Uncover the history of Berlin on your next school trip
Published: September 2nd 2015
Picture one of the greatest challenges in the wider world from modern history and World War Two is likely to figure in your thoughts. Word association consequently leads to Berlin and the hub of Nazi terror that rippled throughout Europe and Axis-occupied territory. A city steeped in history, bound by tribulation, and revered for the tenacity shown by its inhabitants for a unified city, Berlin has arguably been put through the ringer. For teachers looking to extend their students’ learning outside the classroom and deepen their understanding of some of the most significant upheavals in modern history, the city of Berlin and the surrounding region acts effectively as an open-air museum. From visiting some of the key locations from the Nazi era, including Wannsee Conference House and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to learning about life in East Berlin under Communist control at Tränenpalast and the Story of Berlin, the German capital has built up a wealth of key landmarks born out of its history of political and economic strife.
Welcome to Berlin
Arrive in Berlin and you will begin to notice the city is not only decorated by monuments that have survived the test of war but elements left by a new generation determined to keep the city fresh, progressive and a cultural centre. Germany has worked effectively to remodel its image in Europe and the wider world as a cohesive member of the global community; welcoming change, forward thinkers and implementing a political PR strategy not only to the outside world but to its own inhabitants. This does not take away from the history that is engrained within the pathways leading down Unter den Linden, nor does it necessarily suggest the country is shying away from the events of a key period (albeit a tumultuous time) which has helped characterise the modern world.
Dissecting Berlin as an historical resource
While there is an exorbitant amount to explore in Berlin, history teachers will be in their element. A school trip to Berlin will quickly have the same impact on students with countless moving and thought-provoking sites around the city inspiring children’s curiosity to learn more about the past. From the events of World War Two and through the challenges of the Cold War period, students can use Berlin’s array of key landmarks to undertake a study of the impact of these significant points in history. In doing so, students can start to make connections between these points along the timeline to better understand cause and consequence.
Throughout the Key Stage 2 and 3 history curriculum there is an emphasis on engaging students to put together informed responses based upon a variety of sources available to them. A school trip to Berlin affords the opportunity to truly engage with a range of historical information presented through multimedia channels and being able to interact with the learning environment. Until a student stands inside the walls of Sachsenhausen, will they appreciate the reality of Nazi oppression? Can a student truly comprehend the impact of the Berlin Wall in the divide it created between families and friends from a textbook? These are questions that come to mind when considering the value of a school trip. For teachers, Berlin provides the answers.
How Berlin supports the study of World War Two
World War Two presented a challenge for Europe and the wider world. Arguably Germany felt the impact of change from Hitler’s rise to Chancellor in 1933 but the rippling effect that emanated out of the city beyond the borders of the Fatherland takes further investigation. To better appreciate the impact of the Nazi agenda, Berlin offers schools a number of noteworthy stops. By presenting students with evidence to critique and explore, they are immediately placed in a position whereby they can think critically, develop their perspective and formulate their own thoughts. A key theme from World War Two is the study of the Holocaust. While Krakow in Poland provides one of the major sites for the Nazi’s “Final solution to the Jewish question”, Berlin in fact allows students to study the rise of anti-Semitic activity from Kristallnacht; its implementation under the guise of committing political prisoners to concentration camps; and the reflection of this pogrom on the Jewish population.
The Topography of Terror museum is a good place to begin an assessment of the destructive effects of Nazi state terror. Students will be able to trace the effect of propaganda from the Third Reich to the reign of terror over the ghettos by Gestapo and SS forces. This eye-opening experience leads over to a greater focus on the impact on the Jewish population in Germany. The Jewish Museum allows groups to achieve this by extending their study to investigate Jewish culture and its place in German society. Evoking an enormous amount of emotions around the history of the Holocaust, the museum allows students to see how Jews in Germany have responded to their history using art.
Walking through the Holocaust Memorial creates its very own metaphors with a maze of cement blocks almost describing the plain mystery and amazement of such an atrocity even taking place in the first instance. While its design is open to interpretation, the steely grey blocks of varying sizes across uneven ground certainly conjures a mix of emotions. The scale alone may shock students, but time spent wandering through the Holocaust Memorial will lead to many questions relating to the persecution of the Jewish people. Berlin therefore opens up for a study on not only an area but of an ethnoreligious group in Europe.
A tale of two sides: the impact of a city split by the Cold War
For those studying the impact of the Cold War, there almost seems no better place to start than the city that was torn in two. From 1961 to 1989, Die Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) came to represent a number of notions in the divide of ideology between Western ideology and the Eastern Bloc. The Documentation Centre at the Berlin Wall Memorial provides school groups with an historical overview of the events that led up to the construction of the wall, the impact of The Wall on everyday life, and the ultimate cost felt by the victims who sought freedom from the Communist tyranny. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum highlights to students the lengths people went to in order to cross the border illegally. Connections can begin to formulate as to why people went to these desperate lengths to achieve the same level of freedom of movement felt in West Germany when visiting the Hohenschönhausen Memorial Centre. Here school groups will be able to see the impact of Soviet control enforced by the Stasi secret police. The former prison became infamous for its use of physical and psychological torture to unsentenced inmates. Seeing first-hand the interior of this Stasi detention centre will lead students to frame historically-valid questions as to the purpose of the facility, the treatment of its inmates and why lessons of the oppression felt just decades before seemed to be missing from post-war East Germany.
A feast for the eyes, an experience for the mind
While Berlin has good U-Bahn links, the city is ultimately best explored on foot. A city walking tour can not only provide school groups with a chance to gain their bearings of this historic city but also maps out a route past some of Berlin’s best landmarks, including the Brandenburg Gate, the site of Hitler’s bunker, the “Deathstrip”, the Reichstag Dome, and the famous Gendarmenmarkt area. Each site can be linked to significant points in Germany’s history and the Asisi Panorama of the Berlin Wall is a must-see. Depicting life on both sides of the wall through the eyes of artist Yadegar Asisi, who lived in the Kreuzberg area in the 1980s, the panorama and narration gives students further insight into life in Berlin during the Cold War period. This visit allows school groups to makes comparisons, analyse the impact of change during this period and how this led to a unified state.
There are destinations that can provide a rich learning experience, greater than anything that can be developed from a textbook. A school trip to Berlin provides teachers with a trifecta of educational benefits; namely hosting sites linked to multiple historically-significant periods, providing students with a first-hand experience not otherwise replicated in the classroom, and enabling students to develop key questioning and investigative skills required by the curriculum attainment targets. Sitting as a significant city in the study of European change, Berlin has faced turmoil and ultimately survived to tell the tales. The city’s array of historical sites sit as the scars of these plights ready for students to learn the lessons of warped ideology and political repression on the lives of its citizens.
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