I’m from a generation which grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. We had a bomb shelter in our primary school. Boys would run round the playground pretending to be spitfires and chanting “we won the war in 1964”. Slightly inaccurate, but a six year doesn’t care about such niceties. Our TV was dominated by war films, all portraying our brave boys as heroes and Germans as monsters. My Dad would always refer to them as Krauts of Jerries. Even after a quarter of a century memories were raw and forgiveness was rare. Even if people forgave, they understandably didn’t forget.

Scroll forward ten years and as a 15 year old I put my feet on German soil for the first time, on a school exchange trip to the Hessen spa town of Bad Wildungen. It was Liebe at first Blick. At school I had been learning German for a year, but was pretty hopeless at it. I was near the bottom of the class. Yet after that three week school exchange trip I topped the class in the end of year exam. It was as if a lightbulb had been lit in my head. German was in reality the only subject I really excelled at in the rest of my time at school, so much so that I decided I was going to be a German teacher.

I spent two years living in Germany and became to fluent that no German knew I was English. What a shame that is no longer so. Since I got my degree in German in 1985 I have returned increasingly rarely. I try to watch German TV a bit, and read the odd article but that’s it.

So when I got an invitation to speak at a conference in Berlin on the Russian war in Ukraine I thought it’d be rude not to. I never went to Berlin when I lived in Germany and had only been once in recent years with CNN, when I did a show from here for them. And then went straight back to London!


I arrived on Thursday lunchtime, spent a couple of hours getting the feel of the conference, which was organized by the Polish think tank, the Pilecki Institute, whose offices are right by the Brandenburg Gate, which I have to say is a lot smaller than I had imagined.

In fact, Berlin as a city is a lot smaller than I had thought. The airport is a fraction of the size of Heathrow. In my view that’s a good thing. I did have to smile as we went through passport control, though. The queue for EU passports was actually longer than the one for the rest of us. Having said that, both queues were quite short. The taxi driver was of Turkish background, but he was born in Germany and we spoke in both German and English. I’ve found on this trip that everyone is very keen to speak English. He was particularly keen to know if Brexit has been the disaster that the German media say it has. I’ll leave you to imagine how the conversation went.

On Thursday night I broadcast my LBC show from a studio about 8 miles from the centre. We spent the middle hour with the 25 year old Foreign editor of Die Welt, Gregor Schwung and a Polish academic called Lukasz Adamski, discussing the European response to the events in Ukraine. It achieved exactly what I wanted it to – informed debate with lots of listener calls.

My session at the conference was on Friday lunchtime. There were five of us on the panel, which was far too many really, especially as all the other speakers seemed incapable of speaking for less than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I was the last to speak so kept my remarks much shorter. As the only non-academic there I decided to mix it up a bit. The main theme of the conference was about bringing Russian war criminal to justice, not a subject I know an awful lot about! Anyway, it all seemed to go quite well and I got some nice feedback afterwards.

So over the weekend I’ve been seeing some of the sights, although not half as many as I had intended, if I am honest. The temptation of a lie-in on both days proved too much. Plus the need to find a bar which was showing Newcastle v West Ham. Although after two minutes of the match, when West Ham conceded two goals (only one of which counted) I did wonder why I had bothered.

As I wandered round the city I kept wondering what had been happening on the exact spot I was standing on in February 1939 or February 1945. By then a lot of the city was in ruins. The fact that the architecture in Berlin is rather mono, is entirely understandable, given the whole city had to be rebuilt more or less from scratch in the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, there’s the odd very modern building, and the odd recreation of buildings past, but generally it’s all quite uninspiring.


Perhaps the most thought-provoking visit was one I made this afternoon to the Topography of Terror museum/exhibition. Not exactly the most alluring of titles, but it was a fascinating history of the part of Berlin where all the Nazi ministries were located and the people who staffed them. Outside of the modern aircraft hanger type building it’s housed in is the longest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. As I wandered round I kept wondering what was going through the minds of the Germans who were also browsing the exhibits. Were they thinking how they would have acted if they had been around in the 1930s. Would they have been Nazis, and worshipped Hitler? It’s easy to say none of us would, and we’d have seen through it all, but would we? Would we really?

I also went to the Schwules Museum, which details the history of the LGBT movement. I was less impressed with this, if I am honest. It was all a bit too perfectly staged and lacked substance, I thought. I expected to learn a lot about the struggles gay people went through under the Nazis but it was all a bit shallow.

Next was the Memorial to the German Resistance, which was only a short walk from the LGBT museum. This really was a proper exhibition, albeit again a bit modern and shiny. It displayed huge amounts of details about all the different groups and individuals who heroically stood up to the Nazis, many of them right from the start. The first person testimony was gripping.


I had intended to go to Wannsee today, the site of the meeting where the so-called FINAL SOLUTION was planned and decided upon. However, it seemed a bot complicated to get there so I have put that off for the next visit here. I went down to the Holocaust Memorial instead and went back to Checkpoint Charlie. There’s plenty left to see – the Stasi Museum, the DDR Museum and the Reichstag to name but three.