Take That, Hitler!

I was recently out of it with Covid, stuck in that limbo where you’re too sick to read or do anything productive, but not sick enough to stay in bed all day. So, in a desperate bid to entertain myself and distract myself from my illness, I pretty much became a sixteen-year-old again: I played video games, ordered food and watched YouTube all day, and it only took me two days to become a depressed wreck, yearning to get outside and explore the world or at least devour a good book or two. I was still for another three days, and there’s only so much Civ you can play. Good thing I was on the ground floor and fatigued, otherwise I would’ve thrown myself out the window!

During this time, I had plenty of time to think (which made my head hurt). One recurring thought I had was, “This wasn’t so bad the last time I had it!” I had it before, and it was so mild that I didn’t even know I had it. It was only after several months that I put two and two together and realised exactly why I inexplicably couldn’t taste anything for two weeks and felt a tad bit tired, which I just chalked up to travel fatigue. Now, you may be wondering why I’m telling you any of this. Partly, it’s because I feel guilty for not writing and I wanted to give a little explanation. But it’s also because it serves as an interesting segue into a story I want to share. See, I had Covid when I was in Berlin. I don’t know how I got it, since nobody else in my apartment got it and apart from solitary morning walks or food shopping I didn’t go out. Except for one special little trip I had planned nearly a year in advance, and I was not about to let a pandemic get in my way…

The Brandenburg Gate, eerily empty during the times of Covid.

I stood on the platform of the Adlershof train station in South-East Berlin. The nippy autumn air was giving way to a warm breeze as the train docked at the station. Right on time – Germans and their punctuality, eh? I was wearing a mask made out of a vacuum cleaner bag which a friend had given to me – this was before their widespread (and mandatory, in some cases) use and supplies were snapped up along with the toilet paper and sanitiser, so we had to improvise! I’ll admit I’ve always hated wearing those things because, being autistic, they’re perfect for creating the exact sensory stimulations I cannot stand: they rustle my beard and make it feel ‘crunchy’, moisture gets trapped and makes my mouth feel ‘filmy’ and, worst of all, I hate feeling like a pair of eyes that can’t even look at another pair of eyes without feeling like my eyes are getting ‘stabbed at’, which has actually led to dissociation if I wore one for too long (It’s hard to describe these feelings accurately, hence the quote marks). But given how novel this covid situation still was and my tolerance hadn’t quite worn thin yet, I bit the bullet and wore a vacuum-cleaner bag on my face for the short train-ride.

I took the S9 to Alexanderplatz Bahnhof, enjoying the sights on the thirty minute journey despite my sensory nightmare. I exited the station and wandered into the deserted Alexanderplatz, a famous square in Berlin Mitte that features such icons as the Weltzeituhr (World Clock), Das Rote Rathaus (The Red Town Hall) and the impossible-to-miss Fernsehturm (T.V. Tower), which looks like a Soviet Satellite that gave up going all the way into space and decided that 368 metres up was close enough. Seeing nobody was around, I let my mask hang loose and crossed the square. Five years ago this place was hustling and bustling; now, it was as if a foreign army was approaching and battle was imminent…

The Fernsehturm, which also happens to be the tallest building in Germany.

I crossed onto the Museuminsel (Museum Island) where, wouldn’t you believe it, there are museums and galleries for you to explore! Except, I wasn’t allowed to because everything was closed. Still, the facades of these Museuminsel buildings, such as the Pergamon Museum, Humboldt Forum and the Berliner Dom, are so beautiful on their own that I didn’t feel too bummed out. One of the bridges next to the Berliner Dom (which is a cathedral that is also a dynastic tomb for the Hohenzollern royal family) is the Karl-Liebknecht-Bridge, named in honour of the Communist revolutionary who was killed during the ill-fated Spartacist uprising in January 1919. The Spartacist Uprising was a direct result of the First World War and the shockwaves of total war that tore at the societal fabric, in many cases ripping it apart completely. WWI led to the collapse of several empires – of the seven European empires that entered (Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Ottoman), only the first three survived, and barely. Britain and France had to deal with the economic ravages , as well as social upheavals due to the millions of casualties in such a useless war, leading to strong labour movements that scared the hell out of them (more on that in a moment). However, apart from special cases like Ireland, these empires survived. The other empires were not so lucky. The Ottoman empire was dismembered into spoils for Britain and France. Italy, flirting with socialism and parliamentarianism, opted for Fascism under the boisterous Benito Mussolini. Austria-Hungary disintegrated into little states at the mercy of their larger neighbours. But most importantly, Russia, in a state of virtual anarchy for several years, was taken over by Communist Revolutionaries called Bolsheviks, who proclaimed that the workers were now in charge of the state (spoiler: no they weren’t).

