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.

Alan-min
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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EIHL and DEL – They’re pretty much the same, right?

I have been a citizen of Germany for just over 5 months now, and in that time I have been consulting with one of Europes biggest ice hockey teams, die Eisbären Berlin, who compete in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. After spending the last 7 years with my hometown hockey team in Belfast, I can’t help but make comparisons. So hopefully in this blog I will help explain both the obvious and the not so obvious differences between the two leagues.

The on ice product is actually very similar. Britain has done nothing but improve over the years, and Germany has struggled with the creation of the KHL and the rise of many other major leagues around Europe. From my vantage point I can see that the British league is most definitely on par with the DEL-2, able to compete with them each year in the Continental Cup, and the likes of Brian StewartBrett Jaeger, Brendan CookTyler Plante and Jeffrey Szwez able to compete in both leagues.

Each year we see teams from the EIHL compete with the top flight Germans in the Champions Hockey League. Now, comparing the EIHL with the DEL just because they got a few wins under their belt is a bit more of a stretch. Yes, both Braehead and Nottingham have defeated DEL opponents in the last 2 seasons, but there are a few factors that play into this. Mainly that both teams have only been together for a few weeks, and that injury-free rosters are a huge plus. And while I’m not trying to demean the performances of any EIHL team, the reality is most European teams actually change the style and tempo of play for the CHL for the reason that import limits are so much stricter in other European leagues.

The main differences between the leagues though is off the ice. And there are so many ways this differs, so I think the best way to compare these is to make a list with a description of just what the difference is.

League Operation – Most fans of the Elite League will agree with this straight away, but I don’t think you realise just how much of a difference there is between the EIHL and the DEL in terms of behind the scenes operation. To compete in the DEL you need to buy a one off license which comes in at a rather costly €800,000¹. Obviously the EIHL cannot charge anywhere even close of half a million pounds per team – they probably cannot even raise that combined. But the key here is to get some input from each team to help cover operating costs such as league travel, logistics, and the ever hot topic of officiating. This fee, combined with the television deal covers everything the league needs to run successfully. And, if a team needs/wants to leave the league for whatever reason, they sell their license and get their money back. This cash then helps set them up to continue operating as a DEL2 team. Best way to explain this is if Manchester had to purchase their EIHL license from Hull – Hull would then use that cash to help continue the Stingrays in a lower league until such a time as they were ready to move back up. But instead the Stingrays simply lie fossilised at the bottom of the Humber.

Officiating – Admittedly I haven’t paid much attention to the Elite League this season, but every week my twitter is filled with complaints about officiating. The reality is Tom Darnell, Mike Hicks, Dean Smith, Stefan Hogarth and the rest of the crew are all there is in Britain, and they are actually very good by IIHF standards. I’d even go as far as saying they are better than some DEL referees! The problem is the lack of officials. Britain’s league is seen as semi-pro by most people in the world of hockey, simply because you don’t use the 4 man system. And I know the response to this will always be “we don’t have enough officials and can’t afford the travel” – well, see my first point as to how to help solve that. Also, I told our head coach about the whole Belfast v Edinburgh overtime fiasco back in September, and I genuinely believe he thinks I made it up as some kind of rookie hazing the coach thing. Side note: What are the British officials are doing with the Danish league this year? Why is it not a two way system with their officials helping out the EIHL?

Travel – Every year I always see a couple of people discuss the topic of travel in the EIHL and complain about Belfast and the Scottish teams being too far to travel to. Guess what… every league has some bad travel logistics. All you can do is find a way to make it work. Teams in the DEL bus almost everywhere in their super awesome team busses with amazing graphics plastered up the sides, except us. We don’t even have a team bus. Berlin are the Belfast of the German league. Hamburg and Wolfsburg are in very similar travel situations. There are 7 teams down in southern Germany, and 4 more clustered out in the West, with us 3 up in the north/east. The other 11 teams travel almost exclusively by bus, as the most you will visit an opposing team in the regular season is twice. But the other three teams rarely bus, opting for flights or the slightly longer but less hassle option of trains. Then you have to add hotels into the equation as just like in Britain you can rarely fly commercial after 11pm, and trains would’t get you back to your city at around 2 or 3am, getting you to bed around 4.

