Cycling through a troubled past

bamarstgOne could argue that Berlin was at the centre of world history for the best part of a century. So many eras have left their mark in one way or another in the city that it makes it a uniquely interesting place to take and give historical tours. Remnants of previously dominant ideologies are present throughout the city, from remains of the Berlin wall to the giganticism of the Nazi’s Luftwaffe building to the egomaniacal pet projects of Kaiser Wilhelm II. As it is built on a marsh it means that the city is entirely flat which makes seeing it by bicycle easily accessible and fun.

As a graduate of history and German from NUI Galway I was able to get a job with Fat Tire Bike Tours, so called because the bikes we use are beach cruisers known for their wide handlebars, comfy seats, and large tires. It’s a job I’d recommend any history student or graduate to try out for a summer. If you’re only in Berlin for a week and are interested in history I’d recommend going on one (there are discounts for students!)

Most of the stops involve explaining history with the odd joke thrown in for the sake of levity -German history of course tends not to be very pleasant so this is good way of keeping everyone comfortable. There are some stops though where this wouldn’t really be appropriate. I wouldn’t make jokes at the Holocaust memorial for example. I generally follow the rule that joking about perpetrators and tyrants is fine but making jokes about their victims is insensitive.

We get a lot of different groups and as a result you have to cater to fairly different tastes. I had a fourteen year old boy from America who was obsessed with Bismarck, possibly the only 14 year old boy from America with this particular obsession, and so we made a quick detour so he could see the Bismarck statue and be photographed in front of it.

I had a private tour booked once with a stag party. They were all dressed up, one as a banana, two of them as Super Mario (“they didn’t have Luigi”), one of them as a minotaur, there was Wonder Woman and one optical illusion. It was surreal standing in front of the Reichstag explaining the rise of Hitler with a straight face to an anthropomorphic banana.

One thing which is very rewarding and enjoyable in the job is the dispelling of historical myths. You occasionally get told that Hitler escaped to South America and lived out the rest of his life in the hills of Argentina. This isn’t helped by the explosion of conspiratorial thinking since the rise of the internet. The internet though proves a handy tool for counteracting such myths. For this particular myth I often direct people to the FBI’s website where the original documents of their investigations into the matter are now declassified and accessible to the public. The FBI took these claims extremely seriously and their head J. Edgar Hoover even took a personal interest in the case. Every one of the documents concludes that there is no evidence whatsoever to any of the claims about Hitler’s survival and escape.

I’d advise anyone to come to Berlin in general as it’s a hugely diverse and interesting city with the best food I’ve ever had. But it’s particularly interesting for anyone interested in history, especially the history of Prussia, the history of democracy and anti-democratic movements, labour history, communism, Nazi Germany, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War as well as the rise and fall of that most iconic of divisive structures, the Berlin wall. I myself am immensely interested in these things so I love being a tour guide here.

– Kenneth Walsh

[Note: Kenneth Walsh is a recent graduate of NUI Galway in History and German]

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