The Holocaust and the Holocaust Memorial. A few insights, evoking many questions…

Today, I’m publishing my 50th update. I’ve seen and written about 49 locations of historical value earlier. Often, it is proved that Berlin is not a city in which the centre is the only area that counts. I’ve seen heavenly areas I didn’t knew, as well as the dark past of my favorite district Neukölln. Updates have brought me from Adlershof till Zehlendorf and -outside of Berlin- from Großbeeren till Oranienburg. However, I don’t think there is a place which is of such historical importance as the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin’s city centre…

So far, I’ve waited to publish an entry about the Holocaust. The topic is heavy and it brings a huge responsibility with the author – of who I think that (s)he has to be -very- informed about this topic. Moreover, it is hard to sum up the insights about the Holocaust at something as easy accessible such as a blog. It remains a topic that cannot be explained within only 3000 words and five photos. On the other hand, I cannot ignore this historical event at a blog which is about German history. Since I plan this to be my last investigative post, it feels like it’s the last chance to write about the extermination of the European Jews. Now, without pretending that this is a complete history of the Holocaust, I want to inform visitors before going to the Holocaust Memorial.

Creating ‘Lebensraum’: the start of the ‘Germanisation’ of Eastern Europe during WW2.

The most recommendable work of reference I’ve read about the Holocaust has been the well respected historian Ian Kershaw’s publication Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. In one of its chapters, Kershaw defends that Hitler worked towards a new War since the end of WW1. By 1925, when Hitler wrote his autobiography Mein Kampf, he had a core ideology that consisted the expansion of ‘Lebensraum‘ (‘Living Space‘, or: German territory) in Eastern Europe and the ‘elimination’ of Jews in these territories. In this stage, no one understood what this ‘elimination’ should look like – including Hitler himself. Before Hitler took the power, he realised that he wouldn’t win elections by this core-belief only. In the early 1930s, he tempered his antisemitism and gained votes by his anticommunism. However, when Hitler consolidated his power in the years after 1933 – public debate was controlled and organised antisemitic propaganda was without critique. Jews were boycotted (April 1933), excluded by law (September 1935) and killed (November 1938).

Important in the cumulative discrimination was a certain dynamic pattern that is typical for Nazi Germany. In this dynamic, Hitler knew how to contain the radical antisemites in his party – and how to time and canalise their aggression. In his speeches, he gave signals for his radical party members to do a ‘bottom up’ violent act. As a result, the Nazi Party had to ‘soothen’ the radicals by further discriminating the Jews. In public sphere, Hitler would make virulent comments and in private sphere, he explained of what he thought that should happen. An important example of such a green light was a part of Hitler’s notorious speech from January 1939, the so-called prophecy speech:

“Today I will once more be a prophet. If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations of the world into a world war yet again, then the result will not be the bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”

By Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Poland, the War broke out in September 1939. However, the “annihilation of the Jewish race” did not start yet. A couple of escalations had to take place before. In this, the Warthegau (Warta shire) played a key role. In Hitler’s ambition to create ‘Lebensraum‘, the Warthegau would be the first district to ‘Germanise’. This district had to function as a prototype for others and therefore, the most fanatic Nazi’s were stationed in this district. Here, another crucial pattern that was typical for Hitler’s ‘style of ruling’ becomes visible. This pattern derived from the vague command to ‘improve the objectives of the Führer‘. After Hitler spoke out his expectation that the Warthegau would be ‘Germanised’ within ten years, career-making civil servants took this as a licence to ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In the Warthegau, the police was under the control of the regional head of the SS, Wilhelm Koppe. By May 1940, he was a key figure in the extermination of more than 2000 disabled patients. Now Koppe was held responsible for the ‘Germanisation’ of the Warthegau, it meant that he had to make the Jews invisible (by putting them in concentration camps) or deport them further to the East, in the General Government district where already a few million Jews were concentrated. In May 1940, the Jewish district of Łódź -the biggest city in the Warthegau- was already immured and turned into a ‘ghetto’ containing 163.000 Jews. The ghetto was more than full, but trains with German Jews kept arriving. Hunger ruled and diseases came up, but administrative and logistic problems restrained deportations towards the General Government. The Jews were stuck in the ‘to be Germanised’ Warthegau, while Wilhelm Koppe realised what Hitler wanted him to do…

Children from the ghetto of Łódź, being deported to the extermination camp Chełmno. ©USHMM

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, June 1941, the Nazi’s again planned to create a buffer zone for all German and Austrian Jews – the East of the Ural Mountains. As often, the Nazi’s overestimated themselves heavily. Unfortunately, and this is crucial, it were not only the Nazi’s that suffered from their setbacks. Already in September that year, it was forecasted that the German Army won’t win the War before the winter – which meant that a ‘territorial solution for the deportation of Jews’ had no chance. An other ‘Final Solution’ about what to do with the Jews had to be found in the East of Europe. In the following weeks, the first steps were made in the systematic extermination of the Jews. The ‘Einsatzgruppen‘ (‘Task forces’) in Ukraine murdered 33.000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravin by the end of September. In the Warthegau, Wilhelm Koppe understood well how he could ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In October that year, 3000 Jews within the county named Konin were concentrated in the town of Zagórów (in German: Hinterberg) and killed in the forests.

The 26th of November 1941, the mechanical extermination of the Jews had started by the SS. The first gassings of several hundred Jews took place that day, in the Warthegau county of Kalisz. For committing this crime, the Wilhelm Koppe used his experience with the usage of ‘doctors’ who killed disabled patients in the Aktion T4. This ‘experience’ was most of all how to direct the exhaust gasses of a truck into its trailer. By the 8th of December, two of these ‘gas trucks’ were driven from Berlin to Chełmno. Here, 97.000 Jews were exterminated within seven months.

At the 11th of December, Hitler declared war to the USA – which was answered with a a declaration of War in return. Nevertheless, Hitler stated that it was a Jewish conspiracy and held his notorious ‘prophecy speech’ from January 1939. The next day (December 12th), Goebbels wrote in his diary about a conversation with Hitler – in which the latter stated that a new phase concerning the ‘Jewish question‘ could start. In other words, due to military and logistical problems – the Nazi dynamic created a radical ‘solution’ for their self-invented and created problem. After being unable to take care of the Jews that they had deported, the extermination had started. The Warthegau may have been crucial to in taking this first steps in the mechanisation of the Holocaust, another 3.5 million Jews were already at the ‘General Government’ district. This is where four notorious extermination camps -Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek- were constructed rapidly and opened from March 1942 onwards. Also the camp Auschwitz prepared for the extermination of Jews in this phase. It wasn’t located in the ‘General Government’ or in the Warthegau, but in the discrict of Upper Silesia. By the summer of 1942, the extermination machine ran at full speed. Most of the casualties would fall in the following year.

