At the Berlin Wall, Thousands Tried Creative—and Dangerous—Ways to Get Across

At the Berlin Wall, Thousands Tried Creative—and Dangerous—Ways to Get Across

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Ida Siekmann had been holed up for days. Nine days earlier, workers had sealed the border to her country by dead of night. Three days earlier, the front entrance to her apartment had been blocked off by police.

She had committed no crime, but Siekmann was in the wrong place at the wrong time: August 1961. Her apartment building was located in what had become East Berlin, while the street, including the sidewalk in front of her building entrance was now part of West Berlin.

Siekmann wanted out, so she took a chance. She shoved her bedding and other possessions out of her window and jumped. She died on the way to the hospital. She had just become the first fatality of the Berlin Wall.

Between 1961 and 1989, thousands of East Germans made risky border crossings. Around 5,000 of them crossed over the Berlin Wall at great personal risk—and their attempts to do so ranged from sneaky to suicidal.

German Democratic Republic officials decided to close the Berlin border for good in 1961, spurred by a spate of defections from refugees who used Berlin’s relatively permeable border to escape East Germany. By August 1961, when officials abruptly sealed the border, up to 1,700 people a day were leaving through Berlin and claiming refugee status once they reached the west. On the night of August 12-13, 1961, workers erected barbed wire and temporary barriers, trapping East Berliners.

As Barriers Intensify, So Do Escape Efforts

At first, people used structures like Siekmann’s apartment building to escape west. These border houses had doors and windows that opened into West Berlin, and people used those buildings to escape. West German emergency personnel and others waited on the west side and helped people as they climbed through windows or jumped off of roofs. Soon, though, East German troops forced residents to move and sealed the apartment buildings along the border.

They soon erected a more permanent barrier through Berlin. The 27-mile-long wall was actually two walls with a no-man’s-land known as the “death strip” in between. Armed with landmines, attack dogs and barbed wire and regularly patrolled by East German troops ready to shoot and kill any would-be escapee, it intimidated most East Berliners into staying put.

But some were determined to leave at any cost. Two days after the wall was built, Conrad Schumann, an East German border guard, was photographed leaping over barbed wire toward freedom. Train engineer Harry Deterling stole a steam train and drove it through the last station in East Berlin, bringing 25 passengers to the west and prompting big changes to the railroad lines. And Wolfgang Engels, an East German soldier who had helped build the barbed-wire fences that initially separated both Berlins, stole a tank and drove it through the wall itself. Despite getting caught in the barbed wire and shot twice, he managed to escape.

Dozens Cross the Border in Tunnels

Tunnels were another daring mode of escape, and people on both sides attempted to dig them. Many were left unfinished when their makers were ratted out; others failed because of difficult conditions. But a few were successful.

In 1962, a group of West German students assisted by an East German refugee received funding from NBC as they built a 131-foot-long tunnel beneath a factory. As part of the deal, NBC planned to broadcast a special about the tunnel and escapees. Twenty-nine people escaped through it before it was discovered. The subsequent NBC News' documentary, "The Tunnel," was originally scheduled to air on October 31, 1962 but the air date was postponed after NBC came under pressure to not escalate tensions with the Soviet Union after the Cuban missile crisis.

Another student-dug tunnel sparked the most successful escape attempt in the wall’s history—57 people escaped over the two days it was open. The well publicized escapes so shook East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, that they installed listening devices across the death strip and monitored the ground for tunneling activity 24/7.

Desperation drove creativity as others tried to get over the border. Hartmut Richter swam across the cold Teltow Canal that separated the East German region of Brandenburg from West Berlin. It was a four-hour ordeal—and then he returned again and again to take friends west in his car trunk. Acrobat Horst Klein got over the border on a tightrope; Ingo and Holger Bethke used a complex zip line, then flew ultralight planes back over the wall to pick up their brother, Egbert.

Deaths at the Berlin Wall

But others weren’t so lucky. According to the Berlin Wall Memorial, 140 people died at the Berlin Wall or were killed there in connection with the border. Another 251 travelers also died during or after passing through border checkpoints. And “unknown numbers of people suffered and died through distress and despair in their personal lives as a consequence of the Berlin Wall being built.”

Ingenuity and desperation drove individuals and small groups to make their escapes, but it would take a massive movement to bring down the wall itself.

In August 1989, the Spitzner family became the last East Germans to escape across the wall. Three months later, massive pro-democracy protests and confusion among East German officials prompted a rush on the border and the wall that had divided Berlin for nearly 30 years. The wall was finally breached on November 9, 1989, and Germany reunited in 1990.

Documentary Photography Links

Romanians in Bucharest celebrated the overthrow of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu during the Romanian Revolution, December 1989. This man, beside himself with fury and relief, jabbed twin victory signs at an unseen target and repeatedly shouted, "Ceausescu Dictator." Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis

In the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans were going to Hungary ostensibly on vacation, but in reality, they were using this opportunity to flee across the border between Hungary and Austria to the West under the cover of darkness. Late that summer, a Newsweek correspondent and I hooked up in the middle of the night with an East German “passer” who would give East Germans a precise landscape map of how to escape across the Hungarian-Austrian frontier. That night, the “passer” introduced us to two young East German men who wanted to make it to the West. Only days before, Hungarian border guards had shot several East Germans trying to make it across. The four of us started out around 5 a.m., and after several hours of running and crawling, we found ourselves on the ground with a border watchtower in sight to our right. The two young East Germans were convinced we were now in Austria and free. I told them to stay down because I wasn’t sure we were yet out of Hungary, but they didn’t listen and both stood up. Suddenly, several Hungarian border guards jumped out of the bushes with rifles and barking German Shepherd dogs. I could now see a wire, 10 yards away, which marked the Hungarian-Austrian border. My heart was broken for these two young men, and convinced that the guards would not shoot, I threw my fist into the thigh of one of the two men and shouted, “Go!” With the speed and grace of a deer in flight, he took three strides and flew over the Hungarian-Austrian border – one of the most decisive life moments I had ever witnessed.

As the border guards fumbled with their rifles and the dogs barked, I shouted to the second East German to run, but this man, strongly built like a refrigerator, stood petrified and couldn’t move. Afterwards, the Hungarian guards drove us in the back of a government pickup truck to a border post. The young man who had been arrested looked into the distance with a thousand-yard stare. I could see the tragic reality sinking into his heart, and soul, that his best friend from childhood was free in the West, while he would certainly be spending time in a Hungarian prison before being sent back to the dark and confining reality of his East German life. There was no way that we could know at that moment, that only a short while later, on Sept.10, 1989, the Hungarians would officially drop the border between Hungary and Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to freely leave Hungary to go to West Germany. That day, while much less spoken of than November 9, when the Berlin Wall fell, was one of the most important moments leading to the end of the Iron Curtain.

While life in Eastern Europe before 1989 could be incredibly hard, no place except possibly Albania was as off the map with repression, and I dare say weirdness, as Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader and treacherous despot, had created a regime where Romanians lived under such terror that if they even had contact with a foreigner, they were obliged to go to the nearest police station to report it. I was one of a small number of foreign journalists to ever enter and work in Romania during the years prior to the Romanian Revolution in 1989. One of the most surreal experiences of my life and career occurred when I was granted an exclusive photo session with Nicolae Ceausescu four months before his execution in December 1989. I went with an editor and correspondent from Newsweek to Ceausescu’s summerhouse near Snagov, outside of Bucharest. After a long interview, I walked with Ceausescu outside his home. Here I was face-to-face with one of the most feared dictators of modern times. He couldn’t speak English, but could understand French. As I speak French like English, I had an amazing linguistic advantage, and I proceeded to direct Ceausescu and he obeyed me like an obedient child. I had him walk into a cornfield where he stood in the mud as I photographed him next to eye-high corn stalks. I had him walk out onto a dock over a pond and directed him to pose in profile. A correspondent, Michael Meyer, who witnessed this photo session, recalls in his recent book that during one quick moment while I photographed Ceausescu posing on the dock, he appeared to almost lose his balance, and all of his aides present shuttered with fear that he might fall into the water. This photo session, one of the only ones of Ceausescu in more than a decade by a western photographer, and the last one before he was killed, produced a photograph that was on the cover of Newsweek that next week.

Four months later, during the extremely violent days of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989, I found myself with Romanian revolutionaries in the private office of Ceausescu at the very moment that he was executed by a firing squad. While only four months prior I had been face-to-face with this dictator, I now found myself looking at this same face, lying dead on a hard concrete floor, on a television screen in his own office.

Often, when I consider some of the grand moments of geopolitical change in 1989, I think of individuals that crossed my path whose gestures and actions exemplified the poignant spirit that transformed our world that year.

I think of Claudia Sadowski, the courageous East German woman who helped me in 1989 get my film beyond the Iron Curtain. Those photographs showed East German Stasi repressing one of the first major and violent uprisings by East Germans fighting for greater freedom under the then Communist regime of Erich Honnecker. Claudia worked as my translator during the 40th Anniversary of the East German state. Having never traveled outside of East Berlin, she would ask with inquiring eyes what it was like to fly in an airplane, to go through a customs checkpoint, and what it was like to be free.

The East Germans had mistakenly given me a visa that lasted two days past the end of the anniversary celebrations. I took advantage of their bureaucratic error. As we drove together through the night in the East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg that was at the heart of the resistance, we suddenly saw a startling scene. Under a subway overpass hundreds of young East Germans were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the riot police of the East German Stasi who were retaliating with German Shepherds to attack the protesters. I knew that the West had rarely seen images of such scenes in East Germany.

We parked our car and I positioned myself behind several protesters as Claudia asked two men to allow me to balance my camera on their shoulders, in order to make a long exposure without flash, of the lineup of Stasi and their dogs that were biting protesters. After making many images, I was suddenly swept off my feet by several undercover police officers. I was sure that I would lose this important film as I was taken to a paddy wagon and asked to surrender my film and cameras.

Claudia whispered, “Say you are a guest at the anniversary ceremonies.” I whispered back, “That’s the last thing I should do.” Finally, just as the agents were about to strip me of my cameras, I resorted to Claudia’s suggestion: I declared myself a guest of the 40th Anniversary of East Germany. Suddenly the agents stopped, “Why didn’t you tell us so?” And they let us go. Unbelievably, I was allowed to leave with my cameras and film.

The following morning at 6 a.m., I crossed the Iron Curtain on a subway car en route to West Berlin. I raced to the airport and flew to Hamburg, Germany, to show this film to Stern magazine. My images were immediately published prominently for all of Germany to see. Only later would the world discover that those preceding days would be among the last of the East German state. I look back at this moment, warmed by the thought of Claudia eventually experiencing the things she had asked about, and that she too would experience freedom.

One of the most moving and gratifying aspects of covering the years preceding the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe, and then being present during the roller coaster ride of the revolutions in Berlin, Prague and Bucharest in the late fall and early winter of 1989, was a shared camaraderie with so many talented, caring, and courageous photographers that were both friends and often at once competitors, with whom I shared not only mutual respect, but also a collective sense of being incredibly lucky to be alive and present at such monumental moments of historic geopolitical change.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself on Nov. 9, 1989, and in the following days was not only one of the most historic moments of the world since World War II, but it was a happening for the community of international photojournalists. Almost every one of our working brethren was in Berlin during those days, and while assignments and guarantees were plentiful, almost anyone working at that time would have paid their own way if need be to have a front-row seat on that particular moment of history. I recall a distinct sense during those days of the Berlin Wall coming down, that we all felt conscious of being lucky to see such a moment, and as a community we relished being together and knew that what we were seeing and experiencing could never be taken from us, whatever else followed. November of 1989 was spent in Berlin and Prague, and December in Bucharest. During a short span of a few months that year, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the Romanian Revolution in Bucharest, the world fundamentally rearranged itself.

Twenty years have now passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dropping of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. It was a year in modern world history like few others. I had the extraordinary good fortune to witness firsthand all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe that year and this period not only affected the geopolitical life of the world in a decisive way, but impacted the personal life history of anyone present, including my own.

In 1986, I received a multiple entry visa to the Soviet Union as the accredited photographer for Newsweek magazine in order to cover the epicenter of what was then the biggest geopolitical story in the world, the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev had only recently come to power, and immediately, glimmers of his policies of new openness and change, perestroika and glasnost, had begun to emerge. From that time forward, I followed Gorbachev on almost every one of his trips abroad as Soviet Premier. I made countless trips throughout the heartland of the Soviet Union to document the social and economic lives of the average Russian. During the three years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, I also made dozens of trips to other countries of the Communist Bloc, Romania, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

In 1987, Gorbachev strolled through the streets of Prague during a state visit to Czechoslovakia, and in the eyes, faces and gestures of the huge crowds of Czechs that lined the streets to see him, one could see powerful winds of change underfoot.

Over the next three years much of my life was consumed with the both challenging and compelling task of penetrating the Iron Curtain, and witnessing small rays of light beginning to illuminate the ominous darkness of life in the Eastern Bloc.

I was living in Paris at this time. Paris was less than four hours from the Berlin Wall by plane, and yet light years away from the austere grayness of life I would discover anytime I landed at an Eastern European airport, or after driving across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. This was a time when there were no cell phones, no Internet, no credit cards that worked east of West Berlin, and the only way that photographs for magazine reproduction could be published was if film was hand-carried back to the West.

