Loughborough – Berlin – Loughborough

13 April 2016

Josh Knight reports on a Loughborough University History trip to Berlin in 2015

There are few, if any, cities in the world that have a richer history than Berlin; from its imperial history all the way to the pivotal role it played during the Cold War. On a recent trip to Berlin, with fellow Loughborough University History students, I experienced first-hand a wide variety of history and how it’s still on display in modern Berlin.

Whilst we were in the German capital, we visited some iconic sites: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the Bundestag (equivalent to the House of Commons and located inside the Reichstag building), Berlin Cathedral, Checkpoint Charlie, Sanssouci Park (home to the New Palace, Orangery Palace and Sanssouci Palace; located in Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin) and we saw bits of the Berlin Wall.

The New Palace was a particularly beautiful location and its surrounding area was equally as striking. Frederick the Great built the palace at the end of the Seven Years’ War to celebrate Prussia’s victory. Whilst the palace was being renovated when we were there, it was still a beautiful building, as the pictures show. As well as being beautiful, it was extremely large; it is home to more than 200 rooms and housed one of Frederick the Great’s five identical libraries. Frederick had libraries at his residences’ that held exactly the same collection of books – all written in French – so he didn’t have to carry books with him. A final point of note from The New Palace is its decoration and the lengths that were taken to make the building beautiful. The crowning piece in one of the main rooms is a piece of rock cut from the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro that was collected by its first climbers, Ludwig Purtscheller and Hans Meyer, who were both native Germans. Naturally, this was seen as a tremendous achievement for the Germans and is one of the highlights of the New Palace.

However, my focus of study when in Berlin was its role as a global city and, more specifically, as a colonial capital. This entailed visiting multiple locations but in this account I will only mention – what I believe are – the three most interesting places we visited.

One very interesting place that we visited, thanks to a private tour, was the Charité Medical University. Here, we spoke with an expert on identifying skulls that had been collected from German colonial conflicts. We were able to see some skulls that are currently unidentified – although, unfortunately, taking photos was prohibited. In 2013, twenty identified skulls were returned to Namibia, which is where the Germans committed the first genocide of the twentieth century. This first genocide took place against the Herero and Nama tribes, both of which resided in modern-day Namibia. This genocide is not widely known by the general public and the German government do not admit to it being genocide, as this will result in enormous sums of money being paid in compensation. One can easily see how the Germans should admit guilt here but, for seemingly purely fiscal and political reasons, they have not.

A key, and often unknown, figure from Germany’s past is Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was effectively a geographer; he helped to establish the biogeography sub-discipline. He travelled very widely and used the whole world as his laboratory. From a geographical perspective, he was the first man to describe Latin America in a scientific perspective. We visited Humboldt University (formerly the University of Berlin), which has educated over twenty-nine Nobel Prize winners and has earned itself a prestigious reputation. Other notable achievements by Humboldt are: being one of the first people to suggest that the coasts of Africa and South America were once physically connected; he has been described as the last man who knew “everything”; he also influenced the more widely-known Charles Darwin and his subsequent work.

The final place that I will mention is our visit to the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Housed in this museum is the 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, which is synonymous with female beauty. It’s the largest attraction of the museum and over 500,000 people view it each year. Germany “obtained” the bust from Egypt in 1912 and many Egyptian officials have attempted to return the bust to Egypt. As of yet, all of these attempts have failed (this process has been ongoing since the bust was unveiled in Germany in 1924). When Hermann Goering was considering returning the bust, Adolf Hitler remarked that the bust was ‘a unique masterpiece’ and rejected Goering from returning it. Within the museum, the bust has a whole room to itself, where photography is prohibited – as one will quickly find out from a guard if you look like you’re even thinking about taking a photo (photos are easily viewable through an internet search).

Although this has been a short account of my events in Berlin, the week was spent well and we took in a lot of what Berlin had to offer. From focusing on an area of Berlin’s history that is usually ignored in favour of Nazi and Cold War Germany, I found out a lot of new and interesting information. These three accounts are a summary of some things you may not know about and they certainly prompted me to do some further research on the topics.