The Olympiastadion is an iconic stadium. In 1936, it became a symbol of Nazi power when it hosted the Berlin Olympics, opened by Adolf Hitler. Today, the stadium is home to Hertha BSC. In February 2023, we visited Berlin to take in a Bundesliga match and learn some more about the history of the city.
Saturday 11th February
As our plane touches down on the runway the pressure has numbed my hearing. One of my travelling companions is talking to me but all I can hear is a muffled noise coming from his general direction. It’s late-morning and after we disembark, I find the nearest bathroom. It’s not been a long flight but I’ve needed to go since before we took off from London a couple of hours ago.
Today, we have planned a jolly visit to the sinister and forbidding Stasi Museum, the former headquarters of East Germany’s brutal secret police. We head north on the S-Bahn and change at Alexanderplatz for the noisy U-Bahn heading east. Magdalenenstraße is just a few minutes walk away and when we hop off the train we notice a distinct change in the Berlin architecture. Here in the region of Lichtenberg, the apartments are distinctly dour. Medium high-rise blocks of concrete, seven stories tall and cube like, hide in plain sight against the ashen skyline. I imagine that I am a cold-war spy. First I am Harry Palmer, cool, cockney, and very English. Then, I am the more reserved George Smiley on a covert mission to meet Karla.
We cross the busy Frankfurter Allee tentatively, giving ourselves away as tourists I imagine. As we turn right into Ruschestraße, every John le Carré novel that I have ever read, every spy movie that I have ever seen, and every Orwellian nightmare that I have ever imagined is right there, impassioned, unmoved and austere. This is a building that I have visited many times in my mind; though it is somewhere that I have never been.
Standing at the entrance to the Stasi Museum, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin look upon us disapprovingly, frozen in Bronze as we purchase our tickets and guided tour. This is an archetypal government building of the 1950’s, full of narrow corridors and offices with high windows. Now, seventy years on, there remain just two corridors devoted to exhibitions about the secret police. First, our guide shows us a wall of Stasi Minister photographs. All are of white men and none are less than fifty years old. Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security from 1957 until the fall of the Berlin Wall is it’s most notorious portrait.
We stay a few hours before making our way to the hotel. The Hauptbahnhof is Berlin’s main train station. It’s about 10 minutes walk from our hotel. The Hotel Berlin Mitte is practical and clean. It’s more like a Premier Inn than The Savoy and that suits our budget just perfectly. We sort ourselves out and head into the city for some dinner and a few beers. Two of the city’s most recognisable landmarks are just a short walk from our hotel.
The Brandenburg gate is arguably one of the most iconic structures in the world. Once, it stood as a gateway to Berlin. Only royalty and gentry were permitted to pass through the central passageway; ordinary citizens had to use the outer passageways. Twelve Doric columns rise to the capped pediment on which The Quadriga was placed by Johann Gottfried Schadow in 1793. The sculpture, depicting a two-wheeled chariot pulled by four horses running side by side, was meant to symbolize peace entering the city. The horses’ reins are held by Victoria, the goddess of victory.
At night the Brandenburg Gate shines with a golden hue. The light catches the sandstone in such a way that the structure looks almost regal. Once the gateway to the city, The Brandenburg Gate came to symbolise the divide between East and West Germany after the wall was built. For fun, we re-enact a prisoner swap under the gate and the moment is captured on one of our group’s spy camera, which looks suspiciously like a modern day mobile.
In contrast to The Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag’s contemporary glass dome looks oddly out of place. It shines fluorescent white and we get great images of the dome’s white reflection as we cross the cold and black River Spree. I imagine the last advances of the red army into Berlin as the will of the Nazi’s is finally broken.
We eat currywurst in a restaurant dwarfed by both iconic buildings. One of our number is vegetarian, so he orders a thin pizza with cheese and vegetable topping. I’m not that bowled over by the currywurst; it’s just tomato sauce poured over a sausage with some curry powder sprinkled on top. The beer is much better. Berlinner Pilsner is decent and we neck at least three. The other two in the group wisely order an apple strudel each. I, on the other hand, am keen to try another savoury option. White sausage is not for everyone. I’m not sure what to expect but two white sausages served in a pot of hot brine is not it. There are howls of laughter and derision from the other two as I lift out the two phalluses and place them on my small plate. I eat them both, just to shut the other two up. They are pretty bland and nothing to write home about. The pretzel that they are served with, on the other hand, is lovely. Salty and crispy on the outside; soft and doughy in the centre. I decide there and then to eat more pretzels on this trip.
We haven’t eaten much and the drink is hitting some of the group harder than others. The other two are students of the second world war and the Nazi’s specifically. They are keen to locate Hitler’s Bunker, which is not far from the restaurant. As we stand in the dusty car park, beneath which the Fuhrer took his own life, we all feel a chill. There is an information board but it’s too dark to read it properly. We will be back here on Sunday on our walking tour so we find a bar and settle in for a couple before closing time.
One of the group is chatting to the barmaid when I return from the bathroom and he learns that she is Romanian. ‘She was surprisingly racist’, he tells us later, as we have a nightcap in the hotel bar. It is the eve of the Berlin Elections and the hotel barman (also from Romania) speaks to us of his fears that the Far Right will make further gains. ‘They are very convincing’ he tells us. ‘They make good arguments that people find believable. If they win, I am afraid that I may have to leave. I like it here. This has been my home for ten years.’
Sunday 12th February
After breakfast, we head out to take in some of the sights in the daylight. We catch a bus which takes us to Humbolthain Park, and I am surprised by the amount of graffiti in the city. It is a dry but dreary morning. We stroll through the park like we haven’t a care in the world, following the path past the outdoor lido, which is closed for the winter. Walking towards us is a woman who has her arm outstretched like she is holding on to a lead for an invisible dog. We all laugh when we are out of the woman’s earshot, and like twelve year-old kids, we get hours of amusement out of what we have just seen.
Two concrete turrets rise up out of the hillside beside us. This is what remains of a flak tower that was once used to shoot down allied bombers in the war. Originally there were four turrets, each with four anti-aircraft guns. Each turret had a 360 degree range of fire. In places the concrete must have been nearly two metres thick, making this a remarkably strong structure indeed.
We climb the steps up the hill to the top of the flak tower and look out across Berlin. The view is quite breath-taking and it’s immediately obvious why they built this defence here. The gunners would have had a perfect line of sight to see enemy planes approaching.
Although we are in good heart, there is little to enjoy about this place. There are empty cans and broken glass bottles of beer strewn around. It’s clear that the towers are not well looked after and that every effort is being made to hide them out of sight. The interior of the towers are sealed off from the public and when I return home and research the towers, I understand why. Toward the end of the war, when Berlin was under siege, the towers were used as a bunker for thousands of people. With little in the way of sanitation and rations, many died of illness or committed suicide.
After coffee and a cake, we make our way to the Olympiastadion by U-Bahn. As we head further West, more blue and white scarves and hats begin to fill up the train. Behind us, in another carriage, we can hear some buskers singing “Oh when the saints go marching in” but nobody is joining in or taking much notice of them. Most fans have a bottle of beer in their hand or a crate of Berlinner slung over their shoulder.
The station at Olympiastadion has many platforms, all leading to a bridge across to the stadium. Just outside the exit to the station is a bar with some tables and wooden benches. The sun is out, so we stop and order ourselves a bottle of Berlinner Kindl each. We watch the Hertha fans streaming in from the station, all decked in the blue and white Hertha colours. A few are waving flags and most have Hertha scarves. We buy some scarves for ourselves at a merchandise stall.
The atmosphere outside the stadium is lively but completely safe. There are trolleys and buckets for empty bottles and glasses. If this were in England, bottles would probably be flying everywhere. I order the food: bratwurst and chips for me, and we have a couple more Berlinners before we head over to the stadium.
It’s about 20 minutes before kick-off and we are right outside the ground. Built in 1936 by Werner March, ready for the Berlin Olympics, the Olympiastadion had a capacity of over 100,000 people. Now, having been refurbished, the capacity is 74,475 seated, making it the third largest in Germany. The stadium is recessed 12 metres into the ground, so from outside it doesn’t look as big as it does from inside. There are some similarities between the Olympiastadion and the Coliseum in Rome. It’s symmetry, Doric columns, and stone structure hint at Roman inspiration for it’s design. Perhaps, this is not surprising, given its use by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and their ambition for empire building.
