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Berlin Now and Then: The Reichstag part One

Serving a similar function as the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, the Reichstag is the seat of the German Parliament and where Battle of the Reichstag Berlin 1945the German government conducts the business of running the country. Prior to German unification in 1871, there was no official,  centrally-administered German government and, as a result, no use for a building where a national Parliament could meet. Yet after unification (not to be confused with re-unification) under Emperor Wilhelm I (aka: the Prince of Grapeshot) and Otto von Bismark (aka: the Iron Chancellor), the Reichstag was built to accommodate this new need. As legend has it, following World War One, when Wilhelm II (Wilhelm’s successor) saw the added inscription Dem Deutschen Volk (To the German People), he  was not amused by the clear democratic overtones. Today the Reichstag and its glass dome is one of the most easily-identifiable landmarks in Berlin, if not Germany. The Reichstag was designed by German architect Paul Wallot and its cornerstone was laid by Wilhelm I in 1884.

The building occupied a particularly important role in the Twentieth Century. Aside from being the seat of government, in 1933 the Reichstag mysteriously caught fire. A Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was blamed and executed for starting the fire. His guilt was never really established as the event was probably a false flag operation anyway.

However the fire was quite significant as it led to the Verordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State ) more commonly known as the easy-to-pronounce Reichstag Fire Decree. With support from newly-appointed Chancelor Adolf Hitler, President Hindenburg (aka: Field Marshal “What do you Think”?) issued this decree which in effect legalized the persecution of anti-Nazi activities. In a more general sense, the fire was also used to spread fear of Communist terrorism in Germany and can be considered one of the watershed events of the rise of the Third Reich. You can also read about the Enabling Act to learn more about how NSADP used legal measure to take control of Germany by allowing Hitler’s party to rule by decree.

Due to its significance, understandably the Soviet Red Army viewed the Reichstag as the “Lair of the Fascist Beast” and the building became not only the living symbol of Nazism, but the top military target in Germany as well. At the same time, the Reichstag, with its thick stone walls and deep cellar, became the location of the Third Reich’s last stand. You could say that, quite literally, the Second World War in Europe ended on the stairs of the Reichstag.

Berlin before and after Battle of berlin Reichstag Martin  88mm

A wrecked German 88mm gun shows the intensity of fighting that took place on the lawn in front of the Reichstag.

Berlin before and after Reichstag Martin Bike

Damage to the Reichstag’s dome can be clearly seen, as well as an incredibly good-looking chap on a very sweet bike

Berlin before and after battle of Berlin Reichstag Tank

Here a line of Soviet tanks cruise down Ebertstrasse just behind the Reichstag

While Hitler sat in his bunker under the Reich Chancellory building, elements of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army crossed the bridges over the Spree and came within gunfire range of the Reichstag at the end of April 1945. Within the Reichstag itself, remnants of the German army fought a battle battle to the very last man in the cellars of the Reichstag.

Stalin himslef set a deadline for the taking of the Reichstag: May 1st, May Day, the Communist version of the Fourth of July. The event was recreated for the photographers and you can  see a newsreel  of members of the 150th Rifle Division (Alexai Berest, Mikhail Yegorov and Meliton Kantaria) erecting the Russian Victory Banner over the Reichstag on May 8, 1945. The photo of the event is quite similar in significance to the Joe Rosenthal picture of Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima.

Berlin before and after Soviet Soldiers Assaulting Reichstag battle of berlin

A squad of Red Army soldiers rush the Reichstag carrying a Russian flag. Probably a propaganda shot taken after the fighting had ended.

Berlin before and after Reichstag Russian Soldiers from right

A mixed group of Red Army soldiers, officers and officials pose for a photo before the shattered Reichstag

Berlin before and after Reichstag Stairs

Damage to the stairs and columns of the Reichstag

Berlin before and after Reichstag Russin Soldiers from left

A group of Red Army officers pose for a photo in front of the Reichstag.

Berlin before and after Reichstag German Soldier

A German soldiers, perhaps a member of the Volksturm, awaits his fate


February 4, 2013 Posted by | Berlin Now and Then | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Berlin Now and Then: Brandenburg Gate vol. 1

The Brandenburg Gate-vol. 1

The Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) is to many the very symbol of Berlin. Originally part of Berlin’s Customs Walls,  (a testament to Germany’s love of taxes) the Brandenburg Gate was built around 1780s and was on the outskirts of the city but today the Brandenburg Gate is located at the very center of Berlin. You can find it on Pariser Platz, just minutes walk from the Siegesaule, Jewish Memorial, Reichstag, Tiergarten and some of the larger embassies.

Victoria, the Roman winged goddess of victory driving a chariot pulled by four horses sits atop the gate. This arrangement is called a quadriga and can be found all across the world, most notably at St Marks. Interestingly enough, after Napoleon defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806,  he took it back to Paris with him. But the quadriga was returned to Berlin in 1814 after the Prussians returned the favor by occupying Paris towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1945, during the Battle of Berlin which brought the war in Europe to an end, this central area saw some of the heaviest fighting of the entire war. Amazingly the Brandenburg Gate survived. Since then it has held an important place international politics. The Berlin Wall ran directly in front of the Gate, isolating the it from West Germany. Later, in 1987, President Reagan gave his famous “Mr Gorbachev Tear down this wall speech and  President Bill Clinton spoke there as well in 1994.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate Tiger Tank

A smashed Tiger 1 near the Brandenburg Gate. This was the picture that started this project.

