Behind the facelift
Independent, The (London), May 4, 2002 by Gabriel Fawcett
The last place on Earth you wanted to be in the spring of 1945 was in Berlin. Barely a day or night passed without an air raid. The sky had already fallen in on this city; now the ground was about to disappear under the advancing Allied armies approaching from east and west.
But it was to be the dreaded armies of the Soviet Union, much of whose population had been enslaved and brutalised by the Nazis, who were to arrive first. Berlin was the capital of the Third Reich. For six years cruelty and murder had spread out from here to engulf the continent. That April, cruelty and murder were coming home.
Today's Berlin is still marked by that catastrophic and unequal final battle. Here and there scars remain on view, despite the efforts of modern Berlin to fill the gaping spaces and cover its mutilations. Eventually there will be little left of the Berlin of April and May 1945.
At the entrance to Oranienburger Strasse in eastern Berlin, a doorway viciously disfigured by the fighting sits alongside the spanking new facades of fashionable stores. A tram rattles past. Back in 1945 the miserable Berliners were filling trams with rubble (no shortage of that) and parking them in the middle of the streets as barricades.
How long was that going to keep out the Russian tanks? "A minute," went the joke, "10 seconds for them to push past and 50 seconds for them to stop and have a good laugh."
Following the road west, and turning into Grosse Hamburger Strasse, you pass a house that was sprayed with lead from top to bottom. Someone has put up an iron frame against the wall surrounding a few of the holes; the word "Pax" is carved into the metal.
Walking south and over the river on to Museum Island, you confront columns that look as if they have been chewed on by some giant dog. The forlorn New Museum building and the streets around are so infested with bullet holes that you can almost hear the machine-gun fire as you run your eyes over them. If a patch of wall is clear, it's because it is a reconstruction.
Long after those blemishes have gone, the giant reminder behind Friedrichstrasse station will still be there. (Throughout the Cold War, this station was the railway junction between East and West.) In Reinhardtstrasse, set into a row of houses as if it were just an ordinary building, is a vast bunker. One crumbling wall reveals innards of rusting iron. This is reinforced concrete, made to take a direct hit; they'll never get rid of it. The impacts of Russian artillery are still visible. The scars that streak across the surface are shockingly violent, but barely a centimetre deep. The damage shows how the attackers resorted to trying to fire shells in through the arrow-slit windows.
A train ride away, and a short stroll down Rheinstein Strasse in suburban East Berlin, is a large yet unassuming building. But the arsenal of Russian tanks, assault guns and howitzers lined up in the garden outside are certainly extraordinary. An old plaque by the main entrance reads, in Russian and German: "Here on 8 May 1945, the unconditional surrender of fascist Germany was signed." This is the building where the war ended. Inside, the actual room where the surrender was taken has held on to the majesty of the occasion. On the walls are the original flags of the victors, which looked down on the brief ceremony; American, British, Soviet and French. A film runs in a loop showing Field Marshall Keitel shiftily adding his signature to the document.
Today this is the German-Russian Museum. The main exhibition about the war on the Eastern Front is in Russian and German only, but an accompanying English booklet gives you the idea. The maps and photos and profusion of weaponry speak for themselves anyway. How vast real guns look to people who have hardly ever seen them. Here is one of the armbands the home guard units in Berlin had to wear; "People's Storm Unit", it reads, ridiculously. In Berlin, Dad's Army really did go off to get blown to pieces.
Beside this is a German anti-tank bazooka. You cannot look at one of those things without seeing also the faltering, wrinkled hand of the grandfather who probably held it 57 years ago. Or the milk-white face of the boy who ran with it through this city's shattered streets. The German army had run out of soldiers by then, and was drafting 15- and 16-year olds. "Corn for sowing must not be milled," warned Goethe, echoed in the war by a grieving Berlin mother and grandmother, the artist Kathe Kollwitz.
Nearby are the instructions on how to use the bazookas, helpfully reprinted for a more general readership in the German national press in March 1945. Despite the illustrations showing a uniformed soldier holding the thing, the information is clearly aimed at Berlin's civilians: "Don't be afraid of enemy tanks, stay calm. And remember - the closer you get, the better your chances."
Back in central Berlin, the "Topography of Terror" exhibition on Niederkirchner Strasse stands on the exact site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Pictures on display there explain just what the Russians were avenging. Next door is the Martin-Gropius-Bau, its entrance flanked by two statues. The fighting in the war blew the limbs and heads off both of them, and they have deliberately been left like that. Inside, a shop sells postcards depicting Berlin's history, including one of a red flag being raised over the Reichstag.
Quite why Stalin chose to raise the victory flag over the Reichstag is a mystery, since this parliament building was actually the symbol of vanquished German democracy. Still, Stalin didn't know much about democracy. A huge painting in the German-Russian Museum shows idealised scenes of triumph in front of the Reichstag, painted by a Soviet artist: cheering Russian soldiers swing from the pockmarked pillars at the entrance, and dead German troops lie on the steps.
Today, tourists queue up on the Reichstag steps for an elevator ride to Norman Foster's glass dome. You can also wander on the roof, and use your postcard to locate the exact spot where the flag was raised for the immortal photograph.
On the Street of 17 June, just around the corner from the Reichstag and past an emasculated
classical statue that took a few bullets itself, is a Soviet memorial. The first two tanks to break through the German defences are mounted on plinths, with an inevitably epic-looking brass Russian soldier between them. The real memorial is further east, though, in the middle of Treptower Park. Here, a Russian mother bears her pain with a clenched fist at her chest, surrounded by weeping willows. In front of her, two giant marble-plated concrete triangles representing red flags are dipped in honour of the 5,000 soldiers buried in a vast sunken graveyard beyond, in five mass tombs topped by giant metal wreaths. Walk past them and you stand at the foot of an artificial hill where, towering above you, a Red Army soldier holds an outsize sword in one hand and a rescued child in the other, a shattered swastika under his boot. Despite the repair work that hides part of it, the intensity of conflict cannot be concealed.