Checkpoint Charlie “GI” actors banned in Berlin - CBS News:

German authorities have banned actors from posing as American GIs at Checkpoint Charlie, the historic U.S.-controlled border crossing between communist East and West Berlin. Tourists had claimed they were being harassed and even followed for refusing to make a $4.50 “donation” for a photo with a “guard.”

I had my photo taken with these actors in 2018 and thought it was fun. They were up front about wanting a few euros. This is not new story but I wanted to supplement my Berlin visit post to explain that this photo opportunity is no longer possible.

Switzerland’s Relationship With the Dachau Concentration Camp

Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) government and Switzerland had substantial ties. Switzerland’s contribution to the construction of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich is not well known.

Before WWII, Extroc, SA, a Swiss state-subsidized timber company built the Dachau concentration camp, under a contract for 13 million Swiss francs. The contract was negotiated by Colonel Henri Guisan, the son of the later Swiss Commander-in-Chief Henri Guisan (1874-1960) and a Swiss national hero.

The Swiss Colonel was in turn connected to Hans Wilhelm Eggen, an SS captain who bought timber in Switzerland for the Waffen SS. This was the wood used to construct Dachau. Dachau was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazi government.

According to a now declassified CIA report, Eggen often went to “Switzerland under cover of a delivery agent for wooden barracks.” Eggen was a friend of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS. In Nazi Germany, the SS controlled the German police forces and the concentration camp system.

See, Roberts, Andrew, The Storm of War (p. 113). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition; Goñi, Uki, The Real Odessa: How Perón Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina (p. 170). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

DW reports that the German government has caught an Egyptian spy working in its press office until December, 2019. Germany believes Egypt recruits individuals to spy on opposition groups living in Germany.

Millionaires Per Capita (2019)

  1. Switzerland
  2. Hong Kong
  3. United States
  4. Netherlands
  5. Australia
  6. Denmark
  7. New Zealand
  8. Sweden
  9. United Kingdom
  10. Singapore

Switzerland has a big lead. Germany is number 16, which surprised me. Canada is number 11. Sadly, I’m not sure that Hong Kong still qualifies as a country.

Source: Credit Suisse on Wikipedia - Sortable List

Reflections on Berlin

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Berlin twice. The first time was in the early 1980s and the second time in 2018. The transformation was dramatic.

Berlin Before the Fall of the Wall

I visited Berlin in the early 1980s. Berlin was then a divided city. I stayed in the Western zone near the Kurfurstendamm, which at the time was the heart of Berlin. I took a one day bus tour to the East. We crossed through Checkpoint Charlie. The bus was thoroughly searched by East German border guards. In contrast, the American military just let us pass freely.

The West was vibrant with shops, restaurants and people everywhere, In contrast, buildings in the East still showed signs of the bombing it received in the war. There were Soviet style memorials throughout East Berlin.

Our East German guide was openly dispirited and seemed to be reciting a script he was told to speak, especially when he spoke of “warm relations” with the then Soviet Union. At the end of the day, I was glad to be back in the West where I felt free and comfortable.

Berlin in 2018

Kurfurstendamm

In 2018, I went back to Berlin to see an undivided, transformed and reinvented Berlin. The German capital is still under construction 73 years after the end of WWII. I stayed near the Kurfurstendamm so I could compare my experience today with the early 1980s. My hotel — Pension Peters — is a small owner-managed hotel, where I felt more like a temporary resident in a nice Berlin neighborhood rather than a tourist.

I saw the transformation of Berlin immediately. The Kurfurstendamm is no longer the center of town. The heart of Berlin today is in the former East, which was a shambles when I was last there. The Kurfurstendamm is now a nice shopping street in lovely Berlin neighborhood called City West but is no longer the heart of the capital.

The Heart of Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie is now nothing more than a tourist attraction with actor guards who, for a few Euros, will pose with you for a nice picture. There’s even a “Checkpoint Charlie” McDonald’s across the street. It certainly no longer inspires fear.

The heart of Berlin is dominated by the Brandenburg Gate and government buildings, including the embassies of the four former occupying powers: the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia.

Berlin is no longer occupied but the former occupiers are nearby as if to say: “We are watching.” Each of the four embassies has a rich history.

The Soviet Union was first of the four major occupiers to move into a post-War embassy in Berlin. The Russian Embassy in Berlin was closed in 1941 when the two countries went to war. Its reconstruction was the first project of the post-war years in the East Berlin. The embassy’s official grand opening was held on the national holiday of the former USSR, on November 7, 1951. It’s Europe’s largest embassy which sends a message all by itself. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became the Russian Embassy. (See also Rick Steves Berlin (p. 105). Avalon Publishing. Kindle Edition. )

The United Kingdom (UK) came next. The UK’s impressive new embassy was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on July 18, 2000.

