History Trip to Berlin.
By: Emma Flanagan
On a recent senior history trip to Berlin the 5th and 6th Year students of Our Lady’s College Greenhills received a thorough education on the vast and complex past of Germany, as well as a few warnings about the future. Those of us lucky enough to have partaken in this trip will certainly not be forgetting it, and its subsequent lessons, any time soon.
On a trip to Germany, or many other continental European countries for that matter, with the intent of gaining knowledge of its history, a trip to a concentration camp that dates back to the Second World War is unfortunately unavoidable. It is a harrowing, yet somewhat necessary, experience. Our particular trip facilitated a journey to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in the town of Oranienburg, located approximately 20 miles north of the city of Berlin. As you make the 10 minute journey on foot from the town itself to the gates of the camp, the change in atmosphere is almost palpable. And from the moment you walk under the sign that, with tragic irony, declares proudly ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work makes you free), everyone immediately becomes more sombre and reserved, aware of the inhumane cruelty that this camp encapsulates and represents. Sachsenhausen, the first so-called labour camp set up by Hitler’s Nazi party, specifically the SS, was built in 1936. It essentially became the blueprint for the numerous camps that followed it. The camp was originally used for mainly political prisoners as Hitler transformed Germany into a one-party dictatorship and severely quashed any hint of opposition, or even mere criticism. Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp like the infamous Auschwitz; it was instead a camp focused on forced labour, although this would frequently give way to horrendous torture and cold-blooded murder. As the 1930s progressed more and more groups of people were brought to this camp, including homosexuals, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people of the Roma tradition and, unsurprisingly, Jews. As per the Nazis’ modus operandi, there was widespread brutality.
Upon our visit to the camp it was clear that while much of it was intact, the majority of the barracks in which the prisoners lived were no longer standing. This was due to a variety of reasons, the most prevalent of which being that, during the last few months of the war, the Nazis realised that they were being defeated on all fronts and wanted to destroy the plethora of incriminating evidence. However, two barracks remain which we visited during our trip. The interior is mostly wooden and thoroughly cramped. The experience of being in these barracks is one that it is difficult to describe. It is impossible to not feel a deep empathy for the suffering that these innocent people experienced; and this suffering is even evident in the buildings in which they resided. We saw rows upon rows of tightly packed wooden bunks which would typically have three or four people in them at any given time. There were also the relatively small washrooms when taken into account the hundreds of prisoners that were expected to use them within just half an hour every morning. And then there was the exterior of the camp: the vast and lengthy pathways where the prisoners were forced to march for hours on end until they collapsed with exhaustion under the pretence of testing shoes for the German army, and the area used for morning roll call which always took place under the intimidating watch of an SS sniper rifle. In addition to this there was also a prison which utilised regular torture, and that harrowing Nazi trademark of the gas chamber and crematorium which are now mostly worn away by the elements. However, perhaps one of the most disturbing things we discovered on our visit to Sachsenhausen was related to the modern day, not the 1940s. In the town of Oranienberg there is quite a high Neo Nazi population, some of whom have visited the camp with the intention of ridiculing, mocking and downright disrespecting the memorial to all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. When we were informed of this, it became evidently clear to us all that while history may not exactly repeat itself, if we ignore its lessons we are making a very dangerous mistake. The rise in the numbers of these kinds of people, the so-called alt-right, must be condemned and fought at every turn across Europe and the wider world.
Moving forward a couple of decades, we also paid a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum located in central Berlin. The museum marks the most well known and utilised crossing point of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, manned by Allied troops (British, French and American). Our tour guide in this museum, Rainer Schubert, provided us with a fascinating insight into life at the time of the Cold War as he himself used to frequently smuggle people from East to West Berlin and was even kidnapped by the Stasi and put in prison for nine years, experiencing awful brutality while there. While the majority of people are well aware of the extensive cruelty of the Nazis, there is less known of how people suffered in East Germany during the Cold War. This is partially due to how recent some of these events were, and also possibly because many of those involved in what many would regard as crimes are still alive and, in some cases, still influential in German society. However, we learnt much more on this particular topic when we visited the infamous Stasi Prison Hohenschönhausen at a later time. With regards to Checkpoint Charlie, we discovered a great deal about how people escaped from the repressive Communist regime of the GDR. The ingenuity involved in some of these escapes is nothing short of extraordinary. For example, our tour guide told us of one the methods he himself used to smuggle East Germans into West Germany. Along with a few friends, Schubert travelled to Prague, then part of Communist Czechoslovakia, and purchased a tiger. They put the tiger in a special cage that had a hollow part that two people could potentially hide in. Two East Germans did just that, and when attempting to cross the border back into West Germany, the guards were much too wary of the live tiger sitting in the cage to carry out very thorough checks. We heard of countless more stories of genius and escapism while at Checkpoint Charlie, from the woman who smuggled herself across the border hidden in a suitcase to the brothers who flew a small light aircraft which had a red star painted on it to avoid suspicion over the wall to collect their other brother who was trapped in East Berlin. The museum was overall totally fascinating, practically an information overload.