Thats just the DEL. Jokerit is a KHL team based in Finland, and they started their season with a 4 game, 8 day, 14.000km road trip to some of the furthest teams in the KHL. They had to pay over a quarter of a million pounds sterling for a charter plane alone, and complications with Chinese airspace added about an extra hour to and from Vladivostok, as well as a fuel stop and crew change in Novosibirsk on the way back from Habarovsk.

Source – Twitter

The National Hockey League also has their problems as the Atlantic Division actually has the entire Metropolitan Division geographically separating the six northern teams with the two Floridian teams.

Source - NHL.com
Source – NHL.com

Side note: I started writing this blog a few weeks ago, and since then its come out about the possibility of a KHL team in London. Eisbären Berlin and Kölner Haie were approached by the KHL in 2008, and both rejected as they didn’t think it would be successful. Thats two of Germanys biggest terms with regular 14.200 and 18.500 sellouts of die hard hockey fans. That was also 8 years ago, and still no German team has joined the league, and it doesn’t look like any one is interested in doing so within the immediate future. A brand new franchise would be incredibly hard to sustain, not just financially, but logistically as mentioned above, and also in terms of fan base. Could you guarantee enough ticket sales to create enough revenue to maintain a healthy bank balance? Realistically Sheffield and Nottingham are the only two viable options, and even then I don’t think this would work very well.

Import Limit – The DEL operates a strict import policy. It currently sits at 11 imports, with 10 being allowed to dress for a game, and thats it. If someone gets injured you can’t just replace him and when he gets better you have two guys battling for one roster spot. Theres no healthy scratches. Theres no one month injury cover contracts. Once you have used an import slot, its done for the season, and that includes season ending injuries as well.  Most teams only sign 10 imports, leaving one spot open for an emergency goalie should it be necessary. If you use all 11 import slots you better have confidence in your backup goalie to play 2 games a week should your starter get injured, and your third string goalie better be ready to see a game or two every month, and number 4 on your depth chart then has to take the load of the remainder of the DEL-2 season.

Dual nationality does however count as a German passport, i.e. Daniel Heatley with Nurnberg. This goes back to my point at the beginning about the CHL. Teams cannot afford injuries of any kind. To lose an import in a side competition is a catastrophic loss, and losing a national team player is even worse as they are pretty much irreplaceable. Yes, every DEL team has a fantastic junior system with good players they can call up at a moments notice, something Britain doesn’t have. They will rarely more that 8-10 minutes, but they don’t just fill the bench while every other guy gets double shifted, they do actually see some ice time. (See 17 year old Maximilian Adam who is one of Germany’s 35 NHL Draft eligible players in 2016 who was called up this weekend to help fill in for injuries to 3 of Eisbären’s top 6 d-men, and seen approx. 5 mins of ice time in a special teams heavy game.) I don’t even know what the import limit is in Britain now, but I’d suggest it is dropped to 8 or so, with British passports counting as non-import players.

Fans/Atmosphere – German sports fans are like nothing I have ever experienced. The atmosphere in Berlins fankurve makes even the best Elite League fans look like they are part of a funeral procession. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get goosebumps at every game at the Mercedes Benz Arena. From the opening song ‘Hey, wir wollen die Eisbären sehn‘, to the entrance and introduction of the players, the ‘Dynamo’ chants, and the famous ‘Ost Ost Ost Berlin’ at the halfway point of every game. Not to mention the banners and flags, as well as the pyrotechnics at the end of the intro video! It may sound like it may never work in Britain, but I happen to think it would. The standing terraces are a hot topic in the UK for obvious reasons, but each teams fan section has strict rules as to how things operate. Flags cannot be waved while play is ongoing, no flares inside stadiums, drums are fine, and banners displaying any political messages must be authorised by a ‘fanbetruer’, a representative for the team who works to organise the fan section. Also, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a couple of ‘scheisse scheisse’ chants when addressing the opposition and their fans, but that would lower the PG rating which most British hockey teams are aiming for.

