By the end of April 1945, Berlin was no longer much of a prize. The Prussian and imperial capital that Hitler dreamed of making the fulcrum of an ordered, authoritarian world had been reduced to a state of ruin and rubble by sixteen months of Allied bombing.
As the Soviet troops approached Berlin, most of its inhabitants cowered underground, safe from the effects of Soviet shelling. Those who were able manned the concentric lines of defence that ringed the city, but they did little to slow the advance.
The front line crept inexorably inwards from the suburbs, despite the efforts of an ad hoc army of regular soldiers, SS fighters and Volkssturm (home guard) units. There was no longer an age limit for military service: young boys who had grown up in a warring country fought and died in Berlin supporting Hitler’s desperate last stand. Most of the combatants defending Berlin had little or no training. They fired anti-aircraft guns or whatever weapons they had at the advancing Russian soldiers.
The Führer and his government took refuge in a subterranean bunker, where they received sporadic intelligence from the outside world. They knew that the Soviets had reached the outer suburbs and were making progress street by street, house by house, towards Berlin’s centre and the remaining trappings of the Nazi state.
Hitler still hoped that salvation would come from outside the city – that General Walther Wenck would rally the remaining German soldiers for a do-or-die attempt to break the Soviet throttlehold. Hitler’s commanders, confined to the bunker, knew there wasn’t enough military manpower or order left in Nazi Germany to organize an effective opposition.
Without outside assistance, Berlin could not hold out. However much courage its citizens’ army displayed, the city’s arsenal was running out of ammunition; food was also becoming increasingly scarce.
In the early hours of 29 April, the Soviet troops managed to cross the Moltke Bridge and attack the Interior Ministry. After capturing the Secret State Police headquarters later that day, the Soviets pressed on towards the Reichstag. Only now did Hitler begin to envisage a Germany without himself in command. He dictated his will and a political testament, which made provisions for continuing the governance of a Reich that no longer existed. Reichsmarschall Göring and Himmler, the minister of the interior, were both dismissed from the Nazi party. Each had tried to take control of the Reich and still hoped to come to an agreement with the British and the Americans. Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor – with the title of president of Germany – and Joseph Goebbels as Chancellor.
The next day, Hitler killed himself. Goebbels poisoned his own family and followed suit on 1 May, leaving Dönitz, who was absent from Berlin, in charge of the closing stages of Germany’s war.
The Battle for the Reichstag was one of the last fights in the conquest of Berlin. Two soldiers raised the Soviet flag on its roof, while heavy fighting still raged below. The city’s remaining 10,000 German soldiers, now commanded by General Helmuth Weidling, were forced into a shrinking area in the city centre.
On 1 May, the German garrison tried and failed to negotiate a conditional surrender; the Reichstag was occupied and German defeat was imminent. Weidling agreed to the Soviet demand for an unconditional ceasefire, saving the lives of the remaining inhabitants of Berlin, and an armistice was signed on 2 May that handed control of the city to Vasily Chuikov, commander of the Soviet armies. The commanders of the two German armies closest to Berlin – the Twenty-first Army and Third Panzer Army – simultaneously surrendered to the western Allies.
The Battle for Berlin is estimated to have cost the lives of 80,000 Soviet troops and 50,000 German soldiers and civilians.
The Liberation was the end of one story and the beginning of another. This museum explains what happened next, from the defeat of Germany in World War II to the division of West and East Berlin between the three Western powers and the Soviet Union.
This delightfully idiosyncratic museum was originally founded in 1925 by anarchist-pacifist Ernst Friedrich. It was destroyed in 1933 by stormtroopers, for whom war was to be admired rather than vilified. The building was used as an SS torture chamber in the following years, when Friedrich emigrated to Belgium and then France. The museum has since been revived and is run by Friedrich’s grandson, with the help of volunteers. There are exhibits on both wars, as well as displays dedicated to current global conflicts.
A modern work of art marks the spot at Bebelplatz where a Nazi book burning took place in May 1933, when 20,000 books were engulfed by flames. Today’s memorial takes the form of a sunken library of empty shelves.
The Berliner Unterwelten Museum is located in a former air-raid shelter at Gesundbrunnen underground station. Visitors can explore the site by guided tour to see bunkers from the former government quarter, war rubble and archeological finds. The museum also explores the difficult topic of military construction and historic preservation.
The permanent exhibition, “Myth of Germania – Vision and Crime”, explores Hitler’s grand plans for Berlin, which he envisioned as an architectural showcase of Nazi strength and power. Several displays focus on the expulsions, deportations and use of forced labour that were implemented to make his vision a reality.
