Postcard from... Gdańsk

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By Paul Scraton:

Under the archway at the end of the Long Market, two photographs looked down on the pedestrians as they moved through to cobbled streets of the Main Town or out to the car park by the theatre, where the Christmas Market was in full swing. Not many people looked up, to contemplate the vision of Gdańsk as it was at the end of the Second World War. Perhaps they had seen them so many times before. But for the new arrival, they were enough to make you stop and stare.

Here, in the city where the war began, roughly 90% of the buildings were destroyed. The photographs showed the devastation in brutal black and white. It was possible to make out the streets, but barely a single building survived intact. What remained were the stone steps, leading up from the street to where once elegant townhouses stood, now reduced to piles of rubble.

The rebuilding of Gdańsk was an incredible achievement, the Main Town of the city once again reflecting the Hanseatic heyday of this port city that would later come to symbolise the opposition of everyday people to the Communist elites via the Solidarity movement born in the shipyards. On the waterfront or along the Long Market, in front of the grand churches or the amber shops of the atmospheric Ulica Mariacka, the rebuilding made it possible to imagine a city where the war never happened; even with the knowledge that behind those façades, so true to the originals, were buildings of a much more modern construction.

Elsewhere in the city, the reminders of what happened in Gdańsk in the 20th century were easier to discover. The Old Town, to the north, was a fairly nondescript residential district, with only a few pre-War buildings, such as the iconic Post Office, still standing or rebuilt. There were many memorials, of course. To the Post Office workers who held out against the German forces. To the victims of the Second World War and the Communist regime that followed. There were museums seemingly around every corner, trying to tell the story of the city via the many events that shaped it and the different periods of its long history.

Kashubia and Poland. Hanseatic League and Teutonic Knights. Prussia and Germany.

Free City. Destroyed city.

Danzig / Gdańsk

But perhaps the most striking reminder of the past appeared back in the Main Town, on Świętego Ducha. There, on one side of the street, the houses had been rebuilt as elsewhere. Red brick and ornate façades. Crow-stepped gables and Dutch-inspired roofs. But on the other side of the cobblestoned street, the space had been left empty when the rebuilding began, eventually filled a little by trees, a car park and a public toilet, standing in the shade. On that side of the street the steps that survived the war lead up from the pavement to only the memory of the building that stood there before. A ghostly entranceway to a city almost completely destroyed, now re-imagined. The steps were like a postcard from the past, enough to stop you in your tracks – just like the photographs, hanging beneath the city gate.  

The Library: Travellers in the Third Reich - The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People, by Julia Boyd

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

I strayed by mistake into a room full of S.S. officers, Gruppen- and Sturmbannführers, black from their lightning-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table. The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps.
- Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

In 1934, 18-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor walked on foot from Holland to Constantinople, which also meant that he had to cross Nazi Germany. But of contemporary political events he records little in his classic work of travel writing, 'A Time of Gifts'. Instead, the youngster is most fascinated by the palpable history in the Gothic old towns of Germany, the still-feudal society structures outside of towns, and the odd tipple. Besides a pub chat about Herr Hitler now and then, no one seems to be interested in engaging the youngster in political talk or even convince him to join their side.

Two years later, in April 1936, a group of English students between 12 and 14 years of age along with their teacher hiked up Schauinsland, a mountain in the Black Forest, a challenging hike even when undertaken in favourable conditions. Just short of the summit, the group - inadequately equipped and clothed - was engulfed in a blizzard, and severely lost. Hours later, some of the boys made it to a nearby village, from where a search party set off to rescue the scattered group from storm and darkness. By that time, four of the group of 27 were already frozen to death or had died from exhaustion. This tragic event became locally known as the Engländerunglück, literally ‘The Englishmen’s calamity’.

The Nazi propaganda machine now went into overdrive. The dead were laid out with all possible honours, the surviving members of the group pampered and feted by the local Hitler Youth, and all reports about the rescue effort suddenly credited the Hitler Youth itself with helping in the rescue. In 1938, in memory of this event, local authorities even erected a memorial for the deceased English students, with the inscription “The youth of Adolf Hitler honours the memory of these English sporting comrades with this memorial.”

