Category: Germany

Yes, we agree: this was the world’s worst car

German engineering has produced some great cars. The Trabant certainly wasn’t one of them.

Yet, 26 years after the last East German people’s car was made, history has indeed been kind to the Trabi.

Despite being regarded as a symbol of the defunct East Germany and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in general, the Trabi ironically, has been resurrected as a tourist attraction.

Trabi safari

During our last visit to Berlin, we found a parking lot full of the small, two-door vehicles just a few blocks from our hotel at Checkpoint Charlie.

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Courtesy Wikimedia and Immanuel Giel
It was ‘Trabi World’, one of several such businesses where you can pay to drive your own Trabant around the vibrant German capital.

We weren’t tempted to get behind the wheel, but we still wandered in to take a close look at what Time Magazine once described as “the car that gave Communism a bad name”.

We’d heard how the Trabant was made of duroplast, a fibreglass-like material similar to Bakelite; lacked brake lights and turn signals; was slow, noisy and uncomfortable; and belched black smoke from its two-cylinder, 26-horse power engine.

Like your average lawn mower, the Trabi engine needed a mixture of oil and petrol to run, requiring service stations to sell already-mixed fuel.

And what is duroplast anyway?

Duroplast was made from recycled cotton waste from the Soviet Union and phenol resins from the East German dye industry.

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And, although the less-than-affectionate nickname of ‘spark plug with a roof’ seemed to be fairly accurate, when we visited Trabi World, there was still quite a line-up of people keen to experience a drive in the vehicle.

A Berliner later told us that the popularity of the Trabi safaris seemed, in part, to reflect “Ostalgie” or nostalgia for elements of the old East German society and culture.

Although the Trabi was an object of ridicule for many in today’s Germany, curiosity and nostalgia had resulted in it achieving a measure of cult status.

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Courtesy Flickr and SuperTank17
As we watched Trabi safaris splutter by over the next few days, our walking guide reminded us that, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the car was the height of luxury for East Germans.

Worth the wait?

A Trabi cost up to one year’s salary and there was a waiting period of 12 months after you ordered and paid for it.

There’s a story in Berlin about one East German man who ordered his Trabi and was given a delivery date exactly one year later.

He stunned the manufacturers by asking whether his car would be delivered in the morning or afternoon.

“It’s important” he said “because the plumber is coming that morning”.

Apparently, that was life in East Germany.

Main photo courtesy Wikimedia and Hadanos

Berlin’s building boom

Despite a construction boom; remnants of Eastern bloc regulation; high levels of public housing; and heavy World War II bombing, Berlin still boasts some wonderful architecture well worth seeing.

Wandering through Berlin, it’s easy to see how the appearance of the city today is largely a direct result of the tumultuous role it played in 20th Century Germany.

The other key influence is an astonishing building boom that, for the past few years, has produced a skyline of cranes and literally thousands of construction sites across the city.

Despite all this, Berlin still has some remarkable architecture and incredible attractions.

Here are some of our favourites:

Brandenburg Gate

An iconic landmark of Berlin and Germany, the Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical triumphal arch that stands in the western edge of the city centre in the Mitte borough.

It marks an historic gateway to Berlin.IMG_0002

Altes Museum

Berlin’s oldest museum is located in the UNESCO-listed heritage site known as Museum Island.

It was built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel – Prussia’s most influential architect – and houses the city’s Classical Antiquities collection.

Completed in 1830, the Altes Museum is one of the most important buildings of the Neoclassical era. An inscription on the striking building reads: ‘Friedrich Wilhelm III has dedicated this museum to the study of all antiquities and the free arts, 1828’.IMG_0036

Humboldt University

One of Berlin’s oldest universities, this prestigious institution was founded on 15 October 1810[5] as the University of Berlin by the liberal Prussian educational reformer and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt

The university has produced 29 nobel prize winners.

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Berliner Dom

Berlin Cathedral is located on Museum Island. Sitting in he River Spree, the island houses five museums built between 1830 and 1930 and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

The Cathedral was finished in 1905, but its eye-catching dome was all but destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.

It is an impressive building and a ‘must-see’ on any visit to the German capital.

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Berlin State Opera

Berlin State Opera is on the Unter den Linden boulevard in the Mitte borough. Construction of the original building on the site began in July 1741.

On August 18, 1843 the building was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt only to be badly damaged again in the Second World War.IMG_0320

This a sample only of Berlin’s architectural attractions.

Visitors to this vibrant city would be wise to also spend time at the Reichstag building; Charlottenburg Palace; the Fernsehturm (TV tower), at Alexanderplatz in Mitte; Alexanderplatz in general; and the city’s many fine museums and memorials.

The story of the Candy Bomber

On a past visit to Germany, we were intrigued by an unusual Christmas decoration.

Small multicoloured parachutes with a gift suspended below each seemed to be a key part of festive displays – especially in the eastern areas of Berlin.

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Asked about the meaning of the decoration, Berliners told us a fascinating story that harked back to the Soviet blockade of the city during the Cold War.

Apparently, a young American pilot, who was airlifting supplies into blockaded Berlin, was touched by the plight of local children and started to drop candy from his plane as it descended to land.

Fashioning small parachutes, he and his crew sent them floating down as they approached the Berlin airport, wiggling the wings of their plane as a signal to the children that their anticipated cargo would soon arrive.

Uncle Wiggly Wings

The pilot became known by thousands of children in Berlin as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” or “The Candy Bomber.”

Word soon spread, and donations of candy and other supplies poured in from sympathetic Americans.

In this way, a small idea became a great symbol of hope not only to German children in a bombed-out city, but to all those who yearned for freedom.

And that inspiring story also spawned a range of gifts and one of the world’s more unusual Christmas traditions

This black and white photograph, which is in the public domain, shows a U.S. Air Force Douglas C-54 Skymaster making a candy drop (note the parachutes below the tail of the C-54) in about 1948.

 

A bizarre tale of ‘funny money’

While travelling in Germany, we came across a fascinating  story of war, espionage and ‘funny money’

Although the true crime tale of the biggest counterfeiting operation in history had been revealed many times in the past, it was new to us.

And, as far as gripping stories go, this one sure has it all.

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While  in Berlin, we decided to travel by train to the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in eastern Germany.

Unknown to us, this house of horrors – at the town of Oranienburg, in the Brandenburg region – was the centre of a Nazi plan aimed at bringing down the world’s financial system.

Along with ovens, gas chambers and mass graves, we heard of Block 19, where the Nazis carried out ‘Operation Bernhard’  a clandestine exercise to  print hundreds of millions of British pounds.

The idea was to drop the counterfeit money by plane over English cities and towns, causing a loss of confidence in the British currency.

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Major Bernhard Krueger apparently found forgers in Jewish death camps and set them to work at Sachsenhausen to copy British pounds – and some US dollar bills.

We were told that, from 1942 to 1945,  a total of 132 million pound notes were forged at Sachsenhausen – more than the Bank of England held in its vaults.

Instead of using a fast-dwindling air force to distribute the money, the Nazis eventually used the fakes to finance their own espionage services.

So many counterfeit pounds swamped the black markets of Europe that suspicion was cast on real British currency, which then fell in value.

However, the British averted a financial collapse by hitting back with a blockade on bringing pounds into the country.

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Not surprisingly, the story of Operation Bernhard and the Sachsenhausen forgery ring has made its way into several books – and even an award-winning film, ‘The Counterfeiters’.

It was an offbeat and far-reaching chapter of World War II – and one that kept us engrossed as we toured a chilling and sobering place.

 

 

 

The reality of the Wall is becoming blurry

It’s one the most potent symbols of the 20th century – but more than 27 years have passed since the Berlin Wall ceased to exist.

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Each anniversary,  television shows those unforgettable images from Berlin in 1989; thousands swarming over the wall; massive traffic jams as blocked roads were re-opened; and the bewildered look of the East German guards.

However, the reality is that, on the ground in the German capital, little remains of the Wall that was, for 40 years, the world’s most prominent symbol of division between capitalism and communism.

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We’ve walked the streets of Berlin’s east; stayed at the notorious Checkpoint Charlie district; and spent time listening to the stories of the Wall and life in its shadow.

Some chunks of remaining concrete Wall are obvious, not the least because of the still colourful graffiti and murals painted on the western side.