I have covered much war and conflict over the past 25 years and have seen my share of combat, human hardship and suffering from war. I don’t hesitate to say looking back that working as a photojournalist in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s required a special kind of mental and emotional toughness, as well as a healthy amount of cunning and perseverance. Anytime you crossed the Iron Curtain, you effectively went off the communications radar screen with the West. I will always remember the dark, ominous feeling of driving into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie by myself, and a sense that no one I knew would be able to have any contact with me from that point forward, and if anything would happen, it wouldn’t be sure at all that anyone would know about it. For me, the ever-present tension and stress producing realities of the secretive world of the Eastern Bloc could induce as powerful, though different, an amount of anxiety and flow of adrenaline as the world of direct military combat. There was also the ever-present satisfaction and sense of tremendous empowerment knowing that one’s photographs could communicate a precise reality of a world that few Westerns had any direct contact with.

Any of my colleagues that worked in the Eastern Bloc during these years would agree with me that there was a true John Le Carré aspect to not only the atmosphere and texture of this Eastern European world, but also to many of the aspects of working there.

I recall slipping into East Germany many times during the fall of 1989. It was possible for an American to obtain a 24-hour tourist visa to visit East Berlin, but if East German border guards caught you with more than one camera in your car, your equipment would be confiscated after you were held for six hours at the austere border post on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1989, East German dissidents protested en masse every Monday night in the provincial town of Leipzig, about three hours by car from East Berlin. The challenge was to get to Leipzig by 6 p.m. for the demonstration, and then make it back to East Berlin before midnight to cross back over the Iron Curtain before your 24-hour visa expired. The roads between Leipzig and East Berlin were very bad, two-lane highways, often made of cobblestones. I will always remember the underlying terror of leaving Leipzig at 9:30 p.m., and driving often between 90 and 110 miles per hour, sometimes on wet roads, in order to make it back across the border before midnight with my film. The constant fear during the wild drive back of being arrested by the Stasi was as powerful as almost any combat stress I’ve ever experienced.

I think back to the amazing energy and power that I witnessed, when humans stood up as individuals and gathered collectively, to fight and risk their existence for a sense of a more productive, creative, and free life. Nowhere was this power more evident than in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in mid-November 1989. Nightly, for a period of a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Czech citizens turned up under the darkness in the cold Prague air to stand together to listen as revolution leaders like Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel spoke to them from a balcony window. Each evening, every one of those thousands of ordinary Czech individuals made the extraordinary gesture of taking out of their pockets their keys, to raise them in the air and jingle them, as an irrefutable means of not only acknowledging, but of demanding that only they, and no one else, could lock or unlock control of their future and destiny. Hearing these thousands of keys being shaken together created music of freedom my ears can never forget.

I’m not sure that it is true for everyone, but occasionally the memories that I have looking back at my photographic experiences that move me the most are not the ones with the most apparent drama, but rather those of the fabric and texture of dignity, grace and courage, of moments and people I’ve witnessed emerge in the quiet aftermath of important events. I want to end with one such moment that always brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.

Throughout my career, being based in Paris, starting with my first travels in 1984, the reality of my professional life was constantly influenced and touched by the wonderful cadre of great photographers working for the dynamic photo agencies based in Paris, Gamma, Sipa, and Sygma. I had learned so much from the spirit of these agencies and their photographers – the joy of traveling, a sense that there was no place on earth where one couldn’t go, and the more difficult it was to get there, the more interesting the challenge. I had also learned from this group what true courage, perseverance, speed and grace were all about.

One of the unwritten rules for anyone based in Paris during those years was that if anyone ever asked you to carry their film back from a distant place, you did it without asking any questions. You could also expect the same in return. And, of course, you would never forget if someone refused to help and you knew the same would be true in return. We carried each other’s packages of film from all over the world, often with the most amazing logistics.

During the extremely violent and cold days of the Romanian Revolution in 1989, on one particular early day of this historic revolution, a messenger that had been entrusted by many photographers from one of the French agencies left Bucharest by train with a huge bag of their film of this monumental event – documents that could never be replaced. The atmosphere of the moment was extremely tense and grave. More than a thousand Romanians had been killed during this revolution and a French colleague, Jean-Louis Calderon, had died the night before in Palace Square, crushed by an armored vehicle. I had not shipped that day because I had just arrived that morning. A day later, we all heard that somehow the messenger of the aforementioned shipment had lost all of this film it never arrived in Paris. I had never lost a roll of film before, and I remember feeling sick for my colleagues who had risked their lives for those images.

When I left Bucharest on a plane bound for Paris shortly after the Romanian Revolution was over a few days after Christmas of 1989, many of the photographers who had lost their film were on the plane with me. In contrast to the euphoria experienced in Berlin and Prague only a month earlier, the flight home from Bucharest was full of mental images of the cold funerals of the more than 1,000 civilians killed during this revolution, and of a lost colleague. We were all quite tired and the flight home to Paris was long and very quiet. I will always remember when we landed in Paris that day, after clearing customs, several directors and news editors of the three major French agencies were standing there waiting for their photographers. As each of the photographers walked out of customs, they were greeted with a handshake or a hug, and were told thank you. And I will always remember the dignity of this moment I neither saw nor heard anyone whining or complaining, though hearts were incredibly heavy, and it had to be even more difficult for those who had lost all of their film. There was a sense that choosing a way of life and profession that involved being present and documenting history was noble in itself, and that one could be proud to have done one’s best and tried, and proud to be a member of our photographic family.

See Full Photo Essay

Berlin Alexanderplatz

When convicted murderer Franz Biberkopf is released from Berlin's Tegel prison, he's determined to become a respectable citizen and behave well, this time. Unfortunately, after initial success in keeping clean, fate intervenes and the temptations and pitfalls of the rough area around 1920s Alexanderplatz square soon entangle Biberkopf, dragging him down. Alfred Döblin's legendary novel from 1929 is one of the best novels about Berlin and the ill-fated Weimar Republic, and is particularly hard to render in English, with its local Berlinerisch vernacular. Now wonderfully translated for the first time in almost 90 years by award-winning poet Michael Hoffman, the novel is finally made accessible to English speakers, with sparkling conversations and memorable insights into the workings of the humans inhabiting 1920s Berlin.

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1929, New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 9781681371993) by Alfred Döblin, new 2018 translation by Michael Hoffmann, is for sale online and at major bookshops from €14.

GoFundMe Page Trolls Border Wall With 'Ladders' Campaign, Raises $80,000 for Immigration Nonprofit

What's the best way to climb over a wall? If you're thinking "a ladder," you're probably right. Hence a trolling GoFundMe page titled "Ladders to Get Over Trump's Wall."

Some background: On Sunday, conservative activist Brian Kolfage set up a GoFundMe campaign to pay for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall on the U.S.–Mexico border with private funds. The campaign has raised almost $12 million from nearly 200,000 people in just five days.

That gave one Twitter user an idea. "The MAGA dumdums are crowdsourcing money for the wall," @HoarseWisperer tweeted Wednesday. "Should we crowdsource money for ladders just to troll them?"

The tweet was a joke, but the Human Rights Campaign's Charlotte Clymer ran with it anyway. Clymer set up the "ladders" GoFundMe, which has since raised more than $80,000.

Last night, @HoarseWisperer joked about a GoFundMe to buy ladders in response to this border wall nonsense. I laughed but then thought: "Wait, why not?"

We've now raised $13,000 for, um, "ladders". (Actually going to @RAICESTEXAS). #GoFundTheWall

— Charlotte Clymer (@cmclymer) December 20, 2018

As Clymer notes above, the money won't actually go to buy ladders. All funds raised will be donated to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit that provides immigrants and refugees with low-cost legal services. "This GoFundMe isn't really about ladders at all," the GoFundMe says. "It's about lifting people up."

Clymer says RAICES "loves" the idea, and that the nonprofit would be added as a team member to the campaign.

Clymer wants to draw attention to the fact that immigrants help the nation, not hurt it. "I've really been happy with how this has generated conversation on just the absurdity of the wall in general," she tells Business Insider. "Undocumented folks are not bringing crime or drug smuggling or any of this job-stealing nonsense to our country." Those who support the wall "know it won't help, but they would gladly spite themselves just to keep brown people out of our country," she adds to Newsweek.

Her criticism of the wall itself is spot-on. Click on this this link for a rundown of why it's such a bad idea.

This isn't the first time the wall has inspired some trollish citizen resistance. Last year, the company behind Cards Against Humanity announced that it had bought a plot of land on the U.S.–Mexico border with the goal of making it "as time-consuming and expensive as possible" for Trump to build his wall. As Reason's Christian Britschgi wrote at the time, their efforts were likely for naught, considering that Trump doesn't seem to care all that much for private property rights.

It was still an entertaining way to make a point. But I'm not sure it reaches the trolling heights of a ladders-to-get-over-the-wall fundraiser.

Joe Setyon is currently an associate story editor for The Western Journal, a publication based in Arizona. He is a former assistant editor at Reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

Hence a trolling GoFundMe page titled “Ladders to Get Over Trump’s Wall.”

It’s not really trolling until they have more than the wall people.

Nobody intends to put up a wall! November 8, 2014 6:21 AM Subscribe

Yeah, my first reaction was that not including 99 red ones was a missed opportunity, but on reflection I don't think an effort to commemorate the cruel, arbitrary political division of a country doesn't need to include a cutesy pop-culture sight gag we can feel clever for recognizing.

I'm vaguely ashamed my initial reaction, in truth.
posted by mhoye at 6:43 AM on November 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the great link, which I'll be sure to share!

This video dissects the construction of the Berlin Wall (and a rural border) auf Deutsch in great detail. The visuals are pretty clear but I'd be glad to translate excerpts if anyone has specific questions about the script.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:04 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Berlin is great. I've visited a few times now and this most recent visit I decided to try to see the place without focussing on the history of the Nazis, the Stasi, the Wall. Those are all important parts of Berlin history and the government has done a fantastic job making it available and understandable. Particularly liked the Topography of Terror museum. But it's an awfully grim history and after having seen so much of it, I was ready for something different.

What's exciting about Berlin to me is its future-looking direction. Berlin has a lot of amazing stuff going on, young people ambitions, art and music and tech startups and good food. It's still a relatively cheap city (for Europe), so a lot of young people choose to live there. And the German economy is also pretty strong (for Europe), so there's a fair amount of opportunity. I'm kind of looking forward to the time when we can talk about Berlin without talking so much about the Wall, that it's a distant historical memory.

So I like this, a temporary art installation. Beautiful, creative, and then gone. I don't think the Nazi era ever can or should be forgotten, but I kind of wonder if the Wall mostly can be. Maybe in another 10 years the fetish to have concrete slabs just kind of standing around without context, 1km+ away from the actual wall, will be over. They've already built over most of the wall's path in the center of the city, and other parts of open space becoming parks. Let the city breathe again.
posted by Nelson at 7:32 AM on November 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I remember visiting the remains of the wall when I was a teenager and reflecting on how strange it was to have such a potent symbol of an age chipping away and decaying.

I was born a year or so after the wall fell. The time that it symbolizes is one I never knew, but I could feel the remnants everywhere, like the bullet holes in the statues in Warsaw.

I wonder what the remnants and symbols of my age will be. Bits of the WTC, perhaps, or the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank.

Time goes on, and all of these monuments to violence, control and fear fade away like so many illuminated balloons. I suppose that's the point of the piece.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 7:50 AM on November 8, 2014

I was there, both right before and right after the fall. I had business in West Berlin in the summer of 1989. My hosts took us to the wall at the Brandenburg gate one evening. There was a crowd and the atmosphere was exciting/scary. If I remember correctly there was very limited official passage between the sides, and people on the wall, but you could also see the East German guards with machine guns milling about on the other side (seen through holes knocked in wall). The energy level was one of "yea this is cool but _something_ could happen at any minute, that might involve gunfire (or worse) and we oughta clear out for self-preservation" - and I was with locals! Then we got on the subway and rode into East Berlin. Went through passport control in the subway station, then emerged on Unter Der Linten east of the gate and strolled up a adown a bit before returning.

Later, on a whim, I had my contact there buy me ticket for the Pink Floyd "The Wall" concert. When I told my boss he said "well, I guess you need to go back to check on the project", so lo and behold I returned and went to the concert. I'm a wanderer and explorer, so one day I set out and walked from West Berlin, past Brandenburg Gate, down UDL, and just explored. It was surreal the city seemed deserted and almost everywhere I turned there were what looked like bullet-caused pockmarks on the stone buildings. The concert was amazing. I bought little pieces of the wall on both visits.

I've been back twice more in the late oughts. One time my hotel overlooked a street where the wall ran. In many places it is now marked by bricks embedded in the ground, so the view out my window showed this strip running down the middle of the street, just like in the balloon exhibit.

The changes to the old no-man's-land strip are just amazing, especially around Potsdamer Platz, where the concert was. What was a bare-dirt expanse has been turned into ultra-modern commercial area and parkland, including the moving "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" (map).

I'm no Berlin expert, but I think the wall was a wound, that now healed has left a moving, beautiful scar.
posted by achrise at 8:22 AM on November 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was just there and walked down about half of the way, it's quite impressive. (I took some crappy camera phone pictures here).

The balloons are not right on the road, but people following the path frequently get into the traffic and there was quite a lot of honking and shouting.
posted by tsdr at 2:26 PM on November 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

In January 1973, a young mother named Ingrid hid with her infant son in a crate in the back of a truck crossing from East to West. When the child began to cry at the East Berlin checkpoint, a desperate Ingrid covered his mouth with her hand, not realizing the child had an infection and couldn’t breathe through his nose. She made her way to freedom, but in the process suffocated her 15-month-old son.

1.5 billion people still live under communism. Political prisoners continue to be rounded up, gulags still exist, millions are being starved, and untold numbers are being torn from families and friends simply because of their opposition to a totalitarian state.

As important as the fall of the Berlin Wall was, it was not the end of what John F. Kennedy called the “long, twilight struggle” against a sinister ideology. By looking at the population statistics of several nations we can estimate that 1.5 billion people still live under communism. Political prisoners continue to be rounded up, gulags still exist, millions are being starved, and untold numbers are being torn from families and friends simply because of their opposition to a totalitarian state.

Today, Communist regimes continue to brutalize and repress the hapless men, women and children unlucky enough to be born in the wrong country.

In China, thousands of Hong Kong protesters recently took to the streets demanding the right to elect their chief executive in open and honest elections. This democratic movement—the most important protests in China since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre 25 years ago—was met with tear gas and pepper spray from a regime that does not tolerate dissent or criticism. The Communist Party routinely censors, beats and jails dissidents, and through the barbaric one-child policy has caused some 400 million abortions, according to statements by a Chinese official in 2011.

In Vietnam, every morning the unelected Communist government blasts state-sponsored propaganda over loud speakers across Hanoi, like a scene out of George Orwell ’s “1984.”

In Laos, where the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party tolerates no other political parties, the government owns all the media, restricts religious freedom, denies property rights, jails dissidents and tortures prisoners.

In Cuba, a moribund Communist junta maintains a chokehold on the island nation. Arbitrary arrests, beatings, intimidation and total media control are among the tools of the current regime, which has never owned up to its bloody past.

The Stalinesque abuses of North Korea are among the most shocking. As South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye recently told the United Nations, “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Korean Peninsula remains stifled by a wall of division.” On both sides of that wall—a 400-mile-long, 61-year-old demilitarized zone—are people with the same history, language and often family.

But whereas the capitalist South is free and prosperous, the Communist North is a prison of torture and starvation run by a family of dictators at war with freedom of religion, freedom of movement and freedom of thought.

At the Berlin Wall, Thousands Tried Creative—and Dangerous—Ways to Get Across - HISTORY

The East Germans called the Berlin Wall the 'anti-fascist protection barrier'. But the guns along the 103 mile long concrete barrier were pointed inward.

On the night of August 23, 1961 Berliners on both sides of the invisible barrier that divided their city went about business as usual. Before construction of the wall, people were, for the most part, free to cross from East to West. But shortly after midnight all that came to an abrupt halt. Most Berliners had gone to bed not having a clue of what was going on outside their windows. That is until the jackhammers started up. Those caught out in the streets saw firsthand the ten thousand East German and Soviet troops ringing the Soviet sector of the city.

Soon a small army of construction workers began tearing up the streets. Concrete posts were sunk into the ground and barbed wire stretched across the border between East and West Berlin. The East Germans had done a great job at keeping their plans hush hush. But the noise of construction soon brought people out of their homes. West Germans, used to enjoying freedom of speech, screamed at the workers and guards. East Germans remained silent or quickly made a run for freedom wherever they could find an opening.

Over the next two years the barbed wire barricade would be replaced with a 12 foot high concrete wall that would remain in place until 1989. This is the story of the most infamous wall in history.

Conquering Soviet soldier poses next to the "Red Flag", atop the Reichstag (Germany's Parliament Building) in Berlin.
East Meets West

For the next decade, the city of Berlin would become the poster child for the standoff between the communist &lsquoEast&rsquo and capitalist &lsquoWest&rsquo. It turns out that the Soviets and their former Allies never really trusted one another. (shocking!)

The United States, Great Britain, and France were capitalist countries with democratic governments while the Soviet Union was run by a pathological dictator by the name of Josef Stalin. The fact that the four allies didn't really care for one another was no big surprise. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, once called Stalin (his ally at the time) a &ldquodevil-like tyrant&rdquo. But, what no one in the West saw coming was the post war stalemate known as the Cold War.

Within a few years it was crystal clear that there were now two Germany&rsquos the French, American, and British sectors had united their zones into a single unit known as West Germany. The Soviets kept a tight leash on their zone which developed into East Germany.

With the help of billions of dollars in foreign aid money under the American Marshall Plan, West Germany was on its way to full recovery by the beginning of the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Soviets were mostly concerned with rebuilding their own economy at the expense of the Germans. After all, the German army had wrecked enormous damage on Mother Russia during the war. Factories, railroad lines, and workers (&ldquovolunteers&rdquo) were literally packed up and shipped to the USSR.

If you any difficulty telling the two Germany&rsquos apart you only had to take a trip to Berlin to see for yourself. The Soviets had pretty much cut their zone off from the western half. Like we said before, Berlin was situated 110 miles inside the Soviet zone. The only way in and out of capitalist West Berlin was through a single highway and a single railway line.

The other, faster, way was by air. Between 1948-49 this became the only way for West Berliners to travel beyond the borders of East Germany. The East German government (ahem, the Soviets) were trying to force the west to abandon their half of Berlin. To force the situation, East Germany cut off all rail travel, mail service, water, and electricity to the western half of the city. For the next year the West Germans were literally plunged into darkness. The western powers were not about to lose face to the Soviets and came up with a plan that involved round the clock package deliveries dropped from airplanes. The Berlin Airlift literally was the only life-line for West Berliners in their fight against being annexed by the Soviets.

The situation in Berlin immediately after World War II should (in our humble opinion) go down as one of the strangest events of the 20th century. In 1945, the Soviet &ldquoRed&rdquo Army had reached the city of Berlin and wasted no time in taking revenge on their Nazi enemies. The British, French, and American troops were not far behind-- approaching from the west. Over the previous four years, 363 bombing raids and round the clock attacks had turned the proud capital of Germany into rubble.

But before the dust had settled on Europe, the Allies had begun drawing up plans to oversee the occupation and rebuilding of a new Germany. The finalized version of that plan came out at the Potsdam Conference, held in the summer of 1945, and looked something like this. Germany was to be divided into four zones between the Soviets, British, Americans, and French. The same thing was to happen to Berlin located 110 miles inside the Soviet Zone.

The split was supposed to be temporary until Germany had been &ldquode-Nazified&rdquo and its economy strong enough to stand on its own two feet. One day in the near future the four Germany&rsquos would reunite under free and fair elections. Of course, that never happened and this is where history of post war Germany gets weird.

In the end, Stalin backed down and the blockade of Berlin was lifted. But the damage was done. The United States and the Soviet Union were firmly now in opposite camps.

For thousands of East Berliners it made perfect sense to cross the invisible border each day into West Berlin to go to work or visit friends and then return home to East Berlin at night. After all, the wages paid in West Germany were far higher than in the east.

The state controlled East German newspapers called these people &ldquoparasites&rdquo and &ldquocapitalist spies&rdquo The problem for the East German government was that between 1949-1961 more than 3 million people (20% of the population) crossed the border and never returned. People booked a flight from West Berlin and moved to West Germany or some other place in Europe. Many of these people were professionals: doctors, engineers, teachers who took their skills with them. East Germany was experiencing a serious &ldquobrain drain&rdquo.

2 Days in Berlin – The Best 2 Day Berlin Itinerary

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Is 2 Days in Berlin enough?

What’s important to remember when planning your trip is that tourists visit Berlin for several different reasons. Where the city may lack in cosmetics, it makes up for in culture, art, nightlife and adventure. Not to mention Berlin is a mecca for history lovers. It’s impossible to experience it all in 2-days, so we encourage you to plan your Berlin itinerary wisely, taking into consideration what you want from your trip.

To try and help make things easier, I will supply two separate itineraries for 2 Days in Berlin. Itinerary 1 will cover the touristic spots in Berlin – the places you’ll find on every travel blog and guide book. Whereas, Itinerary 2 will explore the more alternative side to Berlin – think abandoned places and urban exploring. The aim is to give you an insight into both sides of the city, so you can decide what you want to see on this particular trip.

Follow our itineraries as they are, or mix and match them for your own personalised 2 Day Berlin Itinerary. Either way, you are guaranteed to love what this fun, vibrant, and eclectic city has to offer.

Best Things to see in Berlin in 2 Days

There is a lot to cover in this Berlin itinerary & guide. So, for those who may have limited time to read, here is a taster of the best things to see in Berlin in 2 days.

  • Appreciate the street art at East Side Gallery
  • Go on a free walking tour of the city
  • Enjoy a peaceful sunrise at Brandenberg Gate
  • Pay your respects at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial
  • Marvel the Unesco Buildings on Museum Island
  • Enjoy a picnic on the abandoned Tempelhof runway
  • Explore the alternative Raw Gelande district
  • Take an underground tour at the Berlin Unterwelten Museum
  • Party the night away at world-famous club Berghain
  • Delight in Street Food Thursdays at Markthalle Neun
  • Snap some photos at the best photography spots in Berlin.

Where to Stay with 2 Days in Berlin

During our time in Berlin, we stayed at the Three Little Pigs Hostel. We chose this hostel in particular because of its convenient location and laidback vibe. Overall, we were happy with our stay and would recommend it if you are looking for somewhere affordable and centrally located.

I will recommend some other options below, but where you stay will highly depend on your budget and interests. Here is a little guideline to the best places to stay in Berlin to help get you started.

  • If you plan to do lots of sightseeing in Berlin, you should consider staying in Mitte. Many of the top tourist attractions are in this area, and there are plenty of affordable options. Check the latest rates and availability for Mitte accommodation here.
  • If you are in Berlin to party the night away, you will want to stay in Friedrichshain. Here you’ll find the creative side of Berlin alongside all the top techno clubs. It’s also very affordable in this area, so a popular choice among the backpacker crowd. Check the latest rates and availability for Friedrichshain accommodation here.
  • For a calmer alternative vibe, you are sure to love Kreuzberg with its hipster cafes, trendy nightlife and beautiful parks. Check the latest rates and availability for Kreuzberg here.
  • To be in the heart of Berlin’s LGBT+ scene, you need to stay in vibrant Schoneberg. Check the latest rates and availability for Schoneberg accommodation here.

Unique Hotels in Berlin

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of accommodation options in Berlin. You can click any of the location links above to search for hundreds of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in the area. To keep things interesting, here I suggest some of the more unique places to stay in Berlin. Places that I believe reflect the edgy character of the city.

Hostel $: Generator Hostel Berlin Mitte

Just because you’re on a budget, it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on style in this city. This trendy hostel set in the heart of Berlin Mitte combines contemporary art with a sleek & stylish design to create an inviting environment for guests of all ages. Expect divine comfort in the affordable dorms and private rooms, while the chic bar and library areas are ideal for chilling out.

Budget $: The Circus Hotel

A fun and stylish boutique hotel, The Circus is ideal for couples or friends travelling on a budget. Set on the Northern Edge of Mitte, it’s in the perfect location for sightseeing, with several attractions within walking distance from the hotel. Each room is unique and charismatic, with edgy quirks designed to stand out from the crowd. A popular choice in Berlin, therefore booking in advance is recommended.

Mid-Range $: The Michelberger Hotel

Located in the hipster district of Kreuzberg, The Michelberger Hotel is every bit as stylish as the neighbourhood. Within walking distance of the East Side Gallery & bustling nightlife, this is an ideal choice for those looking to party & explore the alternative side to Berlin. Capturing the creative side of the city, we are living for the artistic and imaginative guest rooms. Hotel facilities include an onsite restaurant and cafe-bar, and there’s often live music events at the hotel.

High-End $$: Hotel Bikini

One of the most unique and original designs of a hotel I’ve ever come across, Hotel Bikini is referred to as a chic urban jungle. Animal themes, long leafy plants, and quirky features resonate throughout the property. While features include a panoramic rooftop bar, an in-house bakery, and complimentary mini car & bike hire. It’s literally a wonderland for adults, and we are loving it.

If you’d prefer something more personal, you may wish to consider an Air BnB instead. These are particularly great if you are staying long term and we are pleased to offer a £32 discount on your first booking. Simply click the link to validate your offer.

Berlin Two Day Itinerary 1 – Touristic Berlin

Now we are going to jump into our first suggested itinerary for spending two days in Berlin. This itinerary will ensure you cover all of the best touristic and historical sights in the city. Remember, we have a separate itinerary for ‘Alternative Berlin’ further down. Be sure to check out both so you can decide which of them sounds more up your street. Or mix and match to combine a bit of touristic Berlin with some alternative Berlin.

Day 1 of 2 Days in Berlin

Assuming you stay the night in Berlin, you will want to be up relatively early to ensure you get the most out of your day. At the same time, you don’t want to burn yourself out. So if the itinerary sounds a bit much for you, cut out anything that you wouldn’t mind missing. We are here only to guide you based on our experiences, but you can switch it up as you go along.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate is the most recognisable landmark in Berlin, so it makes sense to kick off your first day here. If you’re staying in the Mitte area, it’s likely the gate will be within walking distance from your hotel. If not, it’s easy to reach by public transport.

Historically, the gate was built in the late 1700s and would later come to symbolise Berlin’s Cold War division into East and West. After the wall fell, Brandenburg became the cities single surviving historical gate. Today it stands as a national symbol of peace and unity.

Naturally, the gate gets very busy throughout the day, which is why we recommend visiting early. We were there just after sunrise, and it was incredibly peaceful. The gate also paves the way for the next spots on our list so let’s keep moving.

Allow: 30 mins/Entrance: Free


Berlin’s Tiergarten is what Hyde Park is to London, and Central Park is to New York. A breath of fresh air in the heart of the bustling city. The sprawling grounds cover almost 519 acres, boasting various walking trails, lawns, gardens, and forest. Not only that, but you can find beer gardens, cafes, memorials, and even a zoo!

We can’t think of any better way to start the day than a revitalising stroll in the Tiergarten. In the Summer months, the gardens are especially atmospheric, where families, friends, musicians, and sunbathers come together to relax & unwind. That said, the wintertime is equally beautiful. Particularly as Autumn ends and the leaves on the trees turn orange.

Some pretty cool things to check out when roaming the Tiergarten include: The ‘Cafe Am Neun See’ beer garden the ‘mystery’ Stand by Me Tree the LGBT+ Holocaust Memorial and the Victory Column.

Allow: 1-2 hours/Entrance: Free

Victory Column

The Victory Column, otherwise known as the Siegessäule, is one of the must-see sights when visiting Berlin. Located directly west of Brandenburg Gate, you can stroll along the boulevard or take a detour through the Tiergarten to reach it. It’s around a 20-30 minute walk from the gate. You can admire the column from afar, or climb the stairs to the top for sweeping views over the city.

Akin to many of the landmarks in Germany, the Victory Column has stood the test of time through the cities turbulent history. Interestingly, the current location of the column is a result of Nazi restructuring. Consequently, the landmark escaped much of the bombings throughout WWII.

To climb to the top of the column costs only a few euros. It was cloudy when we visited so we figured the view wouldn’t have been great. But had it been a clear day we would have done it for sure. I’ve seen some photos taken at the top, and the view over the Tiergarten is pretty awesome.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Despite being one of the more distressing tourist spots in Berlin, the outdoor Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is a must-visit during your time in the city. Situated close to the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial is a place of remembrance. Not only for those who lost their lives but for the harrowing regimes imposed by the Nazis. A reminder so that we don’t forget. A warning to ensure that nothing like that happens again.

The design of the memorial is unique and abstract, allowing each individual to perceive it in their own way. Covering an area of 19,000 sqm, the architect placed 2711 concrete slabs of different sizes, to create a disorientating and uncertain experience for visitors. Personally, I perceived the individual-sized slabs to be symbolic to humanity and Hitler’s warped vision of a superior race. A reminder that we all come in different shapes and sizes, but ultimately we are all the same.

Topography of Terror

Another sombre yet essential thing to do in Berlin, the Topography of Terror Museum aims to provide a detailed account of how the events of WWII unfolded. It is also no accident that the museum sits on the same site where between 1933 and 1945 the headquarters of the Gestapo conducted war business.

The permanent exhibition is a combination of remains, photos, documents, and information boards, documenting the Nazis rise to power, their crimes throughout the war, and finally their downfall as the war ended. It’s a shocking and harrowing account of what happened however, incredibly informative and important nonetheless.

Allow: 1-2 hours/Entrance: Free

Checkpoint Charlie

Next up on the historical trail and just a 5-minute walk from TOT is Checkpoint Charlie. This popular landmark serves as a reminder of the old crossings between East and West Germany. The checkpoint booth and barrier, the soldiers holding flags, and the sandbags are all based on the original site. It’s quite impressive, and you can almost picture the scene all those years ago.

In more recent years, the checkpoint has been the setting for a number of Hollywood films, including James Bond Octopussy. As you can imagine, it’s now incredibly popular amongst tourists, and despite the busy roads, crowds swarm around it for a photo. I get the excitement, I do, but please be safe people!

Allow: 10 minutes/Entrance: Free

Reichstag Building

Berlin has its fair share of historical architecture, and the Reichstag is one of the most significant buildings in the city. Today, the Reichstag is home to the German Parliament. However, since its completion in 1894, the breathtaking structure has survived quite a colourful history.

The Reichstags purpose was always to serve as home to the German Parliament. They even had the words ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ inscribed on the facade, meaning ‘the German people‘. Initially, the parliament resided there until 1933 when the building suffered severe damage in a fire. After that, the building was neglected and endured even further destruction during the war.

Long story short, in 1999 following dramatic restoration, Germany’s parliament came home to the Reichstag once again. There is still evidence of the building’s history in the graffiti left by Soviet soldiers. Though, it’s now an eco-architectural wonder that attracts hundreds of people every day.

To go inside the Reichstag, you must first complete the online registration form ahead of your visit. You can take a quick look around by yourself, or take part in a detailed tour. Both are possible and free of charge, but only with an advanced booking. We suggest booking at least two weeks in advance as we tried to book when we arrived in the city, and the slots were already fully booked.

Allow: 1-2 hours/Entrance: Free


If you’re interested in architecture, you will want to stop by Gendarmenmarkt at some point during your 2 days in Berlin. The famous square boasts various awe-inspiring buildings, including the concert house and the French & German cathedrals. The ensemble of structures is really quite beautiful, and certainly worth a photo or two.

Depending on when you visit, there is often an event taking place at Gendarmenmarkt. For us, it was the magical Christmas markets (check out these wonderful foods to try at German Christmas Markets), and in the Summer there are several open-air concerts. Finally, when visiting Gendarmenmarkt, we insist you pop your head into ‘Rausch Schokoladenhaus’ across the road. They have all kinds of impressive statues made from chocolate, and also free tasters. It’s a no brainer!

Day 2 of 2 Days in Berlin

Good Morning! Hopefully, you’re not too tired from yesterday’s antics as we are set to have another busy day. Day 2 of your 2 day Berlin itinerary will have you visiting more of the cities top attractions. We will check out some Unesco listed buildings, museums, street art, and parks. There’s more ground to cover so you’ll likely be needing local transport, which is where your WelcomeBerlin card will come in handy to cut down on costs.

East Side Gallery

After breakfast, you’ll take the bus or train to Warschauer Strasse. It is the perfect starting point for your walk alongside the East Side Gallery, as you’ll also catch a glimpse at the Oberbaumbrücke. This bridge is iconic to Berlin and features the two giant hands playing scissors-paper-stone. After you’ve taken a photo or two from the Northside, you’ll be ready to explore the most significant remains of the Berlin Wall.

What once served as a divide between East & West Berlin, is now one of the most extensive open-air galleries in the world. At 1.3 kilometres, it is also the longest continuous section of the wall still in existence. It’s quite surreal walking alongside the wall, imagining what it would be like to live in a divided city. You can’t help but remember the families who were separated. Not to mention, the harrowing events that many had to endure.

On a more uplifting note, to see the wall transformed into an outlet of creative expression is truly astonishing. Since its opening in 1990, much of the artwork has become globally famous, with many of the murals portraying incredibly powerful and inspiring messages. I guarantee a walk alongside the East Side Gallery will be one of your most memorable experiences after spending 2 days in Berlin.

Allow: 1-2 hours/Entrance: Free

Viktoria Park

Located in the hipster district of Kreuzberg, Viktoria Park is one of the most picturesque parks in Berlin. After experiencing some intense emotions at the wall, it’s an ideal spot to walk and reflect. You won’t be alone here. It’s a popular spot among locals and tourists alike. But, if you climb to the top of the hill, and you’ll get an awesome view over the city.

I should point out that while Viktoria Park is beautiful all year round, it is at its peak during the Summer months. That’s because of the artificial waterfall feature that is out of action during the Winter. I wish somebody had mentioned that before we rocked up in December, but we enjoyed the park nonetheless. There’s also a winery and a beer garden!

Allow: 1 hour/Entrance: Free

Tempelhofer Feld

Next, I suggest grabbing a takeaway lunch and heading to Tempelhofer Feld for a picnic – weather permitting of course! Either way, you’ll want to make time during your 2 day Berlin itinerary to check this place out. It sort of falls under the urban exploring category, but while you’re in the area, why not.

Tempelhofer Feld, or Tempelhof Field, is the old grounds of the now-abandoned Tempelhof Airport. The former military airport closed down in 2008, and since been reopened to the public as a recreation area. The former airport has a distinctively cool vibe and is probably one of our favourite spots to hang out in Berlin. I love that they’ve kept the old airport building and runways still in tack.

The vast open space spans over 950 acres. There’s now a 6-kilometre cycling and running track, a huge BBQ area, a dog-walking field, and a large picnic area. On a Summers day, you can find thousands of people here up to all kinds of activities, whether it be flying kites, cycling, dancing, or hanging out with friends.

Allow: 1 hour/Entrance: Free

If you are interested in the history of the airport, you can embark on a guided tour of the airport building. On the tour, you’ll learn the historical importance of the building during the Third Reich and cold war. As well as the airport’s impact on international aviation.

Museum Island

After you’ve relaxed a little at Tempelhof, you’re going to make your way back to the Mitte Area to explore Museum Island. As the name suggests, it is quite literally an island, set in the middle of the River Spree. Out of the 200 or so museums in the city, the most significant are located on Museum Island, which is pretty handy when you have just 2 days to explore Berlin.

Even if you’re not really into history or museums, it’s still worth checking out Museum Island. The complex boasts some of the cities most amazing architecture and is declared a UNESCO world heritage site. If, on the other hand, you are a real museum buff, you may want to rejig your itinerary to have more time here. You could easily spend an entire day if you wanted to visit them all.

To help you decide which of the museums to visit, I’ve included a short description of each below. If you are going to visit more than one museum, it’s worth investing in a Museum Island day pass. It’s a great deal at €19 and will not only save you money but time queuing as well.

Museum Island


Berlin’s most famous museum. This museum is home to a reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar, the Gate of Ishtar, part of the Babylonian Empire and soon the Kalabscha Gate and columned hall of Pharaoh Sahure.

The Bode Museum is home to an extensive collection of sculptures from the medieval period to the late eighteenth century. It’s also famous for the multi-million dollar heist that happened quite recently.

Neues Museum

Famous for its outstanding collections of Egyptian artefacts, including the legendary bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti and scrolls from the ‘Book of the Dead’.

Alte Nationalgalerie

An art gallery, containing mostly paintings and sculptures from the neoclassical and romanticism periods. Inspired by the Acropolis in Athens, the building alone is immensely impressive.

Altes Museum

Hosts various antique collections including Ancient Greek and Roman artefacts.

Once you’ve finished at the museums, take a minute to admire the beautiful Berlin Cathedral also located on the island. It’s possible to buy a ticket for €7 and explore inside though, we haven’t done it personally.

Alexander Platz

To round off your second day in Berlin, you have several options. The first is to check out the famous Berlin nightlife that I talk about further down the article. OR make your way to Alexander Platz, Berlin’s most famous square. There’s nothing too special about the square itself however, you could go up to the TV tower to watch the sunset. You can even eat at the restaurant up there, which we haven’t done ourselves, but can imagine would be pretty spectacular with the view. You can buy Skip The Line tickets here for the TV tower, so you don’t have to queue.

Berlin Two Day Itinerary 2 – Alternative Berlin

Now we’ve covered the touristic two day itinerary for Berlin, let’s take a look at the Alternative side to the city. This itinerary is perfect for those who’ve maybe visited Berlin before and are looking for something a little bit different. Or perhaps you’re just not one to follow the typical tourist trail, and you’d prefer to discover something a little more offbeat. Either way, this itinerary has got you covered. We are going all out urban exploring, from abandoned theme parks, to street art, and possibly the smallest disco in the world!

Day 1 of 2 Days in Berlin

OK, day 1 in Berlin and it’s time to discover the, can I say, ‘cooler’ side to Berlin. I’m aware that probably has me sounding the complete opposite to ‘cool’, but hey, I digress. We loved exploring the alternative side to Berlin. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the touristic side too, but it’s the off-the-beaten-path stuff that really gets our blood pumping. Here’s what we suggest for your first day of adventuring in alternative Berlin.

Raw Gelande

After breakfast, you’ll take the bus or train to Warschauer Strasse Station and make the short walk to Raw Gelande. Set in a former train repair yard, I would describe this area as an art and cultural centre. The old warehouses and buildings have been taken over and used as an outlet of creative expression for graffiti and street art artists.

There isn’t much going on in the mornings. Whereas by late afternoon, the realm of pubs, clubs, street food stalls, and flea markets burst into life. Nonetheless, I didn’t make a mistake recommending you start the day here. It’s impossible to appreciate the artistic side of the space when everything is open and swarmed with people.

Our suggestion is to visit in the morning, and if you have the time, return one evening to enjoy the bustling nightlife. It’s especially atmospheric come the long Summer nights, and many of the nightclubs roll on until the early hours of the morning.

Allow: 1 hour/Entrance: Free


Which leads me onto our next stop – The Teledisko – possibly the smallest disco in the world, but also one of the most unique. We stumbled upon this genius creation when exploring Raw Gelande. What appeared to be a telephone box was blaring music and vibrating off the floor.

Next thing we knew, two giggling girls rolled out of the door, trailed by a pool of smoke. We suspected it must have been one of those speakeasy bars, but, naturally, we had to know for sure. As it turns out it is exactly what it says on the tin, a disco in a telephone box.

We slot a few euro into the machine, went inside, and danced & sang our little hearts out for the duration of our cheesy choice of song. Certainly one of the more unique things to in Berlin, and we agreed it was money well spent for the 5-minutes of laughs it provided.

Allow: 5 minutes/Entrance: €5

*Before we make our way to the next stop, it’s worth mentioning that the East Side Gallery is within walking distance of Raw Gelande. It’s without a doubt a touristic spot in Berlin however, it’s also pretty amazing. If you wanted to take a little detour from the itinerary to check it out, now’s the time to do it.

TreeHouse on the Wall

Next on the agenda, we have a spot that I guarantee even very few Berliners know of. The Treehouse on the Wall was erected in the 1980s by a Turkish migrant worker. At the time, the Berlin wall was still standing however, Osman Kalin found a loophole whereby a small area of land had been left exposed.

Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the authorities. Many believed Osman was using the house to assist Berliners in crossing over the divide. However, despite intimidating demands to tear it down, the structure built using exclusively recycled scrap materials still stands today.

For the moment, you can’t ‘legally’ get into the house. There are rumours of turning it into an official monument or a museum in the future. But for now, you can admire it only from the outside. In any case, it’s worth checking out while you’re in the area.

Allow: 30 mins/Entrance: Free


Kreuzberg is known as the hipster district of Berlin, so as you imagine, there’s plenty of cool stuff to check out around here. You won’t find any major attractions as such however, the perfect blend of trendy cafes, new age restaurants, and urban underground edge, makes for some pretty fun exploration opportunities.

First up, grab some lunch! Kreuzberg is home to some incredible places to eat, and I’ve listed many of them further down the article. After that, stroll down the banks of the picturesque Landwehrkanal. Especially around the vibrant Maybachufer stretch, the banks are swarming with bars, cafes, and restaurants.

Every Tuesday and Friday is the Turkish market where you can shop for souvenirs or sample some Turkish street food. It’s also worth checking out Brammibals bakery for delectable vegan doughnuts.

Alternative Berlin Tour

What better way to explore Berlin like a local, than to take a guided tour of Berlin with a local. But this isn’t your average guided tour where you visit all the usual tourist spots in Berlin. Alternative Berlin Tours allow you to see the city from an alternative perspective. You’ll get to explore gritty underground locations that even only a few locals know about. And you’ll get a full-blown history lesson from somebody who knows Berlin like the back of their hand.

Alternative Berlin offer a choice of tours, all of which start later in the day after lunch. I should point out that the Street Art tour will likely include a visit to Raw Gelande. So if you visited there in the morning as suggested, perhaps opt for another tour such as the Real Berlin Experience or Alternative Nightlife Tour.

SpeakEasy Bar

Nothing screams Alternative Berlin like secret bars hidden in unsuspecting spaces. For those not quite in the know, that’s precisely what SpeakEasy Bars are. The term ‘Speakeasy’ was derived from the prohibition days when drinking holes were illegal, so opportunistic pub landlords would disguise their bars to evade the authorities.

Nowadays, bars in cities with even just a slightly retro vibe loosely throw around the term. However, in Berlin, there is still several of the authentic kind. Bars with passwords to get in. Bars disguised in warehouses and at the back of shops. There are many, and this list sums up some of the best of them. A great way to end the day or start your night, whichever way you look at it.

Day 2 of 2 Days in Berlin

Hopefully, the Berlin nightlife didn’t swallow you whole (it tends to do that), and you’re ready for another adventurous day of exploring. This list is pretty optimistic, and the likelihood is you won’t be able to get around absolutely everything. However, we suggest you pick the activities that interest you the most and go from there. Today we are concentrating on abandoned places in Berlin, so it’s a solid day for the real explorers out there. For updated information and other derelict sites in Berlin, I recommend you check out Abandoned Berlin.

Spree Park

Once an amusement park, now abandoned and left to the forces of nature, Spreepark is a must-visit for any intrepid traveller. Like most things in Berlin, the park conceals a fascinating past which I won’t go into here, but if you’re interested, I suggest taking a look at this article.

Long story short, the park closed down in 2002, and until recently went untouched. There are now plans in place to revamp the whole thing into an art and cultural centre. But for now, the dilapidated rides and structures of the old park remain, allowing for quite the eerie adventure. Unfortunately, the park is off-limits unless you go as part of a tour however, that’s not to say that people don’t illicitly do it. It’s the same set up as the abandoned water park in Vietnam, but I’m not sure the Germans bribe so easily. Don’t fancy being chased by guards and dogs, take the tour. You can book a walking tour of Spree Park here.

Underground Berlin Tour

Probably one of our favourite experiences in Berlin, and if you’re remotely interested in Berlin history, an essential addition to your 2 Day Berlin Itinerary. The organisation is Berliner Unterwelten – A subterranean museum exploring the city’s underground history, including WWII bunkers and escape tunnels.

I’ll be honest, it takes a unique experience for history to grip us, and that’s what we loved about Berlin. There are such creative and immersive ways to learn about the past that you’re instantaneously hooked. The underground tours are a great example. You can sit in WWII bunkers, follow escape routes under the old Berlin Wall, and come face to face with the dark realities of the past.

Several underground tours run throughout the day in a variety of languages. I’ve included a short description of each below – We can personally recommend Tour 1. However, depending on the time of year, there may be a limited choice of tours running on the day. We recommend you check the website for more information, although you can’t book in advance. You must book on the day of your tour at the ticket office.

Tour 1 – Dark Worlds: Experience WW2 bombing raids through the eyes of civilians. Travel through the twisted passages and learn about life as a Berlin civilian in WWII.

Tour 2 – From Flaktowers to Mountains of Debris: Discover the devastated ruins of a WW2 fortress. On this fascinating tour, visitors will be shown three of the seven floors of one of the biggest bunkers in the city.

Tour 3 – Bunkers, Subways, and the Cold War: This tour follows the traces of the Cold War in the underground. Discover the modern defence shelters that were built in preparation for a possible nuclear war.

Tour M – Under the Berlin Wall: On this tour, you’ll hear the stories of the people who tunnelled to freedom beneath the Berlin wall. You’ll see with your own eyes the tunnels that were a success, and also those that were not.


Next up we have Teufelsburg – An abandoned spy station sat atop an 80-meter artificial hill in the Grunewald forest. This one is quite a way out of the city centre, but if you’re down for a real offbeat urban adventure, it doesn’t get much better.

Unsurprisingly, the derelict military structure has a remarkable history. First of all, the mound on which it’s built consists of post-WWII debris of dilapidated Berlin. And the structure itself, once a Nazi military college was later taken over by the U.S. National Security Agency and used as a spy station. Pretty cool, huh?

Abandoned following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the structure is now a decaying shell adorned in some of the cities most impressive street art. Naturally, some opportunistic locals have clocked on, and now you have to pay to get inside. However, I know of plenty of visitors who just find a gap in the fence and discover it that way.

If you’d prefer to play it on the safe side, tours of Teufelsburg run daily. You can make a booking through the website here.

Nature Park Schöneberger Südgelände

If you don’t fancy the long trip out of town, perhaps this deserted railway yard will tickle your fancy instead. Fifty years ago, the park was nothing but an industrial junkyard however, over the past five decades, it has flourished into a rich jungle forest.

Set in the vibrant Schoneberg district, this Nature Park is our favourite in Berlin. Despite being reconstructed to include walking trails for the public, derelict remains of buildings, trains, and tracks lay buried beneath the dense forest. It’s offbeat, but without doing anything too risky or illegal. And the best part, it’s only €1 to enter!

KlunkerKranich Rooftop Bar

For the final stop of the day, weather permitting, we recommend heading to Klunkerkranich Rooftop Bar. A former carpark turned cultural rooftop garden that, provides a lush outdoor space overlooking panoramic views of Berlin. During the Summer, this ‘happening’ venue hosts concerts, DJ programs, readings, cinema, and much more on the vast upper deck. I do believe they have an indoor section as well, but you might want to check out the website for what’s going on throughout the year.

Where to Eat in Berlin

Regardless of which of our 2 Day Berlin Itineraries you choose, your days are going to be pretty hectic. To ensure you don’t get burnt out, we encourage that you eat well and stay hydrated. For us, fueling our bodies is essential when spending the day exploring. We would not be responsible for our actions otherwise! Thankfully, Berlin is foodie heaven, and you’re never short for great options. Here we list some of the popular spots in each district, so you’re never too far from a great meal. For more places to eat in Berlin, we recommend checking out this Foodie Guide to Berlin.

Best Eats In Mitte

Dolores $: Traditional Californian burritos in the heart of Berlin. Tasty, healthy, and affordable with several vegetarian/vegan options available. Perfect for grabbing something in a hurry or for those on a budget.

Schinitzelei Mitte $: Arguably the best schnitzel in Berlin with a delicious craft beer menu to boot. If you’re going to be traditional and try the local food, we highly recommend you check this place out.

Mogg Deli $: Mogg is considered somewhat of an institution on the berlin culinary scene. Visit this artisan deli at lunchtime for a delectable selection of premium sandwiches.

Best Eats in Kreuzberg

Burgermeister $: If you’re looking for the best burger in Berlin, you need to look to further than Burgermeister. There are franchises all over the city however, the original is located in Kreuzberg beneath Schlesisches Tor station. Veggie option is also available.

Mustafa Gemüse-Kebab $: Berlin is no stranger to kebab shops, but the best in the city can be found at Mustafa Gemüse-Kebab. Often referred to as the best kebabs in the world, people queue, sometimes for hours, for a taste of the secret recipe that has taken Berlin by storm.

Markthalle Neun $: Should you happen to be in Berlin on a Thursday, OR the 3rd Sunday of every month, you have to checkout Markthalle Neun. Every Thursday the market place hosts Streetfood Thursday where you can find an amalgamation of food trucks and pop up bars. Whereas, every third Sunday is the infamous breakfast market.

Curry 36 $: THE only place in Berlin where you should attempt to try currywurst. Not to everybody’s taste, but an experience you can’t leave Berlin without.

Best Eats in Schöneberg

Romeo & Romeo $: As the name suggests, this trendy cafe is a popular hangout among gay men. However, if you’re in the area, I would pop your head in just to sample their infamous rainbow cake.

Cafe Berio $: One of the oldest cafes in the Schoneberg area, Cafe Berio is an all-time favourite amongst the LGBT+ community. During the Summer, the outdoor terrace is considered a prime place, and you will often struggle to find a spot at all during peak hours. Nonetheless, the food is worth the wait, as is the coffee!

Maharadscha $: This restaurant provides a vibrant taste of India in the heart of Berlin, and is well-rated amongst locals and tourists alike. It gets incredibly busy at dinner time, so booking in advance is recommended.

Best Eats in Friedrichshain

1990 Vegan Living $: Possibly some of the best vegan food in all of Berlin, 1990 Vegan Living is becoming somewhat of a cult favourite in the city. Based on Vietnamese cuisine, every dish is bursting with flavour, and the portion sizes are pretty generous too.

Silo Coffee $: Hands down the best coffee and breakfast joint in the area. The interior is dominated by sustainable wood furniture, giving the whole place a rustic yet welcoming vibe. Undoubtedly one of the culinary gems in this area of Berlin.

Berlin Nightlife

If you only plan on spending 2 days in Berlin, I would strongly suggest approaching the Berlin nightlife with caution. Berlin arguably has the best party scene in Europe. Famed for being a hedonistic wonderland of booze, drugs, and debaucherous all-night parties. If you’re into techno, Berlin is your mecca. A realm of world-famous techno clubs host international DJ’s each and every weekend. At the same time, you can fulfil any of your wildest desires in the various sex and fetish clubs.

But Berlin’s nightlife isn’t all sex, drugs & rock’n’roll. There are hundreds of establishments offering their own unique programme, from cocktail bars and nightclubs, to live music and epic rooftop bars. The city has something for everyone. With this in mind, here I list some of the best establishments in the city, catering to various interests.

Techno Club: Berghain

Berghain is considered to be one of the best nightclubs in the world. Set in a former railway warehouse, patrons queue for hours to get into the exclusive club which opens from Friday night, all the way through to Monday lunchtime. Be warned, however, the bouncers at Berghain are notorious for turning people away. There are no set rules as to why merely that they are looking for the ‘right balance of people’. Whatever that’s supposed to mean! Inside you’ll find a labyrinth of corridors leading to a variety of sinful rooms & delights – very mysterious indeed!

Sex Club: KitKat

Berlin’s most notorious sex club, famed for it’s ‘anything goes’ policy and uninhibited fetish parties. A word of warning, this club is not for the faint-hearted. But for the open-minded and curious, you’re guaranteed a night you’ll never forget.

Cocktail Bar: Green Door

If you’d prefer something a little more low key, there is no shortage of classy cocktail bars in Berlin. One of our favourites is Green Door. A swanky retro-style bar set behind an inconspicuous Green Door in Schoneberg. Ring the bell to enter, grab a seat on the plush leather couches, and slowly work your way through the creative cocktail menu.

Gay Club: Die Busche

An iconic nightclub within the Berlin LGBT+ scene, Die Busche was the only gay club in East Germany before reunification. Today the party is still going strong, spreading across three floors and attracting a fun-loving crowd. Each room plays a different genre of music ranging from club anthems to disco charts, as well as 80’s & 90’s music. Check out our Gay & Lesbian Travel Guide for Berlin for all the best queer bars, clubs, and events.

Speakeasy Bar: Bar Tausend

There are several Speakeasy Bars in Berlin, but Bar Tausend is one of the best. Hidden behind an inconspicuous steel door in Berlin Mitte, the bar has all the feels of the 1920s. Expect high-quality drinks in a relaxed environment, alongside a solid entertainment programme of DJs and live music.

Live Music: Astra Kulturhaus

If live music is more your jam, it’s well worth checking out this well-established concert venue. The entertainment programme is usually bursting with top quality acts from Indie-Rock to Punk-Pop, and the beer garden is one of the best in the city.

Day Trips From Berlin

If you’re spending just 2 Days in Berlin, you might struggle to squeeze in any day trips. However, should you end up staying longer, or fancy some time away from the hustle & bustle, there are several incredible sites located within striking distance of the city. After some extensive research, we have put together what we believe to be the most appealing day trips from Berlin.

Sachsenhausen Memorial Walking Tour

Not for the faint-hearted, this educational tour explores the Sachsenhausen Memorial on the outskirts of Berlin on a Full-day walking tour. More than 30,000 people died at Sachsenhausen, and the camp is now a museum, where visitors get the opportunity to learn of the bleak existence inside the Gestapo prison. Here’s what you can expect from the tour:

  • Take a train ride through the lovely forests of north Berlin
  • Explore the dark history of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
  • See the location of the gas chambers and gallows
  • Learn about life in the camp during World War II and after


Located just 35km outside of Berlin, the charming city of Potsdam is an ideal day trip out of the capital. Famed for its grand royal architecture, sweeping gardens, and historical points of interest, the entire complex is classified as a UNESCO heritage site. It’s quite impossible to get around the whole city of Potsdam in one day therefore most concentrate on the grandeur Sanssouci Palace grounds. You can organise the trip yourself, or take the stress out of planning with this best selling tour.

  • Enjoy a beautiful tour of Sanssouci’s garden and stately buildings
  • Be amazed by the New Palace and admire the park’s traditional Chinese teahouse
  • Discover the former royal city of Potsdam
  • Travel in a comfortable bus from Berlin to Potsdam

Just 2-hours outside of Berlin lay the picturesque town of Dresden, with its wealth of awe-inspiring architecture and historical sights. Dresden was the royal residence of the Saxon Kings, who established a city of such cultural and artistic brilliance it was named “The Pearl of the Baroque.” Despite enduring terrible destruction during WWII, it is still considered one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. Again, you can travel to Dresden and explore the city sights by yourself. Or consider taking this best-selling organised tour.

  • Get a full commentary of Dresden’s origins and life in the post-communist era
  • Learn about the importance of Meisen pottery to the region
  • Explore the Old Town, the Semper Opera house, and the Balcony of Europe
  • Discover the Zwinger Palace
  • Enjoy the journey from the comfort of a coach hired just for your tour group with a local expert guide

Rügen Island, Germany

When you think of Germany, pristine beaches and islands tend to be the last thing that comes to mind. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what you’ll find at Rügen Island. A beach lovers paradise set in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of northeast Germany. Interestingly, the island is just a 3-hour drive from Berlin, so you could visit for the day or spend a night or two there. With its stunning beaches, historic towns, and national parks, it’s certainly a spot to consider when visiting in the Summer.

Tips & Advice for Spending 2 Days in Berlin

Where to Exchange Currency in Berlin

The unit of currency in Germany is the Euro. We advise travelling with some cash in your pocket however, if you don’t want to carry large sums, there are a number of ways to exchange money in Berlin. Though naturally, some are more cost-effective than others.

The easiest option is to withdraw euros directly from an ATM. Some ATM machines may ask if you want to proceed “with or without conversion”. Whatever you do, never proceed with conversion because leads to terrible exchange rates. Trust us, we learnt the hard way. If you choose to be charged in the local currency, this will ensure a more favourable rate is applied to your conversion.

Another money-saving tip is to carry a currency card such as Easy Fx rather than withdrawing money using your debit or credit cards. This way, you can make purchases, withdraw cash and make transfers, all with no international fees. Again, so long as you choose to be charged in the local currency.

Getting Around in Berlin

Berlin is a large and sprawling city, which means if you plan on covering several districts, you’ll need to know how to get around. Thankfully, getting around in Berlin is super easy and convenient. It’s also really affordable, so long as you know the local secrets.

First and foremost, we strongly encourage you to get a Berlin WelcomeCard. The card not only includes unlimited access to Berlins public transport network, but you’ll also get discounts at over 200 of the cities attractions. We travelled extensively around the city, and the Berlin WelcomeCard saved us a ton of money.

Now, the four major transport networks are the U-Bahn (underground trains), S-Bahn (overground trains), buses, and trams. The extensive network covers every corner of the city, so no matter where you want to go, you can always rely on public transport.

To find the quickest route, we always relied on good ol’ Google. So long as you have data or wifi, you can type in your destination, and Google will find the quickest route from your exact location. It will direct you to the station closest to you and state the trains or buses you need to take to reach your destination.

Sounds easy enough, right? And it is! The only thing I would say is that it isn’t always clear which direction you need to travel in. Several times we got on our bus or train, only to realise a few minutes later we were going in the wrong direction. No big deal, but it’s worth checking with somebody at the station or stop that you’re heading the right way.

If you prefer to avoid public transport, taxis are easy to come by at taxi stands, train stations, and the airport. Uber is also in operation and is usually cheaper than the local taxis.

Staying Safe in Berlin

Compared to most other cities in the world, Berlin is extremely safe however, there are still some precautions you should take to protect yourself and your belongings.

First of all, petty thefts such as pickpocketing and bag snatching are not uncommon. We suggest keeping your belongings close to you at all times and use a small padlock or compartmental bag to keep your valuables safe. When travelling at night, avoid being alone in parks or dark areas.

Common scams pose another risk to tourists, and we advise being vigilant at all times. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and walk away from the situation. Check out this article for examples of common scams in Berlin.

Travel Insurance

With that, don’t even think about going to Berlin without travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. If the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you’ll want the best cover money can buy.

For this reason, we always recommend World Nomads for travel insurance. They are affordable, offer a variety of packages and add ons, and allow you to make amendments to your policy while travelling. Say, for example, you go scuba diving or hiking a mountain, World Nomads will amend your plan accordingly. It’s a super handy feature that we’ve used numerous times including the time we trekked to Annapurna Base Camp.

If you need further convincing, read our article on why you need travel insurance. Or get an on-the-spot quote from World Nomads using the form below.

Festivals and Events in Berlin

The Berlin events calendar is jam-packed, and no matter when you visit, there is guaranteed to be something going on. From music festivals in the Summer and Christmas markets in the Winter, to a variety of cultural events and exhibitions throughout the year there’s always something to keep you entertained! Check out the Visit Berlin Events Calendar for this year’s juicy entertainment.

Staying Connected in Berlin

If, like us, you rely on the internet when you travel (let’s face it, who doesn’t anymore), we have the perfect solution. After coming home to too many hefty phone bills and buying countless international sim cards, we were desperate for an affordable solution. That’s when we discovered TravelWifi. TravelWifi’s portable pocket wifi allows us to quickly and securely connect when we need it the most. Click the link for more information on coverage, packages, and the latest offers.

More on Berlin

Planning a trip to Berlin? Check out our other articles to help plan your trip.

Did you enjoy our 2 Days in Berlin Itinerary?

Well, that concludes 2 Days in Berlin – Itinerary & Guide for 2020. If you have any questions or feel we have missed anything, please reach out to us in the comment section below. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram here!

Stay adventurous and Happy travels.

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Berlin is a German city and federal state, situated in the heart of Europe. It has been the capital city since 1991, and is the largest city in the country with around 3.4 million inhabitants. This profile explains Berlin’s historical development and emphasizes changes which took place during the 20th century (the Weimar period in the 1920s, followed by the Nazi takeover in 1933 and the city’s destruction during World War II, then the division of the city into West Berlin and East Berlin, until its final reunification in 1990 after the Wall fell down). After reunification, Berlin experienced a new period of urban redevelopment in which many new buildings were constructed. This profile also outlines some recent positive changes in terms of Berlin’s economic growth and its transformation into the capital of innovative new companies in the digital, culture and media industries.

Leaving Reality Out

In the summer of 2003, I turned 65. I was born in 1938. I have seen a lot of history in my lifetime. I remember World War II. I remember rationing books, blackouts, my family's "victory garden," German prisoners-of-war behind a barbed-wire fence in Galveston, Tx., President Roosevelt's death, and V-J day. In the 1950s and 1960s, I met survivors of the Holocaust who had blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. I remember racial segregation: The Houston schools were segregated, and so were drinking fountains, public buses, movie theaters, and every other public facility.

When I went to college in the fall of 1956, I met Hungarian students whose families had fled to the United States after the failed revolution there. I vividly remember Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech at the March on Washington in 1963 because I participated in the march. I have firsthand recollections of President Kennedy's assassination, demonstrations against the Vietnam war, President Nixon's resignation, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember Franklin D. Roosevelt as a distant figure but have clear memories of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

The same is true for others my age. The longer you live, the more history you witness. Experience, it is said, is a great teacher, and it is true. Experience gives you a personal fund of knowledge of events and people. And, it gives you a sense of context to which one can relate new events.

By virtue of their age, students have little direct knowledge of history. A typical 15-year-old student in 2003 was born in 1988. He or she is likely to remember only two presidents: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Youngsters of this age cannot recall a world in which the Soviet Union existed. For most, September 11 was the only historic event they have personally known in their young lives. Because of their age and inexperience, whatever they know about the history of the past century—and the centuries that preceded it—will largely depend on what they learn in school. As our nation faces a period of continuing peril from threats of terrorism, as concern grows about how to find the right balance between security and civil liberties, students need a historical context to understand today's issues. Certainly they need to learn about the system of government that has made possible the freedoms they enjoy. They need to know where those freedoms originated and how they were established. But to fully appreciate and understand freedom, students need to know what it means to live in a society that does not have the rights and freedoms that we take for granted.

Our students know that our democracy has many flaws they learn about them in school. They can also read about them on any given day in the newspaper or see them described on television. We regularly hear critics enumerate the errors of our foreign policy, our energy policy, our tax policy, our environmental policy, even the character of top officials in national, state, and local governments. We know that there are injustices in our society, and we expect the press to expose them and teachers to discuss them in their classes.

Living in a free society, it would be easy to imagine that people in other societies enjoy the same rights and freedoms as we do. Some do, most do not. According to the most recent annual Freedom House survey, 35 percent of the world's population live in nations that are "not free" and another 21 percent live in "partly free" nations. As children grow to maturity, as they study history and civics, it is important for them to understand the differences between living in a democratic society and living where freedom is limited or nonexistent. It is important not because we want to congratulate ourselves, but because we want the younger generation to be prepared both to defend and improve democratic institutions.

In order to understand our rights and freedoms, young Americans need to learn about their absence. They need to know what it means to live in a world where one lives in fear of the rulers. What does it mean to live in a society where one expects the telephone line to be tapped, where one expects personal mail to be opened, where one cannot publish one's views or criticize the leaders without punishment, where critics of the regime disappear without a trace, where one dreads a knock on the door in the middle of the night? For almost all young Americans, such knowledge is remote from their personal experience.

Few American students have ever lived in a society where there were no elections or where elections were a sham where criticism of the leader was a crime punishable by years in prison where the press and all other media served the government where there was no independent judiciary to limit the powers of the government where individuals were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned where individuals were not free to travel abroad or to join organizations (like labor unions) with others and where individuals had few or no rights.

If students don't study the reality of tyranny in school, they're unlikely to learn of it anywhere else. And their potential for political judgment will be limited by their political naiveté.

There have been tyrants throughout human history, people who wanted to exercise complete control of their subjects, but only in the 20th century did dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao have the bureaucratic and technological tools to achieve their fearsome ends on a grand scale. These men killed tens of millions of people. How they took power, how they controlled huge numbers of people, and how they stamped out individual freedom should be an important part of history studies. Students should also know tyranny is not merely a historical phenomenon. They should be prepared to recognize its earmarks today in societies like North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba, where dictators hold a monopoly on power and ban free expression, and in Iran, where an iron-willed theocracy squelches dissident voices.

But schools are not well-prepared to teach about tyranny. I assign much of the responsibility for this failure to history textbooks, upon which most teachers of history depend for accurate information about far-flung societies. Even when teachers are well-educated in history (and many are not—thanks to teacher-education programs and teacher-assignment policies that are dismissive of content knowledge), it is unrealistic to expect teachers to know everything about the history of the entire world, and this elevates the power of the messages in the textbooks.

In my view, based on a careful reading of widely used textbooks in world history, these texts do a poor job of explaining what it means to live under tyranny. I think there are three main reasons for this.

First, some of today's world history texts exhibit a deeply ingrained cultural relativism. They are reluctant to make the judgment that a democratic system of government is superior to nondemocratic ones. They express a neutral tone of voice in which some people prefer democracy and respect human rights, and other people prefer local traditions that are different. This studied tone of neutrality implies that a preference for democratic institutions reflects Western values that should not be "imposed" on those who have other values.

Second, world history textbooks seem quite willing to condemn dictatorships that are extinct, like that of Hitler and Stalin, but in general are remarkably deferential to regimes that are still in power, like those of Iran, Cuba, and China. Mao—who was responsible for the deaths of more people than any other world leader, including Stalin and Hitler—is treated with great deference in almost every textbook.

Third, and most important, the textbooks give scant attention to the realities of living in a tyranny or to abuses of human rights because they must compress major events to bare details. It is not merely that judgment is not rendered, but that factual details about life in a dictatorship are so scant and so abbreviated that students get no sense of reality or context, thus limiting their ability to make their own judgments. A single book that attempts to tell the history of all the world's civilizations, from ancient times to the present, cannot afford to spend much time on any one of them. Students cannot possibly understand what it was like to live in fascist Europe or the Ba'athist Middle East or Idi Amin's Uganda when the textbooks barely mention the political character of most regimes or sum them up in a few sentences or short paragraphs. Even in the rare case when the excesses of a brutal regime merit three or four pages, the treatment is so superficial that it lacks the narrative power to kindle students' desire to learn more on their own.

Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union get more attention than other tyrannies. Each receives a number of pages detailing how these regimes came to power facts about their brutal use of power and even one or two vivid firsthand accounts of individuals who suffered under their rule. Even for study of these two countries, however, teachers would do well to supplement the textbook with outside readings that would give students a more sustained exposure to the workings of the regime and its effect on real people, to the daily routine of the Nazi concentration camps or the medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors, life in the gulag, or Stalin's purges and show trials.

