By DIANE SLAWYCH, Special to QMI Agency
BERLIN, Germany -- For visitors interested in World War II history, Berlin has a wealth of tours, including:
1. COLD WAR BERLIN
You'll learn about Soviet secrets, CIA spies and more on this tour, which begins at Checkpoint Charlie, follows the path of the Death-strip and Berlin Wall, and takes you past border fortifications, guard towers and tank traps. Hear about successful and failed escapes, and methods used by the Stasi to control east Germany's population, from "radiation tags" to "Day X" preparations. Check insidertour.com.
Local Berlin Tours runs a six-hour excursion to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was built in 1936 to remove what were considered antisocial elements before the Olympics hosted by Germany that year. The Nazis imprisoned more than 200,000 people there, of which some 50,000 were murdered. Others died of starvation and other mistreatment. See localberlintours.com.
3. THRID REICH BERLIN
Learn how Nazis built their war machine and solidified power on this tour with stops at the remains of SS and Gestapo headquarters -- once the most feared address in Nazi Germany; the site of Hitler's Chancellery and bunkers; Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe; Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry; Berlin's oldest Jewish cemetery. Check neweuropetours.eu.
STREET ART, GRAFFITI OF BERLIN
Few cities have more graffiti and street art than Berlin.
Stencils, posters, murals, so-called "bombings" and paste-ups, are just a few of the styles and techniques being used these days by both local and internationally known street artists who flock to the German capital to leave their mark.
The subculture has generated such a buzz, that at least one company offers guided walking tours of some of the most celebrated outdoor artworks. Join one and you'll traipse through the city's hippest districts, backstreets and urban conflict zones to view huge paintings on firewalls, stumble over stones (the artist's intention), encounter works by everyone from Alias to XooooX, and learn about the sometimes secretive nature of the artists, such as El Bocho who wears a mask made of tape.
The tour begins in Mitte, one of the boroughs comprising former East and West Berlin, where our guide Amy Mason answers the question on everyone's mind. Why is there so much street art in Berlin? It seems this flourishing scene took root in the aftermath of the Second World War. No one wanted to live near bombed-out or abandoned buildings or the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 and divided the city, so the West German government offered incentives (lower rents, lower taxes, etc.) to encourage people to stay or relocate to the area.
The offer attracted young people, students, artists, musicians and activists, and an underground culture developed, which continued even after the wall fell in 1989.
The first stop is Tacheles -- Yiddish for straight talking -- a former shopping arcade that was one of the original artist squats and a thriving centre of graffiti culture for two decades until it closed this past fall. We find a few artists still selling their work out front, while around the back, an astonishing array of metal sculptures are on display -- produced in the oldest remaining workshop. Around back, you can see works by Banksy and King Robbo -- two big names in the street-art world.
Even multinational companies want a piece of the action, says Mason, who points to a building that features a colourful wall mural that is actually a Nike ad.
Other in-demand street artists, such as XooooX, (pronounced Zooks) now sell their work in galleries including Circle Culture Gallery, which is on our route. The German artist works with hand-cut stencils, which often feature fashion models such as the one we see on a wall near the Clarchens Ballhaus -- a Weimar-era ball room, which has been rediscovered by local hipsters.
Not all street artists work alone. Some form part of a crew such as CBS, which is known for its huge train "bombs."
"The train comes into a station and within 10 seconds they can graffiti the entire train with one gigantic picture -- and then they run away again," Mason says.
Graffiti is illegal in Berlin (unless a property owner approves), and punishable by fine and up to two years in jail. But police often turn a blind eye if the art doesn't cause lasting damaged, which is why many artists have turned to postering, stickering and paste-ups, using a harmless mix of flour and water to affix their art to walls.
Some don't even bother with walls. Cologne-based Gunter Demnig's street art is literally on the street -- beneath our feet. He began installing his Stolpersteine (stumble stones) in 1995 without a permit. Each stone is engraved with the name of a victim of the holocaust and set on the ground (slightly raised) in front of the home where they once lived. There are now dozens in Berlin and elsewhere.
"Visitors and collaborators" are welcome at our next stop -- Hans Schwarzenberg -- a vibrant venue for art, culture and history. We enter through an archway where someone has scrawled "I don't want to be your friend on Facebook," amid works by Alias and El Bocho, and words and visuals that rail against gentrification. Further in are colourful wall paintings and the Anne Frank Zentrum and the house of Otto Weidt -- described as Berlin's Oskar Schindler.
After seeing intriguing works by Italian artist Blu and Paris-based Victor Ash in Kreuzberg, the tour ends at the East Side Gallery. This 1.3-km stretch of the Berlin Wall contains more than 100 murals. Among the many standouts are Birgit Kinder's Test The Best, showing a Trabi (an East German-made car) bursting through the Wall, and The Mortal Kiss by Dimitri Vrubel, showing Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locking lips.
See it while you can. There are plans to demolish the East Side Gallery to make way for luxury flats.
NEED TO KNOW
The 3.5-hour Alternative City Tour departs at 2 p.m. daily Oranienburger Str. at 2 p.m. Cost is 12 euros (about $16), 10 euros (about $13) for students. See neweuropetours.eu.
This story was posted on Wed, March 20, 2013
More HeadlinesYoko Ono retrospective opens in Frankfurt
Nudists flock to 'Naked Men' exhibit in Vienna
Hamburg is modern Germany at its best
Vienna set to party at historic Opera Ball
48 hours at the top of Europe