It was a beautiful, sun-dappled February morning at 5am when eighteen intrepid Year 11 students gathered in Kendon car park for our long coach journey to Berlin. We left only a few minutes late, having waited ten minutes for Audrey and Connie’s servants to bring their luggage up the steps.
An uneventful journey featuring e-numbers, currywurst and a few snoozes passed in the blink of an eye and we arrived in Berlin on a dark February evening at 10pm. We went straight to bed as the following day was to be a busy and emotionally-challenging one.
After a continental breakfast we left for our walking tour, Berlin Under the Swastika. Our fantastic guide, David, told us everything we could wish to know and our students should now pass this part of their GCSE with flying colours! Particularly significant sights were a car park – once the site of the cremation of Hitler’s remains – and the Finance Ministry, the only building that survived the Allied bombing; ironic, given that during the war it was Goering’s Air Ministry and therefore responsible for the destructive bombing of much of London and other major cities. The afternoon brought us a visit to Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp that the Nazis built shortly after they came to power, to house their political opponents in the north of Germany. There were some horrific stories that our guide Louisa told us, and the students were quite drained at the end of the day.
Day three focused first on Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the border crossing points between East and West Berlin, but now a tourist trap that the true historians among us are somewhat suspicious of, although the museum is excellent. Seeing the methods people employed to try to escape from East to West was a sobering reminder of how bad conditions were. In the afternoon we had a guided tour round the Topography of Terrors museum, which focuses on the Gestapo and its methods; our guides were intense but given the nature of the topic, that’s perhaps unsurprising.
Owing to the subject matter of this visit, down time is critical, and several of the boys made the most of the opportunity to watch England v Wales from Twickenham before playing cards and chilling out in the evening.
Our final day of visits took us first to Hohenschonhausen, possibly the highlight of the visit (although highlight is possibly a poor choice of word given the psychological torture that the Stasi inflicted on its victims) and it didn’t disappoint. Indeed, we were guided through the complex by an ex-prisoner of the Stasi, a man called Lothar, who was imprisoned for a year and eight months for hanging anti-Communist banners in Alexanderplatz. The story of his survival in those dark days and how he used the experience to shape his future life was truly uplifting.
The trip was rounded off with a visit to the Reichstag and the opportunity to go up into the iconic dome, designed in the 1990s by Sir Norman Foster, and built of glass to symbolise the transparency of post-reunification German politics. There was then a last bit of R&R and the chance for a final trip to Dunkin’ Donuts – classic German cuisine.
Winner of the award for ‘Almost Being Profound’ was the question, “Sir, why are all the trees here dead?” – “It’s winter, Marcus” – and the key award is winner of ‘Best Solo Performance of Happy Birthday’, awarded to Felix Hearn. Coincidentally, Felix is also winner of the ‘Best Random Appearance on Polish TV’ and the ‘Where Did He Get That Hat’ awards.
All in all, this was a fantastic trip and the students were a credit to themselves and the School.
Tim Hart Dyke