We take a couple of selfies and buy massive pretzels to take in with us. These will soak up the ‘Berlinner’ nicely. The Ostkurve is the place to be and we are in the upper section. At the front of the lower tier, three fans are on a platform. One of them is banging a drum whilst the other two take it in turns to rally the crowd into singing. The flags are waving and the Ostkurve is a sea of blue and white. Unlike in England, you can drink a pint in your seat. We don’t hesitate. Juggling our beer and oversized pretzels, we join in the fun.
As the players come out, the Hertha anthem ‘nur nach hause’ plays and as one the Hertha fans hold their scarves stretched out above their heads. The song is a rip-off of the Rod Stewart song, ‘We are Sailing’ and is sung with great emotion in the Ostkurve. I understand that the sentiment behind the song is that this is Hertha’s home and that the fans will never leave.
As the game kicks-off there is a chant that once I’ve heard it, like the Kylie song, I can’t get it out of my head. Hier kommt Hertha, Ihr scheisst Euch in die Hose, Wir stehen ganz oben, Und wir steigen wieder auf… Loosely translated – Here is Hertha, Shit in your pants, We are always on top, We will go back up…
Borussia Monchengladbach (Gladbach) are quickly on top and I fear that Hertha will be well beaten today. After 17 minutes, Nico Elvedi heads in unmarked from a Luca Netz corner and the visitors are in front. To be fair, they have brought a few thousand travelling fans with them. This is a good turnout considering the Sunday afternoon kick-off and that it’s a 600km journey.
Gladbach continue to dominate possession and it’s against the run of play when Jessic Ngankam tucks away Marco Richter’s square ball across the face of the goal to take Hertha up the Olympiastadion escalator level at the break. We head out on to the balcony at half-time and order a beer from one of the mobile vendors whose carting litres of Berlinner around in a bag on his back. I’ve collected four plastic glasses for my little bar back home as each one marks a different moment in the club’s history.
Hertha start the second half much more brightly. They are closing down much higher up the pitch and their press pays off when the ball reaches Marton Dardai who smashes a rocket in off the underside of the crossbar from 25 yards. Not a bad 21st birthday present for the lad, with his father Pal – himself a former Hertha coach and the club’s record appearance maker in the Bundesliga – watching on in delight from the stands.
Hertha make sure of their first points of 2023 when substitute Derry Scherhant finishes smartly, in stoppage time, before Dodi Lukebakio adds further gloss with a penalty in the 97th minute. The victory sees Hertha climb out of the bottom two at the expense of VfB Stuttgart.
Dusk is upon us as we leave the stadium. The Olympiastadion is an absolute spectacle with it’s roof lit up blue. We walk around the outside of the stadium deciding to avoid the rush to the trains. I take half a dozen photos from above the marathon steps and the image looks futuristic despite the historical significance of the venue. We attempt to see as much as we can and read the plaques around the perimeter but its getting too dark. We agree that we should have booked a stadium tour. Maybe that’s something we can do on a return visit?
We jump off the train at Friedrichstraße and cross the bridge to an Irish pub. The instant I order a beer, a couple of English guys recognise our accent. They have been to the match too. Calling me over, he asks where I am from. When I tell him that I am from Southampton, he tells me that he was born there as well. We have a good chat, reminiscing about the city and talking about the people that we both know and have known. The man that he is travelling with tells us about his job as a television extra. Both my mates are awe-struck when he tells them that he has played a Nazi officer in the National Geographic’s history programme, ‘Nazi Megastructures’. I am equally impressed when I discover that he was the club chairman in an episode of ‘Ted Lasso’. We drink a couple of beers with these two and then head out into the city to find something to eat.
After a very mediocre curry, we head back to the hotel and a nightcap at the hotel bar. With just one more day in Berlin, the trip that we had been looking forward to and planning for so long is almost over.
Monday 13th February
The walking tour is four hours long and brings the history of the city to life. We visit The Reichstag, The Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Hitler’s Bunker, The Brandenburg Gate, The Jewish Memorial, The Russian Monument, The Palace of Tears, and a chocolate shop! Our guide is a good laugh and we learn plenty about the Third Reich.
Before we head back to the airport, we spend a couple of hours in the Topography of Terror museum. We all find this really interesting but there isn’t enough time to study all of the information boards before we have to leave.
As our plane leaves the runway and reaches up into the night sky above Berlin, I know inside that I will be back soon.