The block of land immediately south of Brandenburger Tor and Pariser Platz is officially called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and general known as the Holocaust Memorial. It involves 2711 dark grey oblong blocks (stelae), evenly and tightly spaced but of varying heights, spread across an area the size of two football pitches. As there is no single entrance, visitors make their own way through the maze to the centre where the blocks are well above head height, tending to convey a sense of gloom, isolation and solitude. An underground information centre relates the life stories and plight of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Undeniably powerful, the memorial has faced various criticisms: for being unnecessarily large in scale; for its use of prime real estate with little historical significance; and for its incredible costs. Also contentious was the hiring of German company Degussa (now Evonik) to supply the anti-graffiti paint for the blocks, since they are a daughter company of I.G. Farben – the company that produced Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers.
This ruined 42m-high tower is normally inaccessible, but can be visited on a tour arranged by Berlin Unterwelten. Equipped with heavy anti-aircraft guns, Berlin’s flak towers were supposed to protect its city centre from bomb attacks.
To see this bunker, located in a former gasometer, you will need to ask for details at Berlin Unterwelten. The six-storey bunker – with a 3m-thick ceiling – was installed in 1940 to shelter 6500 mothers and children. Later in the war, as many as 30,000 people crowded into its interior.
The German Historical Museum tells the comprehensive story of 2000 years of German history. The permanent exhibition comprises around seven thousand historical exponents providing information on the individuals, ideas, events and developments that have shaped the nation. The main floor is devoted to the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime, the postwar period and the two German states that existed from 1949 to the reunification in 1990.
This centre in Schöneweide is the last well-preserved Nazi forced labour camp. “Barack 13”, one of the first camp buildings, is open to the public on guided tours. Two permanent exhibitions document the fate of the resident forced labourers during World War II.
This slick exhibition centres on German resistance to the Nazi regime. It is an important reminder that not all Germans were Nazis, and that many stood up to Hitler and paid with their lives. Note the name of its street, which honours the man who tried to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944.
A unique bilateral institution sponsored by the Federal Republic of Germany and the Russian Federation, this museum marks the spot where the unconditional surrender was signed on 8 May 1945 signalling the end of World War II in Europe. The war caused an unprecedented amount of death and destruction across the continent, but fighting was especially brutal during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union that began on 22 June 1941.
This is the only museum in Germany with a permanent exhibition recalling the war of annihilation in Eastern Europe. It documents wartime events from the perspective of both parties, German and Soviet, as well as exploring the consequences of World War II as they continue into the present day.
This church, named after the Emperor Wilhelm, was badly damaged in a raid on 23 November 1943. After the war, its surviving sections were left standing as a reminder of the catastrophic events of 1939–1945.
Berlin’s Jewish Museum is the place to go to reflect on Jewish history and culture. Changing temporary exhibitions, from cultural history displays to contemporary art installations, cover a broad range of interesting themes.
Seizing the Reichstag – already heavily damaged by bombing and shelling – was one of the final victories in the Battle of Berlin. Storming the iconic building on 30 April 1945, two soldiers raised the Soviet flag on its roof, although fighting continued below for another two days. The scene was re-enacted for a well-known propaganda photo on 2 May.
After the war, the Reichstag fell into disrepair as an enduring symbol of the Weimar Republic that was abused and manipulated by Adolf Hitler. The Neoclassical building had been ravaged by a fire in 1933 which had completely destroyed the plenary chamber; this was one of the defining moments in Hitler’s rise to power, who used the fire as an excuse to persecute his political opponents.
The reunified German parliament moved back into the building in 1999 after extensive renovations and the addition of a flashy cupola by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
This war memorial near the Brandenburg Gate is one of several monuments erected by the Soviets after the war. It commemorates the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell during the Battle of Berlin. Erected in 1945 as a semicircular stoa (covered walkway), it resembles other Soviet World War II monuments in the former Eastern bloc. On top of the stoa is a large bronze statue of a Soviet soldier, rifle slung over his shoulder, flanked by two T34 tanks and two howitzers used in the Battle of Berlin. Though the memorial was located in the former British sector of Berlin, Soviet honour guards were sent every day to perform guard duty, a tradition that was stringently maintained even during the harshest Cold War periods.
Standing on the site of Berlin’s Gestapo headquarters, the Topography of Terror has a main permanent exhibition on the Nazi state’s institutions of repression. A second exhibition examines the city’s role as the capital of the Third Reich.
The House of the Wannsee Conference was used as an SS guesthouse during World War II. It is most remembered, however, as the setting for the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, where high-ranking Nazi officials planned the Final Solution. Its permanent exhibition, “The Wannsee Conference and the Genocide of European Jews”, fleshes out the details of this grim meeting and the story of the persecution of Jews using original documents and audiovisual displays.
Top image: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin © iStock