My favourite place: Berlin

For the latest in our historical holidays series, Frank McDonough explores the dark past of a vibrant European city...

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. (Photo by Oliver Duerre/EyeEm/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Since reading William L Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a teenager I’ve been hooked on that dark period. My academic life has been fixated on its history, and research for several of my books has led me to Berlin on numerous occasions; I’m now passionate about the city.

Because of the division of Berlin during the Cold War, the city has a strange layout, with no real centre, and you can find something new each time you go.

A good starting point is the Brandenburg Gate. The famous monument suffered heavy bomb damage during the war but has been impressively restored. Nearby, important historical landmarks include the Reichstag. On 27 February 1933 it was set on fire by Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist (who may or may not have been acting alone). Now called the Bundestag, it’s the seat of the German parliament, and security is tight: you must register online before you visit. I was impressed by the viewing gallery, which offers terrific views of the city.

Nearby is the Holocaust Memorial, composed of 2,711 large concrete slabs arranged in rows. It looks like a maze, but also resembles a cemetery. I was particularly moved by the underground exhibition centre, which outlines the story of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ within an imaginative series of displays. In the Room of Dimensions, the memoirs of Holocaust victims light up beneath your feet as you walk across. They are heartbreaking.

Two minutes’ walk away, on Gertrud-Kolmar-Strasse, is the site of Hitler’s underground bunker. Badly damaged after the war, it was not even marked until 2006, and today there’s just a small information board near a car park. It’s strange that the authorities haven’t built a museum at this site to chronicle how easily a democracy can become a dictatorship, to remember a regime that was born in the Reichstag and died in the bunker.

Of particular interest when I was researching my latest book The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police was the Topography of Terror exhibition on Niederkirchnerstrasse. Once the site of Gestapo HQ, it was bombed at the end of the war. The horrific activities of the Gestapo and SS are brought out clearly here in an imaginative way.

I have also visited the German Resistance Memorial Centre on Stauffenbergstrasse many times. Concentrating on resistance groups and brave individuals who opposed Hitler’s regime, the centre is housed in the Bendlerblock, where Claus von Stauffenberg and co-conspirators planned the ‘Operation Valkyrie’ bomb attack on Hitler on 20 July 1944. A plaque marks the spot where they were executed. Two things particularly affected me when I first visited. First was the statue of a naked figure by Jacob Epstein, clearly designed to evoke the helplessness of resistance, and second a huge room with a display about the numerous people involved in the plot – it’s amazing it was not uncovered before the attack.

The Jewish Museum on Lindenstrasse is fascinating – not least the building by Daniel Libeskind, which resembles an alien spaceship. It explores German-Jewish history over the centuries, and features two especially chilling exhibits: the Memory Void – 10,000 hollowed steel faces dedicated to victims of the Holocaust – and the Holocaust Void, an empty, dark room illuminated by just a small shaft of light from the top. To me, the museum conveys a message of hope and survival, not despair.

When researching my book on the Holocaust I visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 22 miles north of Berlin, in which political and religious opponents were interned. Thousands died here from starvation, medical experiments and executions.

It’s in a bleak spot resembling a large field surrounded by deserted guard towers, but the memorial, next to the crematoria, brings home the purpose of this site. It moved me to tears.

The House of the Wannssee Conference, in a beautiful spot overlooking a lake south-west of the city centre, is moving for a different reason. It concentrates on events leading to a meeting on 20 January 1942, chaired by leading SS figure Reinhard Heydrich, at which details of the ‘Final Solution’ were agreed. It seemed amazing to me when

I first visited how divorced from the grim reality of the death camps were the people who took the decision to kill the Jews. It’s hard to escape the contrast between the room in which the Holocaust was planned and the rooms of chilling photographs of its victims.

Berlin is a wonderful city that people enjoy for many reasons, but my Berlin will always be linked to the city’s Nazi past, and its important and moving sites of remembrance.

Frank McDonough is professor of international history at Liverpool John Moores University.

Advice for travellers

Best time to go

Late spring and early autumn are ideal times to visit.

Getting there

Flights from most UK cities serve Berlin’s Tegel and Schönefeld airports.

Where to stay

I suggest staying on or near the Kurfürstandamm, the famous Berlin avenue lined with shops, restaurants and bars. I’ve stayed most often at Hotel Zoo, which is on Kurfürstandamm itself, or Hotel Bogota on Schlüterstrasse, a quiet side street.

What to pack

Buy a Berlin Welcome Card online in advance for discounts on museums and tours, plus unlimited travel on buses and trains. Buses 100 and 200 follow a circuit around the main attractions.

What to bring back

If you’ve time for shopping, you’ll find everything from high-street wares to designer brands on Kurfürstandamm.

Readers’ views

For a real sense of history, walk the route of the Wall from Checkpoint Charlie to the Holocaust Memorial @cazp53

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Book in advance for a tour inside the Bundestag – an awesome experience of the modern building shoehorned into the old one – Colin Cuthbert