The Berlin Wall. Unifying two parts of town.

The Berlin Wall. Berlin-Mitte, January 2014. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

Everyone and your dog knows about the Berlin Wall – a cruel and unique construction that devided a city, a country, a continent and the world. Only recently, I found out that Berlin has a long experience when it comes to impressive walls. This is the history of the Berliner Stadtmauer (Berlin’s city Wall) – of which little is known about, and it is only estimated that it is build around 1250. By that time – there was no German capital: it wasn’t too long after the area was beconquered by a Margraviate which ruled from the mighty town of Brandenburg an der Havel. Actually, there wasn’t even one united Berlin: there were two minor settlements on opposing sides of the Spree river.

Berlin around 1300It is hard to make an impression of how life in this city was in the second half of the 13th century. People who visited the Petrikirche wouldn’t even say that they are from Berlin, but from Cölln. While Cölln was located south of the Spree -at the nowadays Museumsinsel (Museum isle) and Fischerinsel (Fisher isle)- at the northern side of the Spree, the settlement was named Berlin – where the God-fearing visited the Nikolaikirche. In total, a few thousand people may have lived in both settlements together. I am not even that good at medieval history – but besides visiting a church, I think that they spend their time fishing in the river, brewing beer and having a cow outside the city, before skinning it and tan some leather.

Not many historical documents from the 12th and 13th centuries survived the turbulent future they were born into. Therefore, the oldest document which give notion of Cölln dates from 1237 – seven years older than Berlin’s prove of existence. Yet, Berlin was given city rights in 1251, and Cölln around 1260. It is also somewhere in the 13th century, the decision was made to protect this regional epicentre of human life and interaction. The stone, later brick, wall up till two meter high was build – while guards at the six gates controlled who came into the towns for the next couple of centuries. All of these gates didn’t make it through the changes of history – and besides some drawings at wikipedia, there is nothing that remembers the historical defense of Berlin’s in the city’s public space. Of course, I got curious how sure we are about the year that The Wall was build. Yet, this is a bit of the problem. The general estimation says it dates back up till ±1250 and the oldest document who makes notion of The Wall dates back from 1318: so it must be older than that. According to Peter Haffiz, a chronicler who lived in the 16th century, the Berlin part of town was enclosed by a stone wall in 1247 already – but it seems a little too early. It comes as a reasonable thought that the settlements were given protection after they were declared a city in 1251 (Berlin) and ±1260 (Cölln) – but it’s not proven by documents. A certain archeologist stated that The Wall is build in the 1270s and 1280s. After The Wall was finished – Berlin and Cölln cooperated increasingly and shared a magistrate since 1307.

Taken everything into account, I’ve got the fair impression that Berlin and Cölln went through a rapid development in the 1240s and 1250s – but it seems a little early to take 1250 as the year that The Wall was build. Perhaps, the first steps were set after Berlin was given city rights in 1251 – but then, it would be reasonable to think that Cölln wasn’t allowed to build their part of The Wall before 1260. On top of that, it took probably a few decades to build this construction – so I think that 1260-1290 is the safest and closest estimation. Please share your thoughts if you don’t share my logic, or if you have more information about this topic.

Miraculously, there is a fragment of The Wall at the Littenstraße that survived all centuries. For various ages, this fragment has been a wall that seperated two houses from each other. I guess that the houses were heavily damaged during World War II, after which they were demolished. In 1948, the ruin is declared as a monument. Thirteen years later – this fragment was not the only wall in Berlin anymore. The difference is that the new Wall wouldn’t unify two different settlements into one city: it devided two parts of a metropole that belonged to each other for the next 28 years.

The Berlin Wall and the Fernsehturm. Berlin-Mitte, January 2014. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.


A confusing (hi)story. The Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists.

The monument in 1972, just revealed

Nowadays, we may think it is situated in a somewhat desolated corner of the Volkspark Friedrichshain. That means – in three years that I’ve lived here, I’ve never spontaneously bumped into it. Only groups of skaters seem to be interested in the monument, albeit for grinding and sliding – not for its history. Back in the days of the GDR, this East Berlin park was the centre of notorious memorials for historical revolutions and their heroic sacrifices. Of course, the communist regime never let go of turning a memorial into a piece of propaganda. And well, propaganda can serve a certain function – also a diplomatic one. All together, it came to a memorial for the Polish soldiers and German anti-fascists at the foot of the hill.

