Remember Babylon?

From CNN:

Babylon was one of the glories of the ancient world, its walls and mythic hanging gardens listed among the Seven Wonders.

Founded about 4,000 years ago, the ancient city was the capital of 10 dynasties in Mesopotamia, considered one of the earliest cradles of civilization and the birthplace of writing and literature.

But following years of plunder, neglect and conflict, the Babylon of today scarcely conjures that illustrious history.

In recent years, the Iraqi authorities have reopened Babylon to tourists, hoping that one day the site will draw visitors from all over the globe. But despite the site’s remarkable archaeological value and impressive views, it is drawing only a smattering of tourists, drawn by a curious mix of ancient and more recent history.

The city — just 85km (52 miles) south of Baghdad, about a two hour drive, dependent on checkpoints — still bears the marks of ham-fisted attempts at restoration by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and a subsequent occupation by U.S. forces in 2003.

“They occupied Babylon. They wouldn’t let anyone in,” says Hussein Saheb, a guard at the historical sites at Babylon, recalling the day U.S. tanks rolled into view, before forces set up camp.

Following excavations in the early 20th century, European archaeologists claimed key features such as the remains of the famous Ishtar Gate — the glazed brick gate decorated with images of dragons and aurochs, built in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city.

The original now stands as part of a reconstruction of the gate in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, whereas in Babylon itself, visitors enter through a replica. Yet remnants of Babylon’s former glory remain, with sections of the city’s walls still intact.

Later excavations and conservation work carried out under Saddam’s rule greatly despoiled the site, say archaeologists.

Iraqi archaeologist Hai Katth Moussa said that during a massive reconstruction project in the early 1980s, Saddam began building a replica of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on top of the ruins of the ancient palace.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, he wrote his name on many of the bricks, with inscriptions such as: “This was built by Saddam, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.”

After the Gulf War, Saddam began building a modern palace for himself on top of ruins in the style of a Sumerian ziggurat.

When U.S. forces arrived in 2003, they occupied the palace, which lies adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and overlooks the Euphrates River, and left their own mark. Today, a basketball hoop remains in Babylon, while concertina wire left behind by the military is used to prevent visitors from climbing over a 2,500-year-old lion statue — an ancient symbol of the city.

Even in the new Iraq, Babylon faces ongoing threats. Only 2% of the ancient city has been excavated, but those buried historical treasures are threatened by encroaching development.

Tour guide Hussein Al-Ammari says an oil pipeline runs through the eastern part of the ancient city. “It goes through the outer wall of Babylon,” he says.

Yet despite the shortcomings in its preservation, Babylon holds a draw for small numbers of Iraqi visitors — even if only to enter Saddam’s marble-lined palaces, still a novelty 10 years after the dictator’s downfall.

Zained Mohammed, visiting with her family for the first time from Karbala, told CNN: “We were just looking for a change of atmosphere, to have the kids see something different.”

Babylon is certainly that.

51 young males identified as brutally slain Vikings

The decapitated skeletons—their heads stacked neatly to the side—were uncovered in June 2009 in a thousand-year-old execution pit near the southern seaside town of Weymouth. (VSLM kept up to date and featured one of the first news here)

Already radio-carbon dating results released in July had shown the men lived between A.D. 910 and 1030, a period when the English fought—and often lost—battles against Viking invaders.
But until now it hadn’t been clear who the headless bodies had belonged to.

Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle.

The new study, led by Jane Evans of the U.K.’s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, investigated telltale chemical markers called isotopes, which can reveal a person’s geographic origins.

Oxygen isotopes from drinking water, for example, become fixed in people’s teeth as they age. Since isotope ratios vary with climate, Evans could tell that the had all been raised in much cooler regions than Britain.

“The values these individuals gave us could not be British,” Evans said, but the ratios do match those from Norway and Sweden.

In addition, nitrogen-isotope readings showed the men enjoyed a meaty, high-protein diet—similar to readings from remains from the same period found in Sweden.

“What’s fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking, and raping,” Evans said.
“But here we’ve got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them.”