Although the Bolsheviks were weak and held almost no authority outside of Petrograd and Moscow, the fact that Communists managed to seize power and were claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Russian state was terrifying. Furthermore, they worked against the interest of the world empires, exposing secret treaties Britain and France had signed with Tsarist Russia and negotiating with Germany to leave the war! If that wasn’t bad enough, there was the prophecy of World Revolution, where the revolutionaries believed that, like a spark to a powder keg, the workers all around the world would rise up and finally break free the chains those greedy capitalist pigs had ensnared them with. With the takeover of Russia and the other empires on their knees, it certainly looked like a revolutionary wave would bring about the dream/nightmare of worker’s power. But the Bolsheviks, being infamously unorthodox Marxists, weren’t going to leave this to chance; they were willing to ‘export’ the Revolution (i.e. wage war), and everyone else knew it. Combined with geopolitical concerns and historical grievances, a massive coalition of “Whites”, including Britain, France, USA, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Romania, Persia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, China, Afghanistan, Armenia and Turkey (read: pretty much the whole world!) would at one point or another send troops or supplies to those who fought against the Bolshevik “Reds”: the countries that successfully broke away from the Russian Empire (including Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), unsuccessful breakaway states like the Transcaucasian Republic and Karelians, traditional monarchists that wanted to restore the supreme rule of the Tsar, constitutional monarchists who wanted a parliament, republicans who wanted representation without the Tsar, anarchists who thought that governments were archaic and stupid, generals who coveted dictatorial powers, generals who just didn’t like Bolshevik terrorists, peasants who just wanted land, literally anyone as long as they weren’t the Bolsheviks! Safe to say, it’s an incredibly messy war. Long story short, the Communists won (mostly). But before they even won, they had invaded those newly independent countries I listed above as well as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Mongolia. The red wave was coming, to borrow a modern political term.

The Berliner Dom. The street is actually Karl-Liebknecht-Bridge, but it’s only a small bridge so it’s hard to tell that it spans across a river.

When the Great War was over (Nov 1918), communist uprisings took place all across the world despite the best efforts of everyone to strangle Bolshevism in its crib. Socialists managed to snatch power in the Netherlands (Nov 1918), Hungary (March 1919), Luxembourg (Nov 1918), and Germany, which had plenty of short-lived Soviet Republics in places like Würzburg, Alsace-Lorraine, Saxony, Bremen and Bavaria at one point (fun fact: Hitler briefly worked for the Bavarian People’s State – yep, the future Nazi and rabid anti-communist collaborated with the Communists!). But these were crushed very quickly. There were also innumerable failed attempts to install socialist regimes, one famous case being the Spartacists in Berlin, who were tiny in number and stood no chance against the other forces who were vying for power after the collapse of the German monarchy. Karl Liebknecht, alongside his co-conspirator Rosa Luxemburg, led the unsuccessful uprising, but both were summarily executed after the rebellion was crushed 1919. The world revolution fell flat on its face, but those who tried to instigate it were (and still are) considered martyrs for the communist cause. Needless to say, the Karl Liebknecht bridge was in former East Berlin, as was the entire street I soon found myself in: Unter den Linden.

