Berlin’s apocalyptic past

We take a look back over the moments in history when Berlin stood on the brink of annihilation.

Image for Berlin’s apocalyptic past
U.S. tanks aimed toward the East during the Checkpoint Charlie standoff. Photo courtesy of the US Army
Our city’s had more than its fair share of brushes with total annihilation. Four historians explain. The Black Plague: June 1576-February 1577 Expert: Diethelm Eikermann, co-author of Die Pest in Berlin, 1576. Allegedly brought to Berlin by a woman who stole the coat of a dead victim from the neighbouring town of Cölln (now the Fischerinsel in Mitte), the bubonic plague went on to claim more than 4000 lives, effectively wiping out 50 percent of Berlin’s population at the time. The bubonic plague was a horrifying disease that spread with incredible speed. It was a type of apocalypse because the people had no idea why everyone was dying, and dying so quickly with such excruciating symptoms – within two or three days of onset. In such terrifying times when medical science was not fully understood, it is no surprise that people explained the plague as God’s punishment for their sins. Further deaths occurred with the food shortage that ensued. Without peasants to tend to the fields, there was no crops, the cattle began to die, and without cattle there was no more meat. It was a mass social catastrophe. HS
The 30 Years’ War reaches Berlin: 1618-1648 Expert: Hans Medick, retired professor at the University of Erfurt and coauthor of Experiencing the Thirty Years’ War. Not just one but a series of wars fought across the whole of Europe following the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War devastated Germany, killing about one-third of the population (5000 people) in the area now known as Berlin. Berlin wasn’t one city back then. It was a collection of smaller villages. People there were better off than people in rural areas, who had no protection through town walls or protective guards. By the time the war ended, Berlin lay largely in shambles – broke, ruined and decimated by starvation, murder, plague and disease. This war was an all-encompassing crisis backed up by the Church, who told congregations it was a sign from God that they had sinned. It was seen as the potential end of the world. The war’s haunting memory is still alive in some areas of Germany. Even in the 1960s, a study asked people in rural areas which war had been the most devastating: before both the Second and First World Wars came the 30 Years’ War! AFK
The Battle of Berlin: April 16-May 2, 1945 Expert: Antony Beevor, historian, author of the bestselling book Berlin: The Downfall and the recent The Second World War. A barrage of Soviet shells and whine of air raid sirens marked the final days leading to the Third Reich’s downfall. By the time the Red Army reached Berlin’s centre, the battle had already claimed the lives of 161,000 military personnel. Before the Soviets claimed victory, another 64,000 would die, including 22,000 civilians. Around 450,000 Berliners were left homeless and an estimated 100,000 women were raped by Russian soldiers. At the end of World War II, the centre of Berlin was little more than rubble. It was completely devastated. Berlin had no heat, gas, electricity or water and its people were struggling to survive in the midst of a battlefield – in a state of total weariness and constant fear of bombshells exploding around them. At that point, their only coping mechanism was shutting off their emotions and setting aside the knowledge that everything was lost. Berliners felt the only way of surviving was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. For German women it would mean diligently working at setting aside rubble and sweeping the streets of the city. In truth, when the city had surrendered, the population of Berlin could only feel relief that it was finally over. FV
Showdown at Checkpoint Charlie: October 27-28, 1961 Expert: Arnd Bauerkämper, professor of 19th and 20th-century history at the Free University Berlin, author of several books and articles about fascism in Europe and socialism in the GDR. Sparked by an incident in which a senior US diplomat on his way to the Staatsoper in East Berlin refused to show his passport to border guards, the Checkpoint Charlie standoff was one of the most teeth-clenching situations in Berlin during the Cold War. In an attempt to have control over its borders, the GDR government decided to check American diplomats as they crossed between West and East. The Americans claimed that the GDR didn’t have this authority, thus sparking a standoff between Soviet and US tanks – T55 and M48, staring each other down on Friedrichstraße, each 75 metres from the East/West Berlin border for 16 long hours. The danger of a very violent confrontation was palpable… and of course, a Third World War. It was a few months after the Wall had been built, so tensions were already extremely high. The slightest slip of a young guard’s finger and Berlin would not be the place we know today. If anybody at the checkpoint had lost his nerve and shot at somebody, which was very likely to happen, there would have been unpredictable repercussions. The main sense of fear derived from the sheer insecurity of the situation – everyone but the guards at the checkpoint were left paralysed by the loss of control. The situation was rectified when, following assurances from Kennedy, Khrushchev granted Allied officials and military personnel unimpeded access to the East German capital. No one was ready to start WWIII over Berlin. SOD