A 2.30am start for 56 students and 6 staff started our bi-annual visit to Berlin for GCSE History students this February. The aim of this visit was to enhance their understanding of Weimar and Nazi Germany in preparation for their final examinations, as well as the opportunity to see some ‘real history’. There was no rest for the students once they had landed in Berlin as we were straight into a day of activities after a well-earned lunch in the centre of the city. The first visit was to the German Resistance Memorial. This thought-provoking museum saw students reflect on the number of people who tried hard to resist the Nazis from their early rise to power to the July Bomb Plot of 1944. A slow walk through the city to the hotel meant students could take in the atmosphere of Berlin before a well-earned rest and early night’s sleep!
After a good night’s rest, 62 people successfully navigated the Berlin tram system, arriving at ‘The Story of Berlin’. This museum enabled the students to see the big picture of how Berlin had changed throughout the twentieth century, but most were truly impressed with the nuclear bunker that they then visited, although disturbed by the reality that no bunker would have actually been safe for any citizen in the case of a nuclear attack. From here we visited ‘Berliner Unterwelten’. These were also underground bunkers, but with a twist. During the Second World War, Hitler realised he needed to offer the citizens of Berlin some form of protection. He ordered the bunkers to be used in the case of an air attack. Whilst citizens were told that these were safe underground bunkers, it was in fact merely an air raid shelter. Whilst the shelter was underground, they were not built deep enough for it to withstand a bombing attack. Students walked through the different rooms learning about what it was like to live in these shelters for days at a time. Conditions deteriorated as the war progressed and the shelters become too heavily populated, which also limited the amount of time that could be spent in them as oxygen would run dangerously low. Deemed to be one of the best places we visited in Berlin, these bunkers were well worth a visit. We then continued on to view the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and the Jewish Holocaust Memorial before heading back to the hotel after another journey on the tram!
The third day saw a change in mood as our focus was on the Holocaust. Our first visit was to the House of Wannsee; it was here the orders for the ‘Final Solution’ were delivered to top Nazi leaders and SS officers. The power of this museum was that it enabled students to realise that the people giving these orders were teachers, lawyers and doctors. This was a challenging visit with some hard hitting images and testimony that students responded to brilliantly. They were thoughtful and reflective and could have easily stayed much longer to ponder the information that they had heard and seen. However, we had to leave in order to reach Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen was primarily used in the 1930s to hold political opponents, asocials and Prisoners of War. Jews were taken to the camp in the 1940s, but the most chilling aspect of this camp was how many of the experimentation done here was then used to develop Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Zyklon B was first used here to sterilise the barracks and the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau was trained at Sachsenhausen. It was a tough visit, but the student reflections and responses were exceptional; they had clearly gained a lot from the day.
On the final day, we headed to the Jewish Museum. The architect of this museum purposefully made the museum abstract so that it was open to your own interpretation. The disorientation that you sensed as you moved further and further into the centre was coupled with the range of artefacts and exhibitions that went from celebrating Jewish culture to mourning the tragedy of the Holocaust. The students were able to wander around this museum on their own, each taking something different away with them. The final part of the day allowed students to do some shopping for souvenirs, although 13 were still keen to visit more museums and visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum!
The students had four full-on days and were exhausted by the end, but they were a real credit to Ranelagh School in their actions and behaviour throughout; a superb visit to Berlin!