Kevin Takes a Daytrip to Berlin

(Click on any of the pictures to get a larger version of that image.)

In April 2005, I took a weeklong business trip to Hamburg. On the following Saturday, I made a solo daytrip to Berlin. Since this was my seventh visit to Berlin, I'd already seen most of the "usual" tourist spots — museums, the Brandenburger Tor, the Bundestag — so I spent my time visiting some of the places I'd never quite gotten around to.

(Treptower Ehrenmal | Alexanderplatz | Potsdamer Platz | Stasi Museum)

Sowjetisches Ehrenmal Treptower Park

From 1946 to 1949, the Soviets built a gigantic memorial to the Soviet dead of World War II in Treptower Park, in southeast Berlin. I'd been here before (but hadn't taken pictures) — on my first visit, I found it almost over-the-top kitschy, but my attitude was subsequently tempered by finding out that this is not only a memorial, but a gravesite — about 5,000 Soviet soldiers are buried here.
I tried to bring Shelby here last year, but found that the site was closed due to renovations; this year, they're still doing renovation work, but have pulled their fences back so that people can walk around. There were some other tourists there, but the grounds mainly seem to be the province of joggers.
The plaque in the foreground reads: "The homeland will not forget its heroes."
These two dipped Soviet flags at the entrance are built from marble taken from the Neue Reichskanzlei (new Reichs Chancellery), built by the Nazis in 1939 and demolished by the Soviets after their invasion of Berlin.
Once you enter, spread out before you is a large plaza with a hill topped by a statue at its opposite end. Flanking the plaza on each side are sixteen massive sarcophagi (eight on one side, eight on the other); carved on each one are two scenes from the story of the war, accompanied by a quote from Stalin (on one side, the quotes are in German; on the other, they're in Russian).
The Nazis strike the Soviets at home ...
... the partisans arm themselves and defend the homeland ...
... the soldiers gather under the banner of Lenin and fight the Nazis in the field ...
... after some more panels, the soldiers come home to a grateful (and grieving) nation.
View from the other end of the memorial, towards the entrance.
Endcap quote from Stalin.
At the base of the tower is a small crypt, which had an assortment of freshly laid flowers.
Lighting the crypt — possibly one of the few places in the world where the Soviet star still shines twenty-four hours a day.
At the far end of the memorial is a hill; on top of the hill is a tower, topped by a massive statue of a Soviet soldier. In one hand, the soldier holds a sword; in the other, a German child. His boot crushes a broken swastika.


After the Ehrenmal, I went in for more of the glories of Socialism by visiting Alexanderplatz. Once a showpiece of Socialist architecture, these days it's looking more than a little down at the heels. After reunification, grand plans were made for a vast rebuilding, but those plans dissipated in the face of financial realities, and now the plaza is being renovated piecemeal.

The two showpieces of Alexanderplatz are the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and the Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock).

The Weltzeituhr is pretty self-evident; walk around it to see what time it is all around the world. (In the rightmost picture, I reconcile myself to the fact that my middle-of-the-day is about to become my one-in-the-morning once I come back to California.)

The 368-meter-high TV tower was built in the late 1960s with the help of Swedish engineers. At its top is an observation platform and a rotating cafe. I got in line to go to the top; however, after a while of waiting in a long line and not going anywhere, an announcement was made that due to "technical reasons", only thirty people could be taken to the top of the tower at a time, every ten minutes. I counted ahead to find well over an hour's worth of people in line ahead of me; I decided to bail out and spend the rest of my day elsewhere.

Potsdamer Platz

I took a break from the East with a visit to Potsdamer Platz, the white-hot center of modern Berliner capitalism. A no-mans-land during the Cold War (it was bisected by the Berlin Wall), it's now home to all manner of aggressively modern architecture.

Stasi Museum

My last planned stop of the day was at the Stasi Museum. During the life of the East German regime, the Ministry for State Security — Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or "Stasi" — kept an extensive and oppressive watch over the citizens of East Germany. Through its approximately 102,000 employees and network of 174,000 informers, the Stasi monitored the population for ideologically correct behavior, keeping files on millions. (The surveillance could be as routine as phone taps, or could be led by a sick and bizarre creativity to such extreme lengths as paying agents to seduce and marry targets for observation!) During the fall of the East German government in 1989, the Stasi's offices were 'raided' by the citizenry — but not before employees could shred vast numbers of files (which are still being reassembled, albeit now very slowly, by a government agency today). The headquarters building of the Stasi's enormous office block in Berlin is preserved as a museum and interpretive center.

An explanatory plaque placed at the corner of the Stasi complex.
The woman who sold me my ticket directed me first to the top floor, which had a series of rooms explaining the rise and fall of East Germany — and the Stasi in particular — in words and pictures. This was the most "difficult" museum I'd ever been to; not only were all of the exhibits completely in German, they were in dense German, heavily laden with the specialized vocabulary of politics and ideology. Had I not done a fair amount of reading on the events covered before my trip to the museum, I'd have been pretty lost.

Below the history floor was what most people come for — a walk through the preserved offices of Stasi higher-ups. Stop for a while and drink a coffee or Coke in the same cafeteria where once only Stasi generals sat!

Anteroom to the office of Erich Mielke, Stasi head.
Mielke's office — complete with bizarro Lenin deathmask on a corner of the desk!
One can imagine Stasi leaders settling into the armchairs at the other end of Mielke's office for some casual banter about — what?

Maybe they listened to the rockin' hi-fi concealed in that cabinet along the wall. Even given East Germany's reputation for technological backwardness, a lot of the equipment on display looked incredibly ancient and clunky, particularly for a group that was at the pinnacle of power. A docent that was leading a tour group through the offices during my visit explained it as such: "They moved into these offices in the 1950s. Then the same group of old men held power all the way until the fall in 1989 — and they didn't redecorate once in forty years.

Mielke's private rooms, behind his office.
Conference room, with a map of East Germany on the wall.
Below the office floor was another floor of displays — one set of rooms showing some of the ways that the Stasi spied on people, and another set of rooms packed with Stasi kitch.
A buttonhole camera.
A scent jar — the scents of various persons of interest were collected onto fabric swabs and then sealed in glass jars, available just in case they were ever needed to track someone down, or to attempt to verify a particular person's presence at an illicit meeting.
Stasi tropies, beer steins, wall plaques, and latchhook rugs.
This page last modified on Wednesday, May 11, 2005
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