Relations between the GDR and Poland were getting better in the early 1970s. In May 1972, a memorial was erected. War veterans from both countries were there, albeit not them who fought for the Wehrmacht. Only anti-fascist veterans who were acceded by the communist parties were present. The celebration was supported by a fanfare music group. It was time for GDR’s leader, if not dictator, Erich Honecker to reveal the monument for the anti-fascist heroes in presence of his Polish equal Edward Gierek. Supported with the slogan “For their and our freedom”  -in both Polish and German- a relief print of a Red Army Soldier, a Polish soldier and a German anti-fascist are fighting as equals against the Nazi’s. Of course, the real deal are the two fourteen meter high pillars, with GDR’s and Socialist Poland’s symbols on their sides. Together they form one staff to carry a bronse banner of victory. Initiated by both a German as a Polish groups of WWII’s veterans, the monument was created by a bi-national artist collective. The 220.000 kilo’s of Polish granite was meant to be forever.

Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists (Berlin-Friedrichshain, December 2013) No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

Initiated by the Polish embassy in 1995, another information panel is revealed. It states that this memorial only remembers the acceded heroes from 1972: which are not all the heroes. The Polish soldiers who were acceded by 1972 were only them, who fought against the Nazi’s in the underground army and battalions which were formed in the Soviet-Union – the panel adds another couple of groups of Polish soldiers. First of all, them who fought against the German invasion of September 1939: with the outbreak of WWII. Moreover, the soldiers were memorised who fought together with the Allieds in Western Europe. They did so, in name of the Polish government – which went into exile and was situated in London. Also, the heroes of the Polish resistance were to be commemorated since 1995. With the latter, one can think of the partisans and the ones who fought in the uprise in Warsaw. In the additional information, (wo)men who fell during the War as Polish forced labourers, Prisoners of War or all German resistance are honoured as heroes too.

Za naszą i waszą wolność. Für ihr und unsere Freiheit. (Berlin-Friedrichshain, December 2013) No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

The gap between the initial function of the monument -which was fairly propagandistic- and the added information is considered to be too wide. For this reason, Markus Meckel -a socialdemocratic politician and theologian- recently pleaded for a renewal of the monument. The slogan “Za naszą i waszą wolność.” (“For their and our freedom”) -which has been a slogan in Polish battles since the 1830s- will stand central here. Meckel, himself a notorious dissident in the GDR, doesn’t forget to honour the Solidarnosk (Solidarity) movement – which contributed to the historical overthrowing of communist regimes in favour of freedom and democracy. At last, Meckel is thankfull for the Polish agreement of German unification in 1990. For any further remembrance, both Polish and German experts have to come to an agreement in the new educational message.

All summed up, the memorial to Polish soldiers and German anti-fascists comes to me as one of the most outdated ones I’ve seen in a while. The gap between the idea in 1972 and  the changes in 1995 is so big, while the monument remained untouched. For being so outdated, the memorial is a bit confusing. It almost leaves the impression that we are remembering a memorial here. Although the meaning has officially been changed in 1995, it still surprises me to see GDR’s coat of arms in Berlin’s urban jungle. So, I fairly support the idea of making it more easy for visitors to find more information about the Polish struggle in WWII. Perhaps I am myself not that interested in the military history, although the Polish military history is nothing less than a sum of tragedies. The more, I think that the nearly six million Polish casualties -mostly civilians, among them 3 million jews- should be memorised. Till then, I fairly understand that this memorial is not taken that serious by the youth – being thankful to the GDR for leaving behind this skaters friendly heap of granite.

Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists (Berlin-Friedrichshain, December 2013) No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

The Koppenplatz. A tiny park with a huge history.

Only a minute walk from Rosenthaler Platz, a tiny park named the Koppenplatz hosts a memorial to the biggest theme in 20th centuries’ history: the Holocaust. To be exact, the memorial remembers the round-ups of jews, prior to the deportations and the massacres. It is not a coincidence that the memorial ended up at the nowadays Koppenplatz.