Vikings Found With Hacked Heads, Naked Bodies

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull, jaw, and neck. This suggests the men were war captives whose heads were savagely hacked off, said David Score of Oxford Archaeology, leader of the preconstruction survey that found the Vikings’ execution pit.

“The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” he noted.

Other injuries hint that some of the slaughtered attempted to shield themselves from their executioners’ blows. For instance, the hand of one victim had its fingers sliced through, Score said.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if only their weapons and valuables had been taken, “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.
Aside from their injuries, the headless Vikings “look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

Vikings Forced to Surrender?

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop by the ancient main road to Weymouth also points to the victims being Vikings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions [by British-born warriors] in late Saxon and medieval times,” he said. “If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach.”

What’s more, the new isotope findings suggest that the slain men had much more diverse origins than would be expected among soldiers from the Saxons’ other enemies, such as ethnic Danes in northern Britain, tooth-study leader Evans noted.

Even before the new results were released, Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, had thought the dead were Vikings.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender,” Siddorn speculated in July.

Despite the Vikings’ brutal reputation, there was actually little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, also a founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said. Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings usually had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side. “Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”



Is this the field where Richard III lost his kingdom for a horse?

Archaeologists announced today that they have located not just the site of the Battle of Bosworth, but the spot where – on 22 August 1485 – Richard III became the last English king to die in battle when he was cut down by Tudor swords.

Nearby Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII, with the crown which had tumbled from the dying Richard’s head.

The crucial evidence, including badges of the supporters of both kings, sword mounts, coins and 28 cannonballs, was found in fields straddling Fen Lane in the Leicestershire parish of Upton, where no historian had looked before.

The haul adds up to more than the total found on all other medieval battle sites in Europe.

“It took us five years to locate it, but there it is, there is the battle of Bosworth,” said Glenn Foard, the internationally renowned expert who led the hunt, looking over the landscape of low snow-­covered hills, where on a hot summer day more than 500 years ago the course of English history changed.

The site was located by archaeologists using metal detectors across hundreds of acres, and poring over the evidence of medieval place names to match them to accounts of the battle. Their finds suggest a sprawling fight, with the two armies facing one another in straggling lines almost a kilometre in length.

Frank Baldwin, the chair of the Battlefields Trust charity, said: “This is a discovery as important to us as Schliemann discovering Troy.” The military historian Professor Richard Holmes, who two years ago rode Henry’s route from Wales to the battlefield in full Tudor costume, said: “This is certainly the most important discovery about Bosworth in my lifetime.”

Farmer Alf Oliver was astonished at the discovery in his fields straddling Fen Lane, outside all the parishes which have vied for centuries to claim the honour and three kilometres south-west of the visitor centre on Albion Hill. Fen Lane was once a Roman road linking Leicester and Atherstone, the towns from which Richard and Henry approached the battle.

One of the crucial finds, the largest of the cannonballs nicknamed “the holy grapefruit” by the archaeologists, was found just behind one of Oliver’s barns. Another key discovery was a silver boar no bigger than a thumbnail, battered but still snarling in rage after 500 years. It was found on the edge of a field still called Fen Hole, which in medieval times was a marsh that played a crucial role in the battle, protecting the flank of Henry Tudor’s much smaller army. The marsh was drained centuries ago, but Oliver said it still gets boggy in very wet summers.

After a charge in which Richard came within almost a sword’s reach of Henry, he lost his horse in the marsh, a moment immortalised in the despairing cry Shakespeare bestowed upon him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

“The fact that this little boar is Richard’s personal emblem, and made in silver gilt, means that it can only have been given to one of the closest members of his retinue. The man who wore this would have fought and died at Richard’s side,” Foard said.

“If you were to ask me what was the one find I would dream of making, which would really nail the site, it would be Richard’s boar emblem on the edge of a marsh.”

Other finds include a gold ring twisted like a pretzel, and an inch of gilded sword mount from a weapon of such high status that it can only have belonged to one of the aristocrats who led the battle forces.

The search was launched as part of a Heritage Lottery funded revamp of the visitor centre, which is left with the consolation that it may well have been part of Richard’s camp on the eve of the battle, and part of the rout as his troops were forced into desperate retreat by Henry’s triumphant men.

