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Get educated: Five Berlin history tours without the tourists

Berlin's historical sites are usually swarming with visitors, but this summer they’re a more intimate experience. For the history nerds or the merely curious, we’ve highlighted the best English tours for the tourist in all of us.

The coronavirus pandemic has given us a chance to rediscover Berlin without the tourists that flood the city during summer. The pandemic has cancelled mass gatherings and crippled many cultural institutions, but some of Berlin’s key memorial sites and museums still offer guided tours in German and English for smaller groups. They’ve also kept some permanent exhibitions open, as long as visitors wear masks. At a time where travel is arguably unwise, guided tours can help you feel like a tourist in your own city.

 Here are the top five tours of Berlin’s famous historical sites.

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Photo: Topography of Terror

Topography of Terror

Niederkirchnerstraße 8, 10963 Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg 

Cost: Free

Length: 60 minutes

Topography of Terror is one of Berlin’s most recognisable historical sites dealing with a piece of Berlin’s Nazi past. This history museum and documentation centre was once the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and Reich Main Security Office during the Third Reich. The site itself was central to the terror apparatus of the Nazi regime. English language tours are offered Thursday to Sunday at 4pm, where for 60 minutes participants are lead through the grounds by a historian who explains the significance of the site and its relation to the history of Berlin.

Dr. Tom Werner, my tour guide earlier this month, reminded us that the Nazis didn’t place all of their most important ministries lined up on the west side of the Wilhelmstraße all the way until Unter den Linden by accident. They purposefully built upon Prussian-era governmental structures. Some of those buildings, such as the building which once housed the offices of Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, are still in use.

When the Nazis were elected in 1933, the Gestapo moved into a building on the site while the SS moved into the Prinz Albrecht Palais, a 17th-century Hohenzollern Palace in the middle of the city. By the end of World War II, these buildings were badly damaged. They could have been saved, but the Allies bulldozed them into the dustbin of history. You can find out what happened to the site after that on the tour. In addition to the tour of the site, the documentation centre, an amazing museum in its own right, is open for visitors (masks inside are required, but not outside on the tours).

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Photo: Marko Priske

Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe

Cora-Berliner-Straße 1, Mitte

Cost: Free

Length: 60 minutes

The stones that make up the memorial of the murdered Jews of Europe are a central architectural piece of present-day Berlin. At 11am on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the foundation offers a free guided tour in English. It takes you through the history of the memorial itself and why it was built as a central place of remembrance in Germany’s now famous Vergangenheitsbewältigung (way of dealing with the past). Surprisingly, I was the only one on the tour last week. Salvatore, the Italian art historian giving the tour, told me about the space from both a historical and an architectural perspective, which was knowledge I would have otherwise not come across. 

At this time of year the site is usually full of tourists with high expectations and kids playing hide-and-seek between the stones. But you can now traverse the Stelenfeld without much distraction, allowing visitors to leave the memorial with a deep impression. The additional exhibition below the memorial is open except for Mondays, where audio guides in English and other languages are available.

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Photo: Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen/Gvoon

Memorial at Hohenschönhausen (Former Stasi Prison)

Genslerstraße 66, Lichtenberg

Cost: €6 for adults, €3 for students

Length: 90 Minutes

How the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) in communist East Germany came to be is intrinsically connected to this ageing prison. Deep in former East Berlin, this prison for interrogation is intentionally off the beaten track and surrounded by an entire sealed-off complex devoted to surveillance. When the Soviets won the Battle of Berlin, the Soviet secret police detained “fascist elements of German society” and anyone who resisted the soviet occupation authority in order to clear the way for the East German communist state.

Under the tutelage of the KGB from the late 1940s to mid-1950s, the Stasi learned to interrogate and psychologically manipulate prisoners, sometimes turning them into willing informants.  Afterwards, the site was used as a prison until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historians, and on rare occasions former prisoners, give guided tours through the Stasi’s former interrogation prison in English from Monday to Friday at 2.15pm and 3.45pm and every Saturday and Sunday at 11.45am, 2.15pm and 3.45pm. Before heading out east, it’s important to call and reserve your places. During the tour wearing a mask is mandatory.

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Photo: Berliner Unterwelten e.V. / H. Happel

Berliner Unterwelten: Dark Worlds

Brunnenstraße 105, Wedding

Cost: €14

Length: 90 minutes

Berliner Unterwelten usually operates tours of many underground sites during in the summer, but Corona has forced them to scale back the amount of tours they offer. The only tour currently available in English is the Dark Worlds tour, where a group of maximum nine people are taken through an above-ground air raid shelter built in 1941. Beneath an ordinary-looking door at Gesundbrunnnen station lies a maze of concrete rooms where Berlin’s civilians would hide from Allied air raids.

The tour guide takes you through the spaces and tells the story of how Luftschutz (air-raid protection) became a matter of concern long before the war started, as civilians were pressured by local Nazi authorities to buy expensive gas masks (the equivalent of €50 in today’s money) and special blue light bulbs that apparently can’t be seen by British planes (untrue).

For the Dark Worlds tour, you have to book in advance and, of course, bring a mask. Christian, our knowledgeable guide last week, was keen to tell us that we’re somewhat lucky to see the bunker during Corona times. In BC (before corona), these tours were packed with 30 people in the high season and ran every 15 minutes. Visitors today can be glad that they get to see these spaces without loads of people in confined spaces.

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Photo: David von Becker

German Historical Museum

Unter den Linden 2, Mitte

Cost: €15 Euros for a group of up to six, €20 for up to eight

Length: 60 minutes

The German Historical Museum is currently offering four different guided tours of the permanent exhibition, each centred on a separate theme. I decided on the tour called “What leads to war, and how is peace made?”.

The tour began with a series of paintings from Augsburg portraying the lives of the upper class and merchants. Our guide explained that one of history’s wealthiest men was an Augsburg merchant by the name of Jakob Fugger, who in the 16th century owned 10 percent of the Holy Roman Empire’s total GDP. As we were led through the exhibition, the Thirty Years’ War became the tour’s main theme, including on a section on some of its main weapons. It would shock you how difficult it was to load and fire a muzzle gun. Later we learned about the battle of Vienna and how an Ottoman tent made its way into the museum. Our guide Gregor was a great story teller. He knew how to put the museum’s objects into a cohesive narrative, which you wouldn’t get by wandering through the exhibition on your own.