Der verlassene Raum (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte. December 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

In a way, its pre-history dates back to an order from 1737, when the contemporary King drove most of Berlin’s jews to the Scheunenviertel. This neighbourhood had a rather short historical account back then. As a side-effect of the cattle market at the nowadays Alexanderplatz, many Scheunen (barns) were build in its direct surrounding – hosting piles of inflammable straw. As a safety regulation against the danger of fire, the local elector Friedrich Wilhelm I commanded to place the barns outside of the city in 1672. The Scheunenviertel (barns quarter) showed up the north of this cattle market. Secondly, the Koppesche Armenfriedhof (Poor man’s graveyard) was situated around here since 1704. It was partly named after Christian Koppe, the city’s advisor who realised it. In a pre-modern act of solidarity, he has also been buried here after his death in 1721

An already described decision would change the history of the Scheunenviertel forever. It was the year 1737 when the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I demanded all jews without to live outside of the city. Only jews who owned their own houses were allowed to stay inside Berlin’s defensive walls. In addition, jews were only allowed to enter Berlin by the two northern gates. As a result, the Scheunenviertel became a destiny for many of the lower class jews. Their importance to the public sphere in this neighbourhood must have been immense. The Armenfriedhof on the contrary, stopped blossoming. A few years after the jewish Berliners moved to the Scheunenviertel and around, this graveyard didn’t host the freshest corpses anymore. That means, officially – in fact, funerals in fact took place here for another century.

Memorial to Christian Koppe (Berlin-Mitte. December 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Since the late 1830s, the neighbourhood around the Armenfriedhof changed tremendously. Between 1835 and 1869, a senior house was build – albeit in three phases. The surrounding hood changed – especially in 1853, when the soil of the Armenfriedhof was released. In that year, the Große Hamburgerstrasse was lengthened and divided the former graveyard, while another by-street was constructed. It gave the shape to the Koppenplatz, which was also given its name by then. At the grave of Christian Koppe, an extensive place of honour was erected two years later.

A typical tenement from the 1850s (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte, December 2013) No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

During the next couple of decades, classic tenements were constructed and populated by the poor. Up till the first decade of the 20th century, the surrounding area was filled by tenements, the senior house and a school. The Scheunenviertel became known of the most densely populated urban areas of Berlin. Of course, it was not only populated by the jews who initially came here. As usual for a capital, it attracted many immigrants. Throughout the 19th century, they were often jews from East Europe – who fled for anti-semitic pogroms once again. Although they -and many others- used Berlin as a stopping place to head towards the promising continent abroad the ocean, I’ve got the impression that many of them could not continue their journey – and were stuck in this particular part of the German capital.

Koppenplatz as a park, the 1927 design by Erwin Barth

The Scheunenviertel may have gone through various phases, but the Koppenplatz itself didn’t stay the same either. By the end of the 19th century, the notorious architect Hermann Mächtig edited it into an urban square. Erwin Barth, whose name you may remember from my update about the Luisenstädtischer Kanal, changed the square into a park in 1927. A few years later, the nazi’s changed the Koppenplatz again – although I’m unsure into what exactly. By 1940 though, two underground air-raid shelters were constructed here by French Prisoners of War. The Scheunenviertel, where many of the jews lived who were too impecunious to leave Nazi Germany, became the stage of anti-semitic violence and deportations.

French POW's constructing a air-raid shelter (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte. March 1941. ©Bundesarchiv)

The square became part of the GDR’s East-Berlin. The entrances to the bunkers were blocked, while the bunker remained undamaged. For this reason, the Koppenplatz are still a bit heigtened. Also, a playground for children was erected at the southern side of the park. Here, a statue named ‘Geschwister‘ (Siblings) was constructed in 1968. Nothing honoured the past of a jewish neighbourhood for another few decades. Not before 1988, when the November pogrome fifty years earlier was remembered, the East Berlin authorities asked its inhabitants for a fitting monument to the deportations which the Scheunenviertel witnessed. From the seventy contributed designs, the memorial of a deserted room by Karl Biedermann was chosen. The bronze sculpture is made and revealed to the audience in 1996. In addition, a poem Nelly Sachs is there to be read. The Schöneberg born poet, who made her way to Sweden in 1940, wrote in 1947:

…O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Einladend hergerichtet
Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war –
O ihr Finger
Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod
O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!