Foard believes a more likely site now for the battlefield coronation is Crown Hill, a hillock near the newly identified site, which was renamed soon after the battle.

Local historian John Austin brought the team a further gift: he owns the domain title, and today he presented it to them to mark the ­occasion.


Yorkshire discovery sheds new light on the Battle of Fulford

It seems that lessons could perhaps be learnt from the Vikings after the intriguing discovery in Yorkshire of what is believed to be a metal recycling centre dating back to the 11th century.

Historians and metal detector enthusiasts have made the find which is being heralded as evidence of how the Norse invaders recycled their fearsome array of weapons.

Hundreds of pieces of metal including arrowheads, shards of swords and axe heads have been unearthed as part of a 10-year research project to establish the exact location of the Battle of Fulford which took place on September 20, 1066.

The battle on the outskirts of York, when the invading Viking army, led by Harald Hardrada, triumphed over the English forces, is seen as crucial in the run-up to the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror ultimately being crowned King of England.

Historians have attempted to pinpoint the location of the battlefield as campaigners tried to halt a new development of 720 homes at Fulford.

Now more than 1,000 pieces of metal have been unearthed by members of the York Metal Detectorists Club, who have been helping to gather evidence during the decade-long study.

X-rays of the finds are being taken at York University’s archaeology department at King’s Manor in an attempt to glean more information about their history and prove the location of the battle.

Historian Chas Jones, who has been leading the research, said: “We found several smithing hearth bottoms – the remains of the molten metal which dribbles down during the reprocessing of weaponry ironwork.

“You could say this was one of the first metal recycling centres.”

The plans for the 720-home Germany Beck scheme sparked opposition from academics and historians, who have claimed that the development could actually be built on the site of the Battle of Fulford.

But the developers remain adamant that the land is not where the battle took place, and have carried out their own archaeological studies of the site.

Following a public inquiry, ministers ruled that there was insufficient evidence the Germany Beck site was the location, although they admitted that archaeological finds unearthed there were of “regional importance”.

Academics specialising in Viking history from as far away as Sweden and Norway voiced their opposition to the Government after the housing scheme was given outline planning permission two years ago.

The archaeological digs have been co-ordinated by the Fulford Battlefield Society, which was established nine years ago to investigate the site.

A series of finds which have been unearthed include fragments of what could be 11th century swords and arrows. Other pieces of worked metal have also been discovered, suggesting that Norse blacksmiths could have been operating there.

According to Mr Jones, the iron finds support the theory that metal had been gathered and recycled in an area close to where the battle took place once the fighting had ceased.

Archaeological experts believe the metal artefacts discovered at Fulford were being refined and recycled by the Norse victors when the Battle of Stamford took place on the border of North and East Yorkshire just five days later.

The Fulford site was abandoned by the Vikings as they switched their attention to Stamford Bridge, explaining why so much material has been left behind.

A full report on the 10-year research project into the Battle of Fulford is due to be published in February.


The Battle of Fulford has often been dismissed as no more than a curtain-raiser to the most famous conflict on English soil. But historians have emphasised the events of Wednesday, September 20, 1066, on the outskirts of York were to have a huge impact on the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Fulford placed the English forces under immense pressure and losses suffered in Yorkshire were to have a dramatic impact on resistance at Hastings. After sailing up the Ouse with about 10,000 men in 300 longships, Harald Hardrada and rebel English earl, Tostig, defeated the earls Edwin and Morcar. Harold scraped together a scratch force and raced 180 miles north in just four days to rout the Norwegian army outside York at Stamford Bridge on September 25. Then on October 14, Harold was defeated as he tried to block the Norman advance at Hastings with an army of little more than 5,000 weary troops.

Additional info here and here.

Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard valued at £3.3m

The largest and arguably most beautiful hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found in Britain has been valued at nearly £3.3m by a panel of experts, a reward that will be shared between the amateur metal detectorist who found it and the Staffordshire farmer in whose pasture it lay hidden for 1,300 years.

Professor Norman Palmer, chair of the treasure valuation committee, whose members pored over 1,800 gold, silver and jewelled objects in a day-long session at the British Museum, said: “It was breathtaking – we all agreed that it was not only a challenge but a privilege to be dealing with material of such quantity, quality and beauty. It was hard to stop our imaginations running away with us.”

Museums in Staffordshire will now scramble to raise the money – £3.285m to be precise – which will be paid as compensation to Terry Herbert, the metal detectorist, and Fred Johnson, the farmer.

Johnson was magnificently underwhelmed by his good fortune this morning. “Right now I’m just trying to get over the flu, and money is the last thing on my mind. I hope it’ll not make any difference to me. I won’t be putting in a swimming pool anyway, this country is wet enough already.

“I’ve been a millionaire for years anyway,” he chuckled wheezily, “isn’t that what they always say about farmers?”

Johnson, who paid his first visit to London to see the pieces installed in a temporary display at the British Museum, and bought a suit for the occasion, is in awe of the extraordinary objects that poured out of his field. “Anybody would have to be in wonder at the workmanship, and the years all that history has been lying in the ground with me driving across it.”

Some had speculated that the hoard could be worth many times the sum eventually settled on by the valuation committee. But Johnson was content: “A friend of mine came round and said another hoard was worth £12m, and mine was bigger so it might be worth more – but I said I hope to God it ain’t, I wouldn’t want that responsibility.”

He added: “I’ve met people through this I would never have come upon in all my life. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Palmer said valuing the hoard was a unique experience in his 13 years as chair of the committee.

“We dealt with masses of paperwork before the meeting, and solicited four independent expert valuations in advance, which is unprecedented in my experience. When we met we were driven by two lodestars, scrupulous accuracy obviously, and a determination not to allow the process to drag on and on but to arrive at a figure which would be acceptable to all parties. I don’t think they would have been happy if it had dragged on beyond Christmas.”

Herbert found the first pieces of gold last July, some lying just below the surface or tangled in grassroots in the field, which Johnson had ploughed deeper than usual the previous season. When he reported the find a small army of archaeologists and forensic investigators hit the field, giving the cover story that police were investigating a murder.

They recovered box after box of exquisitely worked gold, including a cheek flap from a helmet, dozens of pommel and hilt decorations from swords, a gold processional cross and a cryptic inscription from the Bible on a strip of gold. Archaeologists will be poring over the find for years, and have already said it will rewrite the history of Anglo-Saxon England, and the pugnacious kingdom of Mercia where it was found.

When the find was announced in September, the news went round the world. Some mud-caked pieces went on display for a fortnight at Birmingham city museum and people queued for up to four hours to see them, with the museum having to double its opening hours. Highlights of the collection now on display at the British Museum have created the same buzz of excitement.

“There was some speculation that because there was just so much in this hoard it might drive down its value,” Palmer said. “But others of us held the opposite opinion, that because it had created so much excitement, if it were ever to go to auction, people who wouldn’t normally be interested would want to own a piece of it, driving up the value.

“We are satisfied that we have arrived at a value which is both fair, and reflects the extraordinary interest and importance of this hoard.”

The British Museum has launched a rapid-response book on the hoard, written by Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who spent weeks cataloguing all 1,800 pieces as they came into the Birmingham museum – with his wife weighing them and labelling them with cloakroom tickets – and Roger Bland, head of the portable antiquities scheme, which encourages metal detectorists such as Herbert to report all their archaeological finds. One pound from each copy sold will be donated to the appeal to acquire the treasure for local museums, to keep the extraordinary objects on display in the county whose history they have transformed.


Additional resources here & here

A Guide to Germany’s Darkest Places

Beer, bratwurst and lederhosen are an undeniable part of German culture. But so too is the country’s brutal 20th century history. SPIEGEL ONLINE takes you to 10 of the country’s most unsettling sites:

The Vogelsang Fortress — Ideology Cast in Stone

vogelsangBundestrasse 266, starting at the German town of Gemünd not far from the border with Belgium, winds out of the town and up onto a high plateau. Before long, past a small town called Morsbach, you will come to an inconspicuous turnoff. The drive takes you through beautiful woodland past bright blue lakes. But it is a beauty that lies in direct contrast with the journey’s endpoint: Vogelsang Castle, one of the Nazis’ elite training schools.

