4. Over the bridge

OK, just like the Soviet troops you are now over the bridge. If you are a young Soviet soldier you will not pause to pen a quick “Hey Mum! I’ve reached the Reichstag!” postcard because you will have come under fire from the heavy Flak guns (128 mm, from memory) on the Zoo flak towers which are around two kilometres away and are largely manned by Hitler youth.

Berlin, Flakturm am Zoo

Photo source: Bundesarchiv Bild

You won’t get far because the area directly in front of the Reichstag is a building site(!). Speer had diverted part of the Spree river so some of the area in front of the Reichstag was flooded and the Siegessaule (see photo below) had been moved. Here is a photo of the Reichstag when it was new and pretty (1880) although it’s worth remembering that Kaiser Wilhelm II hated the building, probably because he wasn’t keen on that whole democracy thing and the words above the door (“Dem Deutschen Volk” – “For the German People”) would have reminded him that he had to share the train set. Hitler didn’t think it was much chop either, probably for the same reason.

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The photo above (Library of Congress) will give you some idea of distances. The red arrow is the Reichstag (well, derrr…) the blue arrow is the Brandenburg Gate (a couple of hundred metres away). the green arrow is the Siegessaule (now moved to the Strasse des 17th Juni) and the black arrow is the approximate site of the New Reich Chancellery, about three city blocks away. The Russians apparently believed that Hitler was hiding out in the Reichstag (where else?) but he was in fact in the Fuhrer Bunker in the grounds of the New Reich Chancellery, amusing himself by having his brother-in-law-to-be shot. Hitler would be dead within 48 hours of the Russians crossing the Moltke Bridge.

So you’re standing looking at the Reichstag. Here is a map, courtesy of Tumblr, showing your journey so far (in red). take note of the building indicated by the blue arrow. It will be on your left. This was – and still is – the Swiss Legation and is interesting because it is the only building, AFAIK, from the embassy quarter which is still standing although it’s a fair bet that they had the renovators in sometime after 1945.

Journey so far 1

Notice also in the period photo, the black mass (not the Johnny Depp one) where the red line ends. This is a large pool created by Speer when he had the Spree river diverted so he could remodel Berlin after his master’s tastes. Unbelievable that the Nazis were still building such things that late in the war, especially when they could be blown down/up by nightly air raids. This is what the Swiss Legation building looks like today. The Moltke Bridge is in the background. I haven’t actually been in the Swiss Legation but I hope it has multiple Toblerone vending machines.

Swiss

And this is what the area looked like before all the stupidity that destroyed so much of Berlin and other beautiful European cities. The Swiss Legation would be on the left, just behind the buildings on the left on the other side of the bridge. Today, all of the visible buildings – except the Reichstag – lining the far side of the river are gone. The Soviets had a bugger of a job clearing the buildings on the right-hand side of the road as they were infested with carefully dug-in and positioned defenders who weren’t keen to call it a day just yet. The triangular shaped building on the right was the Ministry of the Interior but for reasons known only to themselves, AFAIK, the Soviets called it Himmler’s House. The Soviets could not assault the Reichstag until these buildings had been cleared and the assault groups often had to blast holes in walls to move from building to building to winkle out the defending troops.

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The source for the above photo is Moltkerbrücke Generalsgebäude por janwillemsen, en Flickr and if you want to see a large and wonderful collection of pre-war photos of Berlin I suggest you either Google janwillemsen (as I did) or you can find most of them (and others) at http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=196145&page=71

Whether you have chosen to cross the pissy little bridge on the left (and are now regretting my warning about serial pests) or the much more interesting Moltke Bridge, this is your path to the Reichstag:

PLB

Suck eggs if you’ve got one of those suitcases with the little wheels. They will get stuck in the sand. Trust me.

If you half turn to the right you will see a nice view of the Moltke Bridge and the Siegessaule which I am only including because I like the photo:

MBP4

It has just occurred to me that if we keep stopping to look at the history of Berlin on the way to our accommodation, we will never get there and those who flew in and whom we left having a beer in Potsdamer Platz will be as full as a bull’s bum. So next post we move straight onto organising our accommodation and searching the gutters of Potsdamer Platz for those who flew in.

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5. Before we continue …

If you are that strange type of person who likes to prepare themselves before a trip – and believe me there are such people, you know the type: they make their beds each morning, polish their shoes and eat all their vegies  – you might like to use the following sites/resources to add detail to this rambling travelogue. BTW, I am doing this pretty much from memory and am not checking details on Google so maybe you should.