Which could be translated by the following:

…Oh the houses of death, invitingly appointed,
for the landlord of the house who was once a guest.
Oh you fingers, laying the threshold – like a knife between life and death.
Oh, you chimney stacks, oh you fingers,
and the body of Israel going up in smoke!

All in all, I think that the Koppenplatz covers a lot of history which is not to be seen anymore. Here, I’m not only stating the underground WWII shelters which are withdrawed from the public eye. Also, no traces of the Armenfriedhof –showing mercy to the poor during the 18th and 19th century- are not to be found back. In despite of the modesty which the poor once helped, the only thing that reminds of the Armenfriedhof is the luxuous grave -if it isn’t worth calling a tombe- of Christian Koppe. Most of all, the centuries-old jewish presence of the Scheunenviertel is not to be found back. Once being forced to live here, the two ages of jewish presence have been wiped out by the cruelest way imaginable. Although it is said that the most jewish culture and institutes is still to be found in this area, I think one has to be trained to find these. The monument to remember the violent event, stating a clear message in a minimal way, also loudly speaks out by being silent.


The ‘Dicke Marie’. All we know about Berlin’s oldest oak.

A sign leading to the 'Dicke Marie' (Berlin-Tegel, November 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

The boulevard with restaurants direct me to a boardwalk with ferries. This week I’ve headed to the Tegeler See, a lake in the north-west of Berlin. Inlands of the Große Malche, a bay in this one lake, a peculiar oak looses its leaves at the current of the year. That means, the leaves it still has: after a bunch of centuries, the Dicke Marie (Fat Mary) has remarkably less crop than the younger vegetation that surrounds her. Writing down the history of a single tree, that sounds like a parody on La Méditeranée – as the classic tripartite history by the French historian Fernand Braudel is called. Nevertheless, this update won’t be about the effects of the Weichselian on Berlin’s and the Havelland landscape, nor about the different political regimes that this old and wise oak has witnessed.

This oak’s history starts in the spring of 1107, when an acorn came ashore in the bay of the Große Malche. Anonymously, it listened to growling bears and the songs of minstrels during the middle ages. In the middle of the 16th century, it was the first tree outside the domain of the Schloss Tegel (Tegel Palace). As a result, his fellow trees were cut and turned into a garden. By the end of the 18th century, the nearby town of Tegel already talked about the old oak. In 1778, Johann von Goethe -world’s most famous contemporary German- honoured the oak with his visit. Some few years later, the tree was given its nickname: Dicke Marie. A certain Alexander and Wilhelm -the tads from the Von Humboldt’s, living by that time in Schloss Tegel– named the oak after their obese kitchen-maid. In the meanwhile, sand slipped slowly on the banks – so Dicke Marie stands about 30 meters inland by now. Needless to say, the nine-century old oak is enlisted as a natural monument.

This is the story of how an oak grew up and lost its, or even her, anonymity sounds pleasing and satisfying. But what is true of it? The most exotic about the Dicke Marie is her prehistorical prevalence. The first question to arise is what her age is and how we know this. I’ve not been the first one to try and answer this rather impolite question. The answers though, have been more confusing as clarifying.

The age of Marie has been guessed more than once by editors of various newspapers. Some journalist in 1956 overestimated Marie’s age – and wanted to celebrate her 1000th birthday. I am sorry if this comes to you as banal, but I can’t ignore my impression that this particular estimation was made by a certain nostalgist, projecting the idea of a Tausendjähriges Reich (Thousand Year Reich, which lasted from 1933 till 1945) on this single oak. For who dons’t know yet, oaks were popular among Germans in the first half of the 20th century. Nazi’s turned it a little too much a national symbol out of it. Their admiration for the oak and its eternity didn’t go by Dicke Marie; she has been given a monumental status in 1939.