This first picture, was the photograph that inspired me to work on this project. I took it a few days after arriving to Berlin on a cold February day in 2010. I hope you can enjoy these photos as much as I did making them. Here, after the Battle of Berlin has ended, you see what appears to be a disabled German Tiger I tank and just beyond it, the Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate Refugees

A military field hospital within sight of the Brandenburg Gate

According the German Archives, this is a field hospital for wounded soldiers. Nurses mill around as a medic dispenses what little medical attention that was available at the time. In all, some 100,000 German soldiers died defending their capital. You can add another 22,000 civilians to that number (or 100,000 depending on how you like to count). Today, the areas is full of tourist and constantly under heavy construction. In the last two years of the war, the Allied dropped some 65,000 tons of bombs on Berlin. In 2012,  undetonated bombs are still being found. Authorities estimate as many as 3,000 bombs still lay buried under the streets of Berlin.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 Refugees

Tending to the wounded on Unter den Linden

If the Allies dropped 565,000 tons of bombs on Berlin in two years, the Soviets sent 40,000 tons of explosives into Berlin in the two weeks preceding the Battle of Berlin.  This photo is perhaps of the same field hospital shown above. To the left of the photo you have the Kunst Academy and the US Embassy. Both closed long before the Battle of Berlin began.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 Truck Pariser Platz

A destroyed truck lies on Pariser Platz following the Battle of Berlin

Here a truck lies ruined in front of the Brandenburg Gate. In a war filled with worst-case-scenarios, the Battle of Berlin was exceptionally harsh. The gloves had come off years before, but the ferocity of fighting saw few parallels. I walk the very streets that were a literally a battleground two generations ago. I work about 100 yards from where the Reich Chancellory was, its difficult to conceive with any accuracy what violence occurred just in sight of the window I look out of daily.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 T-34

The crew of a Soviet T-34 tank consider take in their surroundings

When the  Red Army  descended upon the German capital for the Battle of Berlin, the outcome was never in question. As the story goes, the Soviet army consisted largely of peasants, many of which had lived their whole lives on collective farms. They had never seen a city like Berlin before. Astounded by the technology, stories exist of some of the soldiers removing the lightbulbs and shipping them back to their villages, unaware that they required electricity to run. Here, a T-34 tank crew, just three of the two and a half million Red Army soldiers, chat in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 T34

A Russian tank with some primitive anti-armor

The Panzerfaust (armored fist) was the German Army’s answer to the T-34, this cheap, easy to use and extremely effective anti-tank weapon was distributed widely to Berliners before the Battle of Berlin. Berlin defenders learned quickly that the Soviet tanks could not raise their guns high enough to hit a building’s upper stories, so they learned to attack from above  with the Panzerfaust. At the same time, the narrow, rubble-choked streets also made the lumbering Soviet tanks easy targets. Urban warfare has always put the advantage to the defender, making a tank easy prey to an ambush. As a result, Red Army tank crews commandeered steel mattress springs and welded them to the sides of their tanks. These structures served as rudimentary anti-armor armor, detonating Panzerfaust shells inched before the hitting the hulls of the tanks. The concept is still in use in many modern militaries.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 POW

German prisoners of war being marched into captivity

Here German Prisoners of War are marched past the Brandenburg Gate.  Following the Battle of Berlin specifically, the Red Army rounded up any man in a uniform and marched them East. That isn’t any in a military uniform, its anyone in a uniform, fireman, rail workers, postal carriers, police officers….180,000 from Berlin alone. Nearly all went to hellish condition in Russian mines, factories, farms or camps. Few ever returned. I find it particularly saddening that, even after the war ends, the suffering did not. According to some estimates, in 1945 alone 600,000 Germans were shipped to Russia to be used as labor, half lived.  I’d like to think that after such a horrific war ended, folks would be quick to end the  suffering. But, I suppose that’s not the way it works.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate World War 2 Red Army

No doubt fulfilling a pledge, Red Army soldiers dance for joy in front of the Brandenburg Gate at war’s end

Happy to be alive, these Red Army soldiers dance for joy in front of the Brandenburg gate.  And, well,  who the hell can blame them? Heres a video of some traditional Russian dancing.

The Nazis pressed some 400,000 elderly men, children and infirm into service in preparation of the Battle of Berlin. Known as the Volkssturm, (people’s storm or people’s army), many fought bravely but were obviously  largely ineffective militarily. Here an aged Volkssturm soldier watches a column of victorious Red Army soldiers and Josef Stalin tanks march through his nation’s capital. This man looks about sixty, so he probably fought in both World Wars. I imagine losing never gets easier. Regardless, another who’s luck seems to have carried him through the war with  life intact.

Berlin Now and Then Battle of Berlin Brandenburg Gate Black Market

“(Cigarette)Butts are legal tender in the economic system that prevails in Berlin”

After the Battle of Berlin ended, the nation was in economic ruins. Rations, restrictions were universal and luxuries non-exixtant. The UK did not go off od rationing until  1954, nearly ten years after the war! Gate became an epicenter of the black market. With basic services gone, supplies non-existent and money worthless, a barter economy emerged, one which the Allied soldiers took advantage of.  Here is an excellent article talking about postwar Berlin.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | Berlin Now and Then | , , , | Leave a comment