Being a Tour Guide in Berlin… How Hard Can It Be?

Since moving to Berlin 2 years ago I have been not only working with the ice hockey team, but in my spare time I have been giving guided walking tours around this great city. Growing up as a somewhat shy kid with pretty bad stage fright, the thought of standing in front of groups of anything from 10 to 70 people and delivering the history of a country I am not even from, is something I never thought about doing at any point of my life. But here I am, almost 150 tours into a job I love.

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Pic: Dom Bryant

A lot of people who come on my tours ask where I got my degree in history from, and it always shocks and surprises them to learn that not only do I not have a degree, but I never even paid attention to history in school. Mainly because the mandatory history taught in my school was all the boring stuff about the King who got shot in the eye with an arrow and that time Britain tried to take over the world. It wasn’t until 2014 on the first of what is now an annual trip to the D-Day beaches in Normandy with my Grandad that I started to become interested in history, specifically World War II, which obviously Berlin was at the heart of.

But talking about the history of Berlin and Germany isn’t that easy. You see, the country of Germany has a pretty complex past, and technically has 5 different birthdays:

  1. January 18, 1871 – German Empire is founded.
  2. May 23, 1949 – Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) established.
  3. October 7, 1949 – German Democratic Republic (East Germany) established.
  4. October 3, 1990 – Reunification of West Germany and East Germany
  5. March 15, 1991 – Unified Germany becomes fully sovereign.

That means that somehow the country of Germany is officially not even 150 years old today. Before that it was Prussia, which is a whole other mess of history I won’t even begin to get into. The city of Berlin itself also has an incredible history dating back over 800 years, but it is only the last 100 years which people find interesting.

What happened was, the German Royal Family back in 1914 forced the country into a war they did not want. Doing this escalated what was a small war between two countries into a ‘Great War’ known as World War 1. After the loss of 18 million people in the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne of Germany in 1918 and the country became a federal republic. This means the relatively new democracy had to deal with everything after the war, including the Peace Treaty of Versailles.

This is an era known as the Weimar Republic, and once the Golden Twenties had come crashing to an end the country swung far to the right, as the only party that seemed to be offering a genuine and unique change (or propaganda) in the country at that time was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP for short. This party was headed by Adolf Hitler, who simply wanted to ‘make Germany great again‘, something I said on almost every tour before a certain person took the quote, adapted it to his own country and put it on a cap! And that brings me to one of the most difficult things to talk about on my tours, comparing these two politicians…

Side Note: I started writing this blog back when President Trump was threatening North Korea with “Fire and Fury”, so a lot has changed since then and things have gotten a little more complicated

There are people on almost every one of my tours who are happy to make this comparison, and in order to beat them to it and stop the discussion before it gets started I have to mention them both in the same sentence and illustrate the vast differences between them. And before you say it, yes I have tried not mentioning Trump at all, but about 90% of the time his name gets raised by someone either as a joke or a genuine comparison, which leads to group discussing it and adds time to an already long tour. So I think its best to get it out there first and explain their many differences.

But the reason it gets a bit difficult is because there actually are some similarities in their rise to power; both are inexperienced politicians heading a major political party, both subsequently went on to lead their respective countries, they both have the ability to play the media, as well as the ability to work with new technologies at the time – but there are a large number of differences in them.

Thankfully when explaining the comparisons and clearly showing where they end between these two people is something that seems to go down well with my groups, but it is a challenge all tour guides in Berlin are facing right now. I have overheard a few guides from other companies all mention similar things as me. But it is an ever changing topic, and as of right now it isn’t so much the comparisons between Trump and Hitler we have to deal with, it is the two movements themselves.

Explaining the difference between what the Nazi regime was back in the 1930’s/40’s and what the “Alt-Right” movement is today is a difficult task, and this is something I do try to avoid mentioning all together. But sometimes people in my tour groups like asking questions about this and voicing their own opinions, which I am more than happy to answer and join in the discussion. But at the end of the day this is a tour about a period of history that ended over 70 years ago, and that is what I have to focus on.

People do though find it shocking when they see how the country of Germany deals with topics and symbols of the Nazi regime to this day. Everything from outlawing the use of symbols of the Nazi regime outside of the contexts of “art or science, research or teaching”, what the city of Berlin have done with the site of Hitlers Reich Chancellery and his Führerbunker, to tourists performing the Nazi salute in public, which can lead to arrest or even just a swift beating.

