Berlin’s Nazi Past, Hidden in Plain Sight
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine.
Since I moved to Berlin almost two years ago, this gritty, sprawling metropolis, once slated to be the capital of a thousand-year Reich, has seldom disappointed me. As a professional photographer, there is always something for me to explore. Reminders of Berlin’s turbulent twentieth century—some memorialized, some “forgotten,” others in everyday use—are scattered across the city. For Berlin, the past is a complex issue.
Like many Berliners, I pedal around on my bicycle, seldom using public transport. Bike lanes and courteous traffic in this almost dead-flat city make cycling a healthy pleasure. Most days, loaded up with my bulky camera and hefty tripod, I set out somewhere.
My camera is one of those large, old-fashioned wooden affairs that takes four-by-five-inch plates; one of my lenses was made by the Goerz firm in Berlin before the war. As I struggle to focus the image on my camera’s ground-glass viewing screen, I’m often approached by normally reticent Germans, curious about my antics. Usually, they tell me an interesting anecdote. “Did you know that the French tried to blow this up three times and failed?” My German slowly improves.
After twelve years of Nazi rule much of central Berlin was reduced to rubble. Following sixty thousand tons of Allied bombs, the Red Army unleashed a furious artillery barrage during its final assault on the city. Soviet colonel-general Nikolai Berzarin claimed, “We fired forty thousand tons of shells in two weeks!”
But most Nazi buildings in central Berlin, because of their modern construction, survived. Now squeezed between swaths of gleaming contemporary architecture, their austere façades, redolent with power, are easily recognizable. Many, like Hermann Göring’s Wilhelmstrasse aviation ministry and the Reichsbank, which sprawls along the Spree canal, are immaculately restored (though stripped of Nazi motifs) and used by contemporary German ministries.
There are also vacant lots. I often cycle along Voss Strasse, where Hitler’s chancellery and bunker once stood, to look at what is perhaps Berlin’s most unsettled Nazi site. Below an overgrown car park is the section of the bunker used by Hitler’s SS guard. For decades it lay, almost forgot ten, below the wide expanse of the Berlin Wall Death Strip—the no man’s land that lay between East Berliners and escape over the wall. Rediscovered after reunification, it was again buried and ignored, lest it become a neo-Nazi shrine. Lately, I found what seemed to be a makeshift hutch with rabbits burrowing into the ground.
One of my favorite bike rides is up the gentle slope of Prenzlauer Allee leading from Alexanderplatz to Prenzlauer Berg. A former working-class neighborhood, tree-lined Prenzlauer Berg is now gentrified with boutiques and cafés. But it is also the site of one of Germany’s first concentration camps: within weeks of the Nazis taking power in 1933, Berlin’s prisons overflowed and a system of ad hoc “wild” camps was established around the city to incarcerate opponents. One was set up in Prenzlauer Berg’s beautiful and disused nineteenth-century water tower—now a converted apartment building.
The camp system grew quickly. The nearest camp to Berlin is Sachsenhausen, established in Oranienburg in 1936. Just north of Berlin and accessible today by S-Bahn, Oranienburg was the administrative headquarters for an eventual system of ten thousand SS camps that spread across Nazi Europe. Sachsenhausen was the training center. Passing the cruelly sardonic epigraph Arbeit Macht Frei—“Work Brings Freedom”—wrought into the camp’s main iron gate, the visitor is con fronted by a huge concrete roller that prisoners would haul across the parade ground while being whipped, often to death, by SS guards.
The brutality of the Nazi party was not reserved solely for its opponents. To consolidate his power, Hitler turned against the SA, the Nazis’ private army of enforcers and a would-be rival of the Wehrmacht. On June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives, SA leader Ernst Röhm and his entourage were arrested outside Munich. Röhm was shot a few days later. The bloodletting swept across Germany.
Outside Berlin, in the leafy yard of Lichterfelde Barracks—headquarters of the Leibstandarte SS, Hitler’s bodyguard regiment—dozens of SA men were rounded up and shot on Göring’s orders. I got lost trying to find this grimly famous spot and was at one point barked away by a gruff guard when I mistakenly approached the building next door. I finally found the right place; the old red brick barracks building now holds Germany’s vast Nazi archives.
Hitler, the frustrated artist, had since the 1920s made sketches of his vision for Germania, the capital of the thousand year Reich that would replace Berlin. Some years before, Hitler had befriended architect Albert Speer. Speer became Hitler’s architectural avatar and a powerful member of his inner circle. Together they worked assiduously on the plans for Germania. From near Tempelhof Airport, a skyscraper-lined avenue would pass under a 381-foot-high arch and then lead to a 951-foot-high hall where Hitler could address 150,000 people. It was sheer mega lomaniacal folly that stripped resources from the war effort and was abandoned in 1942. Not far from Tempelhof, barely visible behind a high fence and dense thicket, is all that remains of Germania: the Heavy Load-Bearing Body, a 12,650- ton cylinder of concrete used to test the arch foundations.
But there are small and eerie remnants of unconcealed Nazi triumphalism that one stumbles across here and there. Outside of Tempelhof today stands a massive bronze Nazi eagle which towered above the departures hall when the airport was completed in 1940. Taken to West Point in 1960, the eagle was quietly returned in 1985 and placed in its current location. (Tempelhof, now little used, is threatened with closure. On a recent visit I suspected there were more tourists outside the vast building than passengers in the terminal.)
Another such reminder of Berlin’s Nazi past is the 1936 Olympic Stadium, site of Hitler’s greatest propaganda coup and still in use today—sixty-nine thousand soccer fans watched the World Cup final there in 2006. The stadium, with its granite colonnades, is still flanked by massive statues of Aryan athletes by favored Nazi party sculptors Arno Breker (especially admired by Hitler) and Josef Thorak.
Not far from the Olympic Stadium is Devil’s Mountain in Grunewald Forest; it is Berlin’s highest point, with clear views across the city from west to east. The debris from an estimated four hundred thousand buildings was dumped here after the war. Many smaller hills around Berlin are also composed of wartime rubble. On a recent visit to the ruined flak tower in Humboldthain Park, I watched rock climbers practice scaling up one of its remaining concrete walls. A hill around it was built from debris leftover from a less than-successful attempt by the Allied occupiers to blow up the massively rein forced building after the war.
Along with much of Berlin’s past, its Nazi legacy still lies buried just beneath the surface.