The Berlin Field Trip 2019

Kowalsky, D. (Organiser)

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


The Berlin Field Trip, 28 February - 3 March 2019
MHY7089: Fascism and Public History
Led by Danny Kowalsky, HAPP, Queen’s University Belfast

To mark the first iteration of the new MA in Public History, Danny Kowalsky organized a four-day field trip to Berlin, generously supported by the HAPP Education Fund. This excursion complemented classroom work in the module MHY7089: Fascism and Public History, a six-week unit focusing on post-war memorials and museums, and the contentious debates in the historiography of fascism and the victims of fascism. The mini-module was co-taught with Dr Cullen. Danny Kowalsky was the only staff accompanying students on the trip. After the MHY7089 enrolment was completed a few students working on topics related to Germany, the Holocaust and WWII were also invited to attend. These included six students from L1 to L3. In all, sixteen students traveled: ten MAs in Public History and six undergraduates working with the tutor in other modules.

The following report summarizes the field trip, and includes photos taken on tour, and a few ideas for next year.

This was the seventh Continental field trip I have organized since arriving at Queen’s. Earlier class trips included two excursions to Madrid (2008 and 2017), three to Auschwitz (2008, 2009 and 2018) and one to Berlin (2010).

For Berlin 2019, my intention was that the trip focus intensively on visiting with professional local guides the principal sites of the public history and memory of Nazism, though with some added value in the form of visits to sites of imperial and Cold-War Berlin. I planned in several evening events of cultural, if not educational, interest.

Thursday 28 February 2019

Most of the students flew the direct and fairly inexpensive route from Belfast/Aldergrove (BFS) to Berlin (SXF) on Ryan Air, dep. 09.45 arr. 13.05, though two students found cheaper fares out of Dublin, arriving a bit later. The trip was built around the Ryanair RT, which allowed for minimal time traveling, and reasonable fares. It did, however, limit the trip to only two full days on the ground.

I installed the group at one of the best, centrally located hostels: St Christopher’s Inn, located at Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse, 41. Staying here allowed the students to walk to many of the tours, and to have easy access to the planned evening activities. I also chose this hostel because of its serious approach to safety and to rules. They run a tight ship but they take no chances. In addition, though the students were put in single-sex dorms, the hostel provides curtain around each bunk, so that you have slightly more privacy than in your average hostel. In the event, the students’ stay came off without a hitch and everyone was completely satisfied with the accommodation. A generous breakfast was provided as part of the room rate, so that students could eat in the morning and then move on without delay to the tours.

Given that we only had two full days of touring, and two partial days, I insisted on hitting the ground running. Thus, on Thursday, I gave the students only one hour to drop their bags at the hostel, grab some food and then meet me in front of the accommodation for an itinerary update and a few words about the afternoon and evening activities, which included two important visits.

17.00 German Resistance Memorial Center, Stauffenbergstrasse, 13-14

Our first guided visit was at the infamous site of the Stauffenberg execution, now a public history resource center devoted to the German resistance. This was a site whose creation is treated in detail in our module textbook, Brian Ladd’s updated edition of Ghosts of Berlin (Chicago, 1997). The reading was assigned to all students on the excursion and discussed in our last campus seminar. We were lucky to have Ladd, whose work peels away the layers of public review and controversy that accompanied the establishment of most of the key sites of memory across Berlin. At the Resistance Memorial Center tour, students were especially impressed at the way our guide emphasized the comparatively miniscule size of the German resistance, refusing to turn it into something it was not. In fact, what emerged from the tour was a profile of the tremendous courage of a handful of conspirators who spoke or acted out against the Nazi regime. All paid with their lives.

19.00 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

From the Resistance Centre, the students walked over to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but the tutor organized no proper tour nor any group activity here. Instead, the students were free to wander around the site singly or with a few classmates, taking as long as they wished, and rendezvousing later at the hostel to go to dinner. I did not plan a late evening outing for Thursday as I wanted the group to be well-rested for a long day of touring on Friday.