As a perfect follow-on from Checkpoint Charlie, on the same day we also visited the aforementioned Stasi Prison. A former kitchen for the citizens of Berlin in the dying months of the Second World War, the prison, which is located in an East Berlin suburb, was expanded and turned into perhaps the most infamous prison which the GDR used to subdue their many political opponents. Much like our trip to Sachsenhausen, this was an incredibly harrowing one. Due to the fact the prison only fully closed in 1992, after being in operation since the mid fifties, it is fully preserved, only serving to further the realism of our visit. When the prison first came into use, guards typically used traditional torture and violence to coerce inmates into confessions but, as time went on, they moved onto more psychological torture, going as far as to give guards special training from top psychiatrists and psychologists on how to get inside prisoners’ heads and exercise full control over them. And that is what we learned was the most important thing in the Stasi Prison: control. Our tour guide told us many stories that her colleagues have told her about life inside the prison as the museum employs many ex-prisoners of the Stasi. In a way this puts into perspective just how recently all this took place. These ex-prisoners have spoken of how what they experienced has had an awful and long-lasting effect on their lives. Guards did everything to emphasise how much control they had over prisoners, there were regular checks on cells every five minutes and prisoners could be reprimanded for the simplest things. There was even a certain sleeping position that all prisoners had to adhere to and if they didn’t, they would be woken by an invasive light shining into their eyes and forced to lie in this specific position yet again. One of the most difficult things we saw on our visit was an isolation cell where prisoners would sometimes be left for days on end. It was a room with a complete and utter absence of light and had walls made of a tough kind of rubber so that prisoners couldn’t hurt themselves too badly while in there. To me, the Stasi Prison was one of the places that we visited that invoked the most emotion in many of us. As we walked through the maze of corridors that unnervingly had flooring that you would expect to find in a 1970s kitchen, you almost felt yourself looking over your shoulder in case a guard was behind you. The fact that many of the people that carried out atrocities in this prison are still prevalent figures in German life today makes it all that little bit worse.
On a more uplifting note, there was also a trip to the heart of modern German democracy, the Reichstag, organised for us. The building, like the city of Berlin itself, has a rich and multi-faceted history. It was opened in 1894 and used to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire but it truly made an impact on history in 1933 when the building was set on fire, allegedly by a Dutch Communist. This was subsequentially used as an excuse by the Nazis to arrest Communists en masse and consolidate power. It is now thought that there were Nazis inside the Reichstag when the fire started, perhaps suggesting that they started it all along, which would be no surprise. In the 1990s, after reunification, the Reichstag was fully refurbished with the addition of a glass dome on top and became the home of the German parliament, the Bundestag, and today, it has 3 million visitors a year. The dome itself contains a glass base where one can look down into the parliament itself, which was unfortunately not in session during our visit, and then has a ramp that spirals up and up until the top of the dome is reached. Our visit took place at night and therefore when we reached the top of the dome, we were able to see the whole of Berlin beautifully lit up and glittering in the dark. There is even somewhere where visitors can lie down and partake in bit of stargazing through the open top of the dome which we all without a doubt availed of. The Reichstag, despite its history, represents modern Germany and how much it has changed in just a few decades.
Regardless of the brief nature of our trip, only 4 days, we managed fit in more than seemed possible; far too much to write about here and remain engaging throughout. From the Jewish Museum with its emotive art installations to the fascinating insights we gained into Nazi Germany in the Topography of Terror, every place we visited had something new for us to learn. Without a doubt I think all of us who were on the trip can agree that it couldn’t have been more worthwhile or informative. And it was a somewhat common theme among many of our tour guides to encourage us, as young people, to look at the world today and the injustices taking place, some of which may have an unnerving similarity to Nazi Germany or the GDR. The refugee crisis, the rise of the alt-right and fervent nationalism that has culminated in Donald Trump, Turkey’s uneasy slide towards authoritarianism, the way in which Vladimir Putin is running Russia which now apparently authorises concentration camps for LGBT+ people in Chechnya, unfortunately the list of worldwide injustices is still long and far-reaching. But Germany is a real life example of how, against all odds, things can change, and countries can become open, modern and progressive. It is not a perfect country, but it has come a very long way in very short space of time. And on behalf of all the students, I’d like to thank our history teachers, Ms. McGorry, Ms. Mills, Ms. Murphy and Ms. Muldoon, for allowing us to learn these very important lessons and perhaps inspiring us to try and make a difference in our own small way.