In 1986 however, an article in the Berliner Morgenpost estimated Marie’s age to be 700 – while their competing editors from the Berliner Zeitung thought she was another age older. In this article, it is also told that a five centuries old oak close-by, as well as a tree stumpf between them, may have functioned as a borderline between two counties back then. This slightly confuses me, because that same article says that the Dicke Marie should be two-hundred years older as its fellow landmark. The most recent article about the Dicke Marie, dating back from March 2009, is again written in -again- the Berliner Zeitung. Here and now, it states that the tree can celebrate its 900th birthday – something that seems to be generally accepted by now.

Although we get confused by these different estimations, there is hope. At least we know that the Dicke Marie must have been full-grown in the late of the 18th century, when the young Von Humboldt brothers played in the forest – right? When an article about the Dicke Marie is written in 1996, we couldn’t find any prove of this – ‘in despite of extensive research’. Actually, the name of the tree was forgotten – until Berlin’s authorities for environmental protection looked for a fitting name for the tree by the end of the 1980s. All there was were nicknames which survived the decades time by being remembered and told, such as ‘Mutter Dossen’ and -with more success- ‘Dicke Marie’.

Taken the oak into account, I have the impression that little is really known about Dicke Marie’s history. I’ve noticed that people like to celebrate its some-hundredth – up to even her thousandth birthday. I guess that the only way to find out the oak’s real age will be by cutting it and counting the annual rings – a rather fatal solution for this problem. But Dicke Marie’s age is not all there is to question. According to the little words which are written about this tree, the oak has been enlisted as a natural monument for three times. And still, people rewrite the false history of this tree. Why can’t people live with the fact of not knowing? As I see it, the case of ‘Dicke Marie’ covers up the little that most of us actually know or understand about nature – albeit based on urban myths once again. Don’t get me wrong: the bay of the Tegeler See and the Große Malche are surely worth a visit, but realise that the chance for an acorn to be sprouted in the year 1107 is minimal. There is one relief for Mary though; during her life-time, no one will be able to see her age by her appearance!

Dicke Marie (Berlin-Tegel, November 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

The Schwerbelastungskörper. Would the Nazi Triumphal Arch sink in its self-created hole?

The Schwerbelastungskörper (Berlin-Kreuzberg, September 2013). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

Considered the above cylinder as a unique piece of history, albeit Nazi, one can understand its monumental status. The first thing you have to know about this unit though, is that it’s never been build for its own sake. It only served as a testing ground for another construction and therefore should only be used for a few years, if not months. What should have been tested here? And why is it still not deconstructed? You’ll read it in the wicked history of the Schwerbelastungskörper!

In his future plans to show-off his power as soon as he dominated the world, Hitler designed a Triumphal Arch in ±1926 already. When things got closer, a ‘Nord-South Axe’ was planned from S-Bahnhof Papestraße (nowadays S-Bahnhof Südkreuz) towards the Lehrter Bahnhof (nowadays: Hauptbahnhof) and further north to Nordbahnhof. A 120 meters wide boulevard with the biggest monuments, important cultural organisations and offices of the biggest companies had the function to convince unknowing, rural civilians from the beauty of national-socialism. To remember and honour the German victims of the First World War, Hitler’s Arch would be the first attraction to bump into. There was work to be done: the project of this axe had to be finished in 1950 by its latest.

Model for the 'North-South Axe', dating from 1939. ©Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA

Officially, Albert Speer was given artistic freedom to construct this arch. Speer remembered though, that Hitler gave him a drawing of some arch in 1936. The lickspittle understood that his career would be guaranteed if he realised Hitler’s design. His Arch had a height of 117 meter, and the names of more than 2 million names of WWI casualties would be immortalised in here. It would be an impressing kick off for the next seven kilometers of Nazi architecture. Speer though, realised that the megalomanic construction could be quite demanding for Mother Earth. In March 1938, before any construction work took place, he demanded a test to proof the local soil. A solid cylinder of reinforced concrete, weighing 12,65 million kilogram, was armed with the newest measuring equipment. The 21 meter high monster, with an additional 10 meters underneath the surface, was given the name Schwerbelastungskörper, or in short: Bauwerk T. Still, it wasn’t before April 1941 that the Schwerbelastungskörper was constructed with the forced help of French Prisoners of War (POW’s). Half a year later, the construction of the Schwerbelastungskörper was finished. In the meanwhile, Hitler had been impatient with the construction of his Arch: a serious amount of natural resources was bought already in March 1940.

