Three men in a …

…boat is a gentle story of companions paddling up the River Thames from London to Oxford in the twilight of the Victorian era. In the travels of our History department to Berlin, this story came to mind on a number of occasions, not least because many of the images both cities use to this day hark back to that period, when they were great rivals and competed in all aspects of technology.  Across both cities, the skylines still show the great Railway stations of that age, and their major  city stations are embedded in the street maps to this day.

Yesterday, we went underground with a historian from the Beliner Unterwelten group, whose remit it remains to ‘show off’ the underground treasures of Berlin. Back in the days of sewer building in the mid 19th century, Berlin and London both planned for services to manage the largest  city in the world.  In terms of effluent, London may have got there, but rather oddly Germany did not. As they say, 2 world wars and a Russian occupation rather did for the expansionist dreams of those german city planners, and Berlin is little larger than 150 year ago, and frankly (we were told) there is not enough waste water coming down the tubes to keep them clear these days!
It is extraordinary just how proud people can be of waterways built to take away our waste. There seem to be countless different tours available to the time-rich tourist in Berlin, able to paddle even along these waterways that flow silently beneath Germany’s capital city, though apparently you do need to be very wary when it is half-time during the football season and all that Pilsner beer drank before the game needs to find relief.  Indeed the cathedrals built to manage our water seem to be in great shape and worthy of a visit all of their own.

Of course this knowledge was a by-product of the real reason we had gone ‘underground’, to view the german civilian ‘Bunker’ provision, so that the population could survive everything Bomber Harris and his planes could throw at them. It seems the word ‘Bunker’ was misused deliberately, meaning apparently that the shelters were bomb-proof. Unlike London’ underground, the Berlin trains run very close to the surface and there was little chance that a tunnel full of loyal citizens would survive a hit in any way.  No more than 50cm of concrete separated the upper layers of the transport system from the air above, and with British bombs designed to crash through 5m of the suff before they exploded, you can only imagine the carnage.  Which we did of course, the 2011 pupils on the Y11 trip to Berlin, and we did not feel very good about it.

Indeed, as we wandered through a warren of interlinking passages we learned of man’s inhumanity to man, the veil of deceit that was required to keep hope alive when all around seemed hopeless. The bunkers contained nursery facilities to ensure the much need children of the Reich could be born safely, and indeed they were, as our guide proudly informed us, because now in their late sixties, visitors return this railway station to find the birthing suite named Gesundbrunnen on their birth certificate!  The walls were painted with a toxic mix of luminous and radioactive paint, so the hard pressed doctors could make and mend whilst underground, that fluoresce visible today as a party trick for visitors to see.

In Jerome K Jerome’s elegant tale of life afloat on the water without a care, they have with them an imaginary dog, Montmorency, to whom is attached some blame and some fame, in roughly equal measure. Now we could all do with such advice, to shift the focus and dodge  the responsibility, and it might seem to readers of the Daily Press that our Teutonic cousins have struggled to accept their responsibilities in this regard.  In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. For the third time now, I have listened to intelligent and well qualified tour guides tell in different ways the appalling tales of life in Berlin under the Nazis. They leave us in no doubt that the citizens had elected and then gullibly accepted a tyranny that became of such monstrous proportions that it sought to destroy everything in its path.

It is certainly the case that the citizens of Berlin have had their city’s life chances badly damaged by the events of the 20th century. Equally it appears, without the determination of three extraordinary men, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, we would not have seen the destruction of the Nazi regime, and for that the free world must be truly grateful. Because what Berlin also does so well is to highlight just how dreadful were the effects of that Nazi programme to exterminate all in their path. Of course I do not wish to belittle the most important of the holocausts, that of the Jews, but it was in Berlin that the exterminations began from 1933, of trade unionists, of liberals and communists, of authors and engineers, chemists and engineers that thought differently. And that is something clearly modern Berliners do not wish to let die, and indeed celebrates in their memorials as well as any societies, a love of living and a tolerance of all, irrespective of gender, faith, political belief or other persuasion. As visitors we have walked their streets, viewed their memorials and galleries, and it cannot be clearer; whilst huge black clouds covered the past of Europe in misery for 60 years, they have gone now, not least because outstanding example is made for teaching about the rights of man on every corner.

I am not quite sure what they feel about virtual dogs though…

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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