But after Stalin and Hitler, the facts and vignettes that would convey the texture of life under tyranny are few. The 20th-century's string of Latin-American dictators (and sometimes its guerrilla movements) elicit harsh words and phrases, but usually only in the context of one or two sentences and rarely with the facts, faces, or numbers that make the harsh words meaningful. In Prentice Hall's Connections to Today, the Somoza regime of Nicaragua "looted" the population in McDougal Littell's Modern World History, Somoza's regime is referred to as a dictatorship, without further elaboration. Connections has a strong paragraph about human rights abuses in El Salvador, explaining that "right-wing death squads slaughtered church workers, student and labor leaders, and anyone else thought to sympathize with leftists," and that the Archbishop of El Salvador was "gunned down as he celebrated mass in a chapel." (It fails, however, to even mention the murders committed by the country's Marxist guerrillas.) But Modern World History dismisses El Salvador with no more than a brief, nonjudgmental paragraph. Connections reports that Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti "used his brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, to crush opposition and terrorize the people," but neither Modern World History nor Holt, Rinehart & Winston's World History: Continuity and Change mentions Papa Doc or modern Haiti.

None of these texts is wholly unworthy or inadequate, but they can't possibly "cover" everything in sufficient detail to evoke a sense of reality or even mention everything that might be important for students to know. Typically, the textbooks provide superficial coverage of no more than a few sentences or paragraphs, or they give passing mention to events, names, and terms that are added so that the textbook complies with every state's checklist of topics and names.

Even when a textbook gives a relatively ample treatment to a single nation, as Holt, Rinehart & Winston's People & Nations gives to modern Argentina, it is still quite brief—a little over two pages, including three paragraphs about the criminal outrages perpetrated by the military junta. Sometimes the references are even shorter. For example, Glencoe's World History: The Human Experience (hereafter referred to as The Human Experience to avoid confusion with Glencoe's text titled World History) allots eight short paragraphs to modern Argentina. One of these paragraphs sums up the military dictatorship of this era: "Argentina's military leaders sparked an economic recovery, but ruled brutally. Death squads roamed the country, torturing and killing those who dissented. About 20,000 people simply disappeared. Mothers of missing children brought these human rights abuses to the world's attention through their weekly silent protest in Buenos Aires." It is an editorial feat to boil down this frightening period in the history of modern Argentina to four compact sentences.

Another region that is usually neglected in the textbooks is Eastern Europe, whose nations were trapped in the Soviet orbit for half a century. They receive scant attention, a few pages at best, and they are usually lumped together as a single unit. Based on the typical treatment of this historically important region, it is nearly impossible for students to learn much about the unique experiences of Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Albania, or Romania.

Most textbooks provide accurate, if bare, factual details about Eastern Europe as part of the Soviet bloc, briefly mentioning the Berlin airlift, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But no textbook adequately conveys the political history of any of these countries, the events that caused them to lose their independence, or the oppressive conditions that prompted dissidents to risk their lives to escape or protest.

The books have so little space to devote to each topic that students cannot possibly imagine what life was like for an ordinary citizen in any country that was ruled by a tyrant, whether fascist, communist, or a garden-variety dictator.

In today's textbooks, cultural relativism, deference to existing regimes, and the imperative of textual compression are interchangeable elements. As a consequence, world history textbooks today send a confusing signal about tyranny. The textbooks point out the bad features of tyrannous regimes, but when writing about modern-day tyrants like Mao and Castro, they seem to feel compelled to show their accomplishments as well as their flaws. Textbook publishers must believe this approach to contemporary dictatorships shows that their books are "balanced." But of course these books do not write about Hitler in terms of his "success" in reducing unemployment, building new highways, launching the popular Volkswagon, and controlling inflation.

Surely a text must consider, when teaching about democracy and undemocratic alternatives, whether egregious brutality may ever be justified: Can one accept human rights abuses, liquidation of opponents, rigged elections, censorship, and repression if the ruling authorities are able to produce gains in education, health care, and economic growth? Those who believe that good ends never justify evil means would surely answer 'no.' Which of us would want to live in a utopia of fear? Classroom discussion about the issue of means and ends is important and must occur. That discussion never happens in today's textbooks. This explains why the books are unable to speak unequivocally against regimes that are cruel, racist, anti-Semitic, oppressive to women, and indifferent to human life.

This article presents a close review of how recent textbooks from major publishers* handle four cases of tyranny: Cuba, the longest-running dictatorship in this hemisphere China, the largest unfree country in today's world and (cumulatively) the most murderous totalitarian regime of the last century fundamentalist Islam, in which theocracies have created a new model of tyranny, especially for dissidents and women and some of the most notorious dictatorial African regimes.

The textbooks acknowledge that Fidel Castro is a dictator, but most (an honorable exception being World History: Continuity and Change) feel compelled to point out the benefits of his repressive rule. Connections says, "While Castro imposed harsh authoritarian rule, he did improve conditions for the poor. During the 1960s, Cuba provided basic health care for all, promoted equality for women, and increased the nation's literacy rate." On the other hand, the book notes that the "communist dictatorship angered middle-class Cubans. Critics were jailed or silenced, and hundreds of thousands fled to the United States." An accompanying photograph shows six people on a little raft and asks why people were willing to risk the voyage from Cuba to Florida. Why indeed would so many flee from a society where health, welfare, education, and other basic needs were allegedly achieved? A student would have a difficult time answering the question if the only information available were the material in the text, which says little about the brutality of Castro's regime.

In its very brief treatment of Castro's Cuba, Glencoe's The Human Experience offers two heroic quotations about him. One quotes him on the nature of a true revolutionary: "one acts to move the masses, the other waits for the masses to have a conscience already before starting to act." The other quote describes January 1, 1959, the day he overthrew dictator Batista: "Along the road to Santiago, crowds of people waved and cheered as Castro's ragtag troops passed by in battered jeeps and trucks. 'Viva, Fidel! Viva la revolucion!' they cried. So delirious were the throngs, so swept away by the power of the moment, that a friend of Castro's later recalled, 'It was like a messiah arriving. We were walking on a cloud.'" The text does not mention that some of Castro's revolutionary colleagues were subsequently jailed or executed. We learn that Castro suspended elections, but "he did improve wages, health care, and basic education." A student who knew nothing about Castro other than what was in this textbook would have a one-sided portrait.

Glencoe's World History begins its chapter on modern-day Latin America with an heroic account of the revolution led by the Castro brothers. We learn that the two brothers received a 15-year jail sentence because of their failed military attack in 1953, but were released after only 11 months. We do not learn that prison conditions under Castro are more squalid than they were under dictator Batista or that Castro today metes out lengthier sentences to writers, doctors, lawyers, economists, teachers, peasants, and human rights activists than he received under Batista for leading a military attack. We read of the Castro regime's success in providing free medical services and education to all, but we also see a photo of an elderly black Cuban woman being carried ashore by a U.S. marine in 1975. In this account, no reason is suggested why anyone would flee Cuba.

The entire story of the Cuban revolution is told in two short paragraphs in Patterns of Interaction. Batista was unpopular, and he was corrupt, and he was overthrown by a popular revolution led by Fidel Castro. The text says: "At first, many people praised Castro for bringing reforms to Cuba and improving the economy, literacy, health care, and conditions for women. Yet Castro was a harsh dictator. He suspended elections, jailed or executed his opponents, and strangled the press with tight government controls." That's the whole story. According to the text, he achieved great things, he did some bad things. Based on this scanty text (which does not note that any economic improvements were a result of decades of Soviet subsidy, not Castro's economic "achievements"), students might conclude that dictators deliver impressive social gains, despite some errant abuses. The text does not give enough information, however, to evaluate the evidence or debate the question.

People & Nations gives a page to the Cuban Revolution, in which it balances the good works of Castro (a literacy rate that was "the highest in Latin America") against censorship and suppression of dissent. The text suggests that Castro was popular among the poor, but lost the support of intellectuals and of the middle- and upper-classes. The implication is that Castro's worst crime was to stifle differences of opinion, rather than the kinds of crimes against individuals (spying on personal behavior, torture, summary trials, and executions, etc.) that are associated with a police state. The most remarkable statement in this text is about the Mariel exodus of 1980: "When the Castro government realized how many dissidents, or people who disagreed with the government, were among its citizens, it allowed anyone to emigrate, as long as he or she informed the authorities." This wrongly suggests that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba needed only to ask for permission from the proper authorities and it would have been graciously granted.


The current world history texts do not call Mao a dictator, despite his leadership of a totalitarian regime in China that was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. They readily acknowledge that Hitler practiced religious and ethnic genocide, but do not explain that Mao practiced class genocide. Glencoe's World History, for example, contains simple one-paragraph thumbnail sketches of Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao. Mussolini, it says, was the "Italian dictator" Stalin was the "Soviet dictator." But Mao is referred to as the "Chinese leader." The same book describes Chiang Kai-shek as a "Chinese general" who established a "dictatorship" in Taiwan but does not attach the same opprobrious label to Mao's rule.

In most of today's texts, Mao and his Communist troops receive what sometimes seems to be adulatory treatment. Most textbooks describe the Red Army's "Long March" in glowing terms. McDougal Littell's Patterns of Interaction describes the flight of Mao and his troops with breathless admiration. The fleeing Communists "crossed many rivers and climbed over mountain ranges. They fought several major battles and faced minor skirmishes almost every day. They also crossed miles of swampland. They had to sleep sitting up, leaning back-to-back in pairs, to keep from sinking into the mud and drowning."

Glencoe's The Human Experience quotes a romantic first-person account of the Long March: "If it was a black night and the enemy far away, we made torches from pine branches or frayed bamboo, and then it was truly beautiful. At the foot of a mountain, we could look up and see a long column of lights coiling like a fiery dragon up the mountainside. From the summit we could look in both directions and see miles of torches moving forward like a wave of fire. A rosy glow hung over the whole route of the march." Glencoe's World History also contains a quotation from a survivor of the Long March, praising the endurance of the Red Army students are asked to "Describe the difficulties Mao Zedong's forces had to overcome to reach safety in North China." The text invites students to consider what would have happened if Mao—described by the text as China's "greatest leader"—had died on the Long March, if he "had not survived this ordeal." One would think that the nonsurvival of a tyrant would not be such a terrible thing to contemplate. One guesses, however, that this is not the answer the text envisions. As a matter of fact, the students have not been offered enough information to debate the "what if" question. Nor does the text suggest the possibility that with a humane, democratic leadership, perhaps China might have been spared decades of totalitarianism, mass murders, indoctrination, and government-created famine.

Connections calls the Long March "an epic retreat" that is a "symbol of heroism" to those who opposed the Kuomintang. It notes that the Red Army imposed "strict discipline" and required its soldiers to follow three rules: "Obey orders, 'do not take a single needle or a piece of thread from the people,' and turn in everything you capture." This background is used to explain that the Red Army was welcomed by the peasants, a view repeated in most textbooks. In contrast to other texts, Continuity and Change writes critically about China under Mao, eschewing romantic images about the Long March and collectivization.

What the textbooks neglect to explain, except for brief mentions, is how Mao crushed opposition in his "anti-rightist" campaign purged scientists and intellectuals murdered landlords and land-owning peasants imposed a disastrous collectivization of agriculture (known as the "Great Leap Forward") that created a famine in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death imposed a harebrained scheme of backyard furnaces that diverted agricultural workers from the fields, thus worsening the famine and launched the Cultural Revolution, which caused millions of teachers and professionals to be hounded as "enemies of the people."

According to the respected Black Book of Communism, some six to 10 million people were killed by Mao's forces another 20 million counter-revolutionaries died in prison 20 to 43 million died between 1959 and 1961 because of the Great Leap Forward. This was one of the most disastrous regimes in human history why should our children read about their military exploits with a sense of admiration for their courage and daring? Why do they not read about the hypocrisy of Communist leaders who preached asceticism, but lived in luxury or about the individuals and families whose lives were destroyed by men who held unchecked power?

Teachers will have to look beyond the textbooks if they want their students to understand the reign of this fascinating and powerful dictator.


World history textbooks become tongue-tied when the subject is the rise of militant, fundamentalist Islam. None of them explains why and how Islamic civilization declined from the heights of intellectual leadership in the middle ages to its current state of economic and cultural underdevelopment. Why now the turn to fundamentalism?

Connections maintains that various Muslim nations turned to the Qur'an and Sharia law because Westernization had failed to improve life for many people and so they became disillusioned. This is a perfect example of a textbook interpretation that explains very little. The text does not tell readers that Westernization would mean such practices as separation of church and state, public education, democratic institutions, and equal rights for women, which were not widely adopted by Muslim nations. The text says that many Muslim leaders concluded that "a renewed commitment to Islam was the only way out of their current problems." Now, it was true that many leaders said this, but the text does not offer any examples of theocratic states that had actually solved modern economic and political problems by returning to fundamentalist religious principles. The text is careful not to take sides between the "Western model" of secular democracy and the fundamentalists' call for a return to Sharia law and economics.

Were the Islamists right? Was Westernization really tried in all these nations that are now apparently disillusioned with it? Does the Qur'an hold the key to current economic and political problems? Can a modern economy function effectively on the basis of a seventh-century religious text? The textbook offers no judgment and few facts that would allow students to form their own judgments it just says, in a characteristically encyclopedic tone, that "many devout Muslims. urged political restructuring to put power in the hands of religious leaders." It is left to the imagination of the reader to figure out whether a theocratic government might be more successful in solving the problems of Muslim societies today than the Western model of secularism and liberalism.

Some basic facts about life in theocratic Muslim nations would help students in thinking through the merits of the separation of church and state. Take Saudi Arabia for example, a nation ruled by a king who adheres to a strict interpretation of Sharia law called Wahhabi. According to Freedom House, Saudi Arabia is one of the nine most repressive regimes in the world today. Not only are church and state united, there is also no separation of powers among the executive and judicial branches of government—and there is no legislative branch at all. The king has the power to appoint (and remove) judges, no political parties are allowed, and no elections are held at any level of government. The government (controlled by the royal family) censors the press, fires editors, and prohibits foreign journalists from entering the country. The people may not form unions, hold demonstrations, or publicly express non-Islamic religious beliefs. Worse still, citizens are arbitrarily arrested and held for long periods of time without trials. Women, no matter what their age, never gain autonomy responsibility for them is passed from one male relative to the next as they move through life's stages. They cannot drive, enter men's stores or restaurants, or study engineering, journalism, or law. Under Sharia law, they may be given in marriage as young as age nine.

Very few of these facts appear in today's world history textbooks. Patterns of Interaction says that Ibn Saud, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932, "carried on Arab and Islamic traditions. Loyalty to the Saudi government was based on custom, religion, and family ties. Alcoholic drinks were illegal. Like Kemal and Reza Shah [the modernizers of Turkey and Iran], Ibn Saud brought some modern technology, such as telephones and radios, to his country. However, modernization in Saudi Arabia was limited to religiously acceptable areas." Consider how amazingly understated that last sentence is!

The textbooks are especially perplexed when they must explain the position of women in contemporary Islamic states. They prefer to put a positive spin on other societies, to accept whatever their practices may be without criticism.

People & Nations addresses the problem of women's rights by diving for the cover of cultural diversity, saying that, "The concept of human rights does not have a single, universal meaning. Different cultures have different perspectives." Here comes the familiar textbook dodge of putting words into the mouths of "many people say. " In this case, says the text, many people "criticize Western nations for trying to impose their ideals and values on other nations." The case in point is the issue of women's rights, which "has different meanings in different societies. In the Islamic world, for instance, women's rights are viewed within the concept of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam." So all nations (and the readers of the textbook) "must try to understand cultures and values that are different from their own." Since the textbook never describes the differences between the rights of men and women in an Islamic nation, it is impossible for a student to try to understand them or for the class to discuss whether women should have equal rights only in Western societies.

Connections tries to carry out a political balancing act that ends up confusing rather than enlightening. It begins by noting that women in most Middle Eastern nations have made great strides in the past half century. Many urban Muslim women in some nations, the text says, have given up wearing the hejab, that is, covering their head and body but some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, oppose Western secular influences, which, translated from textbook-speak, means that women in those countries are compelled by law to wear the hejab. Then follows a lively paragraph to demonstrate that some educated women want to wear the hejab to show their sincere loyalty to Muslim values. To make things even more confusing, the book asserts both that Sharia law allows women to play "important economic roles" while at the same time, it is interpreted by some nations to forbid women from voting, working, or driving cars.

The reader gets a conflicting mélange of positive and negative assessments, but no clear picture of the role of women in an Islamic society today. Nowhere does the text suggest a critical view, for example, that Muslim women should be free to wear the hejab or not wear the hejab, without legal compulsion either way. The textbook, deferring to cultural diversity, is nonjudgmental.

Continuity and Change attempts to confront the issues with honesty, but quickly backtracks into a posture of cultural relativism. It points out that the Shah of Iran had abolished polygamy, child marriage, and death by stoning for adultery, but the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism “often forced [women] to accept a return to the traditions of the past.” The authors suggest that this was a step backward, especially for Westernized women who were professionals. But the next paragraph insists that many women “embraced” these religious traditions because they provided a “sense of security and stability” and had “stood the test of time.” Furthermore, the reversion to Islamic traditions (presumably like polygamy, being stoned to death for adultery, and being required to cover their head) “became a symbol of their pride in their Islamic heritage and their rejection of Western values.” The book does not say which “Western value” was rejected, but presumably it is the right of women to equal treatment in society.

Certainly there are women who voluntarily renounce any claim to equal treatment and who choose to hide their face and to forego education. But just as surely, there are women who do not wish to be subject to the whims of the religious police and their male relatives.

One would expect a thoughtful discussion of the social and economic consequences of denying equal rights to women. One would expect the books to inform their readers that half the women in the Middle East are illiterate, a point recently made by Arab intellectuals in a report for the United Nations Human Development Fund. But this discussion does not occur in the textbooks.


The textbooks become incoherent when the subject turns to modern-day African nations. The compression problem becomes especially severe because the texts do not have space to mention every African nation, and the history of even a few nations cannot be adequately told in the text's typical abbreviated format. There is seldom enough detail to allow the reader to tell one nation from another. Glencoe's World History allots seven pages to the story of modern Africa, but more than half of that limited space is devoted to graphics. The text dispenses with Zimbabwe and Rwanda in three sentences: "Conflicts also broke out among ethnic groups in Zimbabwe. In central Africa, fighting between the Hutu and Tutsi created unstable governments in both Burundi and Rwanda. In 1994, a Hutu rampage left some 500,000 Tutsi dead in Rwanda." The terrible Rwandan genocide is thus dispatched in two sentences. Can any student learn anything from such skimpy sentences? (For a glimpse of the genocide, and the tyranny that made it possible, see "Genocide in Rwanda.")

Connections is frank enough to acknowledge that the United Nations failed to intervene during the Rwandan massacre (it claims one million massacred, in contrast to the figure of half a million dead in most other textbooks and 200,000 dead cited in People & Nations), but about the only explanation for such slaughter is "ethnic conflict," which seems to be a tautology (ethnic conflict causes ethnic conflict). The same textbook says in a tight nine sentences that in Nigeria, military dictators cracked down on critics, imposed censorship, and sometimes executed dissidents. In only five sentences, this text tells readers that Mobutu Sese Seko created a "brutal dictatorship" in Congo, and that he bilked the treasury of billions, slaughtered rivals, and ran the economy into the ground." Two candid sentences is all the editors can muster in their discussion of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe. When they describe his one-man rule of the past 20 years, they say, "He called for a one-party system to promote national unity and tolerated little opposition. In 2000, tensions over land ownership led to renewed violence." Perhaps with more space, they might have explained that Mugabe in recent years has jailed his opponents, muzzled the press, expelled white farmers and given their land to his cronies, destroyed the nation's agricultural economy, and plunged Zimbabwe into a famine that threatens the lives of millions of Zimbabweans.

Unlike most of the other world history texts, Patterns of Interaction attempts to focus on the importance of achieving democratic institutions. It doesn't attempt to provide the usual thumbnail sketch of a variety of African nations instead, it gives short (very short, two-page) histories of contemporary Nigeria and South Africa, with particular attention to the struggle for democracy. The text rightly shows how colonial powers distorted the economies of their colonies, disrupted family and community life, and failed to develop good education systems, all of which reduced the prospects for democratic stability. Although it does not mention the misrule of dictators such as Mugabe and Idi Amin, it does provide a reasonable context for understanding the political and economic problems of former colonies.

Continuity and Change devotes only five pages of text to "Independent Africa." That is far too little to provide a context for understanding the political problems of the continent. The text refers generically to leaders who "resorted to the same kind of autocratic methods used by earlier colonial rulers," but provides meager information about those autocrats, dictators, and tyrants. A one-paragraph summary of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe's history fails even to mention Mugabe. In its favor, this text, like others, devotes more than the usual attention to South Africa (in this case, a relatively generous four paragraphs), which is a great success story for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Continuity and Change has an editorial board of distinguished historians who surely know that it is not possible to summarize the complex history of modern Africa in five pages.

The editors and authors of world history textbooks mean well. They earnestly want students to know about the world and about other civilizations. But sadly, the very format of the textbook defeats their purposes. The books demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of cramming a reasonably interesting history of the entire world into a single volume, even one that is usually about 1,000 pages. This difficulty becomes even more pronounced when such a large proportion of the textbooks is devoted to flashy graphics. Despite the visual glitter, the textbooks suffer from terminal dullness. Their accounts never touch the wellsprings of emotion that make a topic genuinely engaging to the reader. They skim across the surface of events, summarizing factual tidbits and trends without regard to whether there is a thread that makes a coherent story. There seldom is. Stuff happens. The young person trying to see how the events connect to one another, looking for an explanation that will help make sense of the world today, will all too often be disappointed.

Sadly, the textbooks waste an opportunity to expose young minds to the reality of life in tyrannical regimes and the valiant efforts to overthrow them to help them understand how such regimes come to be and how they sustain themselves and to instill in them a clear knowledge that such inhumane regimes don't belong only to the past, but are, in fact, a current reality.

But of course the problem with the textbooks begins with the courses they're designed for: world history or world cultures courses. These courses, in which students gallop through time and across the globe, usually in one or two years (and rarely, three), are now seen by administrators and curriculum-developers as a way to instill cultural pride and build the self-esteem of students from diverse backgrounds. Based on this approach, it is hard to exclude any region or nation since Americans come from every continent and nation in the world. Thus, the necessity to "cover" everything.

No nation can be left out, no civilization can be ignored, everything must be "covered." That is a recipe for superficiality, and superficiality guarantees loss of context, which is critical to student comprehension—and lack of gripping details, which is necessary for high interest.

In short, the world cultures approach that now dominates the paradigm for world history textbooks virtually assures that the books will be boring. Students don't learn when they are bored. They learn and remember when there are great stories, vivid biographies, amazing anecdotes. Students would be awed by the stories of life in apartheid South Africa, Mao's China, Stalin's Soviet Union, Somoza's Nicaragua, Idi Amin's Uganda, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Students would understand and identify with fighters for freedom who defied Ceausescu in Romania or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. They could connect with those who courageously built the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square or demonstrated for freedom in Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague. In those instances, and in many others, men and women put their lives at risk to demand freedom and democracy. These are exciting and inspiring stories. Our students should learn them.

Students learn when there is a coherent and well-written narrative rather than a parade of disconnected factoids and assertions. Bowing to the gods of coverage assures that students won't remember what they were taught.

And there is a further price to be paid for using history courses to teach ancestral pride. If that is the goal, it is extremely difficult to encourage critical thinking. Critical thinking and ancestral pride do not really go together well. Ancestral pride requires that we emphasize the good and neglect the bad, but good history teaching demands honesty and accuracy, not deference to the readers' sensitivities.

The world history program cannot be—as it is now—just a meaningless, forgettable tour through every civilization from ancient times to the present. What our students need to understand is that human beings have within them the capacity for unspeakable cruelty to one another. We have ample examples in history—and at the present time—of people slaughtering other people almost any reason may be invoked as justification: race, religion, ethnicity, culture, appearance. Whites killing whites blacks killing blacks Mesoamericans killing other Mesoamericans group against group brother against brother. There is a beast within us, one might say, and it must be tamed by civilization. It can be tamed, as some dictators have done, by compulsion, by fear, by brute force. And it can be tamed, as democracies attempt to do, by building a stable institutional framework of law, coupled with educational and religious organizations that teach the rules of civilized behavior and the bedrock principles of a just society.

What students are not learning today from their world history courses are the lessons of history. They are getting a superficial canoe ride across the oceans of experience that many people and nations have accumulated. They are racing across centuries, not sure why they are studying this or that civilization other than to learn that people everywhere are creative and have wonderful traditions. Maybe that is all they will remember when they have forgotten which civilizations they studied.

We should aim higher. If our intention is to alert the younger generation to what has been learned about humankind's striving for a just and humane society, if we hope to inspire in them a lifelong interest in studying about other worlds, then what we are doing now is a failure. We must devise a far better way to introduce them to studies of the world.

Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A leading education historian, she has written and edited many books including Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform and The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation. This article builds on the research she began while writing her most recent book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

*This review discusses: World History: People & Nations World History: Connections to Today Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction World History: The Human Experience World History: Continuity & Change and World History. The first five are among the most widely used high school world history books, according to the American Textbook Council's survey of 1999 and 2000 textbook adoptions by selected states and large districts. The sixth is a brand new text, just entering the market. See reference below for authors, publishers, editions, and page citations. (back to article)


World History: People & Nations (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2000)
Argentina: 863–866 Cuba: 857–861 Islam: 917 Rwanda: 824.

Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections To Today (Prentice-Hall, 2001)
Nicaragua: 946–947 El Salvador, 948–949 Haiti: 949 China: 736–737, 862–867 Cuba: 940–941 Islam: 892–893 Africa: 811, 919, 921–924.

Roger B. Beck, et al., Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction (McDougal Littell, 1999)
Nicaragua: 493 El Salvador: 493 China: 402–404, 482–485 Cuba: 492–493 Saudi Arabia: 408 Nigeria: 537–538 South Africa: 538–540.

Mounir A. Farah and Andrea Berens Karls, World History: The Human Experience (Glencoe, 2001)
Argentina: 990–991 Cuba: 972, 979, 982–984 China: 805–806, 901–905.

William Travis Hanes III, et al., World History: Continuity & Change (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1999)
Cuba: 808–810, 814, 845 China: 673–675, 750–754 Iran: 790 Africa: 772–777, 791–796.

Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History (Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 2003)
Cuba: 900, 907–908 China: 795–797, 940-944 Mussolini: 760 Stalin: 761 Mao: 797 Chiang Kai-shek: 797 Africa: 921–927.

The Wall – Live in Berlin

Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend
His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.

He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes. that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.

Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."

Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.

Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."