Hitlers sketch from the Triumphal Arch. ©Unknown

It wasn’t before June 1944 though, that test results from the Bauwerk came out. While a bulge of 2 to 6 centimeters was allowed, the cylinder sank about 19 centimeters within its first 2.5 years already. To be honest with you, it remains unclear to me if they were analysed in 1944 already, or not before 1948. One rumor says that Hitler heard about these facts, but ignored them and demanded the immediate construction of the Arch. The post-war conclusion from 1948 postulated that the Triumphal Arch would be too heavy for the surface, unless the soil would be solidified. This technique was already known in the 1940s till a certain extent. In the meanwhile, there was no more need for a Triumphal Arch whatsoever!

Inside the Schwerbelastungskörper (Berlin-Kreuzberg, September 2013). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

Since it is located amidst a neighbourhood, it was not allowed to blow up the Schwerbelstungskörper with explosives. From 1951 up to 1983, the Bauwerk was again used for soil testing. After twelve years of  emptiness and slow deprivation, the Bauwerk is listed and protected as a monument. Taken this in account, the Schwerbelastungskörper is actually a piece of remains for another project, though still too difficult to get rid of. Besides, there is a serious chance that the Bauwerk T was redundant – since the negative advice for Hitlers prestige-project wouldn’t stroke with his impatience. Since September 2009, the Schwerbelastungskörper is renovated and accessible. Inside the concrete cylinder, its ground floor is visible. Next to the Schwerbelastungskörper, a bunch of stairs lead you to the platform which reveals a view on the top of the Bauwerk T. At the street level, a permanent stand informs you about Hitler’s unrealistic urban planning, characterised by the heaviest-set constructions which should be build in the shortest time-space. To me, it is clear that Berlin’s soil would not have been strong enough – but it remains unclear it could have been made like that. Only if it would not, the project couldn’t have been more symbolic; Hitler’s Triumphal Arch – sinking down in a self-created hole.

The Schwerbelastungskörper and a city-view (Berlin-Kreuzberg, September 2013). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

For details to visit the Schwerbelastungskörper, click here.

The cone? An ant hill bunker? Or is it a concrete cigar? The bunker at the RAW-Gelände.

The RAW-Gelände (Berlin-Friedrichshain, September 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

During the day, the RAW-Gelände is another world from its nights and weekends. The generous laughing and flirtatious winks brought by the clutter of fun looking techno-tourists are replaced by the emotionless stare of working men, refilling the clubs’ stash of spirits, beers and popular carbonated sodas based on this South American tea. It doesn’t keep a group of people from having a good time, climbing up a certain object which stands out at the area. The contemporary usage of this object, nowadays named Der Kegel (The Cone) differs from its history – as the night from the day in its surrounding clubs.

Already since 1867, the area is used to repair trains. Since 1918, it is named Reichsbahnausbesserungswerk (German Imperial Railway Repair Factory) or in short RAW – as is how we still refer to the Gelände (Area) nowadays. A few decades later, this area became witness of a peculiar type of architecture which had nicknames such as Betonzigarre (concrete cigar), Zuckerhut (sugar-loaf) or -by the English- ant hill bunker – referring to the rather crowded content. I am talking about the bunkers who officially were named Winkeltürme (Winkel’s towers), who were named after its designer Leo Winkel – a man of who little is known. Winkel researched the possibility of building aboveground bunkers, fairly new by that time. And for a reason: who could have thought that underground bunkers actually were in need of thicker walls? As a result of digging itself into the ground, the bomb’s explosion creates a shock-wave in the soil. Aboveground, the energy of the blast spreads in all directions. Perhaps of even bigger importance, the Winkeltürme were way cheaper and faster to construct than underground bunkers since it kept from struggling with the groundwater level. The patent for the type of bunker was obtained in 1934, a year before the first Winkelturm -a prototype- was build. When it was tested for being save in January 1936, goats were kept close to its walls inside – testing if too much noise came in. The testing bombs with a weight of 500 and 1000 kilo did not damage the Winkelturm badly. The goats though, ended up more harmed: they were deaf. As a result, some man concluded that a distance of 30 centimeters from the walls would be enough to keep from losing your ability to ever hear the next air raid alarm.