Open to the public only since January 2006, the complex is sprawling and confusing, the fortification full of nooks and crannies. Indeed, most opt for a guide to point out the most important sights.

vogelsang2Under the direction of Robert Ley’s German Workers Front (DAF), one of three elite training centers took shape on the Eifel Ridge beginning in 1934. It was designed as an investment in the Nazi party’s future, where the next generation of Hitlers was to be formed. Sport formed an important part of the curriculum, as did racial theory and geo-politics.

The 500 students — a number which eventually grew to 1,000 — were known as “NS-Junkers”, and were housed in sparsely furnished barracks. The complex was taken over by the armed forces at the outbreak of war and subsequently used to accommodate the troops during the Ardennes Offensive and the push into France.

The differing national attitudes towards a place that is connected with National Socialism is rarely as obvious as here. While the English, say tour guides, are most concerned with understanding the complex from a pragmatic viewpoint, and the Americans are the first to ask how often the “German Führer” visited Vogelsang, the Germans on the other hand feel duty bound to find a politically correct justification for their own curiosity.

vogelsang3They say they feel “committed to the past,” hope to “act against forgetting” and are openly disgusted by “the megalomania and the image of humanity of that era.” This could perhaps make sense if it were the case of one or two instances; it however does not explain the stampede of almost 600,000 who have visited Vogelsang since its opening on Jan. 1, 2006. Hardly any of the German visitors admit that part of the appeal is that the site has changed little since the Third Reich.

Björn Troll, the press spokesman of the company that operates the tours, has a more relaxed attitude towards the issue. “When I started my job at Vogelsang at the beginning of 2009, I was asked how I could justify working in these buildings. I feel good about my job: After all I’m here instead of the National Socialists!”

Before its opening, many feared Vogelsang would become a Mecca for right-wing extremists but that has not come to pass. “Our house rules include how best to respond to neo-Nazis” says Troll. In addition, they are “well connected with the state security and the regional police.”

vogelsang4Visitors to this historically significant site have largely the Belgian army to thank for its well-preserved condition. After a short takeover by the British, the Belgians moved into the region in 1950 and the complex was maintained under the name of Camp Vogelsang (“Birdsong”) until their departure in 2005. With the exception of a few damaged statues, the removal of the swastikas and some amended lettering, the grounds have survived 60 years unscathed, just like a time capsule.

Vogelsang is a difficult place that does not easily open itself up to visitors. The images in one’s head of concentration camp conditions and Nazi party rallies do not apply here. Vogelsang is best described as a symbol for Nazi ideology.

No place makes this clearer than the clearing surrounded by woods on the edge of the complex that is the location for the “torch-bearer.” The sculpture, five meters (16 feet) tall, apparently was used for target practice. An übermensch carved out of stone, with every muscle sharply defined, the left hand clenched into a fist, the right clasped around a torch: an example for the “master race,” whose seed was once to be planted at Vogelsang.

Wewelsburg — Himmler’s Cult Site

ss officers hall at wewelsburgThe picturesque Renaissance castle of Wewelsburg looks down upon the Alme valley in the district of Paderborn. Build in the early 17th century as a residence for the Paderborn prince-bishops, it is now home to a museum and youth hostel.

But it’s not the site’s royal past that draws most visitors today. During the Nazi years, the castle was used as a school for the notorious SS. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and a major player behind the execution of the Holocaust, sought to use the building as a training ground for SS leaders. To that end, he ordered massive renovation works, initially carried out by the German Workers Front and then by inmates from the Niederhagen concentration camp.

The interior was completely redesigned and decorated with SS ornamentation, while the exterior was designed to resemble a castle. Himmler declared the north tower and the “consecration hall” to be a center of National Socialist rituals. When it became clear that the site was about to fall into the hands of the advancing American army, Himmler ordered it to be blown up on March 31, 1945. But the order was never carried out in full.

The site likewise never became the SS training center Himmler had envisioned. Instead it became a center for research into the kind of racial purity the Nazis envisioned. It was also a center for archaeology in the region, with the end of creating a mystic, folkloric past for the SS.

A permanent collection in the former guardhouse recalls Wewelsburg’s Nazi past. Visitors can also visit the “vault” in the north tower and the Obergruppenführer hall. The “Black Sun” ornamentation on the floor of the hall still enjoys dubious popularity with the far-right scene.

Point Alpha — Cold War Frontier

point alphaIf the Cold War had ever erupted into World War III, it would hav e happene d at Point Alpha. That, at least, was the firm belief of NATO strategists, a conviction that transformed the place into what is today one of the clearest reminders of the tense standoff between East and West.

During the Cold War, Point Alpha was a key observation point hard up against the fortified border dividing East and West Germany in the state of Hesse. The site overlooks the Fulda Gap, which, because of its topography, would have been a prime spot for a massive tank invasion through the hilly region. Had the Soviets broken through there, the path would have been open to Frankfurt.

point alpha2In addition to serving as an important base for US troops monitoring the border, the site was also useful for intercepting East German radio traffic. The base was continually expanded from 1951 onward.

Today, the memorial includes preserved and partially reconstructed East German border installations in addition to a museum. A red line painted on the ground meanders between the barracks, the gray equipment sheds and the munitions bunkers. American tanks were allowed up to this line only — one centimeter further and the other side could interpret it as an attack. Alpha Point plays host to over 100,000 visitors a year.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg

In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, three cities were singled out for special importance. Berlin was the political and administrative center of the Nazis’ efforts to take over Europe. Munich was the Nazi movement’s soul as the birthplace of the movement. And Nuremberg became the place where the Nazi party staged mass demonstrations year after year.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds in NurembergThe gatherings, which took place in early September each year until the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, were imposing both for their size and choreography. Hundreds of thousands of SA, SS and Nazi youth group members would gather in uniform, chanting Sieg Heil with their right arms raised in the Nazi greeting — surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering Germans.

The site provided the backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial documentary “Triumph of the Will.” In 1935, it was the place where Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring announced the Nuremberg Race Laws, which legalized the oppression of the Jews and severely curtailed their ability to participate in German public life. The laws paved the way for the ensuing horrors of the Holocaust.

Prior to 1933, the site played host to a vast sport complex — indeed Nuremberg hoped to stage the Olympic Games there in 1936 but lost out to Berlin. Today, however, no other site in Germany comes close to clearly demonstrating the megalomania of Hitler and the Nazis. The vast Congress Hall, the largest surviving Nazi construction, is a horseshoe shaped building with room for 50,000 people.

Zeppelin fieldBut it is the Zeppelin Field that is most closely associated with the Nazi Party gatherings. In total, the field provided room for 320,000 people with space for 70,000 in the grandstands. The Nazi leadership would gather on the central grandstand, designed to recall the Pergamon Altar of the ancient Greek world. Nazi propaganda head Joseph Goebbels’ was fond of surrounding the field with powerful searchlights, creating the effect of vast pillars surrounding the site.

Today, the documentation center provides film and photographic material as well as an audio guide, allowing visitors to listen to the propaganda speeches and to get a look into both the atrocities and the every day life of the Nazi period.

Wannsee Conference House — Home to the Final Solution

Deu Ns Zeit MachtuebernahmeWhat today is a peaceful suburb of Berlin and popular recreational lake in the summer has not always been quite so bucolic. Wannsee is also where the Nazi leadership gathered in 1942 to hammer out the Final Solution to the Jewish question. The meeting was held on Jan. 20 at Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, a villa on a residential street near Wannsee beach used by the SS at the time as a conference center. It is here where the Holocaust got its start.

Speaking for an hour before taking questions, Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s appointed chief executor of the final solution, spoke of how 530,000 German and Austrian Jews had been forcibly emigrated under measures already taken in Germany, since the Nazis came into power in 1933. Adolf Eichmann, recording secretary for the conference, compiled research in preparation for the meeting that divided Europe into those countries under German control and the others, and then listed roughly how many Jewish people lived in each one. Heydrich used the research to determine there were 11 million Jews in Europe, with over 500,000 residing in countries outside of German control.

A plan was then hatched to transport Jewish people from German occupied territories to labor camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. Those in working condition were to work on roads, and in the course it was assumed many would die from natural causes. Eichmann reportedly said during his trial in 1962 that after the meeting, which in total lasted 90 minutes, cognac was served and those in attendance spoke bluntly about methods of killing and exterminating Jews.

In 1992, the Wannsee villa was turned into a Holocaust memorial, following the efforts of historian Joseph Wulf, who lead an effort to memorilize the house in the 1960s.

The Last Submarine — U-995 in Laboe

U 995It was taken out of its element, brought to land, restored and prettified for visitors. It shimmers in gray like a stranded body under the Naval Memorial at Laboe, north of Kiel, next to the dunes and paddleboats that are lined up along the beach. And even as the sun sets on its steel flanks there is a shadow of menace associated with its role during World War II. The U995, the last surviving Type VII- C/41 submarine, was the mother of all German subs.

Weighing in at 769 tons and stretching 220 feet long, the U995 had five torpedo tubes, an 88 millimeter gun and four 20 millimeter guns. She had an illustrious career first serving under Germany from her commission in 1943 until her surrender in Norway in 1945. After a short stint with the British, U995 crossed enemy lines in 1948 and served under the Royal Norwegian Navy. She served out her remaining days under the Norwegians as Kaura, after she was renamed in 1952, until her eventual retirement in 1965. The U995 made her way back to her homeland, at a cost of one Deutsche Mark, and in 1971 was turned into a museum. During her career she sunk several ships using five torpedo tubes.

The interior is not for those with a tendency toward claustrophobia. It is narrow, stuffy and it is almost impossible to walk standing up straight. Hand rails, valves and ladders are everywhere. Although the machine room is free of heat and noise these days, it makes one wonder how people could have spent weeks living and working here. A U-boat is a terrible place, and that is certainly apparent from a visit to Laboe. Of the 40,000 seamen who served on submarines during World War II, 30,000 never made it home. Neither did their thousands of victims, most of whom met their ends in the North Atlantic.

Berlin Wall Documentation Center

Berlin Wall Documentation Center in BerlinIt was once possible to see it from outer space. Today there is only around 200 meters left of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division between East and West Germany during the Cold War.

In 1999, 10 years after the fall of wall, a documentation center was established at Bernauer Strasse, one of the best preserved stretches of the former barrier. Visitors to the permanent exhibition there can find out about the construction of the wall and the consequences for the lives of the people on both sides. Over 100 people, mostly young men trying to reach West Germany, died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Notable escape attempts involved underground tunnels, hot air balloons, sewers and aeriel wires.

The Wall was actually two barriers. In between stood an empty strip of land known as the “death strip.” The strip was cleared of everything except for sand and gravel, so guards could easily spot footprints of people trying to escape. The strip also gave clear sight to the guards, instructed to fire on would-be escapers. The death of Peter Fechter is perhaps the most famous example of the dangers of the death strip. Fechter, 18, was shot in the pelvis by DDR guards in 1962 while trying to cross the “death strip” into West Germany. He laid there on the strip in plain site of Western onlookers and press and was given no medical attention by either side. He sadly bled to death within an hour.

It is best to walk along Bernauer Strasse by foot to go past the pieces of the wall and the barricades. This was where the famous escape attempts from 1961 occurred when people jumped out of the windows in the East to try to reach the pavement on the other side.

Dachau Concentration Camp

The list of Nazi concentration and death camps is long and harrowing: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Buchenwald. There are dozens more.

But for all of them, there was a model. And that model was Dachau. Opened in March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler took power and in the wave of political arrests that took place after the Reichstag fire in Berlin, the camp is located at a former World War I munitions factory on the outskirts of the town of Dachau, not far from Munich.

Dachau Concentration Camp MemorialAt first, the prisoners were mostly those from the left side of the political spectrum: Social Democrats, Communists and others who objected too strenuously to Nazi policies. It was only in 1938, following the Night of the Broken Glass, that large numbers of Munich’s Jews were incarcerated at Dachau, prompting an enlargement of the camp.

In all, during the camp’s 12 years of existence, some 200,000 prisoners from all over Europe were locked up in Dachau. It also served as a training center for SS concentration camp guards and they were schooled in the brutality necessary to run Nazi Germany’s camp system.

Though mass gassings did not take place at Dachau, some 41,500 people lost their lives within its walls, including thousands of Soviet prisoners of war shot to death just outside the camp gates. Advancing American troops liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.

Today, the memorial includes an extensive museum documenting the degradations of life in Dachau and the horrors of the Holocaust. Behind the exhibition hall, in what used to be the camp’s administration building, is the low structure housing the isolation cells, one of which was occupied by would-be Hitler assassin Georg Elser.

In addition, visitors can wander through the camp grounds, where the foundations of the barracks remain, including notorious Block 5 where Nazi “doctors” carried out medical experiments on prisoners. Beyond the barracks lies the crematorium — and the gas chamber, which was most likely never used.

Terror Strikes the Munich Olympics

The modern design of the Munich Olympic stadium was envisaged to be the jewel in the crown among the architecture created for the 1972 Olympic Games. That year marked the return of the Olympics to Germany for the first time since the Nazis played host in1936 in Berlin. Created by architect Günther Behnisch and engineer Frei Otto, the stadium’s airy modern architecture was intended to wipe the slate clean, to ward off bad memories of the last event.

But after two successful weeks the event billed as the “The Happy Games” turned into a living nightmare.

On Sept. 5, a group of 11 terrorists from Black September, a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, broke into the Olympic Village and took 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their apartments. Two of the hostages who resisted were killed in the first moments of the break-in. The rest were kept hostage during a tense standoff in the Olympic Village, lasting almost 18 hours.

Munich's Olympic VillageThe world’s eyes were fixed on the terrorist attack when late in the evening the terrorists and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the nearby military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck. The terrorists had been told they would be given a plane to travel to an Arab country. In actual fact, the German authorities had plotted to ambush the terrorists and free the hostages.

Due to a succession of miscalculations and botches, their plan culminated in a blood bath. All the surviving Israeli hostages shot dead or incinerated during a hand grenade attack. The death toll at what became known as the Munich massacre was 11 Israeli Olympic team members, one police officer and five terrorists.

The dramatic events of that black day have been recounted in the Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September. Steven Spielberg has also created a film which dramatized the aftermath of the massacre, his 2005 feature entitled Munich.

Although Olympic events were initially suspended after the tragedy, Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, ruled that “the Games must go on.”

These days the futuristic sweeping structure of the stadium has become a city landmark — but there is little to remind visitors of its dark history. In recent years the stadium, which can hold just under 70,000 people, has hosted football matches, athletics and even a cross country skiing competition.

Observant visitors, however, will note a small memorial to the tragedy, directly outside the building. A gray stone plaque on the bridge linking the stadium to the former Olympic village reads “During the Olympics games in Munich 11 Israeli sportsmen and one German policeman suffered a violent death during a terrorist attack.”

Another memorial tablet to honor the slain Israelis stands outside their former lodging at Connollystraße 31. The names of the victims are also engraved onto the side of a metal sculpture at the military airport in Fürstenfeldbruck.

From Death Strip to Green Strip

former border strip of wallThe former border between East and West Germany, where hundreds of people lost their lives trying to flee to freedom, is now a green strip of nature that stretches from Travemünde on the Baltic Sea in the north to the border with the Czech Republic. It is Germany’s biggest natural habitat, a biotope that stretches 1,400 kilometers.

Hikers can now enjoy wildlife and plants where barbed wire, guns and landmines used to be. The once deadly stretch of earth is now teeming with life.

Those who go in search of the remnants of the Cold War 20 years after the fall of the wall will have to look carefully. While much has been removed, a lot of other pieces of the Iron Curtain have been overgrown.

The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is now supporting the project “Green Band Germany” in order to develop tourism along the former border. It has already established hiking trails in the Wartburg region and in the Harz Mountains.