Berlin museums top 10

Uggla finalBerlin is a fantastic historical city with wonderful museums and you can easily spend weeks seeing them all. Here is my personal top 10.

1. Neues Museum
The great thing about Neues museum is that it tells so much history just in itself. It was built as a proud Prussian monument in 1855, had a glorious time in the era of imperial Germany but was then miserably destroyed in WWII and a cold war ruin. When reconstructed in 2009, the architect made sure to preserve all of its historical phases which can now be marvelled at by the visitor. It’s an historical museum with great treasures on display not to be missed such as the Nefertiti bust and the Bronze Age golden “wizard hats”.

2. Jewish Museum
This is the largest Jewish museum in Europe, full of interesting exhibitions. What’s special about this museum is the extraordinarily well performed coherence between architectural form and story content. As a visitor you follow the history of the Jews in Germany chronologically and the house itself gets gradually more sad, desperate and twisted when presenting early 20th century times, ending in the void of the chilling Holocaust tower.

3. Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon museum is fantastic and completely crazy. Archaeologists of imperial Germany, just as their counterparts in Britain and France, decided it was a good idea to bring home not just small artefacts but entire monuments from the classical Mediterranean world. But the Germans did it most thoroughly. Just wait until you see the Pergamon Altar, the incomparable Ishtar Gate and the Victory stele of Esarhaddon.Berlin 34. German Historical Museum
The museum opened in 1987 and stands for a fully updated and thoroughly researched history of Germany. It is big, full of very informative exhibitions, well worth a visit but somewhat boring. It does great and important projects and temporary exhibitions on contemporary subjects.

5. Topography of Terror
This is a place not to be missed when in Berlin since it tells the awful but important story of the terror during the Nazi regime in Germany and Berlin specifically. Located at the site of former main SS, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo headquarters, it has well-presented but also challenging exhibits due to the difficult subject, both indoors and outdoors.

Berlin 2

6. Natural history Museum
The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is not just any natural history museum. What’s special here is that they have some of the most famed dinosaur fossils of all including the Berlin Archaeopteryx, possible the most famous fossil in the world. It’s a big museum, the exhibitions are good and especially the impressive Dinosaur Hall with mounted skeletons of some of the largest beasts that ever lived.

7. Schwules Museum
This is a museum exhibiting LGBT life in Berlin. What’s great about it is that it does this very well and always seems to have new and exciting projects and temporary exhibitions rolling.

8. Deutsches Currywurst Museum
The Currywurst is a signature snack of Berlin. There’s actually no curry in the sausage itself, it is in a special sauce and sprinkled on, but it’s not a bad snack at all. The dish has a charming story including an old lady trying to get by in post-war Berlin and I think the museum is rather good too.

9. Altes Museum
Opened as a Prussian royal arts museum in 1830, the Altes Museum has instead housed the most important Berlin collections of classical antiquities since the early 20th century and still does. The Altes Museum has some startling exhibits of sculptures and, artefacts from antiquity which you should not miss when here.

10. DDR Museum
This place tells the story of life in East Germany in the Cold war era. It is full of trinkets and reconstructions and is well worth seeing though maybe leaning a bit too much towards nostalgia rather than the hard sides of the topic.

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Teutoburg – the forest at the end of Rome

Uggla finalSouthern Germany in early autumn, 9 CE. Three Roman legions with auxiliary troops and the governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, are on their way from summer campaigns to safe winter camps on the Rhine and Lippe rivers.

Suddenly, a well-planned surprise attack by a large force of Germanic warriors from a coalition of tribes attack the Roman army, inflicting substantial casualties and causing it to embark on forced marches through the woodlands under continued attacks from the Germans. The difficult terrain made the Roman line of march stretch out perilously long and easy to attack on its weak spots.

Teuto 1 b

The precise circumstances of the battle are unclear but many things suggest that the Romans were led into a very well prepared trap in the form of a narrowing funnel. At its end was a gap just about 100 meters wide between the densely forested Kalkriese hill and a vast marshland. The gap was prepared as a kill zone by the Germans, having built a defence wall along the hillside from which they could attack the desperate, fleeing remains of the Roman army, which was annihilated here.

An enormous disaster to the Romans, the defeat had vast consequences and ended a long period of expansion. It is said to have shook emperor Augustus profoundly. Though maybe not such a pivotal turning point as much earlier history-writing claimed, the event seems to have put an end to ideas about turning the lands between the Rhine and the Elbe into a formal Roman province, now establishing the Rhine as the northern limes of the empire.

Teuto x

The probable scene of the final battle at Kalkriese is known because of archaeological excavations in the area since the late 1980s. The discovery and investigation of the battlefield was certainly a major discovery of the late 20th century, following a more than 100 years long debate on where and how the battle was fought.

Thousands of finds of debris of Roman equipment have been collected, elucidating a lot about what happened. They give fascinating insight into many aspects of the human drama of the events. A donkey bell stuffed with straw to silence it tells about futile attempts to avoid discovery while marching. Small stashes of buried coins in one part of the area seem to indicate the place for a last stand of a Roman unit, burying their valuables when knowing there was no chance of escape.

As an example of the political and more specifically nationalistic uses of history, there are few things more important in German historiography than the Teutoburg battle. The events, in which a “Germanic hero” united (a few of) the Germanic tribes to drive out the Roman occupants was heavily exploited during the 19th and early 20th century.

There is a well conceived visitor’s centre in Kalkriese, where some of the finds are displayed, but the main experience of visiting is a prepared walk where you get to follow in the footsteps of the legionaries on their last kilometres, ending in the narrow gap in which they were finally caught and met their doom. This is very dark history of course, and the place was a site of panic, desperation and terrible suffering rather than heroism. A site design where you follow a track of large, rusty, iron plates guides the experience firmly and sets the tone while remaining respectful.

We came here on a late summer day on which disaster seemed far away. We walked the iron plates over sunny, open grassland beneath the forest rim and though a gripping experience, panic seemed far away. Going back on a narrow track through the edge of the forest, a sudden shift of weather delivered thunder and massive, chilly downpour, sending us running back to the visitor’s centre through the dark woods in appropriate desperation.

Dragons of the Rhine valley

Uggla finalThe German middle Rhine valley, from Bonn to Rüdesheim, is full of dark, romantic, Teutonic folklore, crude 19th century nationalism and lots of serious history. The setting is the mighty river, surrounded by craggy river banks with castle ruins and cold northern woods.

This is classic territory for the historian and the traveller alike. Caesar was here, fighting the German tribes and this is, more or less, where the Roman empire came to a halt. Then it was the heartland of Frankish and Holy Roman empires and later, to many, a sort of quintessential Germany and German culture, an image boosted by artist such as Richard Wagner and tainted first by chauvinist nationalism, later by Nazism.

And then there are dragons. The fearsome Fafner of the medieval Siegfried legend is said to have lived on the strange Drachenfels cliff by the river just outside Königswinter.

It is here, on this very rock, that the ultimate Germanic hero Siegfried slayed the beast, bathing in its blood. You get here on foot from Königswinter and a stiff walk uphill takes you to the ruins of Burg Drachenfels on the top and a remarkable view of the river valley.

Rhine A

Rhine B

So, the middle Rhine valley is heavy stuff as historical travel goes. This is a landscape of thick historical legends, of imperial scale history and of the darkest days of the 20th century. The nationalistic lure of this landscape and it sights were thoroughly exploited by the Nazi state. Halfway up Drachenfels hill lies a neogothic castle that served as an “Adolf Hitler School” during the war, intended for bringing up new leadership in the Third Reich.

Even stranger than the Hitler school is the odd “Niebelungenhalle” just nearby. This is a temple to the greatness of Wagner, opened on the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 1913. It contains eerie artworks celebrating the master and, no less strange, a dragon’s cave with a crude plaster beast and an actual reptile zoo with miniatures of mighty Fafner.

Rhine 3

You can stay in Bonn to get to the Drachenfels area, or in Königswinter as I did. This is also a perfect base for trips up river.

In the woods to the north are the Siebengebirge area with wonderful forest treks. Wine cultivation, wine castles and wine drinking are major attractions all over the river area.

Myself I went up river to the peculiar Deutches Eck – the German Corner – a most dramatic spot where the Mosel river joins the Rhine at Koblenz. The rivers float together monumentally against a backdrop of high cliffs and at the precise spot of their unification is a triangular area, the eck itself, with restaurants and a pompous monument to another Germanic dragon, emperor Wilhelm I, father of the WWI Kaiser.

Tired of Teutonic lore, dragons and dramatic river settings I then retreated westwards, to Cologne and Aachen, to see some more history.

Rhine C