These two events, the travails of an unperturbed vagabond and the tail of doomed yet innocent youngsters exploited by Nazi propaganda, are perfect examples of how visitors from the anglophone experienced holidays in Germany between 1933 and 1939. Few specifically came to see how the new Nazi state remodelled society, many came for steins full of beer, castles, deep forests and cheap accommodation. In 'Travellers in the Third Reich', Julia Boyd provides an excellent overview of the types of visitors that came to Nazi Germany before war erupted, by weaving many sources and eyewitness accounts together.

Boyd's travelogues do not begin with Hitler's rise to power, but instead record views and statements of tourists and visitors right from the end of World War 1 and the birth complications of the Weimar Republic. From there on it chronologically follows the developments in Germany up until August 1939. The 21 chapters are arrayed both chronologically and topically - there is 'Old Soldiers' about visiting veterans, 'Hitler's Games' about the Olympic Games 1936, and visitors being increasingly confronted with the growing anti-semitism in '"Peace" and Shattered Glass' in the wake of the Munich Agreement and the Kristallnacht 1938.

From an impressive array of sources, Boyd summons professional soldiers, diplomats, school children, Chinese students, pilots, nurses and 'it' girls from London that recorded their personal impression of Germany under Hitler. Among these witnessed we increasingly find resistance fighters (and those to become one), English families faced with Jewish refugees for the first time, and also Nazi sympathizers like Unity Valkyrie Mitford, of whom Boyd writes:

The story of Unity - the fifth of Lord and Lady Redesdale's famous brood of seven - is that of an unhappy, not particularly bright young woman finding glamour and purpose in a cult religion. She might have become prey to any number of eccentric beliefs or deities but unfortunately for her, and those around her, she fell for the Führer.

Whereas often the view towards Nazi Germany pre-1939 is dominated by the events playing out and being recorded in Berlin, Boyd's book is nicely balanced, presenting quotes from all over the German Reich and Austria. Student Joan Wakefield, for example, recorded an encounter from Upper Silesia on the border with Czechoslovakia in 1938:

On the road back to Rauden, they met 'hundreds' of tanks and lorries filled with soldiers. 'All a bit terrifying,' commented Joan. But anxiety melted away as she was absorbed once again into the daily pattern of riding, swimming in cold forest pools, parties, practical jokes and the inevitable tennis.

'Travellers in the Third Reich' is a hefty tome in hardcover, and surely nothing for the beach. But all the different sources and viewpoints are neatly weaved together and I almost devoured the book, eager to learn more about the many protagonists - and if the reader gets lost in all those fellow travelers, there's a handy dramatis personae at the end of the book; which also comes with a fine cover imitating a 1930s tourists add by kid-ethic.com, as well as maps and black-and-white images.  

Two things stand out: the widespread anti-semitism that prevailed also in the anglophone world before the 2nd World War, and how naive many of the visitors are when faced with obvious propaganda or even criminal machinations they witnessed. This is an important and nuanced book, one that shows that not all the people from future Allied countries perceived Nazi Germany as dangerous, and that a feeling of goodwill was quite strong especially in Britain in those years. And it shows that something we, in hindsight, might call dark tourism was not so dark for those undertaking it, as long as the streets were clean and the beer was flowing.  

Paddy Fermor made it to Istanbul, and spent the remainder of the 30s in southern Europe and Greece; only to be called back to England to join the army in 1939. Because of his knowledge of the area he became a Special Operations Executive and parachuted into Crete, where he became one of the few Englishmen aiding the local resistance fighters, famously capturing German general Kreipe in 1944.

The pupils from Strand School never returned to Germany; the father of one of the victims, Jack Eaton, led a futile legal battle against the failings of their guardian teacher, and in the end erected a private memorial to his lost child, one that was not utilised by the Hitler Youth - maybe because the story behind it was too personal, unusable for any propaganda effort.

Nazi Germany affected them all, in one or another. In her afterword, Boyd underlines the fact that the 12 years of Nazi Germany are not only still an endlessly fascinating period of time; but that these days it is imperative to look at the reasons for the rise of the Nazis and what it means for us today, still.

More than eight decades after Hitler became chancellor we are still haunted by the Nazis. It is right that we should be.

About the book:
Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (2017) by Julia Boyd is published by Elliott & Thompson. Support your local bookshop!

About the reviewer:
Marcel is the books editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps. This November, Marcel is launching the books with a series of events in Berlin, Dublin, Belfast, Dundalk and Solingen. You can find details of Marcel’s book tour here.