There is also a specialist Wall museum – and replica guard huts at Checkpoint Charlie.

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But, at the same time, much of the wall’s path has now been incorporated into more recent architecture  – and you need to look for lines of bricks across roadways and footpaths to get an idea where other parts of the barrier once stood.

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This is understandable, as life in a huge modern city like Berlin moves ever onward.

But the enormous significance of the Wall and the events that surrounded it should be adequately marked, if only as a lesson of history.

Imagine, if you can, the feelings of people on both sides of Berlin when they awoke on August 13, 1961 to see a structure effectively dividing the city in half, with work to erect a more permanent division in full. In some cases, families were separated by the barrier – and resorted to shouting messages through barbed wire.

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We were told that, by 1989, the Wall ran for 155 kilometres, contained 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs and 20 bunkers – all guarded by more than 11,000 soldiers.

The so-called ‘Death Strip’ varied from 30 to 150 metres; was floodlit; and contained lines of signal wire, barbed wire, a bed of nails and raked sand bunkers.

About 5,000 people are thought to have escaped through the Berlin Wall during its existence, out of an estimated 10,000 who tried.

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In Berlin, they tell some wonderful escape stories – and some that certainly didn’t have a happy ending.

Our favourite, however, was the tale of Austrian lathe operator, Heinz Meixner, who must have cut a strange sight when he pulled into Checkpoint Charlie in his red Austin Healey Sprite convertible sports car, on May 5, 1963.

The car’s windscreen was missing and its tyres were half-flat.

Heinz knew that the barrier at the checkpoint was three-foot high – and, without a windscreen, his car was a few inches lowe than that. So, when an East German guard directed Meixner to pull over to a customs shed, Heinz instead floored the accelerator and ducked.

The convertible slipped under the barrier and sped into the capitalist West, complete with the driver’s girl friend lying between the seats and mother in the boot.

As the physical scars of the Wall and its 40 year stand-off fade amid passing generations, these type of stories are part of a priceless social history that we should never allow to be lost.

The Berlin Wall largely became ineffective early in 1989, when Hungary opened its borders with Austria amid the collapse of the communist Iron Curtain.

Astonishingly, the days of the Wall were numbered. And the rest, as they say ……….

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The German capital is truly a remarkable city that played a huge role in the tumultuous 20th Century.

We recommend spending time  in the eastern suburbs and searching out the relics of the Wall. It is as rewarding as visiting the many structures that mark the city’s earlier history of Nazism and two world wars.

The memorial that leaves you disoriented and apprehensive

It’s unsettling and confronting – but something that everyone should see.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has marked its 11th year in Berlin, Germany.

And, as we discovered first hand,  it continues to be remarkably thought-provoking.

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Photo by Szczebrzeszynski. Author=[http://www.flickr.com/people/10069045@

Located just south of the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, as it is sometimes called,  spreads over 205,000 square feet – about the size of two football fields.

Visitors come face-to-face with 2,711 grey concrete slabs, or stelae, designed to look rather like huge coffins.

The slabs vary in height from about eight inches tall to 15 feet and are arranged in long, straight, narrow alleys.

On entering, you are carried down a maze of slabs that become higher and higher as you walk.

The ground is uneven and other visitors are soon cut off from your view. An eerie claustrophobia sets in and you feel almost alone and lost – giving visitors an idea of the unsettled, isolated and fearful life of Europe’s Jews before and during World War II.

445px-Holocaust_memorial_BerlinMémorial des victimes de l’Holocauste à Berlin, en Allemagne Auteur:Colocho

We arrived at the memorial  as the sun set over Berlin – and the shadows only heightened the sense of disorientation.  and apprehension.

There’s no doubt about it: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is thought-provoking and pointed.

While many memorials – and Berlin has plenty of them – are cause for reflection, this one deliberately lacks subtlety in its message – something that is exactly in keeping with the enormity of the subject matter.

While in Berlin, we debated the accuracy of one description of the German capital as a “nice place with an awful history”.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built as a sign of how the city and its people are effectively and unflinchingly facing up to that past.

The memorial can be visited at anytime – night or day. A subterranean Information Center, located at the base of the memorial, offers stories of families and individuals and provides additional information about the design and construction of the memorial. The Information Center is open from 10 am until 8 pm.