Social Media/Promotional Material – This is more of a cultural thing rather than a difference in the hockey leagues themselves, but I thought it was worth including anyway. Eisbären Berlin are probably the most socially interactive team in the DEL with a over 9.000 fans on Instagram, 13.000 followers on Twitter, and almost 100.000 likes on Facebook. They are still a couple of steps behind some of the promotional stuff the British teams do (specifically Belfast). But to be honest I think this is more a Germanic thing. The country as a whole is very different with social media compared to Britain. It simply isn’t as huge here as elsewhere in the UK, USA, Canada, etc. Even I have I have turned off push notifications from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat on my phone because they were beginning to annoy me. So if its not a text or WhatsApp, I probably won’t see it until the next time I’m sitting on the toilet. But the biggest difference is promotional material such as the excellent videos the likes of Belfast and Sheffield use. Especially Belfast. Not that I’m biased, but seriously Belfast have some awesome videos in their archives. Advertising over here its a bit more mainstream. Huge billboards, printed press, radio and TV commercials, and so on. There’s even a 25ft tall portrait of Micki and Pohly wrapped around the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Ostbahnhof. I just don’t think the Germans have grasped shamelessly hilarious promotional videos yet. Maybe I’ll talk them round to it next year…

Playoffs – Seriously, sort your shit out Britain. 4 victories and you win the “playoffs”? No one takes that seriously. A player actually laughed when I told him that. It needs expanded in some way, and by doing this you will instantly get more recognition as a good hockey league, therefore bringing better players to the league, therefore raising the level of competition.

For those that don’t know, the DEL playoffs start with the top 6 teams from the 52 game regular season qualifying, and the teams ranked 7th to 10th compete in a pre-playoff best of 3 game series. The winning teams then go through to the actual playoffs, a 3 round best of 7 game series using the traditional 1v8 or 9, 2v7 or 10, 3v6 and 4v5 ranking/bracket system.

Schedules – At the time of writing this blog the lowest number of regular season games played by an Elite League team is 34, and the highest is 39. In the DEL the lowest is 39, and the highest is 40. And after tonight this will change so that all 14 teams are on 40 games played. Every team will remain on the same number of games played throughout the remaining 2 months of the regular season. This leads to a much more competitive end of the season, as theres no maths needed to calculate teams catching up points using games in hand. And I remind you this is all for a league championship which is comparable to the NHL’s Presidents Trophy. It gives you top seed for the playoffs, and thats about it. Eisbären’s regular season championship banner doesn’t even hang in the MBA, instead being located in the teams practice facility (and former home arena) the Wellblechpalast. The reason for this perfect symmetry in the DEL schedule is that teams play all their games every Friday and Sunday. Obviously in rare exceptions there are a couple of midweek games. But apart from that, it is pretty much a perfect schedule. Obviously this would be more difficult to enforce in Britain with bigger events priority over hockey games at certain venues, but there still shouldn’t be a 5 game spread throughout the table at any time throughout the season.

In Conclusion – The on ice product is comparable to a certain extent. Obviously the styles of play and team systems used on the bigger regulation ice over here are different than Britains hybrid skill/physicality style of play. And running 4 good competitive lines vs 3 good competitive lines will wear a team down quickly. So while EIHL teams have defeated DEL teams recently, it doesn’t quite mean they are on equal terms on the ice. But the main difference is behind the scenes, as I hope I helped illustrate in this long and rambling blog. Every other league in Europe has a stable structure similar to the DEL, and operational organisation behind it is helping push their individual league toward being more competitive with other leagues throughout the world, including the KHL and even the NHL.

Whereas Britain, well, you have Tony Smith, chairman of “the board” of the Elite Ice Hockey League. A league which will never change as long as he is in charge, kind of like FIFA. To become a better league and to actually be able to compete in the likes of the CHL, it will involve a league wide makeover. Every team needs to buy in to making the league great, and I just don’t know if every team is willing to do that.