berlin 1959

Anxious to try out my new East German camera, bought in West Berlin, we drove to Kurfurstendamm to photograph the ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirke and then to the Brandenburg Gate. About 200 yards west of the Brandenburg Gate, and near the Reichstag in the British Sector, the Soviets had built a memorial to the Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin. In 1959, the memorial was guarded 24 hours/day by Soviet soldiers who marched into the British Sector through the Brandenburg Gate. At night it was lit up and highly visible from far away but the powerful searchlights were turned towards the visitors, not the memorial. The Brandenburg Gate and the ruins of the Reichstag were not lit.

The Battle of Berlin which took place between 16 April and 2 May 1945 had one of the highest casualty rates of the major battles of World War II. In this last major battle in Europe the Soviet Union suffered 300,000 to 350,000 casualties with 70,000 to 80,000 dead. German casualties were believed to have been 150-175,000 plus 150,000 civilians dead. The Soviet Union wanted Germany and the world to remember its sacrifice and presence in Berlin so they built three war memorials in the city. The centrally located Tiergarten Memorial was built in 1945 to overlook the Brandenburg Gate and the ruins of the Reichstag. It was topped by a statue of a Soviet soldier, protected by two cannons and two T-34 tanks. About 2,000 Soviet soldiers are believed to be buried there.

 

 

In the north of Berlin, at Schonholzer Heide Park, Pankow over 13,000 Soviet soldiers were buried in the largest war cemetery in the city. A memorial was built there in 1947-49. We didn’t go to Pankow but drove to the huge Soviet war memorial and cemetery in the district of Treptower-Kopernik on the southern bank of the River Spree, also in the Soviet Sector of East Berlin. It was built in 1949. The cemetery, in the center of Treptower Park, was dominated by a 40 foot tall bronze statue of a soldier, standing on a large pedestal placed on a huge grass mound. The statue depicted a Soviet soldier holding a sword while trampling on a Swastika and holding a small child in his other arm. The landscaped park and cemetery also included a mother statue, a centered gate-like monument with Soviet flags and two kneeling soldiers in front of them, sixteen white marble sarcophagi and the graves of 5,000 Soviet soldiers. It was a somber place and we were a very quiet group when we climbed back into the Kombi van.

Our visits to East Berlin were short. We didn’t know where to find the iconic buildings or if they were only piles of rubble. Apart from the showpiece boulevard, Stalinallee, little had been done to rebuild the eastern part of city and the absence of cars and people gave the streets an eerie feeling. We felt more secure in West Berlin even though little rebuilding had taken place there. Perhaps the rubble and ruins in West Berlin were tidier. More likely it was the cabarets along the Kurfurstendamm. There was nothing like that in East Berlin. After the visit to Treptower Park we drove to the Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector to see the monument commemorating the 39 British and 31 American airmen killed during the Berlin Airlift.

In 1948, following disagreements with the other three occupying powers regarding reconstruction and a new German currency, Stalin had blocked the movement of food, materials and supplies arriving into West Berlin by road and train. The Allied forces began a massive airlift to supply West Berlin with food and other essential goods. Over 200,000 flights in one year to Berlin delivered almost 5,000 tons of supplies each day. American aircraft flew northeast through the American air corridor to Tempelhof Airport and returned to the west flying through the British air corridor. The British ran a similar system, flying from several airports in northern Germany through a corridor to the RAF Gatow airfield and landing on the Havel River next to Gatow. In the French Sector, France aided by German workers constructed a new airport at Tegel in just 90 days. The airlift was a success and after fifteen months the Soviets lifted the blockade. Shortly after, in 1951, the Germans erected a huge monument at Tempelhof that became known as the Hunger Rake. It was the first major monument built by West Germany in Berlin after World War II.

Tegel was subsequently developed into West Berlin’s principal airport. In 2007 a small airport at Schonefeld in Brandenburg was extended leading to the closure of Tempelhof and Gatow was closed. Gatow is now the home of the Museum of the German Luftwaffe, with part of the old airfield developed into a school and housing estate, and Tempelhof is a public park. Tegel will be closed when the new international airport at Schonefeld is opened.

It was our last day in Berlin and we had visited Soviet memorials and cemeteries and the Hunger Rake at Tempelhof Airport. It was a depressing image of Berlin to take away. Before we left we decided to have one last look at West Berlin before facing the East German checkpoints at either end of the autobahn to Helmstedt. Potsdamer Platz was a place we had heard of but never seen so we decided to head there. It was on the border between the British and Soviet Sectors of Berlin and had been at the center of the bombing raids in World War II because it was close to the Reich Chancellery and the Gestapo and SS headquarters. Before the war Potsdamer Platz was one of the busiest squares in Europe, the terminus of three suburban train lines, and next to the main business street, Leipzigerstrasse with its large department stores. We didn’t find it because it had been completely destroyed so left the depressing city of Berlin to return to West Germany.

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Photographs: by the author, Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.