Friday 1 March 2019

09.00-10.30 Bundestag (Reichstag)

For me, as tutor, the Bundestag event was one of the high points of our Berlin days, for it offered a private, guided ninety-minute stroll through what is certainly the most famous and most controversial building in Europe. The guide was a remarkably well-informed and poised American PhD student, engaged as an intern at the Bundestag. The tour had much to recommend it, though perhaps the most fascinating part was the detailed examination of the Red Army graffiti, preserved in the corridors of the parliament building. I found it fascinating that just outside of Angela Merkel’s office was massive wall of Red Army paeans to Stalin, and triumphalist messages, scrawled with ash and paint. That these survived subsequent remodeling periods for the building, and even lying derelict, is remarkable, and the graffiti preserves them memory of the moment the Soviet army reached Berlin in spring 1945. We had an interesting discussion of how far this graffiti may have been censored or sanitized in the years since it was put up. In addition, the exhibition recounts the story of the Reichstag Fire, and even includes the tunnel through which Nazi conspirators are thought to have passed to set the building ablaze. The tour finished on the roof, where one was able to imagine the Red Army cadres hoisting the hammer and sickle over the Berlin skies, an image captured indelibly by Stalin’s fetish photographer, the Jewish Ukrainian Evgeni Khaldei.

10.45-11.30 Soviet War Memorial, Tiergarten

From the Bundestag tour, the group proceeded the short distance to the Soviet War Memorial, a magnificent, colossal and imposing reminder of the terrible cost of the war suffered by the USSR. Having viewed this, we broke for lunch until resuming in the early afternoon.

13.00-16.00 Group Walking Tour of Jewish Berlin, led by Yoav Sapir, Jewish Heritage Tours

The main event of the afternoon began at 12.50 just outside the Starbucks at Hackescher Markt. The tutor stressed to the students the need to be on time for this much-anticipated tour, and everyone was assembled well in advance, as planned.

Our guide was Yoav Sapir, an Israeli immigrant resident thirteen years in Berlin. He now gave us, over three breathless (and break-less!) hours an exhaustive, authoritative overview of the history of Jewish life in the German capital. We traversed many of the key sites of early modern and modern Jewish history, not least synagogues, Jewish school, cemeteries, sites of destruction, mourning and reconciliation. Several students later remarked that this was the most valuable part of the trip, not least because we were clearly in the presence of a seasoned professional, passionate about history and Jewish culture. The students made the most of our time with him, bombarding the guide with questions and taking a keen interest in all he told us.
For me, one of the best parts of this tour was the stop at the Otto Weidt Workshop. Weidt was Jewish Berlin’s answer to Oscar Schindler; his engagement of Jews in his workshop, and attempt to hide them, saved a handful of lives, but his sacrifice looms large in the social history of the Holocaust. The workshop is located next to the Anne Frank centre, through which we also passed.

Yoav led the students in a fascinating debate about the stumbling stones that now mark houses in Berlin and indeed throughout Germany, whence Jews were deported to the camps. We were all quite surprised to hear that only some murdered Jews are commemorated this way, even on public streets, because the stumbling stones are trademarked, owned by a single enterprise, and the placing of them costs some €250. Thus a financial cost has been connected with the establishment of public memory to individual Jews.

The afternoon’s tour finished at the famous Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue, or New Synagogue, just north of Mitte. This was the site of anti-Jewish destruction on Kristallnacht – 9-10 November 1938. Yoav’s discussion of those events were highly enlightening. The students were surprised to learn that, contrary to what is commonly assumed, the New Synagogue was only lightly damaged by the Kristallnacht fire. It was properly destroyed, later, during war, but by Allied bombs.

Overall, this tour was a thrilling experience for all and, though the priciest of our paid tours, certainly worth every penny. It would be a pity to return to Berlin and not engage Yoav once again for this tour.

16.30-18.00 German History Museum, Unter den Linden, 2

Perhaps it was a bridge too far, but the tutor stayed with the planned itinerary and now accompanied part of the group to the History Museum at the top of Unter den Linden. This is one of the great museums devoted entirely to history and it would be a shame to give it a pass. Instead of diving directly into the twentieth century exhibits the students chose to go through the halls methodically, from the earliest to the end. But time was working against us as the museum closes at 6PM. To catch what was missed, part of the group returned on Saturday.

21.00 Clärchens Ballhaus, Auguststrasse 24, Berlin 10117

For something completely different, this evening the scene switched to a late 19th century ballroom, a veritable institution across multiple eras of German history, but now frozen in time circa 1985, when it reached cult status as a gathering place for the East Berlin avant-garde. And they still come. I asked the students to find me in the bar, and above the din of the crowd, disc jockey and the band warming up, I explained that faithful Osties still frequent this club in droves, now thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was not difficult to believe, given that the average age of those attending was about sixty. For the band, you could add ten more years. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the evening at Clärchens was a trip highlight, not least when our entire entourage took to the dance floor as the septuagenarian “Schwoof” began their first set.

Saturday 2 March 2019

For Saturday, we had two noted tours scheduled, in addition to further sight-seeing and visits
to key war-time memorials.

10.40 Jewish Museum Berlin. Lindenstrasse, 9-14

The morning began with most of the group walking across Mitte to the Jewish Museum,
a Berlin institution and one of the most important centres of its kind anywhere in Europe.
Our guide, Viktor Kucharski, made a point of explaining not only the exhibits on display, but also the rational for the museum’s quirky architecture, which deliberately disorients and confuses the visitor, but augments the perception of Jewish life in Berlin being out of balance, its history broken and traumatized. The aspect of this museum that left the strongest impression on the students was the colossal, nearly light-less concrete room that is surely inspired by the gas chambers. At the other end of the museum we traversed a long corridor scattered with tens of thousands of loose metallic, circles onto which faces have been etched. One has the sensation of trampling on uncounted lost souls. There were no words to describe this singular experience. The tour complete, many students remained for several more hours to explore additional halls and exhibits.

15.00 Topographie des Terrors. Niederkirchnerstraße 8

The last guided tour of our weekend would take place at the memorial centre and museum of the Gestapo and victims of the Gestapo: the Topographie des Terrors. In seminar the previous week, the class had studied Ladd’s exploration of the controversy surrounding the creation of this site. It is certainly a powerful example of public history confronting the perpetrators of the crimes of Nazism. And, as a class, we decided that the Topographie des Terrors serves a vital role, for much of the story of the war, in Berlin, is presented from the point of view of the victims. That is perhaps understandable, but when factored over multiple days and many institutional stops, it means that the visitor gradually gets the impression that everyone in Nazi Germany was a victim. In fact, Nazism, even the most violent manifestations of Nazism, had wide-scale support, and deep investments by the German establishment and by millions of regular Germans. The SS, for example, had over one million members at its height. The Topographie des Terrors seeks to pinpoint this exact location in Berlin as being the place where terror was initiated and directed, not by monsters but by bureaucrats.

Following the visit to the Topographie des Terrors, the groups split up to visit or revisit key sights across Berlin. Some students returned to the Holocaust memorial; others visited the ensemble of museums on the Museum Island, walked down Unter den Linden, or strolled along the Spree.

I had planned on a second evening outing, this time at the famous Prater Gaststätte, on the Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg. But the students were exhausted from three days on the move. I had driven them hard. Arriving at the Gaststätte just after 10PM, I discovered that I was in fact the only one who’d made it.

Sunday 3 March 2019

The time had come to say goodbye. The tutor met the students at the hostel and saw them off for their 13.30 departure from Berlin-Schönefeld. The field trip was over.
Period28 Feb 201903 Mar 2019
Event typeOther
LocationBerlin, Germany, Berlin
Degree of RecognitionInternational