First up, for my money the best site on the Internet for this type of thing is Geoff Walden’s  http://www.thirdreichruins.com/

Geoff’s site is the duck’s guts for checking out existing sites in Germany generally and Berlin in particular although his specialty unless I’m mistaken is the Berchtesgaden/Obersalzberg area. If you plan on visiting the Berghof a smart person of non-specified gender would be mad not to buy Geoff’s

https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Hitler_s_Berchtesgaden.html?id=4B1pmgEACAAJ&source=kp_cover&redir_esc=y

I did and didn’t get lost once.

Another great site for the history of Berlin is http://forum.axishistory.com/.

Axis History Forum is mainly concerned with World War 2 history and it does attract – as well as the occasional ratbag – large numbers of very knowledgeable experts on a wide range of topics. Word of warning however: be careful if you decide to sign up and post something. Some of these anoraks will go berserk and bombard you with indignant posts if you get the number or type of buttons on Hitler’s coat wrong, for example.

This site is also very useful: http://www.tracesofevil.com/ and like Geoff’s site, covers Germany in general.

I recommend the above sites because they do not tolerate neoNazi or racist posts and are concerned – as we are – purely with the history of any given place.

Finally, if you haven’t done so you should watch “Downfall” – one of many films which document the last days of Hitler in the Fuhrerbunker but, IMO, “Downfall” is the best (although the one with Anthony Hopkins in it is good too). Watch it in German if you want to show off in front of your friends. Just pretend you can follow the dialogue because here’s a tip – he dies in the end. “Bridge of Spies” has some nice reconstructions of Cold War Berlin too. Surprisingly, IMO, so does the 2015 “The Man From Uncle” movie, at least the first half hour or so does.

Far too much reading so far and far too few pictures. For anyone who’s persevered to this point, here are three photos intended to pique your interest in visiting Berlin. All three were taken in Berlin – by me – and I will explain their significance in subsequent posts:

Bunny

BW1

Elvis

 

 

 

 

3. Moltke Bridge

Berlin_Lehrter_Bahnhof_um_1900 W2                                                                                                                                   Photo credit: Wikipedia

This (above) is what the bridge you are now standing on looked like around 1900. The Lehrter Bahnhof (square building with arches, centre) is now the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and you have just come from it. The Lehrter Bahnhof  was destroyed during the Second World War.NG373Take a close look at the delicate tracery of the bridge. It won’t last.

Now why are you on this bridge and why is it historically important?

Answer: because this is the bridge the Soviets had to cross to attack the Reichstag.

Now walk across the bridge and look across to the Reichstag. You now have the same view as the Russians did after fighting their way pretty much all the way from Moscow, the difference being that now with all the cleaning up and rebuilding you wouldn’t know that a titanic struggle had taken place where you are now standing. This famous photo (below) shows the Russian tanks having just crossed the Moltke Bridge:

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This is the same spot today:

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This is the view the Russians would have had – more or less – minus the smoke, debris, fires and shattered buildings:

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So near. Four hundred metres in fact. It would take them roughly two days to cross those 400 metres. See the stone griffin next to the grey-haired woman with the shoulder bag? These griffins are – not surprisingly – reproductions. The Germans take old photos of the originals, 3D scan them and then laser cut copies. The result is near perfect reproductions and this happens not only with statues but with some parts of buildings. The reason that some of the original statues on the roof of the Reichstag have not been reproduced is, I believe, because they were not solid. There are a number of (reproduced) stone figures around the roof edge of the Reichstag but the originals were stone or something similar.

The missing equestrian statues on top of the Reichstag (see next post) – which appear to be solid bronze castings – were in fact copper sheeting over a metal frame. See here: http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=188004

So the Germans are putting almost everything back to the way it looked prewar. So what I hear you ask? Well it seems to me a shame that there is nothing to mark the deaths of so many thousands of young people not so long ago. If it takes a Russian army two days to cross 400 metres, you should be able to imagine the ferocity of the fighting. If you can’t,  consider this: the Germans blew the Moltke Bridge in April of 1945. One span partially collapsed but the Russians were able to force a crossing. Here is a photo I took – coincidentally from almost the same spot as the second (colour) photo above (the one with the three young girls in it):

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This photo was taken around 1977/8 (the white sign indicates the end of the British sector – the Berlin Wall was around 250 metres to the right). Notice the damage (red arrows) still existing in 1977 from a battle fought thirty plus years before: the balustrade is completely gone as is the lamppost base above the white sign. And this was in the British (i.e. Western sector).

Now, how savage was the fighting? You will have noticed a red circle to the left in the photo of the Russian tanks. That circle indicates the remains of one of the griffins. Possibly this one:

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And here he is in closeup:

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Remember: he is real. He was there for just over fifty years when important things happened. His replacements are Johnny-Come-Latelies. Here are some more shots of the same griffin:

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repaired 2re2