Dennis Behnke — known as ‘The Berlin Storyteller’ — offers a variety of guided tours of Germany’s capital city.
You can learn about Dennis’s tours here.
In this interview, I catch up with Dennis.
1) How did you come to call yourself ‘The Berlin Storyteller’?
When I was 15 years old, my school class went on a field trip to Bergen-Belsen, the former concentration camp where Anne Frank perished. Though we went through a 2-hour guided tour of the memorial site, I remember just one thing that the guide told us:
“Most people here died of diseases and starvation.”
I was only 15, but I knew that was wrong; I knew that it was a pernicious attempt to soft-pedal the Nazis’ crimes.
So, subsequently, when I started giving tours of Sachsenhausen, the former concentration camp about 20 miles north of Berlin, I wanted to make sure that such a thing would not happen. Towards that end, I came up with the idea of presenting the history of the camp, and Nazi Germany overall, in the form of a personal narrative, the story of a single concentration camp prisoner.
It resonated very well with the people in tour groups. I receive mail from teachers telling me that their students still remember the details of my tour, and that I awakened in them a greater interest in Nazi-era history.
I soon began applying the same storytelling principle to most of my other tours, illuminating history by telling individual people’s stories.
That’s how I became ‘The Berlin Storyteller.’
2) What are some of your favorite novels set in Berlin?
I’m going to name three books.
EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Fallada
Hans Fallada (1893 – 1947) wrote many novels set in the Berlin of the 1920s – 40s, showing the downfall of the republic and the rise of the Nazis. EVERY MAN DIES ALONE is possibly his best. It portrays Nazi-era Berlin at a time when Germany was still “winning” and Hitler’s popularity was on the rise. But then it deals with the losses people start to suffer, and the actions of defiance some start to take up. Based on actual historical events, it is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about life in the capital of the Third Reich.
ROT — (the German word for the color red) — is a novel that unfortunately hasn’t yet been translated into English.
The protagonist, Thomas Linde makes his living by delivering funeral speeches for people who don’t believe in God. He is what we in Germany call an ‘Alt-68er’, one of the people who participated in the student protests of 1968, which had an immense impact on German society. ROT is a powerful depiction of Thomas Linde’s generation — its hopes, its dreams, and its eventual disillusionment — and how it shaped German society.
ALL SOULS’ DAY is set in Berlin during the 1990s.
The novel’s main character, Arthur Daane, is a Dutch documentary film-maker who, having lost his family to an airplane crash, seeks, if we may say so, the “center” of the world in the recently reunified Berlin. The book, deeply melancholic, gives a deep and broad view of the city struggling to meet the complex challenges of reunification. ALL SOUL’s DAY is an engrossing read for anybody interested in this crucial period of transformation for Berlin.
3) What are some of your favorite films set in Berlin?
WINGS OF DESIRE, (1987) directed by Wim Wenders
Set in the late 1980s in West Berlin, WINGS OF DESIRE features two supernatural “angels” who have been observing the world since its creation. They meet regularly to exchange stories of interesting little daily events they witness while walking and/or flying through Berlin.
Though they can hear the thoughts of all people, they can only observe, never interact with them. However, one of the two eventually falls in love with a woman, and then meets a man who tells him that he used to be an angel as well. As turns out, there’s a way for such angels to become human (if also, inescapably, mortal).
WINGS OF DESIRE portrays Berlin before the fall of the Wall — it really gives you the ‘flavor’ of the city in that period. The one scene that always resonates most with me shows an old man walking over the wasteland of the former Potsdamer Platz, trying to find the places of his youth, which, however, have been destroyed forever.
The film is not yet 30 years old, but in the interim, Berlin has been totally transformed.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS, (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
THE LIVES OF OTHERS won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Set in the 1980s, it is a political thriller built around the machinations of the communist East German Ministry for State Security — the Stasi — in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The lead character, a Stasi agent, is assigned to spy on a playwright. Carrying out the assignment, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the communist establishment. The depiction of the former East Berlin is powerful; this truly is one of the greatest German movies of the 21st century.
4) Is it common for people today established in Berlin to think that they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else?
A definite yes! About 55% of all the citizens of Berlin weren’t born here, but moved into the city over the past few decades.
Being a Berliner is very often not a matter of birth, but of choice. While steadily becoming more expensive, the city is still quite affordable. And, Berlin has a unique ‘feeling’ among the world’s big cities, offering many upsides of a big town while not having many of the commonly-encountered downsides.
Furthermore, I know of many people who left the city (mostly because of their work and career) who are constantly complaining about how boring the place where they now live is, in comparison with Berlin, and how much they would love to come back if they could just find the right job.
(A view of Berlin)
5) What are some unusual requests you’ve had for custom tours of Berlin?
Unsual requests have often been more about when a tour is supposed to take place than what it is about.
For example, I once had a request from two guys who arrived in Berlin by plane late in the evening but were leaving on another plane in the morning. Instead of staying in a hotel, they asked me to show them Berlin during the night. As a result, we did a tour from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. It was great! We had the sights pretty much all to ourselves.
Another special request that comes to mind involved family history. The clients were a US family with two boys. While the dad had an Irish-Catholic background, the mother was Jewish. Her father grew up in Berlin, and as a child got on one of the last Kindertransports leaving the city before the deportations started in Germany.
That family had the address of the place where the mother’s father grew up. They asked me to get in touch with the people living there now, to ask whether they could see the dwelling (which worked out!) and they also wanted to know whether I could help them find the graves of family members in the Jewish cemetery of Weissensee, which is the largest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. I contacted Weissensee administration, who told us where to find the graves.
(An entrance to the Weissensee cemetery)
6) What are some of your favorite Berlin restaurants?
One of the places I like the most in Berlin is a restaurant called ‘Zur letzten Instanz.’ The fare is typical German food — and it happens to be the oldest restaurant in Berlin!
Located near Alexanderplatz, the outside wall of the building is part of Berlin’s original medieval city wall and the place has housed a restaurant or bar since the 1621. The most famous guest was, supposedly, Napoleon after his conquest of Prussia and Berlin in 1806. It’s a charming, rustic place with a tiny beer garden outside for the summer.
Another good option is the Turkish restaurant Hasir in Adalbertstrasse, with branches elsewhere. The Hasir on Adalbertstrasse is located in the heart of the Kreuzberg district, sometimes referred to as Little-Instanbul. The Turks are the biggest minority in Berlin, about 350,000 strong. Their culture has influenced Berlin on many levels, especially when it comes to food. The most-eaten street food in Germany nowadays, for example, is the Döner Kebab. Hasir is far, far more than a kebab stand, though. It is a proper restaurant with an open barbecue and a great range of Turkish food to enjoy.
(Interior of the Hasir restaurant in Mitte)
To learn more about tours offered by Dennis Behnke, ‘The Berlin Storyteller,’ visit his website here.