The story of a beach: Strandbad Wannsee, Berlin

Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P014703 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P014703 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0

By Paul Scraton

Down in the south-west of Berlin, close to the border with Potsdam, is a wide expanse of golden sand. This the Strandbad Wannsee, the city’s most famous beach, and a popular place to escape the heat of the summer in Berlin without leaving the city limits. The story of the Strandbad Wannsee, which has been name-checked in popular show tunes and punk songs, reflects Berlin’s experiences in the 20th century, and especially the years of division, when this beach became the Riviera, the Adriatic and the North Sea of the West Berliners imagination, all rolled into one.

The tale of the Strandbad begins, as so much in Berlin, with the rapid growth following German unification in 1871. From three quarters of a million residents, the city boomed to reach almost two million at the turn of the century, less than thirty years later. The majority of incomers lived in one- or two-room apartments in so-called Mietskaserne (rental barracks), enduring cramped conditions with limited sanitary facilities. It was unsurprising that as soon as the spring weather turned warm people flocked to the lakes and rivers surrounding Berlin.

At the same time, public bathing was technically illegal – Victorian morality was just as pervasive in Wilhelmine Germany as it was on the other side of the North Sea – but soon the numbers were such that the local municipality of Teltow, south of Berlin, bowed to the popular pressure and in 1907 it made a 200m stretch of the Wannsee shoreline open to the public. The Strandbad Wannsee was born, with two separate beaches (one for men, one for women) and a motley collection of ‘facilities’ among the trees, usually housed in tents. By the late 1920s the tents had been replaced by the buildings that remain to this day, designed by Martin Wagner and Richard Ermisch in a simple, functional style known as ‘New Objectivity’.

By the late 1920s, the visitors to the Strandbad Wannsee had access to changing facilities, terraces for sporting and other leisure activities, the beach itself and various culinary offerings, each designed to accommodate tens of thousands of bathers at any one time. But while this corner of the city might have felt like an escape from the city hidden beyond the trees, it could not remain aloof from the turbulent events of the period as Weimar Germany lurched from crisis to crisis and the National Socialists came ever closer to power.

The tension in the city was reflected in the street battles between Nazis, Communists and agents of the state, flaring up dramatically in the working class neighbourhoods of Wedding, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg. Yet another place where such battles occurred was the beach at Wannsee. Planting flags each political grouping would mark out its territory on the sands indicating allegiance by sewing the appropriate patch of identity on bathing costumes. Add to the simmering mix long hot summer’s days and excesses of beer and soon fighting broke out, often involving members of staff and, once the alarm was raised, the authorities.

The man attempting to manage the Strandbad through this period was one Hermann Clajus, a local Social Democratic councillor. After Hitler took power in 1933, Clajus was dismissed from his post and learned that he was about to be arrested. On the 18th March 1933 Hermann Clajus took his own life, and as with the rest of Germany the Strandbad had fallen into Nazi hands. By 1935 Jews were forbidden from bathing at Wannsee, although this regulation and its accompanying signs were removed for the 1936 Olympics, presumably in an attempt to hide overt displays of discrimination from visiting dignitaries. By 1938 Jews were forbidden from bathing in any public baths, open air or otherwise.

After the Second World War, particularly following the building of the Berlin Wall, the Strandbad Wannsee became very important for West Berliners. With sand imported from the West German Baltic coast, it offered a very real sense of escape within the limits of their surrounded city. Most of the lakes and much of the Baltic coast, lying within the territory of the German Democratic Republic, were now off limits, and so Wannsee and the surrounding forests became the only really accessible “countryside” that did not involve a flight, train or autobahn transit through the GDR to West Germany. This sense of longing for a seaside far away, having to ‘make do’ with the beach at Wannsee, was best expressed in the lyrics of West Berlin punk band Die Ärtze’s 1988 single Westerland, which namechecks the Strandbad in its opening line.

The Wall is now long gone, and West Berliners have the choice of many lakes in Brandenburg. They can be on the beach at the Baltic Sea in a couple of hours, but the Strandbad Wannsee retains its popularity, celebrating its centenary in 2007 and designated a cultural heritage site. Its popularity with Berlin’s public is undiminished and approximately a quarter of a million bathers pass through its turnstiles every summer.

About the author: Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and his short essay on crossing borders appears in the latest edition of the journal. He is also the author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (Influx Press) and you can read more of his work on his website www.underagreysky.com.