As far as I can see, there were about some 200 Winkeltürme build – in about five different types and many minor varieties. The most important development comes to me as the thickening of walls. In the earliest constructions, these reinforced concrete masses started 1.10 meter thick at the ground level. They slimmed 3 centimeter each meter: so they left only 80 centimeter of concrete protection at ten meters height. The pointy roof –in despite of bombs being unable to spend there last intact seconds on it- was 1.40 thick. In later designs, the protection was thickened up to 2 meters at the ground level as well as its roof – while a thickness of 1.40 meter was required at the height of ten meters. Also, the first designs of the Winkeltürme had two levels underneath the surface and another seven up. The multiple stairs provided in the most efficient way of getting people in the bunker and out again. Up till 1941, the Winkeltürme were build steadily. Then, a lack of resources kicked in. A civil servant calculated that the Winkeltürme were relatively inefficient: a maximum of 3 cubic meter per hider was settled, while the fourth construction demanded 3,50 cubic meter. Some other type even demanded about 6 cubic meter of reinforced concrete for everyone who looked for a shelter. Only a few more Winkeltürme were build in 1942 and 1943.

The Winkelturm at the RAW-Gelände (Berlin-Friedrichshain, October 2013). ©Der Kegel, photo by Joep de Visser

It is not too easy to find specific information about the bunker at the RAW-Gelände. Given the fact that the walls are about 1.80 meter thick at 10 meter height, this bunker must have been one of the heavier type. Different than most other Winkeltürme, its entrances were at the ground level – while it does not have floors underneath the surface. The most reasonable explanation which come up in my mind goes with the Spree, the river that floats fairly next to it. Therefore, the groundwater level may have been even more of a struggle than usual. The two stairs in the bunker both go up, leaving only small platforms in its middle. Most of the (estimated) 400 people which were able to find shelter in this bunker, must have stand at the stairs. The walls were pierced through by holes in multiple sharp angles: providing the bunker’s population with fresh air while grenade’s splinters were kept outside. At the bunker’s peak, a periscope was able to investigate if the Allies already stopped testing Newton’s law of universal gravitation over the Berlin airspace.

A windpipe inside the Winkelturm at the RAW-Gelände (Berlin-Friedrichshain, October 2013). ©Der Kegel, photo by Joep de Visser.

After the War, about 60 percent of the Winkeltürme were deconstructed during the demilitarisation of both Germanies. At the ground for the repair of East German trains, this bunker survived while it proved its safety as a storage for inflammable products. Since a bunch of years – Der Kegel is decorated with yellow, green and black climbing holds. Also, the pointy roofs up the entrances are removed so one can recover after crawling vertically for three meters. Der Kegel‘s inside is kept from the public eye – albeit that the renters are gentle towards the young and local historians! They held the door open for me to go in and allowed me to take photos. As a consequence, I recommend to do climbing sports at Der Kegel: it makes you feel like besieging a structure which couldn’t be destroyed by bombs. The first requirement though is to visit the RAW-Gelände during the day in stead of the night!

Der Kegel, Berlin-Friedrichshain (September 2013). ©Der Kegel, photo by Joep de Visser

Update: a well informed spirit told me that the Kegel is not a Winkelturm, but a Zombeck-Turm, made by a competitor. Paul Zombeck made minimal differences in the constructions of the Winkelturm and got a patent for his type of bunker by 1937.

The Fichtebunker in Kreuzberg. How a gas holder made it through World War II.

As promised in my previous update, I will write today about a WWII bunker which is visitable more easily than the Hochbunker Heckeshorn. Close-by the Volkspark Hasenheide, the Fichtebunker can be found in Berlin’s most celebrated district; Kreuzberg.

The Fichtebunker (Berlin-Kreuzberg, October 2013. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser)

Since 1874, the bunker has an interesting pre-history. It was one of the four gas holders which were build at the Fichtestraße in the 1870s and the 1880s. So to speak, it required a certain optimism to build a densely populated neighbourhood in the direct surrounding of ±140.000m³ gas. Anyway, these four gas holders were particularly used for the increasing number of street lights which ran on natural gas. For this reason, the newest gas holder was nearly twice the size of the oldest. The brick walls which these four gas holders had, were not really necessary; they were erected as an expression of decoration. Many of the other 43 gas holders which Berlin counted some decades later, did not have these walls. To be fair with you, I am not too familiar with the technical details of such gas holders. The more I am interested by the idea that the gas driven society required other handicrafts, such as ‘gas smellers’. They had to stick tubes nearby the pipelines, smelling if there were gas leaks under the surface of the street.

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A bunch of decades later, the gas era of came to a slow end. The gas holders at the Fichtestraße were closed in 1922 – after most of Berlin’s street lights were fed by electricity. It wasn’t before August 1940 when the Nazi regime saw the empty buildings as useful. Then, Albert Speer -the chief of Berlin’s urban planning- was given command to rebuild the second oldest gas holder as a bunker. Of course, he was backed up by forced help of French PoW’s (Prisoners of War) and Italian construction workers. With a height of 22 meters and a cross-cut of 56 meters, six floors with 120 rooms each would be constructed in the second oldest gas holder. The walls were fortified with 1,80 meter reinforced concrete, the roof was even 3,20 meter thick. The chamber in the core of the bunker was filled up by a machine to up pump air and blow it around. After 390 toilets were installed and 30 rooms were furnished as kitchens, cloakrooms and hospitals, the Fichtebunker was made to host 6.500 women and children. After the Fliegeralarm (air raid alarm) warned them, they had to make their way by one of the five entrances. As one can expect of a Nazi employer, the foreign forced labourers -who did all the construction work- were excluded from the bunker’s safety.

Apparently, the former gas holder was anything but explosive. At the same time, up to 30.000 people found shelter in the Fichtebunker when air raids became a daily treat in the last year of the war. A visitor had to share a square meter with three others and all their luggage. Even the police took advantage of the concrete umbrella: some important prisoners were kept in the Fichtebunker‘s cellar. Therewith, the police prevented attempts to escape during the chaos which came with air raids. In contrast to the three surrounding gas holders, the Fichtebunker made it through the war rather undamaged. In 1951, its three brothers were deconstructed with the help of dynamite.

After the war, the Fichtebunker served as a short stay for the ones whose houses were bombed or who were forced to leave the territories in Eastern Europe. So to speak, it was an asylum for homeless people in the days that being so was kind off normal. All of them, around the 1300 daily in the summer of 1945, were involuntarily deloused by chemicals. The prison cells were initially filled with Nazi’s, later by juvenile delinquents. Slowly but steadily, people found places to work and live – while the socially weakest ended up staying in the Fichtebunker.

In 1963, a few years after the Berlin Wall was erected, one feared another blockade in which West-Berlin would be separated from the Western World. Hundreds of storages were stuffed in case of a crisis. As you may guess, the Fichtebunker was one. After saving up tens of thousands cubic meters of gas and lodging another tens of thousands of people, it wasn’t much extra to stock 7000 tons of -mostly- tinned sardines, apple sauce and French beans. After the Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end, the storage was sent to the former enemy: Soviet Russia.

Therewith, the Fichtebunker became useless. Because of the thick walls, a huge investment had to be made before it can be exploited – for example as a hostel. It turns out that Kreuzberg’s tourists are supposed to see something of the city, which is made impossible. This happens all in despite that the machine to circulate the air inside the bunker still works – as demonstrated during a tour of the Berliner Unterwelten, the tour company I spoke highly about in the previous post as well. Thursdays at 6pm, that Tour will be in English. At least one other dream became reality: a real estate which completed twelve luxury houses on top of the 3,20 meter thick roof in 2010. A dream for the lucky few turned out to be the nightmare of the direct neighbourhood: they feared for gentrification and -vainly- protested.

All together – I think of the Fichtebunker as a surprising history in an area which is so much alive nowadays. But, to be honest, there are a couple of things which didn’t get clear to me. Berlin is known for having half of the gas lights in the world – over 40.000. So, how did the gas holders at the Fichtestraße really become that redundant by the 1920s already? And why didn’t the Nazi’s reconstruct the Fichtestraße’s way bigger newest gas holder as a bunker? …I guess that blogging about history always evokes new questions.

The Fichtebunker (Berlin-Kreuzberg, October 2013. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser)