• CSUN History Department

History Field Study - Historic Berlin

From 5-18 June 2008, the History Department conducted a field research trip to Berlin and Prague under the guidance of Professors Donal O’Sullivan and Michael Meyer. Entitled ‘The Heart of Europe’, the journey undertook several objectives: to introduce students with no prior knowledge of European history and culture to the sites of two major cultural and political centers, to deepen the understanding of students with previous experience in European travel, to illustrate and expand the knowledge of participants of courses on German and Central European history - specifically ‘History of Modern Germany’ (offered this Spring Semester by Dr. O’Sullivan). The trip was tied in with individual study projects, on-site presentations and forthcoming courses, including Dr Meyer’s seminar on ‘Nazi Culture’ in Fall 2008. We also would like to highlight the valuable contribution of Student Coordinator Robert Shafer throughout the preparatory phase and during our journey in Europe.

Following in the tradition of departmental ‘staff rides’, the program included visits to major scenes of military and political conflict. In Berlin, this included the site of the Wehrmacht surrender in Karlshorst and the site of the Potsdam conference of 1945 - an area of Dr. O’Sullivan’s expertise. In addition, the program focused on German-Jewish relations, with visits to the former Jewish quarter in Berlin and the Mendelssohn Academy in Potsdam and Halberstadt, and the history of the Holocaust, with visits to the Gestapo headquarters and Terezin concentration camp-museum – areas of Dr. Meyer’s special interest.  At the same time, students enjoyed the opportunity to experience the flavor of contemporary Berlin from their base in the district of Prenzlauer Berg in former East Berlin.  As giant screens in restaurants and public squares broadcast the European soccer championship games at night, students saw the role of spectator sports and the display of friendly nationalism.  Some students have become real soccer fans.

Our first full day in Berlin began with a visit to the famous boulevard ‘Unter den Linden’ which we reached by bus from our hotel near Alexanderplatz.  Walking towards the Brandenburg Gate, students noticed dozens of colorful Berlin bears, a city-wide art project.  A similar bear statue adorns a sidewalk in Los Angeles, the sister city of Berlin.  Student Brittany Bounds started our series of on-site presentations by telling us all about the history of the Brandenburg Gate, from the construction to the series of conquerors passing through the columns, including Napoleon and the Red Army.  As we walked through the Gate, we could not help but reflect on the Cold War period when this would have been impossible. Michael Meyer recounted his experience of seeing the Gate from the Eastern side while on a visit there during the division of Europe and he told the students about the behavior of East German border guards at the time. We also were fortunate to see the newly-built United States Embassy on Pariser Platz which would be officially inaugurated shortly after the trip on July Fourth.

Next, we turned left to spend some time inside the space containing the concrete pillars of the Holocaust Memorial. Over 2,000 rectangular shapes designed by American architect Peter Eisenman invite the visitor to reflect on the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Germany, the students learned, has reserved a prime location in the heart of its capital to remember the dark chapters of its history. We also encountered the most recent monument across the street in Tiergarten Park - the memorial to the persecuted homosexuals. Financed by the German government, it had only been opened a couple of weeks prior to our visit.

We came across the site of the “Führerbunker” (now a car park) and explained to the students that, for the last fifty years, this site had not been marked for fear of becoming a place of pilgrimage for Neo-Nazis. Recently, however, a plaque had been put up to display the design of the underground hiding place. On Wilhelmstrasse, students witnessed the remarkable building that used to house Goering’s aviation ministry. Amazingly, it was one of the few government buildings remaining unscathed during the aerial bombardment of Berlin. The East German government moved several ministries into it, only to see it become the focal point of demonstrations during the revolt of 1953.  After the wall came down, the building with over 2,000 offices first housed the privatization agency and currently the finance ministry of reunified Germany. Because of its 1930s look, the courtyard is often used in feature films about the Nazi period.  Right next to it, the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall served as a backdrop for photos. It, in turn, is located right next to the former Gestapo headquarters, of which the foundations remain as an exhibit to the Nazi atrocities. Within a short walking distance, students experienced major sites and experiences of 20th century German history.

Our ambitious program continued at a high pace for the next few days.  Students Juan Ponce and Anton Nixon gave on-site presentations at the Olympic stadium, where we saw the name of Jesse Owens engraved in the 1936 winners’ list.  A boat ride on the Spree River provided views of contemporary Berlin, past the steel skeleton of the former East German ‘Palace of the Republic’ (currently being demolished) and the impressive Museum Island. We saw the Sanssouci Palace at Potsdam and got an English-language tour of the Cecilienhof Palace, the last building of the Hohenzollern family (constructed in the English Tudor style in 1913) which served as the site of the Allied Conference in 1945. At the new Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Strasse,  photographer artist Heinz Kuzdas, a friend of Michael Meyer, introduced us to “wall art” (graffiti) and talked about life in Cold War Berlin.  Some students discussed the possibility of hosting Kuzdas for a presentation at CSUN in the future.  We also visited the private Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where we got a fascinating look at the ingenious attempts by East Germans to cross the heavily guarded border zone to freedom in the West. Student Brian Fitzpatrick had the honor of presenting a lecture on the last days of World War Two in the same room that the unconditional surrender was signed, with the ghost of famous Soviet Field Marshal Zhukov probably still hovering around. 

Tour guide Olaf Kolbatz showed us the colorful ‘kiez’ (neighborhood) of Prenzlauer Berg and the ‘Scheunenviertel’, the former Jewish quarter as well as the gem of German museums, and the Jewish Museum built by American architect Daniel Libeskind. Regarding German-Jewish relations, Dr Meyer provided personal insights and background information. In the evening, we enjoyed a concert at the Concert Hall on Gendarmenmarkt, and we witnessed the passion of soccer fans at the ‘Kulturbrauerei’ (a former brewery).

In Potsdam, the Moses Mendelssohn Center’s Larissa Weber, responsible for education and outreach, explained how German high school teachers rely on the assistance of the Center to prepare their lesson plans on Jewish culture and German-Jewish history.  Especially with the resurgence of crude nationalist ideas in some areas of East German youth culture, teachers are faced with the challenge to overcome ignorance and supply solid information.

One of the many highlights of the trip was the visit to the former prison at Hohenschoenhausen. Jessica Stern of the Memorial Foundation gave us a remarkable two-hour tour, explaining the use of the facility by the Soviets in the early post-war period, and the evolution of the most significant jail for political prisoners in the GDR. In those days, no map showed the prison, only carefully vetted citizens and Stasi officers could live nearby, and those arrested were driven around for hours so they had no idea where they were held. Jessica remarked that sometimes, former political prisoner taking the tour suddenly realize that this was where they were incarcerated for months or years. Every single prisoner had his/her own interrogator, and none of the inmates ever saw or talked to a fellow inmate. Not only the interrogation rooms and the cells have been preserved, some of us felt we could even taste the smell of the GDR in the long corridors. Although the Academy-Award winning movie ‘Life of Others’ was not shot here, students who saw the film did ‘recognize’ the atmosphere.

Our motorcoach excursion to Halberstadt and Magdeburg brought us into contact with life outside of the big city. Jutta Dick of the Moses Mendelssohn Academy first explained the historic synagogue, the institution used for art exhibitions - currently on the philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt who was introduced to us by a visiting art student from Braunschweig. Director Dick then took us on a tour of the small historic town of Halberstadt, a former bishopric. Students especially enjoyed the impressive Gothic church with its solemn medieval atmosphere. Although Halberstadt joined the Reformed Church, its inhabitants decided against the destruction of statues and colorful windows. We also had a chance of visiting the church where a work of famous American radical composer John Cage is heard - for the next 639 years.  Expanded artificially, the composition is the world’s longest work of music.  On entry, visitors hear a single note, a sound not unlike a foghorn. Without the augmentation of tones, the composition would take only fifteen minutes. The note changes every month or so, a big event for the Halberstadt tourist office and noted by the world press. However, the church windows had to be reinforced because the neighbors complained.

Back in Berlin, former consul-general in Los Angeles and historian, Dr. Hans-Jürgen Wendler was at hand to show students through the magnificent and detailed exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. We saw old maps, historic documents such as the ‘Golden Bull’ and the first printed copies of Luther’s bible translation and toys such as the ‘U-Boat card game’ manufactured to enhance civilian morale during the First World War.
On their afternoon off, students still had the energy to divide up in groups and visit the Allied Museum, the TV Tower, the Tempelhof airlift memorial and other sites of Berlin.

On Saturday 14 June, we left Berlin by train for Prague, passing through Dresden and following the Elbe River through the famous tourist area called ‘Saxon Switzerland’. On arrival in the Czech capital, we spent the mild evening walking from the Old City Square to the medieval Charles Bridge, taking plenty of photographs along the way. Sunday morning, we boarded a bus for Terezin concentration camp-museum. Our tour guide Zdenek Zacpal explained to us how the fortress had been built under the Habsburgs but had never served a military purpose, as during the Austro-Prussian war, when the Prussians had simply bypassed the fortress on their way to eventual victory.  We visited the vast complex where the Nazis had kept thousands of Jewish prisoners. In the afternoon, we toured what the Nazis had presented to the Red Cross: the Ghetto of Theresienstadt, a fake village-like camp intended to make official visitors believe Jews were simply relocated and could go on living a normal life under Nazi control.  The Ghetto Museum exhibits the prisoners’ remarkable will of survival, recording the creativity and spirit of the inmates.  The following day, we began by touring the Josefov quarter with several medieval synagogues. They serve to demonstrate the thriving Jewish culture in Prague over the centuries. When the Nazis started to persecute the Jews in the occupied territories, they assembled objects of worship and historical artifacts in Prague, intending to exhibit them in a “museum of an extinct race.” This is one of the reasons why Prague hosts a magnificent collection of Jewish heritage in Europe today. Students were also very impressed by their visit to the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Famous members of the Jewish community found their final resting place here, and it remains a very spiritual site today. 

A contact of Dr Meyer, art historian and architectural government consultant, Dr Ivan Muchka, then gave us a guided tour of the Hradcany Palace above the Vltava River.  We visited the St. Vitus Church, the most significant cathedral in the Czech Republic.  Apart from the religious value, the castle is the seat of the Czech President and offers great views of the city below.  By coincidence, we came across a motorcade which brought French President Sarkosy to a conference at the castle.  Also along the way, we were able to point out a variety of significant sites such as the Kafka and Jan Hus memorials, and Venceslas Square. We also were able to direct students to the Vysehrad Hill with the graves of composers Smetana and Dvorak and the ‘Dancing House’ by Frank Gehry along the river bank. At the Cafe Slavia, we remembered the dissident writers who gathered here for support during the time of Communist oppression.

We believe students greatly benefited from the trip, and we would like to thank every institution and private person who helped make this trip a reality. It served as a marvelous introduction into the multiple facets of European history and will surely inspire students in their future careers. Several students have already indicated their desire to write about aspects of the trip and to incorporate their impressions into their scholarly work. The photos and film footage will also assist in future courses on German and Central European history at CSUN.