Fred Hartman

Like most of you, my wife Laura and I grew up learning about World War II, the Nazis and the Berlin Wall in high school and college history classes, but seeing the city in person has given us a better perspective.

We lucked out (and got a bargain) with Viator’s four-hour Walking Tour of Berlin this week. Our guide was named Kyle, who’s actually a lady that grew up in Chicago and Scotland.

Among the places she took our group was the Brandenburg Gate where President Ronald Reagan made his 1987 speech when he famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”

Two years later, the wall came down along with the rest of the Iron Curtain — and Germany was reunified.

After that, we saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, which is a series of somber and gray rows of concrete boxes of differing heights that leads to an underground museum that deals in large part with the Holocaust.

Then, it was on to a nondescript parking lot surrounded by three high-rise apartment buildings. Kyle told us we were standing on the ground above Adolph Hitler’s command bunker during World War II.

We had no earth-shaking feeling upon hearing this. It only felt empty and somber, which was befitting an overcast day.

The bunker is where Hitler and his longtime girlfriend (and wife for the last 40 hours of his life) Eva Braun committed suicide together. Hitler asked that his body be cremated so he could not be paraded around or hung in effigy, but his aide-de-camp ran out of gasoline before both of them could be burned into ashes.

Our guide told us Hitler’s remains were then discovered by Soviet soldiers. They finished burning Hitler’s remains and scattered his ashes in a river because they didn’t want him to have a final resting place.

That way, Hitler sympathizers could never pay homage to him.

We ended the tour at Check Point Charlie, the best-known border crossing after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 that divided West and East Berlin.

A story we didn’t hear much about in school was about a standoff between American and Soviet tanks in October 1961 several months after the wall was constructed.

American servicemen and diplomats were supposed to be able to enter and exit East Berlin without travel papers, but one such diplomat, Allan Lightner, was stopped by the East Germans when he was taking his wife to the opera.

Lightner made a fuss and wouldn’t back down. Several days later, the situation had escalated to the point that 10 Allied and 10 Soviet tanks were lined up 100 yards away from each other on both sides of the checkpoint — and ready to fire.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and an international incident or war was averted after President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev became involved. The matter was deescalated after five days.

We also visited the Topography of Terrors, a museum about the Nazi dictatorship and atrocities. The museum is right next to some of the remnants of the Berlin Wall, and just seeing it is a stark reminder about the evils of communism.

The next day, we were reminded it didn’t get much better for half of Germany after WWII when we visited the Stasi Prison.

The Stasi were the secret East German police who ruled the country with an iron fist, imprisoning many dissidents and opponents of the communist regime. The prisoners were subjected to torture and terrible living conditions, and many were killed after forced confessions.

Finally, we visited the German Resistance Museum and learned about several assassination attempts that came close to killing Hitler. That could’ve changed history, along with the trajectory of the Holocaust had any of those efforts been successful. Berlin has recognized the mistakes of the Nazis and communists, and the city is now a thriving urban center that powers the German economic engine.

But the past is never far away.

Reach Fred Hartman at fbh@hartmannews.com.

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