Important is though, that not all Jews were killed in the extermination factories. About half of the Jews were killed by shooting. In moral view, there may not be much of a difference. Taking someones life, either way, remains murder. However, from a humanist point of view it is worth telling how these millions came to their end. As historian Christopher Browning had written in his case-study, these shootings were committed by ‘Ordinary men’. A certain Reserve Police Battalion from Hamburg, mainly fathers from families, were among the execution squads. After they were brought to occupied Poland, they were asked by their commander -pale, tears in his eyes- if they want to cooperate doing ‘a frightfully unpleasant task’ or wanted to leave without consequences. After some hesitating, only eleven out of the initial 174 men stepped out. The others were added to the ‘Battalion 101’ of a mere 500 ordinary men, that became an incarnated killing machine. Between July and November 1942, this Battalion 101 deported over 40.000 European Jewish men and women to the extermination camp Treblinka – while executing 8000 Jews themselves. In the late autumn and spring of 1942/1943, the trained killers volunteered to take part in hunting the Jews that were hidden in the forests and in small towns. In short, the ordinary men became fanatic murderers…

The Police Battalion 101 during Christmas (1942/3)

What went wrong here? Are we still talking about ordinary family-men from the Nazi-sceptic city of Hamburg? Working class heroes -dockers truck drivers- and white collar workers who grew up before Hitler took power? Yes, antisemitism was all around in Nazi Germany – but still it is not plausible that these ordinary men were eager to actively murder Jewish civilians… One of the morbid answers in here is solidarity. Not with the victims, but with their fellow ordinary men. When they were interrogated after the War, many of these men said that they wouldn’t leave their colleagues doing the dirty job. Them who stepped out after a few round of executing -and had to do logistic work at the German camps– were told to be ‘cowards’. Moreover, the ordinary men had weekly briefings of 30 till 45 minutes. In these, they were ‘educated’ about Nazi topics such as loyalty, the offensive spirit and… comradeship. In addition, they were brainwashed with statements that ‘the Jews’ initiated the USA boycotts of Germany – and that it were them who bombs on the homeland…

Nazi-propaganda. “The Jew. War’s starter. Extending the war.”

The question arises about what the German people knew about the Holocaust. Till which level were they supporting Hitler’s antisemitism? In the last free elections of November 1932, 33% of the German people voted for Hitler. In this, Hitler tempered his antisemitism, focusing on the fear of socialism and communism. After Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazi’s slowly but steadily controlled the media, the opinion and would cumulatively discriminate the Jews. However, unlike the War that Hitler always wanted, the Holocaust had not been an intended plan – but a result of the dynamics between the Nazi-top in Berlin and experienced, fanatic Nazi’s in the province. The Holocaust was an unpredictable side-effect of the War, but completed consciously – and fatal for millions…

So, when 33% of the German people voted for Hitler in the last free elections (November 1932) – they did not vote for the Holocaust to take place in the future. On the other hand, there have barely been any resistance against the discrimination and the deportations of Jews. The protest in Berlin’s Rosenstraße, where German wifes of Jewish men protested to prevent their deportation in February 1943, have been the only protest – as far as I know. Now, why did the German people not resist against the extermination of Jews? An obvious answer may be the existence of control departments, such as the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei; Secret States Security) that prevented people from protesting. However, the Gestapo had relatively few staff for its German population. There has been more than only control: the people just didn’t protest that easily. According to Ian Kershaw, the reason of this may be a hardly understandable moral indifference. “The crooked road to Auschwitz was build with hate, but paved with indifference” is how the historian states it. This incomprehensible mentality becomes a bit more understandable after Kershaw explains that the German people had their own trouble during wartime. Everyone had a male family member that was missing at the war’s front, while air raid attacks became increasingly a constant threat. Due to gossips, the people could – but didn’t want to know what happened to the Jewish countrymen. In addition, people thought that they could not be held responsibly either. This moral indifference provided the criminal Nazi regime to radicalise their murderous acts. Whether this is moral indifference or passive accessory – I remain for you to consider…

So far, this article has been about Hitler, local Nazi fanatics, ordinary men and indifferent civilians. About the timing of Hitler’s speeches, about dynamics in Nazi Germany – and about the crucial timing that the European Jews were deported. Still, many questions remain. For example, what did the Nazi-officials show its population of the deportations, the ghettos and the extermination camps? What did the Jews go through in those camps, and who were in charge? What happened with the possessions of deported Jews? Or, formulated more clear: how did the people feel after confiscating such property of fellow citizens that were killed? And how fast did information about the extermination camps spread among the people? When it comes to the Holocaust, countless of questions can be asked…

The'Treblinka' monument by Vadim Sidur (Berlin-Charlottenburg, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)In earlier posts, I’ve shown memorials that remember events that were prior, but participating in the Holocaust – for example the deportations of Jews or the violent round-ups. However, before the construction of Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, only one small monument to remember the Holocaust was to be found in the German capital. In 1966, the Soviet vanguard artist Vadim Sidur made a rather grim sculpture. Abstract, but clearly a pile of dead human beings. Sidur named his sculpture after the extermination camp ‘Treblinka’. In 1979, the sculpture was placed in front of a court’s house: the Amtsgericht Charlottenburg.

Yet, this memorial actually only remembers one of the many extermination camps. A central memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe was still lacking. Intitiated by the journalist Lea Rosh, a support group for a Holocaust Memorial was found in January 1989. Before the Holocaust Memorial opened in May 2005, many debates had taken place. The location has been changed, competitions with hundreds of designs had been rejected by an intervention of the contemporary prime minister (Helmut Kohl) and the winning design of the second competition has been changed. The construction symbolically started at the 27th of January 2000, the day that Auschwitz was liberated 55 years earlier.

The site of the Holocaust Memorial, before the memorial’s construction.

While the design of Peter Eisenman became tangible, discussions only intensified. One of the main critique is that a monument for Jews only would create a ‘hierarchy’ in the ‘victimship’ of Nazism. Other monuments, such as for Roma and Sinti, homosexuals or disabled people, won’t have the same dimension. And why would one make a difference between Jewish, political, homosexual or other victims of the Nazi’s? Was the Holocaust even different than the Porajmos? Other critiques thought that the monument would be too artistic, or too much a sensational ‘tourist attraction’ that wasn’t sincere. In 2003, the construction works were temporarily brought to a standstill when a newspaper found out that the producer of the anti-graffiti coating had produced Zyklon B, the gas that was used in the gas chambers, during wartime. The leading architect, Peter Eisenman, decided to continue working with this company.

The Holocaust Monument under construction.

Peter Eisenman, besides the architect also the mastermind behind the Holocaust memorial, stated “This is a place of no meaning” – and did explicitly not explain what the highly abstract monument resembles. For Eisenman, the Holocaust memorial had to break with the tradition of other memorials. “The scale and dimension of the Holocaust makes every attempt to describe it in traditional ways inevitable to a hopeless project. Our memorial tries to develop a new idea about remembering that clearly distuingishes from nostalgia.” This new concept of remembering had to be an experience. “Nowadays, we can only understand the past by an experience in the present day.” That is quite much all. Thoughts are absolutely free. “When a swastika is graffitied on the memorial, this is a reflection of people who feel this way. When it stays there, it is a reflection of which the government thinks about it that people paint swastikas here. I can not influence that. There will be children that play tag and mannequins that strike a pose. The location is not holy.” Thus the responsible architect. The memorial was inaugurated at the 10th of May 2005, exactly 60 years after the War’s end. The time had come to compare expectations with experiences.