At the end of the day it is important to know and remember that Germany itself is the very first country in the world to ever build memorials to war crimes committed by their own citizens. The biggest and most famous is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in downtown Berlin. The memorial itself comes with an incredible amount of controversy from the price tag at €28million, the size of land at approximately 4 football pitches, the anti-grafitti chemical used to coat the blocks, and even the attitudes of visitors there.

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Everything I have mentioned above is just one era of history here in Berlin. Once we finish with the Nazi history we now enter the Cold War era. This is the period where the Soviet Union, who were in control of the East of Germany and the East of Berlin, constructed a wall to keep people inside their country. To most people today, the idea of communism/socialism is a bad one, but back then it is important to remember that not every single person in Eastern Germany wanted to leave for the capitalised West.

For example, the sports teams of SV Dynamo were formed from Police and Stasi guards. The sports club offered handball, athletics, gymnastics, cycling, speed skating, figure skating, boxing and volleyball. Arguably the most famous team in the entire sports club is the BFC Dynamo Berlin football team who won 10 consecutive championships from 1978 to 1988. They were often seen as getting assistance from referees to help them to glory, and some players and fans enjoyed this. But despite the success, the fact they were state run by the Stasi had players who wanted to leave rather than reap the benefits.

Even the ice hockey team has his DDR history as SC Dynamo Berlin was their name even as recently as 1992. Fans from the other 13 DEL teams (all of which are located in former Western Germany) hold a special kind of hatred for the Eisbären, something the ‘Ost-Berlin’ fans strangely take pride in. Some of the players and fans of the former Dynamo team were/are still proud East Berliners, and some were simply trying to keep the sport of ice hockey alive in the suppressing country of East Germany.

The topic of building a wall to stop people getting from one side to another is again something people on my tours will compare to the situation on the southern border of the United States of America and President Trump’s wall plan. This is something that has mostly been forgotten simply due to the overwhelming number of controversial topics President Trump has fought for in the past 7 months. But it is still important to show that there are vast differences between these two walls.

The wall built by the Soviet Union here in Berlin was effectively a massive scare tactic to stop their own people from fleeing to the west. And when that wasn’t enough, it was adapted in a way to make it a murdering device to therefore stop people from making their way over to the west. Right now that death toll stands at 140 individuals, a number which is constantly argued and being painstakingly researched to be as accurate as possible.

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The bottom line is, almost every dividing wall built in the world is there to either stop people getting into one country, and/or to stop a potential outbreak of violence. The Berlin Wall was a device to keep people inside their own country, to stop them fleeing to what they felt was a better life than what they were living.

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” – John F. Kennedy, 26 June 1963

On top of all of this, us tour guides also deal with the seemingly daily threat of modern terrorism. It is something you obviously don’t want to think about, but when you are walking around some of the most touristic hot spots not only in Berlin or Germany, but the entire continent of Europe, it is always in the back of your mind.

The terrorist attack in Berlin just before Christmas really hit home as to how realistic it is to be caught up in this. Just a month prior the attack at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market I was at that exact site with my mother, and again just 9 days before the attack with some friends. Then seeing all the other Christmas markets get surrounded by reinforced concrete barriers, and the tributes paid at the Eisbären game a few days later, reminded us that this can happen at any time and any place. But we can’t let that stop us, we just have to keep going with our everyday lives as much as we can.

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Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market – 10th December 2016

Terror attacks in these central city places have been planned and thankfully stopped by the constant work of Berlin/German polizei. But when everyday vehicles are being used to murder many innocent civilians throughout, it is something you do have to keep in the back of your mind.

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Graphic: Deutsche Welle

Another big task with being a tour guide in Berlin is delivering all I’ve mentioned above, and many other aspects of history I skipped out of this blog, to a group of tourists in just over 3 hours. We have to skip out entire eras of history, otherwise the tours would simply last forever. My very first ‘test’ tour was with my family, and even subtracting the McDonalds breaks (yes, plural) it still went for a good 7 hours. And that was at the beginning of my training!

Since then I have learnt much more about this city, watched countless documentaries online, read endless articles, and even visited some incredible museums and documentation centres throughout Berlin and Germany. And with everything happening in the world right now there are a lot of comparisons to be made to this city.

At the end of the day this job has not only given me something to do on my free days and during the off season, but it has changed my life and introduced me to many fantastic people all throughout the world.

Every person, family, company, sports team, city, country, or whatever else, should always honour their history. No matter how good or bad it was, it shaped us into what we are today. The most important thing is the future, as it will shape how we are remembered by future generations.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress; Vol. 1

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