This turned out to be a very good museum indeed which deals in general with the war years but specifically with the 1944 Warsaw uprising. It might be surprising to some people but in 1939 Poland fielded the third biggest Allied Army and despite defeat and occupation they never stopped fighting. Unfortunately they were ultimately let down by the Allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and especially Stalin,
Tag Archives: Soviet Union
“Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” – GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht, East Berlin, June 15th 1961
For me, for everyone I suppose, some places can have a real impact when we visit them. They leave an impression. The Berlin Wall was one such place. History hangs in the air, so thick you can almost touch it, almost feel it, almost smell it. Other places that I have visited that have had similar impact for me are Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland and Clairière de l’Armistice at Compiegne in Northern France.
Checkpoint Charlie was an obvious place to visit and every other visitor to Berlin agreed with us because this is probably the most visited attraction in the city. It is the most famous of the fourteen previously controlled crossing points between East and West Berlin, between the Allied and the Soviet Sectors.
Today I walked along a section of the wall, I ran my fingers across its harsh, hostile, concrete surface, I read the conflicting messages of anger and hope that it been scrawled across it, I was stunned by just how grotesquely ugly it was, I remembered all of the things that frightened me about the wall when I was a young boy.
Today as tourists we have our picture taken against a souvenir section of the wall, we smiled for the camera, fifty years ago people died trying to get across it and escape to the west, they didn’t smile. I thought about that as this picture taken.
The Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989. In the German Democratic Republic it was an offence to leave the country without permission. The border guards were duty bound at all time “to arrest or eliminate border violators”. The border regime was based on barriers and border guards at regular intervals and above all on the permitted use of firearms. The border guards who successfully stopped escapes were rewarded with a decoration and a bonus.
There is no checkpoint there anymore of course just a reconstruction and men in menacing uniforms providing a photo opportunity. It amused me that the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep out the west but at the site today is one of the most aggressive symbols of western capitalism – a McDonalds restaurant. Walter Ulbricht is probably still spinning in his grave!
I was seven years old when the German Democratic Republic began building the wall and it was barely out of the news headlines throughout the 1960s; subjugated people trying to escape, the unlucky ones being gunned down in cold blood, the menacing stare of the border guards, the impenetrable and secretive Soviet Empire. Berlin was where East and West stood toe to toe, where the West stood firm against further Soviet expansion in Europe and where the East tried to annex the whole of Berlin by starving out the West.
Donald Trump would have been proud of a wall like this.
If World War Two and the Nazis fashioned our vision of Germany and the Germans then the Wall was something that shaped our opinions of the post war East and the Soviet domination and I spent my childhood with a morbid fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world. This was the golden age of espionage and spies, John John le Carré and Ian Fleming.
For me this was the best moment of all in Berlin, around the site are informative displays and photographs which made me stop and think. I was born within ten years of the end of the most appalling and destructive war in Europe, in the World, and grew up seeing the Germans as natural foes. I soaked up my Dad’s stories of the War and read the Victor comic. When England won the Football World Cup in 1966 it was a champagne moment to beat West Germany and even in the 1970s I still carried with me my irrational dislike for sun-bed thieving Germans when on holiday in Europe.
I was forty-five when the wall came down, Germany was reunited and Europe gave a collective sigh of relief.
So, for the first fifty years or so of my life it would simply never have crossed my radar to visit Germany until in 2007 when cheap Ryanair flights to Friedrichshafen and Lake Constance persuaded me that I should go there and give it a chance and it turned out to be a personal pivotal moment when I discovered Germany to be relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted.
Close by to Checkpoint Charlie is one of the last remaining sections of the wall that remains intact and another series of information boards chronicling the years through the time of the Weimer Republic, the rise of Nazism, the War and the Wall. I had imagined that this period of history might be somewhat suppressed in Berlin, it is after all nothing to be proud of. But this is not so. It makes no excuses or apologies but sets out the history in a matter-of-fact and sensitive way. I was impressed.
Before dining however we walked through to the opposite side of town and along the ‘wall of woolens’, so called because here there were more market stalls cut into the arches of the original city wall and then we were tempted to part with thirty Eeks each to climb to the top of the tower for a two hundred metre elevated walk looking down over the rooftops and the narrow medieval streets below.
Back at street level we wandered down the delightful St Catherine’s Passage in between fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings where artisans and craftsmen and women were preserving medieval crafts such as glass blowing, intricate iron work, jewellery and leather work. At the end of the passage was a basement restaurant where we stopped for a bowl of soup and a glass of beer and we successfully negotiated the potential crisis moment when Sue and Christine both found something on the menu that they could order with confidence and enjoy.
