Then and Now: Traces of war in Berlin, 1945-2018, interview with Peter Graham

Interviews, Then and Now, WW2, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos submitted by Peter Graham @Berlin Battle Damage and used by permission

Berlin is nowadays a vibrant and colourful city, following its unification after the fall of the iron curtain.

Today, people from different nationalities walk on the very same streets that over 70 years ago were the stage of the final battles of the war in Europe, in April and early May 1945.

As one of the most evil regimes humankind has ever seen, the Nazis, were in their death throes, the buildings, the ones that were still standing after the Allied bombing raids and the fierce street fighting with the Red Army, were the silent witnesses of combat. Some of them are still there, reminding us of the past.

Mr. Peter Graham has visited Berlin on several occasions and has documented some of those buildings, which bear the scars of warfare. “Berlin is a fascinating city, and one of the most fascinating things about it for me is the sheer amount of battle damage still visible from the terrible days of April and May 1945.”

Mr Graham is 53 years old and lives near Belfast, Ireland. Peter has the flexibility to visit Berlin frequently, although not as frequently as he would like. he hopes to settle there permanently in the future. He has a partner who works as a lecturer in Dublin and a son who will soon be studying history at university. He also has a keen interest in WW2 so maybe he can take what Peter doing to a more advanced level.

This may look like a normal graffiti wall but it’s actually a remaining part of the Flak Tower at Volkspark Friedrichshain.
Mr. Peter Graham in front of a remaining part of the Flak Tower at Volkspark Friedrichshain.

How did you start looking for the traces of war in Berlin?

Several years before I first went to Berlin I watched a documentary about the author Anthony Beevor visiting on a research trip for his upcoming book on the battle. In one sequence he visited a building which was due to be demolished and remarked that the battle damage on this building was some of the last traces of the battle left. I thought it was very sad that it was not being preserved and if I ever visited Berlin there would be no signs of the battle left. How wrong I was!

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That Flak tower is in Hamburg. I included it to show what an intact one looks like. I first visited Berlin in 2013 with my family so I’m really a newcomer. The first traces of war I remember seeing were on the Martin Gropius Bau on Niederkichnerstrasse, which formerly had the Gestapo headquarters next door. I had seen enough battle damage in Normandy to know what I was looking at and once I realised that Anthony Beevor was very much wrong I started seeing it everywhere and knew it was important to start photographing and researching it before these traces of one of the most momentous events in history disappear for ever.

The amount of destruction in Berlin at the end of WW2 was staggering, but what is also amazing is that so many buildings came through relatively unscathed or in a condition that they were able to be rebuilt. When I’m in Berlin I’m based in the district of Friedenau. It’s hard to find any wartime photos of the area for some reason, so I was delighted to come across this 1945 photo of my local S Bahn station, Feuerbachstrasse. Friedenau was taken by the 9th Soviet Mechanized Corps on April 24th but I suspect that the damage to the station was inflicted during a bombing raid as there were several important targets in the area including the Telefunken factory in Steglitz. It’s nice to see that the station was rebuilt to its original design. 1945 - 2018.
The amount of destruction in Berlin at the end of WW2 was staggering, but what is also amazing is that so many buildings came through relatively unscathed or in a condition that they were able to be rebuilt. When I’m in Berlin I’m based in the district of Friedenau. It’s hard to find any wartime photos of the area for some reason, so I was delighted to come across this 1945 photo of my local S Bahn station, Feuerbachstrasse. Friedenau was taken by the 9th Soviet Mechanized Corps on April 24th but I suspect that the damage to the station was inflicted during a bombing raid as there were several important targets in the area including the Telefunken factory in Steglitz. It’s nice to see that the station was rebuilt to its original design. 1945 – 2018.

Despite the fact that the city has been radically rebuilt post-war and many nazi era elements eradicated, there are still many “scars” of the past to be seen. If you could choose 3 out of those, which ones would they be and why? (relevant photos needed!)

That’s a hard one, and please bear in mind that I’m a newcomer so there are many scars still to find, which is what makes this project so exciting. I’m going to exclude the big ones such as the Anhalter Bahnhof remains and Goering’s Aviation Ministry, if you can call that a scar. It’s certainly a big reminder. Although these are perhaps some of the most important WW2 relics in Berlin I’m going to choose three which visitors might not be so familiar with.