Unter den Linden simply means “Under the linden trees”. It’s a long boulevard that serves as the heart of Berlin, flanked as it is by several landmarks. I can’t begin to name them all, but a few honourable mentions are Humboldt University, named after the scientist Alexander Humboldt, the German who travelled throughout Europe and the Americas studying the natural world, particularly botany and geography, and is one of my personal heroes. I was supposed to be studying there – it’s why I came to Berlin, after all – but Covid destroyed those plans, and they padlocked their gates, meaning I never got to step foot inside. Wunderbar. Opposite the University is Bebelplatz, a large square where the infamous burning of books the Nazis didn’t like took place in May 1933, which was largely done by Nazi students at Humboldt University. Nowadays the university holds book sales where they sell the books that were burned during that horrible night. in the middle of the square is an “empty library” that commemorates this tragic event, but you might miss it if you’re not paying attention – it’s underground, only visible through a pane of glass.

Bebelplatz, the site of infamous book-burnings in 1933.

One thing that always strikes me whenever I wander along Unter den Linden is that several formidable armies have at some point or another marched along this street- Frederick the Great’s, Napoleon’s, Kaiser Wilhelm’s, Hitler’s, Stalin’s – but on this day the grand avenue was empty, save for the few police officers standing about the entrances of the embassies. It was eerily quiet, and not just because cars aren’t allowed there anymore. I shuddered, remembering my eerie experience in Estonia, and hurried along.

I passed the Ampelmann store, a uniquely Berlin phenomenon: a store entirely dedicated to the red and green men who tell you when to cross the street, and it’s only one of six located in Berlin! Why on Earth would anyone open a store dedicated to something so niche? Furthermore, why are these shops such a success with Berliners? The answer is pretty simple: After the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany reunited. However, West Germany dominated the East in every realm, especially culture. As a result, most of East German culture remains only in the memories of its former citizens…except the Ampelmann. These cute guys were super popular in East Berlin (remember, two different cities, two different traffic systems, two different electricity systems, two sets of everything. In fact, you can see the divide between East and West Berlin from space since the streetlights they used were different!). So the public were quick to rush to the defence of the little red and green men, passionately arguing they be maintained. They were not only spared cultural annihilation, they’re now beloved in former West and East alike and have almost become a symbol for a unified city. They sell pretty much anything you can think of in Ampelmann stores: Clothing, toys, stationary, lollies, bathroom and kitchen accessories, ambient decorations, even condoms! I’m not joking; I bought one because I knew that nobody would believe that there is a condom based on a crossing man!

That’s the condom I bought on top of a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Didn’t think you’d see that today, did you?

Then, I came to my favourite spot along Unter den Linden: The end, but only because that’s where the glorious Brandenburg Gate, one of my favourite landmarks in the world, stands tall. It was built in 1788 as an entry into the walled city of Berlin (this border wall didn’t cut the city in half, but I digress). Originally designated the “Peace Gate,” It was the site of Napoleon’s triumphant procession into Berlin in 1806 during his escapades throughout Europe. After Napoleon was finally defeated in 1814 (the first time around, that is – he came back!), The Brandenburg Gate took on the role of a victory arch, possibly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe under construction in Paris, except the Brandenburg Gate didn’t take thirty years to build. It has also taken on other political roles during its lifetime: The Nazis used it extensively in its party imagery as a symbol of German strength and victory, partly explaining why it was bombed repeatedly during the war – it’s truly a miracle it survived at all! It then served as a stark reminder of a divided Berlin as it stood right on the border, at least until the Wall went up and largely supplanted the Gate’s role therein. But even then, whenever a politician wanted to make a point, they did so at the Gate: foreign delegates visiting the Wall, whether American, Palestinian, British or Cuban, did so at the Gate. Ronald Reagan’s famous “Tear down this Wall” speech was done with the Gate in the background. And when Germany reunited on 3rd October 1990, that black, red and yellow flag you all know and love was flown high above the Gate as it took on its new role as an icon of freedom, as well as restoring its original symbolism of peace and harmony.

I walked through the central opening – once only permissible for German Royalty – and had three options: right, straight ahead, or left. To the right is the Reichstag, the meeting place of the German government. That building was also burnt in 1933, which led to Hitler tightening his grip on Germany and enabled him to dismantle the checks and balances of his rule (aside from President Hindenburg, but that’s a story for another time). Straight ahead would take me to the Tiergarten, a sprawling nature reserve filled with all sorts of statues, plants, installations and even a Soviet War Memorial, which fell in West Berlin. Odd, right? Anyway, I headed left, where one can find the Jewish Holocaust Memorial. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Holocaust was the systematic murder of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Now, it wasn’t like as soon as the Nazis got in in 1933, the killings started: The Holocaust only began in earnest in 1941. But the plan was always to eliminate the Jews from Germany one way or another. Hitler had made his anti-Semitism very clear since the 1920s, the persecution of the 1930s made it clear that Jews were not welcome in Germany and several plans were set up to rid Germany of Jews, including shipping them all off to Madagascar (yes, they wanted to send the Jews to Madagascar). It was once the war started to turn against the Nazis they picked the most expedient way to get rid of the Jews – mass murder. It was a core tenet of Nazi ideology, and the progression from being bullied in the streets to being stripped of rights to being herded into ghettos to being slaughtered in death camps is too calculated to see the Holocaust as unintentional or unplanned.

And for those of you who are inclined to believe that the Holocaust never happened, first of all: Come on, I’m quite the contrarian too but the evidence is incontrovertible. But secondly, I’ll warn you that Holocaust denial and Nazism is incredibly illegal in most of Europe and something they take very seriously, so please, not just for our sake but yours too, don’t talk about wooden doors or no hydrogen cyanide in the plaster –you’ll end up in prison.

The Memorial to Murdered Jews, a sprawl of concrete pillars that is hard to ignore.

Anyway, the Holocaust memorial is simple yet poignant. Concrete pillars rise up and down as if in a wave, resembling graves or coffins. There’s no names on any of them, simply because the sheer number of murdered Jews is too high to grasp. There’s an uneasy, faceless order to it all, likely symbolising the efficient albeit inhumane Nazi war machine responsible for robbing these people of their lives. You can walk between them, where the ground dips further and further down. Before long, you suddenly feel small and powerless as you realise how big these pillars actually are, and a heavy feeling overcomes you. You feel like hiding behind the pillars in case something’s coming, but you realise that you’re never safe; you’re always at risk of being flanked. For a brief moment, you can begin to experience but a hint of the dread the victims must have felt as they were hid from extermination. Yet no matter which way you look, there’s always a way out, and the Sun always shines above you. I believe symbolises the strength, resolve and faith of the Jews even at their lowest point to make it through that hell on Earth and survive and prosper in the world today in spite of the odds. At least, that’s what I’ve always taken from it.

About a hundred metres away from this Memorial to the Murdered Jews is an unassuming carpark, which was my destination. Yes, I walked all the way through Berlin in the middle of a pandemic to end up in a carpark. But it wasn’t really the carpark I was interested in. You see, this carpark is the site of where an incredibly important building once stood: the Führerbunker, the bunker in which Hitler spent his last days on Earth…

The Reichstag, burned, bombed and desecrated, yet it still stands for the German people.

20th April, 1945. Hitler turns 56 years old, but nobody’s celebrating. He’s witnessing the destruction of his thousand year Reich after just twelve years. The Communists are on the attack, but unlike 1919 there’s millions of them and they are fast approaching. The artillery begins to rain down on the capital of Germany. Hitler remains safe in his bombproof bunker, which has been his home for several months now. But he can’t stay down there forever; even a man as rigid and stubborn as Hitler can see that.

21st April, 1945. Soviet tanks reach the outskirts of Berlin. Hitler admits for the first time that maybe(!) Germany is losing the war. His paranoia grows to unfathomable heights, even by his standards: He accuses Göring of planning to overthrow him and become Führer. Still, he has his lover Eva Braun and his lapdog Goebbels, who swore to be by his master’s side to the bitter end. Goebbels makes one last broadcast to Germany, demanding the people fight tooth and nail to the bitter end. Bombs can be heard going off in the background as he speaks.

27th April, 1945. Berlin loses communication with the rest of Germany. Hitler is surrounded on all sides, cut off from the country he drove into the embrace of war. He’s still receiving news from abroad, however, and the news he receives is anything but assuring.

28th April, 1945. Himmler is captured by the British in his insane attempt to persuade the Allies to team up with Nazi Germany and fight against the Soviet Union (Yep, he really did that – somehow more insane than Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer who flew to Scotland solo a few years earlier to negotiate, only to be immediately arrested). Hitler is infuriated by this betrayal and becomes even more convinced that he’s on his own. The bombs and gunfire are getting louder.

The Soviet Memorial, not too far from where Hitler spent his last moments hiding from the Communists.

29th April, 1945. Hitler discovers what happened to his Italian buddy Benito the day before: execution and mutilation at the hands of Italian partisans. The Russians are less than five hundred metres away. When – not if – the Soviets captured the Reich Chancellery, they would eventually discover the secret entrance to the bunker. What they would do to him is unimaginable, and Hitler is determined to not let that same humiliation happen to him. Hitler, the lifelong bachelor, finally gets married. He and his bride Eva enjoy less than forty hours as a married couple. Mistrusting the cyanide pills given to him by Himmler, Hitler feeds some to his dog, Blondi, to test its potency. Blondi, the dog that Hitler apparently loved so much, becomes one of his final victims. Fortunately, she dies quickly. Her pups, however, are taken outside and shot.

30th April, 1945. The Reichstag building is attacked. The Russians are fast approaching. Hitler is informed that every military unit he was relying on to rescue him has been killed, captured, surrounded, or is otherwise unable to save him. He says his goodbyes to those still in the bunker, goes into his office with Eva at roughly 3.00PM, swallows poison and shoots himself in the head. Eva does not shoot herself; she dies by poison. The Führer is dead. His body is burned and the Soviets show up two days later.

30th April, 2020. It’s been exactly 75 years since the most hated man of the 20th Century blew his brains out. I’m standing right where he did it, and I’m feeling cheeky. I decided to dab on him. Yep, you read that right. I decided to dab on Hitler on the 75th anniversary of his self-unaliving in the middle of a pandemic. And I had a great time doing it, even though that meme was old even by then. I threw in some quintessential Australian cursing as I repeatedly dabbed on him, making a rare exception to my rule to not mock the dead. Petty, sure, but an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

Hidden in plain sight: The location of Hitler’s suicide in 1945.

Once I had finished up, I turned around and saw an old lady, her eyes wide, her mouth agape and her skin as pale as Winter’s snow. I was confused – what was she looking at? I gave her a polite wave, which snapped her out of her trance as she hustled away as fast as her walker let her. I walked over to the nearby Mall of Berlin, trying to ascertain what that lady’s problem was. I soon realised that in order to dab, one must have one arm held out straight. From behind, you can’t see the other arm covering my face, so all she saw was a guy standing in front of the former Führerbunker with an arm sticking up nice and high…kinda like a Sieg Heil…

I stopped in absolute horror, unable to move. Oh my God – Did this lady misinterpret my mockery for sympathy!? I certainly hope not! Throwing up a Sieg Heil is incredibly illegal in Germany and surrounding countries and definitely not something to do for a laugh – police will arrest you on the spot and give you a hefty fine, or if the police aren’t around, people will beat the ever-loving shit out of you. Nazis aren’t well-liked in Germany anymore (I wonder why), and tourists who think they’re being hilarious have gotten into seriously hot water over it. So, take it from someone who has a flair for the inappropriate: don’t ever do a Sieg Heil in Germany, not even as a joke! In any case, I made a promise that next time I made plans, I would review them on the off-chance they might not be such a great idea, optically, health-wise or otherwise.

As you may have guessed, I have failed to live up to this new standard on several occasions. But as long as you’re learning from your mistakes, were they truly mistakes?

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