How will you -as an average, relatively informed visitor- experience the Holocaust Memorial? After telling your social network that you plan to visit Berlin and the Holocaust memorial, your friends who have been there probably told you that it resembles a graveyard. In this fictive graveyard, the grey steles are the coffins – which are given posthumously to the Jews. The colour grey is chosen for being the colour of ash, referring to the bodies that were burned. However, a couple of questions remain. A very obvious question concerns the meaning of the the number of steles. You won’t find information about this at the location itself – so you already feel that you misunderstand the memorial. When you get to know that there are 2711 steles, you may only conclude that this number has no meaning. Why is the ground uneven? Should you look for the spot where the steles are the highest? And why are there over a hundred ‘coffins’ implemented in the busy pavement? Does this make (unaware) passers-by desecrators of a grave? Why would an architect do that on purpose? And what to think of visitors of the Holocaust memorial that jump from stone-to-stone? Walking through the memorial, you’ll even experienced people playing hide-and-seek. Walking out of the memorial, you will see the average sight-seeing tourist taking a snapshot while smiling towards the camera. Your experience probably ends by standing aside, looking over the memorial for a while. You may be disappointed because you haven’t got the feeling that you’ve learned something, or ‘felt’ a message. And only if you are lucky, you’ll find an arrow pointing you to the underground ‘information point’…

Taken everything into account, I think we all agree about the importance of a central and spacious location to remember the Holocaust. The intention of Eisenman -using an experience to remember the Holocaust- may be interesting. Unfortunately, and Eisenman already realised this, people behave questionable: they will pose at group-photos and children will run and play. For them, the absence of information about the Holocaust and a clarification of the memorial makes that the level of abstraction is too high. After all, even an informed or a frequent visitor can’t tell whether the Holocaust memorial resembles a graveyard, or not at all. This lack of clearness may easily lead to dissatisfaction at the first place. Understandable, because – wouldn’t it be desirable here, to have a memorial that makes a strong statement that everyone understands? However, I’ve noticed that the shortcoming of clarity has a side-effect. It really keeps me thinking, and brings up many questions about what it remembers after all: the Holocaust…

The Holocaust Memorial (Berlin-Mitte, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

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Making Berlin ‘Judenfrei’. The decimation of Berlin’s jewish population by railway deportations.

In an earlier update, I wrote about the monument for the round-ups of the jewish population at Berlin’s Koppenplatz – a crucial step within the Holocaust. This article is about the next step in the darkest page of history, the deportations that followed.

Memorial 'Gleis 17' at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. Berlin-Wilmersdorf (April 2014, photo by Joep de Visser)
When Hitler took power in January 1933, 160.000 jews lived in the German capital. In the following years, nearly 100.000 of them fled to countries as the USA and England, or even to Shanghai. Although this emigration had never been voluntarily, it was even impossible to emigrate from Nazi-Germany when the War started in September 1939. In August 1941, about 66.000 jews were trapped in Berlin. Now, more than elsewhere – the population of Berlin suffered more Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Minister of Propaganda. In the German capital, he was also an ambitious Gauleiter (District leader). The virulent antisemite wanted Berlin to be ‘Judenfrei’ (Nazi-German for ‘Free from jews’) – and he even bothered Hitler with this. On August 19th 1941, Hitler promised the fanatic Gauleiter to ‘transport’ the jews out of ‘his’ city when the possibility was there. Only one month later – Goebbels confirmed that this day came closer. In an diary entry of September 24th, he wrote that Hitler stated Berlin would be the very first city to be ‘Judenfrei’ indeed. The deportations were in sight. Another month later, at October 24th, Goebbels wrote

“Gradually, we start with the evacuation of the Berlin jews to the East. A couple of thousands are already on their way. In first instance, they go to Litzmannstadt (Nazi-German for: Łódź). This causes commotion in the affected circles. The jews ask for support in anonymous letters to foreign correspondents. (…) It is annoying that this topic is getting attention in the world’s media, but we have to deal with it. The main thing is that the Reichshauptstadt (Berlin) is made Judenfrei. I will not rest before this goal is totally realised.”

Deportation of Jews from Hanau to the Theresienstadt ghetto. (Hanau, Germany, May 30, 1942. ©US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

From three stations in the city, about 50.000 jews from Berlin were deported. The first deportation took place at October 18th, when over a thousand jews were transported from Berlin’s S-Bahnhof Grunewald to the ghetto in Łódź. Men that lost their job during the discriminative laws, women and children were among the first to be deported. Already in this early stage, deportations were connected with the Holocaust. By November 1941 till January 1942, 4000 jews were sent to the ghetto of Riga – where Nazi authorities knew that ‘Einsatzgruppen‘ (‘Special Forces’) executed these jews.

Detail at the Memorial Gleis 17. Details of the first deportation from S-Bahnhof Grunewald. (Berlin-Wilmersdorf, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)From January 1942 onwards, jews were deported from another location – the Güterbahnhof Moabit (‘Cargo station in Moabit’) fairly close to the city centre. Here, a platform was used that was seperated and parallel of the S-Bahn tracks. In June 1942, a new stage in the deportation had started. By then, elderly jews were deported from the Anhalter Bahnhof in the middle of Berlin. In these ‘Altertransporte‘ (‘Elderly transports’), about 9600 people were deported in 116 times. In these Altertransporte were one or two railway carriages (maximum of 50 people in one carriage) placed behind the public train towards Prague, that left at 06:07am. Now, the jews didn’t end up in the City of a Hundred Spires – but in concentration camp (annex ghetto) Theresienstadt.

German Jews board a train that will deport them to Theresienstadt. Hanau, Germany, May 30, 1942.  ©Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

The deportations themself were already horrible. Trains from the Wehrmacht (German Army) had precedence, so by 1944 – the average speed of a deportation train was only 25 km/hour. Railway carriages were overcrowded, while there were no toilet facilities. In combination with a lack of air, the stench must have been horrible. Throughout the tens of hours, people slowly died for breathing problems or even dehydration. The train was guarded by the SiPo (Security Police) and the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police). Them who decided to take the risk and escape the train, would face a harsh life into the wild – where they were still hunted by German battalions.

Still, if the transport wasn’t the hell on earth, their destination was. The ghettos and camps in which the jews were concentrated were overcrowded and fatal diseases came up. From the ghetto in Łódź, jews were deported to the variety of extermination factories. The first one was already taken into use by December 1941. From Theresienstadt, the jews were mostly deported to the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz – which has been in use by March 1942. All summed up, for a jew – there was only a very small chance of surviving after being deported.

At the start of 1943, most of the jews were already deported and murdered. Still, there were about 8000 jewish men in Berlin that worked as a forced labour for factories of War’s importance. Due to the use of forced labours from occupied territories, the Nazi’s considered to be the working jews as redundant as well. In the morning of February 27th, these 8000 jews were rounded up in the ‘Fabrikaktion’. Only the 2000 jews that were married to Germans -and who resisted the Nazi-pressure of divorcing- were saved from deportation – and only after a courageous protest. With only a fraction left of the 166.000 people that once lived here, Berlin was officially declared ‘Judenfrei‘ on the 19th of May 1943. However, deportations of smaller numbers of jews took place up till January 1945, when the Nazi’s knew that the War was lost – and the killing of jews was even more useless than ever been before. I’ve read that 7000 jews lived in Berlin when the War ended in May 1945. I estimate that around 4000 of them were married with a German. Another estimated 1500 survived by living in hiding. The other 1500 survivors remains a mystery – but I think, these survived due to the usage of counterfeited passports.

Cargo Station Moabit (Berlin-Moabit, date unknown). Bildarchiv Preussischer KulturbesitzRailway tracks underneath the Putlitzbrücke (Berlin-Moabit, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)
So far the mass deportations of the jews, earlier described as the second step in the Holocaust. My question now is how these deportations have been remembered? And, somehow, who would guess that it took over four decades for people to realise how several Berlin stations have been locations that participated in the Holocaust? Now, three locations in the city remember the deportations of the jewish population. Since 1987, a monument is revealed at the Putlitzbrücke, close to the S-Bahnhof Westhafen. It remembers the more than 32.000 people that were deported from this since the beginning of 1942. They’ve set their last feet on Berlin soil at the platform of this Güterbahnhof (‘Cargo station’). An information panel is located at the Anhalter Bahnhof. Here, the so-called ‘Altertransporte‘ are remembered, in which 9600 jews were deported.