France occupied its new embassy in October 2002. However, France formally opened it on January 23, 2003. That date was chosen as it was the 40th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between Germany and France, declaring friendship between France and the former West Germany. French President Jacques Chirac presided. Marking the occasion, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Chirac issued a declaration affirming Franco-German friendship and their joint determination to “re-found Europe”.

The United States was the last of the four major occupiers to move into a post-War embassy in Berlin. The history of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin is especially complicated. During WWII, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin was severely damaged by Allied bombing. After the war, the embassy ended up just barely inside East Berlin in divided Berlin’s Soviet zone, straddling the demarcation between the Soviet and American sectors.

The Berlin Wall made the site of the former U.S. Embassy, still owned by the U.S. government, an inaccessible vacant lot. It was part of the security zone separating east and west Berliners. In 1967, the East German government demolished the ruins of the US Embassy building. However, the site became accessible after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. Even so, it remained a vacant lot until the 2004 groundbreaking for construction of a brand new U.S. Embassy. The newly constructed embassy opened on July 4, 2008.

The Brandenburg Gate is nearby. This is the center of Berlin. Since the 18th Century, the Brandenburg Gate has been a site for major historical events and today is an important symbol of the history of Europe and Germany.

Also nearby — and not to be missed — is Germany’s parliament – the Reichstag – which was opened in 1894 and remained in service until 1933, when it was severely damaged after being set on fire. The Reichstag fire occurred one month after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. After World War II, the building fell into disuse; the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (the Volkskammer) met in the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, while the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany (the Bundestag) met in the Bundeshaus in Bonn.

The building was not properly restored until after German reunification on October 3, 1990. And what a glorious restoration it was. The German government chose British architect Norman Foster to lead the effort. Foster constructed is a large glass dome atop the Reichstag with a 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The debating chamber of the Bundestag, the German parliament, can be seen below. A mirrored cone in the center of the dome directs sunlight into the building, and so that visitors can see the working of the chamber. The dome is open to the public and can be reached by climbing two steel, spiraling ramps that are reminiscent of a double helix. The Dome sends a message that the people are above the government, as was not the case during the Nazi era. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the modern Bundestag. The views are impressive. Entry is free but advance registration is required.

Other Berlin Sites

I also enjoyed visiting:

  • Hitler’s Bunker (Führerbunker), where Adolf Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war. It’s now an ordinary parking lot. Germany doe not want to create a shrine out the place where Hitler perished.

  • Topography of Terror (Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Cantre) has interesting exhibits documenting Nazi crimes. During the Nazi era, the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office were located at the site.

  • The German History Museum for its candid exhibits about Hitler and the Nazis era.

  • Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the site of the main political prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. I found the visit informative and chilling. East Germany went from one form of oppression to another form of oppression. It’s sad, terrifying and once again demonstrates what unchecked power 

  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial) has almost 3,000 symbolic pillars next to the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Berlin. It was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, who is Jewish. It opened in 2005. Eisenman explains that the “project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time.” The Memorial brings home the magnitude of the Holocaust.

Germany is creatively and thoughtfully reinventing its capital city. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope to return to see more of Berlin and how it evolves once I can safely return.

I don’t have any photos of my visit before the Berlin Wall fell. However, my 2018 photos are on Flickr.

Discovering European TV

The Euro TV Place is an excellent source of recommendations for great European television. Linda Jew, the founder of the site, regularly publishes detailed reviews.

I especially enjoy French television because it helps me keep up and improve my French. Modern television lets you hear the way people speak in everyday life, which often is different from what is taught in foreign language classes.

I’ve enjoyed some great television I learned about at The Euro TV Place including:

  • Le bureau des légendes, a great spy series (one of the best pieces I’ve ever watched);

  • Call My Agent, a very funny French TV series about a top rung Parisian talent agency (Netflix);

  • No Second Chance which is in French but written by Harlan Coben, a famous American writer (Netflix);

  • Deutschland 83, a funny German spy story; and

  • Engrenages (Spiral in English), a seven season police and legal drama series consisting of 76 wonderful episodes.

If you’re interested in exploring new television, The Euro TV Place is a great resource. The blog discusses many new shows each month.

Audiobook: ‘The Liberation of Paris’

The Liberation of Paris is a gripping book that is packed full of interesting details about Nazi-occupied Paris and its last commander Dietrich von Choltitz.

At the end of WWII, Adolf Hitler ordered Choltitz to hold Paris, but if that wasn’t possible, to destroy it. Although General Choltitz had been very loyal to Hitler, he could not bring himself to obliterate the City of Light. He ultimately surrendered Paris to French forces on August 25, 1944. He’s been called the “Saviour of Paris” for preventing the destruction Paris.

After his surrender, Choltitz was held for the remainder of the war in London and the United States and was ultimately released from captivity in 1947. He died in Baden-Baden in 1966.

The author of this exceptional book was the distinguished political scientist and biographer Jean Edward Smith. Smith’s work includes highly regarded biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He died on September 1, 2019 at the age of 86.

The audiobook is ably narrated by Fred Sanders, who has narrated many fine audiobooks including Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance.