusing on the events of World War II and the Cold War since that’s what most people think of when they learn of Berlin’s history. I give you, Berlin for History Lovers.
World War II/ the Holocaust
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
As its name suggests, this is Berlin’s memorial to all the murdered Jews of Europe, not just strictly German Jews as you’ll find with Holocaust memorials in other European countries. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs that are arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. Although there are many different interpretations of the memorial’s atypical and modern design, according to Eisenman, the slabs are “are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.”
Personally, I didn’t care for the design of the memorial. I found it too abstract, not personal enough to remember the six million victims. During my visit there, middle school children were literally running between the slabs, chasing after each other. I could not have found anything more disrespectful. You’ll also find signs throughout the memorial asking visitors to please not climb or sit on the slabs (apparently this happens constantly).
There is a small subterranean information center about the Holocaust on site, and it’s open every day except Monday. It also holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem. It costs a couple of Euros to visit (the memorial itself is free). It’s located just one block south of the Brandenburg Gate and is situated on the former site of the Berlin Wall (the Wall went right through the Mitte neighborhood).
Admission cost: FREE
Address: Cora-Berliner-Straße 1
Topography of Terror
It’s not your typical museum, it features both indoor and outdoor exhibits, but then nothing was typical about the buildings that once stood where the Topography of Terror museum stands today. Located on Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, from 1933-1945 both the SS and Gestapo were headquartered here. Those buildings were primarily destroyed by Allied bombs at the end of World War II and the ruins demolished shortly after. During the years of Nazi rule, when the name Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse was uttered, it invoked terror from those who heard it since this is where people who were arrested were brought and subsequently tortured and executed.
Today the museum tells visitors about the institutions and the horrific crimes that were organized and committed there from the early years of the Nazi party in the 1920s up until the arrest and trials of former Nazi officials. You learn that most of them never served time for their crimes against humanity, most able to simply live out their lives. The cellar of the Gestapo headquarters where many political prisoners were tortured and executed serves as the outdoor portion of the museum. It was discovered and excavated in the 1980s.
This museum is very information heavy, some of it upsetting and with graphic content, so I would only recommend it to teenage children.
(Its connection to the Cold War- the boundary between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin ran along Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse and so the street soon became a boundary with the Berlin Wall running along the south side of the street; it became known as Niederkirchnerstrasse later on. Even after the end of the Cold War and Germany was reunited, the wall here was never demolished.)
Admission cost: FREE
Address: Niederkirchnerstraße 8
Memorial to the Rosenstraße Protest
Definitely a subject that most people don’t know about. Located on Rosenstraße on the former site of the Old Synagogue which was destroyed in World War II stands the Block of Women memorial to the Women’s Uprising of 1943. The protest was started and kept alive by non-Jewish wives and relatives of Jewish men who had been arrested and marked for deportation to concentration camps (until then these Jewish men had been tolerated and spared persecution due to their marriages with non-Jewish women). The protests continued until the men were released and is significant because it was the only mass public demonstration by Germans against the deportation of Jews.
Address: Rosenstraße between Hackescher Markt and Alexanderplatz
Bendlerblock/ Memorial to the German Resistance
Truly an off-the beaten path attraction. At first glance, it looks like a nondescript office complex but the Bendlerblock is particularly notable as it was the headquarters of a group of Wehrmacht officers who carried out the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler. The leaders of the conspiracy were shot in the courtyard (as depicted in the 2008 film Valkyrie which starred Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leading members of the resistance).
The central courtyard features a statue of a naked man which marks the place where the conspirators were executed.
Also at the Bendlerblock is the Memorial to the German Resistance consisting of a series of exhibits that showcase the history of Nazi Germany and all those individuals and groups who opposed it, no one resister being more important than another. A critical feature of the museum is that it doesn’t try to hide or diminish the fact that most Germans supported Hitler’s regime and that there was never an effective resistance movement like there was in other countries.
Address: Stauffenbergstraße 13
Soviet War Memorial (Tiergarten)
At first glance you may think it odd to hear there’s a Soviet war memorial in Berlin, especially since in most other former Eastern Bloc countries, all Soviet statues/memorials were torn down following the end of communism. But the Soviet War Memorial is different as it’s the gravesite of more than 2,000 Russian soldiers who were killed in April and May of 1945 during the Battle of Berlin. The memorial commemorates the victory over National Socialism and was dedicated in November 1945 when the city was still in utter shambles.
The memorial stood in the British sector of Berlin during the Cold War but its construction was supported by all the Allied powers. During the Cold War, Soviet honor guards from the Soviet Sector (East Berlin) were sent to stand watch at the memorial. When Germany was reunited in 1990, the Soviet Army handed the memorial over to the Germans. The memorial has been cared for by the city of Berlin ever since. VE Day commemorations are still held there each May 8.
It’s one of several war memorials in Berlin erected by the Soviet Union to remember its dead, especially the 80,000 soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin.
Address: Straße des 17. Juni
Memorial to the Roma and Sinti Victims of National Socialism
This relatively new memorial, unveiled in 2012, remembers the 220,000-500,000 people murdered in the Porajmos, the Nazi extermination of the Roma and Sinti people. In the center of the dark, circular pool is a triangular stone which symbolizes the badge that had to be worn by concentration camp prisoners. The stone is retractable and a fresh flower is placed upon it daily.
Address: Simsonweg (a path inside Tiergarten)
Stolpersteine are not unique to Berlin but the project did originate in Germany from a German artist in the 1990s. Stolpersteine, which literally means “stumbling stone,” is a set-size 3.9 inch x 3.9 inch concrete cube that features a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. They remember individuals at the last place of residency (in some cases, work) before he or she was deported/murdered by the Nazis or escaped persecution by immigration or suicide.
Address: Throughout Berlin (here’s a website that will allow you to search for stolpersteine either by name or address)
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Built at the initiative of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the turn of the last century in honor of his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, the church was seriously damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. Rather than rebuild, it was deliberately left a ruin to serve as a permanent reminder of World War II. The damaged spire of the old church is what was retained and its ground floor serves as the memorial hall that visitors can enter. A new church was built around the remains of the old one in the 1960s.
Originally constructed to house the German Parliament (known at the time as the Imperial Diet) of the German Empire, it was severely damaged in 1933 after it was set on fire by the Nazis (who blamed the Communists). It also served as the backdrop for one of World War II”s most famous photos, when the Soviet flag was erected at the top of the damaged Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The building was left to ruin after World War II and wasn’t used again until the two Germanys were reunited in 1990. After the building was fully renovated, it once more became the meeting place of the German parliament in 1999.
Address: Platz der Republik 1
You’ll also find in most central Berlin neighborhoods (especially Mitte), markers denoting what the area used to look like, what was once there, etc. since so much of it was destroyed during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt.
The Cold War
The East Side Gallery
Located in what was once East Berlin, the East Side Gallery consists of a series of murals painted directly on a 1,316 m (4,318 ft) long remnant of the Berlin Wall. There are a total of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world and it was completed in 1990. If you opt to walk the entire length of the gallery, it can take you anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on how long you stop to look/take photos of each mural.
Address: Mühlenstraße 3-100
The Brandenburg Gate
While it was built in the 18th century by orders of the Prussian King Frederick William II after the temporary restoration of order during the Batavian Revolution, it would forever become an iconic symbol of the division in Germany during the Cold War. The Gate was located in East Berlin and until the day after construction began on the Wall (which the gate became part of) vehicles and pedestrians could travel through freely. But on August 13, 1961 until the Berlin Wall period ended in December 1989, the gate was closed.
American President Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech at the gate in 1987 when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, “to tear down this wall.” One month after the wall was demolished, the Brandenburg Gate border crossing was officially reopened in December 1989. Ever since then it’s stood as a symbol of a unified Germany and is the site of numerous mass celebrations.
Personally, this was one of my favorite sites in Berlin. It was so beautiful and majestic and incredible to see such an iconic symbol in person.
Address: Pariser Platz
The Berlin Wall
It ran a length of nearly 100 miles and stood at a height of almost 12 feet. The Berlin Wall would come to serve as one of the most oppressive and horrific symbols of the Cold War. It was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin for 28 years (1961-1989). Although it was demolished in 1989, there are traces of it everywhere in the form of memorials. Considering how long it was, there were few areas of the German capital not “touched” by the wall.
There was no advance notice that the wall was going up. On August 13, 1961, the residents of Berlin awoke to find barbed wire fencing had been installed on the border between the east and west sectors; shortly after East Germany began to reinforce the barrier with concrete. The wall went up to stop the mass defections from East into West Germany that had been taking place, up to as many as 1,000 people a day in 1961.
My first encounter with the wall was at Potsdamer Platz (near to my hotel, the Grand Hyatt Berlin). The last original sections of the wall in this area were torn down in 2008. However, six sections were preserved and later erected at the entrance to the Potsdamer Platz station. And just to clear up any misconceptions about the wall, it was not built on a straight line but rather zig-zagged all the way around West Berlin.
Only a block away from Potsdamer Platz, this is one of the few remaining DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic) border watchtowers still standing. It dates to the 1960s and has guided tours to the top. It’s the last standing structure of its kind in Berlin even though at one time there were 302 watchtowers in total along the wall. They were placed approximately 820-1000 feet apart, a distance that matched the shooting range of an AK-47 assault rifle.
(Note: Although it was supposed to be open, there was no sign of any life or activity when I attempted to visit in early December 2019, nor a sign saying it was closed for the day. And the day I visited was bright and sunny, no rain- that’s the only weather condition the website says it’s closed for.)
Berlin Wall Memorial
Bernauer Straße, on the boundary between the neighborhoods of Wedding and Mitte, was where the Wall was first erected in August 1961 in front of the homes of East Berliners. Some of the most infamous and iconic photographs from this era in history were taken right here- people jumping out of windows from their homes in East Berlin into sheets held by West Berlin firemen, a DDR soldier jumping over barbed wire two days after the formal division of the city, not to mention countless escape tunnels built right around this street. And when the wall finally fell in 1989, some of the first parts of it that were broken were from the wall on Bernauer Straße.
The memorial site includes a Chapel of Reconciliation, the Berlin Wall Documentation Center, a 200 foot section of the former border, a window of remembrance (this recalls the 130 people that were either shot or died at the wall) and a visitor center.
Address: Bernauer Straße 111
Knowing next to nothing about the German Democratic Republic (in German-Deutsche Demokratische Republik), on paper it’s truly a fascinating place to visit. Instead of telling the political story of former East Germany, it recounts what daily life was like for those living in the Germany that was truly cut off from the rest of the world. I say on paper because depending on the time and day you visit, the museum may be overrun with horribly obnoxious school groups and it’s not the biggest space to begin with. (The museum is geared towards people of all ages but there are numerous interactive features so naturally these are to appeal to children.) The museum has three themed areas-public life, state and ideology, and life in a tower block, what a typical East German apartment would have looked like. You can do everything from sitting in a Trabant car and watching TV news reports in a typical GDR living room and also see typical GDR foods one would have bought at a supermarket.
Address: Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1
Checkpoint Charlie is one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks but on a greater tourist trap scale than say, the Brandenburg Gate. It was the name given by the Western Allies to the most well-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West during the Cold War, even though only foreigners were allowed to cross through it. It was also on occasion used for prisoner swaps (as depicted at the end in Bridge of Spies) and was also the site of an infamous showdown seen round the world between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1961. Today the area is beset with Western fast food eateries, shops selling junky souvenirs, and “actors” dressed up in Cold War military apparel that you can pose with for a few Euros. All the same, it’s a part of Berlin’s history.
Address: Friedrichstraße 43-45
I didn’t make it to the spots below. I ran out of time and energy as they’re both a bit removed from the city center but on a future trip to Berlin I would love to visit.
The Ministry for State Security or State Security Service (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD) or Stasi was the East German intelligence and secret police during the years of the GDR. It spied on millions of people during its operation, killed many of its citizens, and ruined the lives of even more. This museum tells that story, about a brutal and oppressive agency that was founded a mere five years after the end of the Second World War.
Address: Ruschestraße 103
Hohenschönhausen or “Stasi Prison” was where political prisoners of the GDR were held, tortured, and executed. It served as a detention and interrogation center for 38 years, from 1951 until the end of the GDR in 1989. Following the end of the Cold War, Hohenschönhausen first became a memorial then a museum. Some of the tours are given by former inmates.
Scary fact: During the Cold War the area around Hohenschönhausen was not marked on any East German city map.
Address: Genslerstraße 66
The thing about Germany’s horrific recent history- the country has never once tried to hide, condone, or lessen its role and complicity in the past. It has always been upfront and truthful about what went on to ensure those events from history never happen again.
Read and watch:
Books I recommend about these two historical periods:
Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fiction)
Berlin: The Downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor (Non-fiction)
Oranges for Christmas: A Berlin Wall Escape Novel by Margarita Morris (Fiction)
In the Garden of Beasts-Erik Larson (Non-fiction)
Leaving Berlin-Joseph Kanon (Fiction)
German movies and television shows I recommend about these two historical periods:
A Line of Separation (also known as Tannbach)-television show
Generation War-television show
A Woman in Berlin-movie
The Lives of Others– movie