By mid afternoon when we left the subterranean restaurant it was already starting to get dark because thanks to the ‘polar night’ phenomenon, in the Winter, Tallinn, on the same line of latitude as the Shetland Isles, enjoys only a few short hours of daylight. It has late sunrises and early sunsets, which creates incredibly short days and endlessly long nights. On an overcast day like today the effect was even worse and it is little wonder that Tallinners have been known to have a tendency toward seasonal depression as a result.
We needed some beers and a bottle of wine but we didn’t pass any shops so as it was still early Mike and I walked around the city ring road in search of a mini market. The route we chose took us towards the railway station and this wasn’t any real surprise because is a railway man by profession and enthusiasm and after about a kilometre or so we were outside the ticket office and an impressive Soviet Steam Engine, the L2317, a 2-10-0 locomotive built in 1953 in Russia at a factory in the Moscow railway suburb city of Kolomna.
The Russian L-series locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union. It was a mighty black iron beast with red wheels of almost ninety tonnes that really deserved a name rather than just a number, which during its working life pulled mostly freight trains between Russia and Estonia and after it was decommissioned was rather ignominiously used as a static boiler to heat nearby houses.
It has been externally restored now and sits tall and proud outside the railway station, which was where we went next.
We were now in the working part of the city and a long way from the Christmas market and the students dressed in medieval costumes and the overpriced restaurants.
The station felt tired and past its best and next to it was a tram station that conjured up dreary images of the old days of the Soviet Empire and what was surprising was that the passengers on board looked grey and tired and firmly locked permanently into a 1960s Tallinn time warp. The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of old wooden houses and out towards the proletarian flats of the city suburbs.
Next to the station in an ugly 1970s concrete shopping mall we came across a two-story traditional food market selling fish, meat, vegetables and everything for the working class weekly shop. Everything that is apart from alcohol so we were about to give up when we came across a small kiosk with cans of Estonian beer in the fridge and a screw cap bottle of blossom hill red wine. Not exactly traditional but without a corkscrew we were severely limited for choice.
Later we all met up in reception and wrapped up in hats, scarves and thermal gloves walked back into town making our way past the skating rink that we decided to leave until tomorrow, towards the Raekoja Plats where we were surprised to find the market closed. It was only eight o’clock and I would have thought a Times listed top twenty Christmas market would still be open in the evening.
We dealt with the disappointment as best we could and then began the search for a suitable eating establishment. We didn’t take too long over this and agreed upon one of the medieval banquet houses, the Peppersack, that was located in an old building not far from the Town Hall Square. There was a good menu of hearty food and we enjoyed meat skewers and fillets and best of all plenty of Estonian beer and wine to wash it all down.
All we needed now was some snow but sadly there was none as we left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel with the objective of a final nightcap. There was no hope of that at the Von Stackleberg because the bar was closed so we wandered across the road instead to a modern glitzy hotel that was still open, and our final drink and made our day one assessment of Tallinn, which we agreed we all liked, before calling it a day and agreeing to meet at nine o’clock in the morning for breakfast.
Back at street level we wandered down the delightful St Catherine’s Passage in between fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings where artisans and craftsmen and women were preserving medieval crafts such as glass blowing, intricate iron work, jewellery and leather work.
At the end of the passage was a basement restaurant where we stopped for a bowl of soup and a glass of beer and we successfully negotiated the potential crisis moment when Sue and Christine both found something on the menu that they could order with confidence and enjoy.
The Skyline Bar, Hotel Latvia, Riga
The Hotel Latvia is a modern high quality tourist hotel but has a sinister and secretive past. It was built by the previous communist regime and was one of the few State approved tourist hotels run by the Russian travel Agency, Intourist.
Intourist was founded in 1929 by the dictator Joseph Stalin and was staffed almost exclusively by the KGB secret police. It was responsible for managing the great majority of travellers access to, and travel within, the Soviet Union and it grew into one of the largest tourism organisations in the world, with a network embracing banks, hotels, and bureaux de change.
For evening meal we choose the out-of-town Lido amusement park where we had been before on our previous visit. Kim was certain that it was a very precise eight-minute walk but we were all pleased that we overruled her and took the twenty-minute taxi ride instead.
The weather in the morning was exactly the same as the day before and the snow we had hoped for, and the taxi driver had promised, had failed to make an appearance. A thick blanket of cloud was draped over the city and the darkness made it seem earlier than it really was.
Before dining however we walked through to the opposite side of town and along the ‘wall of woolens’, so called because here there were more market stalls cut into the arches of the original city wall and then we were tempted to part with thirty Eeks each (Christine enjoyed that) to climb to the top of the tower for a two hundred metre elevated walk looking down over the rooftops and the narrow medieval streets below.
This year we have spent a lot of time in Western Europe and especially Spain but in December it is time to go East and visit a Christmas market and despite being disappointed in previous years on visits to Slovenia and Austria, which had been full of cheap trash from the far east, we remembered that the market in Riga in Latvia had been very good so we chose to return this year to the Baltic.