Memorial at the Putlitzbrücke (Berlin-Moabit, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Memorial panel for the Altertransporte next to the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof. Berlin-Kreuzberg, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

 


 


 

 

At the S-Bahnhof Grunewald, thousands of jews were deported from October 1941 on. Here, various intiatiors have constructed monuments. Already in 1953, a communist group published a plaque at the railway station’s signal house. Typical for the 1950s, when West Germany was barely denazified and fanatic anti-communist, this one was removed by the police at some point. In 1973, another memorial tablet was revealed. At least, this one lasted thirteen years – when it was stolen after all. Since April 1987, a new memorial stone states in Hebrew and German. In addition, the local evangelics made a plaque in October that same year. In the early 1990s, the district of Wilmersdorf asked the Polish artist Karol Broniatowski to make a memorial. Broniatowski designed a concrete wall, with hollow human figures in this. As the succesor of the Deutsche Reichsbahn (German Imperial Railway), the Deutsche Bahn added the fourth memorial at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. After a competition, there was chosen for a design in which the details of all the 186 transportations (so, directions and numbers of deported jews) that are written in steel plates. These plates are integrated at the ‘Gleis 17‘ (‘Railway Track 17’) where most of the deportation trains left. For this, the platform had to be restored – while the railway tracks were kept grown over by vegetation. The latter symbolises that there won’t ever be a train leaving from this platform with its horrific history…

Memorial 'Gleis 17' at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. The overgrown railway tracks. Berlin-Wilmersdorf (April 2014, photo by Joep de Visser)Taking everything into account, this has been an article about the decimation of the jewish population in Berlin. In contrast to what the Nazi’s stated, their capital has never been really ‘Judenfrei‘. Joseph Goebbels, who repeatedly stated that he wouldn’t rest before the last jew had left Berlin, did not survive the War – but 7000 jewish men did. Nevertheless, this is incomparible to the 166.000 jews that once lived in Berlin. And for the 50.000 Berlin jews that were deported -and murdered-. Memorials only came up from the later 1980s. But why? Is a question that still remains. Perhaps because the deportations only have been a part of the Holocaust? Because the intended extermination took place in camps, not in carriages? …I don’t even think so. In the next article, I’ll write about the Holocaust and Berlin’s memorials – which only came in the 1990s…

Debunking the Hitlerbunker. About the myths of Hitler’s death and his last accommodation.

In despite of the many topics that a student in German history can focus on, one specific topic is inevitable. As the most infamous European of the 20th century, I had to learn all the ins and outs about Hitler. I’m not joking when I tell you that I’ve read three biographies about him. In these, the last chapter always took place in the so-called Hitlerbunker. This underground bunker in the city-centre of Berlin is the location where Hitler committed suicide on the 30th of April 1945. Easy as that. However, the dictator’s last accomodation and his death remained dubious – and not only for the lay people. In other words, rumours and myths took over…

"Here, the New Reich Chancellery underground bunker after it was uncovered by demolition work to make way for a new apartment complex in 1987. In 1938, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer with the construction of the building, because the old Reich Chancellery had been outgrown."
To sum up a few of these myths, the six story high Hitlerbunker would have an underground highway up to the Tempelhof Airport. Here, an airplane was reserved to make Hitler escape from Berlin. Via Denmark, he and Eva Hitler-Braun took a submarine towards South America – where he and Eva gave birth to two daughters. In the meanwhile, Hitler’s Doppelgänger and an actress that looked-alike Eva Braun staged the Nazi-funeral. These myths are anything besides harmless. They implicate that Hitler had successfully fooled us and that we couldn’t beat Nazism after all. None of this is true. For me, this vagueness about my field of studies is more than unbearable. It’s time to debunk the myths around Hitler’s death and the location that is mostly connected to it: the Hitlerbunker.

First of all, one shouldn’t be surprised that Hitler committed suicide. One can remark a lot about Hitler’s personality and character, but he was not a coward that avoided pain or death. One could say that Hitler was brave, I rather say that he was alien. For example, Hitler volunteered for the army during the First World War and fought against armed police in November 1923. In the early 1930s, Hitler threatened to commit suicide during various political crisis within the Nazi-Party. In this, he would count down his suicide attempt. The message “If you don’t obey me, I’ll commit suicide in ten seconds!” was overstated by “in five seconds!” and -eventually- “in one second!”. Unfortunately, these menaces turned out to be false promises.

"The air raid shelter in the New Reich Chancellery was flooded, with sediment marks on the walls showing different water levels. On the left, an overturned steel cabinet can be seen."
And what is true of the ‘overwhelming’ Hitlerbunker? Well, it has not been constructed out of a powerful position – on the contrary. The decision to build to bunker in Berlin was made in early 1942, which may be connected with the secret understanding that The War wouldn’t result the dictator’s favor. For Hitler’s worst-case scenario, serious precautions were made. From the Neue Reichskanzlei (New Reich Chancellery) there already was an underground corridor that led to a bunker that was five meters underneath the surface. In addition, Hitler commanded the construction of a new bunker right next to it which had to be another four meter deeper. This bunker’s roof and walls were made of reinforced concrete – and were at least 3.5 meter thick. Due to the high groundwater level, the surface had to be drained permanently. The bunker only consisted 250m² – which is not big at all. Its interior was modest, if not: Spartan. Light-bulbs without lampshades ‘decorated’ the ceilings in all the sixteen small rooms. When Hitler moved into the bunker mid-January 1945, his interior consisted of a sofa and a few paintings, such as a Dutch still life above it and a portrait of Frederick II (alias: Frederick the Great) by Anton Graff.

At the 16th of April, the Battle of Berlin had started. Within the following two weeks, a comparable weight of explosives as during the earlier 360 air raids were launched on the German capital. In his last weeks, the dictator bothered his secretaries more and more with trivial topics such as dogs and dogtraining as advocated his art of nutrition. Meanwhile, he would combine many medicines and eat masses of pie – which he was given for his birthday at the 20th of April. Due to a (self)destructive lifestyle, Hitler looked much older than only half a year before. His clothes were full of stains and, for the first time during his dictatorship, Hitler made a sloppy impression to his surrounding. At military briefings, Hitler rested his hope at battalions that didn’t exist anymore. The military staff -albeit in secret- thought of him as ridiculous. Many military orders that Hitler gave were set aside or ignored. High ranked officers fled to Southern Germany – or the Vatican state helped them for an escape to Spain, Argentina, Chile or Paraguay. Hitler did not: he was determined to die in Berlin. He married Eva Braun on the 29th – it would be a honeymoon to hell. The next day, Hitler tested the poison on his dog and Eva – after which he shot himself. Two days later, the Red Army besieged the area around the Hitlerbunker. Another week later, Nazi-Germany surrendered.

