Brandenburg an der Havel, to give this pretty and historic town its full name, came as something of a revelation after walking from the railway station through dreary and almost entirely deserted streets. It was only after crossing one of the many waterways that define the geography of the town, that we finally discovered evidence of human existence. This is a typical Sunday experience in Germany, where it is still normal for shops to remain closed.
There are numerous islands dotting the landscape around this area amidst the region’s many lakes and rivers, but the three that form the historic parts of Brandenburg are all easily reached on foot – and it’s a town best explored at a leisurely pace. Despite heavy bombing during the closing stages of the Second World War, which destroyed large parts of the city, Brandenburg today retains the feel of the medieval regional capital that grew out of an earlier Slav settlement.
The oldest surviving buildings date back to the 12th century and provide a glimpse of Brandenburg’s former glory. As a regional capital it flourished in the medieval period, and its fortunes grew even greater when it joined the Hanseatic League. This sprawling confederation of towns and city-states once dominated trade across northern Europe, its tentacles spread far and wide in the search for commercial gain. Brandenburg grew rich as a member of the Hanseatic League, wealth reflected in its churches, homes and civic buildings.
The town suffered badly during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, after which it slipped into a period of decline and relative obscurity. Potsdam to the east would take its place as regional capital, and become home to Prussian monarchs. I suspect that meant Brandenburg was saved the degradations of military conquest later on, and allowed it to preserve much of its historic integrity. That is, until the outbreak of World War Two, when an airplane factory in the town attracted waves of bombing raids.
Today, the town is probably better known for a more notorious role during the era of National Socialism. Here, in 1933, the Nazis opened one of their first concentration camps in a newly built prison. An Aktion T4 site – a centre for involuntary euthanasia and ‘medical experiments’ – was established to murder people with mental or physical disabilities who were deemed to be ‘racially inferior’. Brandenburg was also where the Nazis experimented with gas as a method of mass murder, later used in the Holocaust.
Even amidst the glories of this ancient town it is impossible to escape Germany’s 20th century history. At the Steintorturm, where we crossed into the old town, there is a Soviet memorial and cemetery dedicated to the Russian soldiers who died ‘liberating’ the city during the Battle of Berlin. Later on we’d walk past the town’s old synagogue, destroyed during the Kristallnacht in 1938. The plaque outside stating that the Rabbi had been murdered in Auschwitz.
The Steintorturm once formed part of the city’s defensive walls, and as you wander around there are several other towers dating back several hundred years. We walked along cobbled streets lined with pretty houses before arriving in a market square near a large church. At another of the town’s former defensive towers, the Mühlentorturm, we left one island and entered another, passing a row of fishing huts turned eateries on Mühlendamm next to the water – being Sunday they were all closed.
We soon found ourselves at the cathedral before crossing over several waterways to reach the oldest part of town where the red-brick city hall can be found. Here are two competing statues, one of Roland (of Song of Roland fame), the other of a small Pug dog with what appeared to be antlers. This is one of many similar tributes to the German comedian, Loriot. Real name, Bernhard-Viktor Christoph-Carl von Bülow, and born in Brandenburg in 1923.
He loved Pugs and spun a tale about how, before being domesticated, they had once been wild with huge antlers. They only discarding them so they could leap into the laps of old ladies. It’s the sort of whimsy that seems to fit the relaxed feel of Brandenburg.