 

  1. The Flakturm at Volkspark Humbolthain.
The Flak Tower. Photo Credit: John Payne
The Flak Tower. Photo Credit: John Payne

Although only a shadow of its former self the remains of the flak tower gives a hint of how formidable and important the three pairs of towers were during the battle. Time and vandalism have taken their toll but the evidence of point blank range Soviet shelling is obvious. The tower proved to be impregnable and held out until the battle was over. The interior can be visited with the Berliner Unterwelten association. I highly recommend any of their tours. To see what this tower would have looked like during the war there is an identical one in pristine condition in St Pauli, Hamburg.

 

 

 

Another view of the Flak Tower. Photo Credit: John Payne
Another view of the Flak Tower. Photo Credit: John Payne

 

This is a sad reminder of the sheer cruelty of the Nazi regime and the madness that prevailed in the closing stages of the war. Hidden in a patch of hilly woodland between Ruhleben U Bahn station and the Olympic Stadium is a small clearing that was once the parade ground of the former Ruhleben barracks.

The Parade ground
The Parade ground, also known as Execution Place No. 5. Between January and April 1945 at least 235 German soldiers were executed here, many of them teenagers, for offences such as not turning up for conscription.

This clearing was also known as Execution Place No.5 – The Murellenschlucht. Between January and April 1945 at least 235 German soldiers were executed here, many of them teenagers, for offences such as not turning up for conscription. The young soldiers from the barracks were forced to watch these executions to discourage desertion. The execution of three teenage soldiers at this spot is described in detail by Helmut Altner in his book, Berlin, Dance of Death. There is nothing to indicate what happened here, just three small mounds of earth where the execution posts were located.The photos show the parade ground from the end where the posts were placed. The opening at the far right corner was for trucks carrying the condemned men to enter. The second photo shows my friend Jonny standing on one of the mounds of earth.

Another view of the Parade ground.
Another view of the Parade ground.

Take a walk down the quant and rather upmarket Grosse Hamburger Strasse in the Northern part of Mitte and you will be stopped in your tracks by a building just in front of the Sophien Church.

Bullet and shrapnel holes are still evident on this building, a chilling testament to the lives lost around it in 1945
Bullet and shrapnel holes are still evident on this building, a chilling testament to the lives lost around it in 1945

The front, side and back walls are peppered with literally hundreds of small arms hits. Take a walk down the pedestrian street to the church behind and you can see that thousands of rounds must have been poured into the upper floor windows from the opposite building. 

This building clearly shows the violence of the close quarter combat that took place in Berlin and gives a hint of what a lot of the city looked like in May 1945. It’s so clearly defined that it could have happened yesterday. Sadly this time capsule is slowly being replastered so if you want to see it get there soon.
This building clearly shows the violence of the close quarter combat that took place in Berlin and gives a hint of what a lot of the city looked like in May 1945. It’s so clearly defined that it could have happened yesterday. Sadly this time capsule is slowly being replastered so if you want to see it get there soon.

After the unification of Germany and indeed Berlin, there seems to be more to be explored in the former east side as well. Have you noticed any difference in the two parts of the city, with more such spots in one or the other area?

I’m still in the process of exploring the city and I’ve spent more time in the West but I’m looking forward to finding more sites in the former East. There are sites that I know of but haven’t photographed yet, and I look forward to including them on my site.

A soon to be refurbished building still bears the scars of brutal street fighting.
A soon to be refurbished building still bears the scars of brutal street fighting.

Bullet ridden walls or shrapnel hit buildings are reminding us of the past. What is the key message you want to convey through your work?

I want people to be aware of what they’re looking at and the history and significance of it. If  these scars can be interpreted correctly then they can tell the story of the battle of Berlin more effectively than any museum. Hopefully after seeing my work people might take a second look when they pass one of these places and reflect on the tragedy they represent.

Peppered with bullet holes, this basement has seen destruction in 1945, yet survives to this day.
Peppered with bullet holes, this basement has seen destruction in 1945, yet survives to this day.

Berlin is today a wonderful city, vibrant and pretty much “alive”. What does the battle damage you have documented make you think? 

 It makes me think of the senseless waste that was the battle of Berlin and WW2 but I think that it’s important that at least some traces are preserved so that people don’t forget what a fascist ideology can lead to.

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I’d like to thank my friend Jonny Bay for inspiring me to start the page. He’s a fellow  Irishman who lives in Berlin and is about to publish a unique book on the battle of Berlin. For more info follow Jonny Bay on Facebook.

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