The Soviet general Georgy Zhukov stated in June 1945 that no body of Hitler is found, and he may got away with an airplane. Even Stalin himself stated during the Potsdam conference in July that year, that Hitler may have fled to Spain or Argentina. The earlier stated myths and conspiracy theories found their origin in this period. The first debunking took place in 1968, when the Soviet journalist Lev Alexandrovitsj Besymenski published a book about secret Soviet documents. In the book is revealed that the Red Army have been looking for Hiter’s corps already at the 2nd of May. Three days later, first lieutenant Panassow and his inferior Tschurakow found what they were looking for in a shell crater, with a three meter distance from the exit of the ‘Führerbunker‘. However, the 200 liter benzine had turned the corpses quite much into coal. The remains were brought to Berlin-Buch, where an autopsy confirmed the identity of Adolf Hitler and Eva Hitler-Braun. The most important prove of the identification were his crooked teeth, which Hugo Blaschke -one of Hitler’s dentists- recognised. In 1990, a news item stated that Yuri Andropov (the Soviet Secret Service leader back then) commanded in 1970 to burn Hitler’s remains and dump them into the Elbe river. Soviet officer stated that Hitler’s ashes were dumped into the Elbe river. Only a few fragments of Hitler’s scull were archivated in a Russian States Archive. These fragments however, turned out to be from a woman…

The Hitlerbunker after the Soviets tried to destroy it. ©Bundesarchiv. Bild_183-M1204-319,_Berlin,_Reichskanzlei,_gesprengter_Führerbunker

What about the bunker? In despite of various attempts, the outer walls was too solid for being demolished with Russian dynamites. Only the inner walls were blown up, while an artificial hill was heaped over it. In the meanwhile, the high groundwater level changed the bunker into an underground swimming pool. Until 1986, when the area was changed into a construction site for the next three years. A certain man named Robert Conrad photographed the bunker in decay. He may be the last person on earth who got to know Hitler’s bunker; in 1989, the bunker was filled with rubble, sand and stones. After the Fall, a parking lot is build over it. The German authorities were afraid for far right groups to turn the location into a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site. As a consequence, rumours again overstated the reality. Only before the World Championship of 2006, an information panel by Berliner Unterwelten made an end to the endless rumours and expending urban myths.

In short, with this entry – I hope that once and for all I’ve clarified that Hitler didn’t spend his last days as a free man in the Argentinian sun. On the contrary, the Hitlerbunker was far from luxurious. Also, The Great Dictator saw that his power was waning in the last days of his life. Only his last order, to make sure that his body can’t be exposed in a Soviet museum as a triumph, was carefully accomplished.

Das Buddhistische Haus. A far journey within Berlin.

Stairs of das Buddhistische Haus, 1926. ©Das Buddhistische Haus

For some Buddhism, one has to travel a lot. It brought me to the furthest north of Berlin. As a suburb should, also Frohnau was blossoming on this sunny Sunday in March. The terraces were full of bon viveurs who seemed to be well-off. Young people, hiding behind sunglasses, were lunching in front of the church. The Johanneskirche I’m talking about, with the suspected year 1935 proud on its front wall, let some pensioners go every now and then. During the quarter walk from the station to the Buddhistische Haus (Buddhist House), I thought about the type of bourgeois day trippers I may bump into. These kind off people who buy incense at Rossmann, and give their vegetarian cousin a Buddha at the Karstadt for her birthday. Happily, I knew that the history behind the Buddhistisches Haus would be worth my ‘far journey’. After all, the Buddhist House nowadays is the oldest tempel of Europe: older ones did not make their way through the 20th century…

Paul Dahlke and his teacher Ven. Suriyagoda Sumangala Thera. ±1920. ©Das Buddhistische Haus

For establishing a Buddhist centre, one needs -first of all- an entrepreneurial Buddhist. Since the second half of the 19th century, they were to be found in Europe – albeit extraordinarily rare. One of them was the travelling, homeopathic doctor Paul Dahlke. He read something about Buddhism in books from Schoppenhauer, before he globe-trotted in 1898/9. At the isle of Ceylon, he initially wasn’t that enthusiastic about Buddhism. Dahlke nevertheless gave it another chance during his second world journey in 1900. He returned to Germany as a Buddhist – and his 294 pages counting ‘Aufsätze zum Verständnis des Buddhismus‘ (‘Report for the insight of Buddhism’) was published in 1903 already. The upcoming years, Dahlke travelled between Germany and Asia, until the First World War kept him from doing it. It is plausible that he worked as a doctor during the war. In the meanwhile, he wrote and published books about homeopathic medical science.

Buddha Memorial at the isle of Sylt, 1920s/1930s. (Demolished in 1939) ©Das Buddhistische Haus

After WWI ended, Dahlke could realis his vocation again. Although he lived in a villa at Berlin-Zehlendorf, he was given disposal over five hectares at the Frisian Island of Sylt, close to the Danish border. In dedication of Buddha, Dahlke realised a brick monument here – before he planned to build a Buddhist monastery. In 1920, when tangible plans were made to build the  Hindenburgdamm, Paul Dahlke left the peninsula to be. In the autumn of 1919, Dahlke also owned a hill in the Berlin suburb Frohnau, which would be gobbled up by the German capital the very next year. In the following couple of years, the Buddhist House was realised. An esoteric-complex with a garden, a tempel and a main building with Asian style-elements. Paul Dalke left his villa for the Buddhist House in 1924. Four years later, the homeopath died due a flue, after his health was weakened by tropical diseases already. The Buddhist House was kind off taken over by his sister, although the philosopher and Buddhalogist Volker Zotz was employed to carry out the interpretation of the Buddhist religion.

Tempel at das Buddhistische Haus, 1925. ©Das Buddhistische Haus.

The rest of its history, the Buddhist House slowly declined. What exactly happened in the Nazi-period is unknown to me. At some point, the peaceful doctrine was censored, although I don’t know when and at which timing. After World War II, the Buddhist House happened to be in the Western sector. In the 1950s, an entire demolition was considered. It was precaused by the demand of Asoka Weeraratna, the secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society. Weeratna and his foundation bought the accommodation in 1957 and renovated it -slowly- in the next two decades. The houses were renewed, a library was installed and a centre for meditation was opened. After all of this, I get the impression that nothing really happened again.

Bhante Nyanavimala, next to the snake Wall at the Buddhistisches Haus, 1969. ©Das Buddhistische Haus

Nowadays, many parts look like they could use a renovation again. The stairs at the main entrance, as well as the Snake wall, seem to crumble again. The stone footpath was rather damaged as well, and taken over by kind of red ants. The five souls who are reincarnated as homo sapiens I’ve seen here, were setting all silent on a bench or a stone. “Going with your camera to a Buddhist temple as a day tripper? …At which warehouse would he buy his Buddha?” they may have though, but it remained silent. I don’t feel that zen with this sort of introversion, although it kind off belongs to this peaceful world-religion. And I realised that I was projecting my own thoughts and questions on these people who didn’t say a word. I asked myself, should I capture this secret place with my photo-camera and spread it into the digital? Is this good for my karma? I really had to think about this. Living the parole ‘go native’, I’ve unleashed my shoes and visited the meditation hall – without making a snapshot.

Das Buddhistische Haus, front-view (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Das Buddhistische Haus, details at the entrance. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Das Buddhistische Haus. Details at the entrance (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

 Das Buddhistische Haus, stair and the front-view. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Das Buddhistische Haus. Detail at the door. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Das Buddhistische Haus. Side-view. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Das Buddhistische Haus, side-view(Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Das Buddhistische Haus. Side-view (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Das Buddhistische Haus. View at its backside. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser) Das Buddhistische Haus. Man sitting in front. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Das Buddhistische Haus. Details in front of the entrance to the tempel. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Courtyard of das Buddhistische Haus, 1925

Das Buddhistische Haus. Details in front of the entrance to the library. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)Das Buddhistische Haus. Details in the garden. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)
Das Buddhistische Haus. Details in the garden (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Garten of das Buddhistisches Haus, 1925

Das Buddhistische Haus. Detail in the garden. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser) Das Buddhistische Haus. Detail in the garden (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser) Das Buddhistische Haus. Backside view (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Das Buddhistische Haus. Another entrance. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Side gate of das Buddhistisches Haus, 1927

Das Buddhistische Haus. Sideview, standing down. (Berlin-Frohnau, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Between grieve and glory: the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park.

Main axe of the Soviet War memorial in Treptower Park

It is a sunny Monday in February. I’m in (what I consider) the middle of the city, albeit somewhat out of the centre, and standing next to a woman that eternally mourns about her son that died in WWII. The view is dominated by two half-masted marble flags, while a thirty meter high statue is located somewhat further. Red carnations, hammers and sickles, Soviet stars and poetic quotes by a certain J. Stalin are most of what I am going to see here. Only a couple of sporty types and a handful of tourists are around. Here, more people are dead than alive. After all, we are at a graveyard where seven-thousand Red Army soldiers are buried after the Battle of Berlin.

Soldier, statue and banner at the Soviet War memorial in Treptower Park. Berlin-Treptow, February 2014, photo by Joep de Visser.

The two half-masted marble flags of somewhat twenty meter are there to commemorate the fallen Soviet soldiers. Don’t ever let someone tell you that the marble of the half-masted flags are coming from anything that has to do with the Neue Reichskanzlei or with Hitler’s office. Rumours say that yes, it comes from a corridor between these two governmental building. The fact is though, that one can contradict nor confirm this rumour. Although it seems pleasing, and too good not to be true, I think it is dubious that there is no documental proof of this. Moreover, the Soviets dismantled most of the valuables as soon as WWII was over…

Blocks and the statue at the Soviet War memorial in Treptower Park. Berlin-Treptow, February 2014, photo by Joep de Visser.

Next to the marble flags, one sees two Red Army soldiers kneeling and honouring their fallen comrades. The visitor with a good eye for details will notice that the left one is older than the one at the right. Before the main statue, a few stairs down, five symbolic gravefields mantle the thousands of bodies. That means, symbolically. In fact, the corpses are situated underneath the statue and its hill. Fairly next to the symbolic gravefields, eight stones with impressive reliefs on both sides picture WW2’s history seen from the Soviets perspective. On the head of the stones – Josef Stalin gives his comments, engraved and accentuated with golden paint. The Russian comments are on the stones left of the gravefields, the German translations are to be found on the opposite side.

The Kurgan, the stand and the statue at the Soviet War memorial. (Berlin-Treptow, February 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)None of this excitement beats the 30 meter high statue. That means, the 12 meter high statue stands on a 18 meter high surface. There are another two parts, the Kurgan and the tripod. This Kurgan is a hill where many of the bodies are located. Such ‘gravehills’ have been build during the the chalcolithic and the iron age, in civilisations that lived around the Black Sea. The other Red Army bodies are placed aside of this Kurgan.

Mosaics in the stand of the Soviet War memorial. (Berlin-Treptow, February 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Walking up the stairs, one reaches the hollow tripod. At its ceiling, a huge Soviet star accompanies the funeral that is portrayed in mosaic stones. A text comments “Today we acknowledge that the Soviet-people saved the European civilisation from the fascist ‘pogrom-heroes’ due to their sacrifices. That is the most important advantage of the Soviet-people to the history of humanity.” Interestingly, the Berlin company that was given the assignment to produce the mosaics, worked for the Nazis with the same enthusiasm…

On top of the Kurgan and the tripod, at first we see a bronse swastika. That means, a swastika that is being destroyed by the sword of a Red Army Soldier that holds a child. This seventy-thousand kilo design explains that the brave Red Army saved the future from nazism. And although it is suspiced from being fictive propaganda, it is said that a certain Nikolai Masalov stood model for the twelve meter high statue. Masalov saved a toddler from the fire-lines around Potsdamer Platz, risking his own soul. However – it wasn’t Masalov but a certain soldier named Iwan Odartschenko was posing for the statues’ sculptor, the famous Yevgeny Vuchetich.

Inauguration of the Soviet War memorial in Treptower Park. (Berlin-Treptow, May 1949)

The Soviet War memorial has been revealed at the 8th of May 1949, exactly four years after WWII ended. By then, the German capital was still in ruins. It reveals that not only the construction of graveyards, but showing off the Soviet domination was given priority over urban rebuilding projects for the masses, such as described in my previous post. So, one cannot be wrong for thinking of the Soviet Memorial as communist propaganda and an outdated cold-war leftover. However, it is not up to the German government whether the memorial will be changed or not. It is the Russian authority that has the power over WWII’s graveyards in Germany. During the negotiations of unifying Germany in 1990, the Soviet-Union demanded that the Soviet War memorial will survive the ‘contra revolution’ that was going on. In 1992, again was confirmed that the German authorities are obliged to maintain this graveyard, while it’s not allowed to change its design. Absolutely nothing has been changed here since the Wall fell down. In fact, the memorial is still used to commemorate Red Army soldiers as well as the German capitulation.

The memorial may not be forgotten, or even a well-kept secret, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves either. Being located outside the centre means for most of Berlin’s visitors that it isn’t worth visiting… Therefore, this post is actually a long reminder that you shouldn’t leave Berlin without visiting this interesting place. You may think that there is no surprise after reading this article, however – it is impossible describing the overwhelming experience of good old Soviet propaganda!

View from the Kurgan. Soviet Memorial at the Treptower Park. (Berlin-Treptow, February 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

The flopped Stalinallee (1949-1961). What happens with a birthday gift to the Red Tsar.

Renaming the street into the Stalinallee. (Berlin-Mitte/Friedrichshain, December 1949/January 1950. ©Unclear)

Ever since there was traffic between Berlin and Frankfurt a/d Oder, there must have been a -about 100 kilometer long- road between these cities. Since Berlin’s expansion around 1700, it was named the Frankfurter Straße – and since the late 1780s, a part was named the Große Frankfurter Straße. City’s gates came and went, barricades were thrown up and blasted down. The (Große) Frankfurter Straße had a serious history – until a heavy air-raid at the 3rd of February 1945 wiped out most of it. Yet, this all is only a prehistory of the Stalinallee – as the street was called since December 1949.

By renaming the street, the East German politicians didn’t only congratulate Stalin with his seventieth birthday – but they also dedicated their most prestigious urban project to the Soviet dictator. The Stalinallee should be the labor paradise, the incarnated socialist utopia – so it had to be perfect. GDR’s politicians named this architecture an example of ‘socialist classicism’ and they implied that one day, the whole of the GDR would look like this 2.3 kilometer long boulevard. Buildings were up till 14 levels high, while shops on the ground floor turned the street into a 90 meter wide shopping street. Such a Stalinallee doesn’t sound bad at all, don’t you think? Don’t worry. I am not going to explain how this ‘paradise’ raised out of WWII’s ashes. Although I think that the East-European Retro (my words) architecture is really eye-pleasuring, I’m not just going to copy GDR’s propaganda story. In fact, GDR’s politicians actually had not the reason to be satisfied with the Stalinallee – since many things went wrong during its realisation!

The Karl-Marx-Allee. From Strausberger Platz up till Frankfurter Tor (Berlin-Friedrichshain, February 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Already when the Stalinallee was still named Große Frankfurter Straße, its future to ever end up as the utopian boulevard was challenged. Before the GDR was proclaimed in October 1949, the Soviets were in charge of rebuilding East Berlin. They installed a city planner who had in mind realise the Socialist Dream by constructing gallery flats. Two of them were realised before the East German communists were in charge and were able to stop it. In despite of being approved by their Soviet comrades, GDR’s politicians convicted these buildings for being ‘formalistic’ and an expression of ‘western decadence’. Poplars were planted in front of the gallery flats, so they won’t disturb the street-view too much.

The Stalindenkmal at the 'Stalinallee' (Berlin-Friedrichshain, November 1952). ©Bundesarchiv, photo by Krueger.

When the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students was held in East Berlin (August 1951), it was proven that the boulevard was named after Stalin. In their young and enthusiastic spirit, the Soviet delegation brought a 4.80 meter bronze statue of Stalin with them. The statue was put on a three meter high stand in front of the Deutsche Sporthalle (German Sports Hall), which was build for the occasion of this festival. This Sporthalle was the first construction at the Stalinallee that was finished by the East Germans independently. It was build within 148 days, in despite of a general lack of building materials. Various parts were recycled from demolished buildings in the city, such as the Stadtschloss (City Palace). Due to a political boycott, the West-Germans didn’t want to deliver the steel girders that was necessary for the excessive roof. As a result, an improvised roof had to be build by the East Germans themselves. The rush in which the Sporthalle was made, had to be paid after all. Due to the poor construction, the Sporthalle closed in 1969 and was demolished in 1971.

The 'Deutsche Sporthalle' (December 1954)

Since constructions were produced at the Stalinallee, there were people who agreed that the socialist boulevard will be the heaven on earth, if socialism wasn’t perfect already. That means, many of Stalinallee’s inhabitants were members of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED, Socialist United Party of Germany), as the ruling Communist Party was called. Members of the SED had benefits when it came to waiting for houses and such. So, they were not necessarily the elite in an economic way – but in a political and ideological way, they absolutely were. The ones who lived here, were the types that took part in the seven hour long march – or laid wreaths at the statue of Comrade Josef, when he died in March 1953.

Protests that started at the Stalinallee. Here, Leipziger Platz (Berlin-Mitte), June 1953. ©Bildagentur Schirner.

When a construction progress was made, this was celebrated with one of the SED‘s prominent politicians. For example in February 1952, when Otto Grotewohl (Prime Minister of the GDR) laid the symbolic cornerstone for a residential block in the middle of the boulevard. In his speech, Grotewohl claimed that “In this reconstruction work, Berlin should also be a symbol of unity. Berlin is, and shall become, the capital of a united Germany!”. In the summer of 1953, Grotewohl got impatient for this dream to come true. He demanded that the construction labourers worked 10 percent harder – without financial compensation. Very soon, Grotewohl was taught what the labourers at the Stalinallee thought of these measurements. It couldn’t have been more symbolic: an uprise started exactly where the Socialist Dream should have been realised. A labour uprise spread throughout the whole GDR and had hundreds of thousands of participants. After Soviet tanks intervened -and 55 till 75 protesters were killed- the construction at the Stalinallee continued.

The Haus Berlin (left) and the Haus des Kindes (right) at the Strausberger Platz. Berlin-Mitte/Friedrichshain (February 2014). Photo by Joep de Visser.

Perhaps, the following five years were how the GDR intended it. In October 1954, Wilhelm Pieck (President of the GDR) opened the Haus des Kindes (Children’s House) at the Strausberger Platz. In its basement, a puppet theatre was build – while a warehouse for children was opened at the 2nd and 3rd floor. At its 13th floor, there was a café with a view over the city. It is said that the staircase of the Haus des Kindes was decorated with images of fairy-tales, but the most people must have used the elevator. At -nearly- the end of the boulevard, two identical domes dominate the Frankfurter Tor (as the square is called since 1957). These are inspired by the Französische Dom (French Dome) and the Deutscher Dom (German Dome) – which are build 1701 till 1708 at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin’s historic city center. These by the way, are probably inspired by another identical pair of domes: the Queen Mary Court and the King William Court in London-Greenwich. There is more copying in the Stalinallee’s initial architecture. The same monumental lampposts are to be found at the Charlottenburger Straße (since 1953: Straße des 17. Juni) in West-Berlin, where Albert Speer located them. I think that these lampposts are notorious for being designed to hang (propagandist) banners on them – perfect for dictatorships. Who ever expected that the communists would copy a design from the Nazi’s, exactly at such a prestigious socialist boulevard?

Kino Kosmos (1960-62). Berlin-Friedrichshain (February 2014). Photo by Joep de Visser.In 1959, it was decided not to finish the Stalinallee’s construction works in the same type of socialist classicist architecture, in despite of a harmonious desire of the politicians. Most likely, the obvious reason named money had to push the change towards other architecture. That the socialist classicist style was thought as a bit outdated already, was used a good excuse. An example of the new, kind of Retro Futuristic or Space Race-Age architecture is the Kosmos cinema (build 1960/2) close to the Frankfurter Tor. More dominant though, was this architecture from Strausberger Platz up till Alexanderplatz. Public buildings as the more famous cinema Kino International (build 1961/3) and the Café Moskau (build 1961/4) filled up the wasteland. These interesting buildings though, are varied again with rather unattractive, functionalist Plattenbau buildings which are far from utopian.

The Plattenbau apartment with the protected 'Balkancarpodem' advertisement on it. And the Café Moskau. (Berlin-Mitte, February 2014.) Photo by Joep de Visser.Still, the biggest mistake for a Socialist Heaven on Earth was to name its main boulevard after Stalin. As said, Stalin died three springs later – in March 1953. In absence of his power, Stalin’s crimes towards humanity were revealed during the 10th Communist Congress in 1956. Two Communist Congresses later, in 1961, it was decided that the Stalinallee should be renamed into Karl-Marx-Allee and Frankfurter Allee. Stalins statue, only ten summers old, wouldn’t survive the decisions made during the 12th Communist Congress either. Three socialist jacuzzis (for the people!) came in its place.

Location of Stalin's former statue. After November 1961: fountains in which children are swimming (Berlin-Friedrichshain, 1974)

All summed up, the project of the GDR wasn’t close to the Socialist Utopia that it should have been. Most symbolic of all, GDR’s first major demonstration started here in June 1953. Not the socialist classicist architecture, but an uprise spreaded from the Stalinallee over the rest of the GDR. Also, the architectural project wasn’t actually finished in the way it was meant. New architecture replaced the initial idea for financial and aesthetic reasons. The short twenty years that the Stalinallee’s first monumental building (the Deutsche Sporthalle) was given, was even long enough to witness that Stalin’s statue was demolished and the street was renamed. To see how Stalin’s statue ended up, you can visit the nearby Café Sibylle, where the ear and a part of Stalin’s mustache are exposed. You could also visit the Tierpark (Animal Park), since a new statue of a tiger and a bison were made out of the melted statue of the communist dictator.

Stalins ear and moustache exposed in the Café Sibylle. ©Café Sibylle, photo by Joep de Visser.

After the Wall fell, the Karl-Marx-Allee is enlisted as a cultural monument, and has been renovated after the Wall fell down. Interestingly, the ‘rather unattractive functionalist buildings’ still hold socialist advertisement for Czech (Tatra Motokov) and Bulgarian (Balkancarpodem) motorvehicles, because these are now enlisted as monuments. In great contrast is the last ‘socialist classicist’ block, down at the Frankfurter Allee. I think it’s because these are not at the actual Karl-Marx-Allee, so they’re excluded from being protected cultural heritage. At least, these fronts are not renovated – and one can imagine, that the whole of the Karl-Marx-Allee looked like this by the end of the 1980s. In other words: this is what happens to a building when it is part of a birthday present to Stalin!

An unrenovated building block at the Frankfurter Allee. Background: the Frankfurter Tor. Berlin-Friedrichshain, February 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. Berlin’s first airport and its life after death… Is this Tempelhof’s future?

Paul Engelhardt in an airplane (Berlin-Johannistal/Adlershof, August 1910) No © needed, photo by Otto Haeckel

This week, the votes to preserve the Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof’s Airfield) were counted. With over 185.000 votes, the Tempelhofer Feld is save from the phantasies of architects and city-planners. With its 365 hectare and central location, its nothing less than a metropolitan miracle. One thinks of the Tempelhofer Feld as the proof that Berlin is spacious enough – and not that commercial (yet). Interestingly, the greenfield land is not that unique as we consider it to be. Berlin actually has a whole history when it comes to closed down airfields within the build-up area!

Motorflugplatz Johannisthal/Adlershof. Photo from 1927.

Perhaps I am cheating a bit here, since the first Berlin airport opened –between the suburbs of Johannisthal and Adlershof- in 1909, it wasn’t part of the Berlin municipal untill 1920. The activities developed in no-time. Somewhat ten companies -usually airplane instructors and -constructers combined- gathered around the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof (‘Engine driven airfield’). Even the famous American brothers Wright, who in 1903 were the first to prove that gravitation is beconquerable with an airplane, build a factory at the Motorflugplatz. Two grandstands were able to host 6500 visitors, while a location was made for another 10.000 attentives to stand and witness the development.

German advertisement of the Wright company, ±1910

The audience could enter the airfield by four gates, while the field was protected by a three meter high fence. It couldn’t prevent defaulters from climbing over and crossing the field – in despite of the venture. It is known that, in its first years, the visitors had a peculiar interest for the accidents that happened. First they would take a look -mostly with faked condolence- if the pilot succumbed, before the flotsams and jetsams were lifted as a souvenir.

The Deutschlandflag (June/July 1911) at a map.

The spirit in the German Empire seemed to be devoted to the sky. While Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof opened as the second within the empire, a whole Deutschlandflug (Flight of Germany) was organised in June and July 1911. Another sixteen airfields participated with the competition. Remarkably, all of them were located in the North and the West of the former Empire. (Perhaps, this commemorates the good old days in which Bavaria wasn’t more than a rural and underdeveloped province!) The 24 participants didn’t compete so much for being the fastest one to land back at Johannisthal-Adlershof, but especially for whoever succeeded the most tracks – or actually, who made the most valid kilometers. The reward was a price who was handed out by the Berliner Zeitung (Berlin’s local newspaper) which wrote the competition till it was a huge media spectacle.

Advertisement for the 'Deutschen Rundflug' in the Berliner Zeitung (June 1911)

That there was general concern doesn’t require a whole elucidation. The 250.000 who -without false modesty- were expected to come were outnumbed with an additional 350.000 visitors who witnessed the starting shots, at least – if they mastered the traffic chaos. Already from the start at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof it looked like the competition was going to be tough. Only seven participants took off that day, of which only one airplane arrived at the first destination of Magdeburg. The other pilots and their machines would arrive in the following days. By June 7th, eight out of 24 contestants made it back till Johannisthal-Adlershof. The sixteen others were stranded on their way. Benno König, who’ve spended 1882,5 kilometers in his Albatros, was given a sum of 89.015Mark – and the eternal honour.

Benno König (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, 1911) Winner of the first Deutschlandflug.

Back then, pilots weren’t just mortal human beings, but nothing else than heroes with a star status. The futuristic machines must have made quite a little impression, although the chairs often consisted of a loose fruit crate. Therefore, the courage which a pilot demanded to go -voluntarily- into such machines were peerless. The risks were not to be forgotten, and with peaks came the prices which had to be paid. In September 1911, the chain of Paul Engelhardt’s (see today’s first photo) Wright airplane broke, after which he crashed away at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. His pupil who was in the airplane, survived the crash with light injuries – Engelhardt himself was no more. The reputation of the -once pioneering- Wright company, whose airplanes had this one technical flaw more often, was injured as well. Within 1911 and its next two years, another 21 airplane pilots died in crashes – of which 12 in 1913 only. Therewith, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was the most lethal airfield within Germany. And besides airplane pilots, there were more victims at the plot. When a zeppelin left the Motorflugplatz at October 17th, 1913 – it inflamed at a height of over the 100 meters. None of the 28 men survived the crash.

Photo of the burning zeppelin (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, October 1913). No © needed, copyrights have expired.

As soon as World War I broke out, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was placed under military supervision. A number of soldiers had to learn how to fly, which intensified the air-traffic – as well as the number of accidents. In the next four years, 74 casualties fell – even before they made it to the frontlines.

Advertisement about the airpost (1919)

In 1919, the Motorflugplatz started the German history of regularly posting flights at the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof. Twice a day, airplanes went to Hamburg, Leipzig and Weimar & Hannover and Gelsenkirchen. The first passenger flights were a fact as well. Unfortunately, the airfield wasn’t given a long glory. When the airport Tempelhof opened in 1923, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof became redundant in no time. All the traffic went to the more central located airport.

Let me summarise the rest of the Motorflugplatz‘s history. Between 1932 and 1935, the airport was given a new life. Testing grounds -such as a wind tunnel and a sound muted building- could improve the aerodynamics and engine technology, which the Nazi’s used as well. After World War II, the Red Army used the airfield which happened to be in the Soviet sector of Berlin. In 1946, they moved their activities to the new airport of Schönefeld. Another six years later, the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof was taken out of use. The huge zone became a no man’s land. A funny detail is that the airfield officially closed in 1995. Unfortunately, it witnessed a last deadly accident during the closing ceremonial. The two pilots who, at too little height, did a stunt – brought themselves, together with a Nazi airplane (type Messerschmitt Bf 108) to the ground.

The Trudelturm (left) and the engine testing ground (right). Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, January 2014. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser.


Directly after the airfield was closed in the 1950s, a part was transformed into the
Johannisthaler Park. In its hangars, companies were established where -for example- food was cooled by the state-owned VEB Kühlautomat. After the Fall of the wall and the collapse of socialism, the company went bankrupt in 1996 – after which the sheds decayed. Other parts of the former airfield are given a more honourable future. Since 1991, the technical testing ground belonged to the Humboldt Universität. Since the end if the 1990s, 65 hectare of former airfield is protected as environmental area. So when you go to the former Motorflugplatz now, you don’t see much spectacular. Although the spacious view at the environmental area must have been there for many decades, it feels somewhat artificial – since it’s surrounded by an industrial area as well as an estating project under construction…

With this entry, I aimed to make clear that the Tempelhofer Feld is not the only urban airport which is out of use in Berlin – and I’ve not even been talking about the former airfields Gatow and Staaken, both in the West of the German capital. However, that Tempelhof isn’t that unique doesn’t keep me from thinking that it’s better to leave it uncultivated. A partly constructed airfield, such as happened to the Motorflugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, is not much of a model. Luckily, it looks like the faith of Tempelhof has concerned more people – and is therefore saved from a concrete and asphalted future. By the way, the nearby future will bring another unused airport. As you may know, the airports Tegel and Schönefeld will close as soon as the Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg will open its doors. Given the presence of Berlin’s natural law in which an airfield is only temporary, a diplomated mathematician may try and calculate when this one is closing!

Landschaftspark Johannisthal/Adlershof (Berlin-Johannisthal/Adlershof, January 2014). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser.