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)

Recommanded: Red Army Soldiers’ graves (& their memorials)

As seen in my previous article, the Soviet authorities didn’t only use the graveyards for fallen Red Army Soldiers as a heartfelt site of remembrance. In the meanwhile, the memorial was used as a propagandist site to prove their victory over Nazism. Now, there are another five of these graveyards for the Soviet soldiers that wouldn’t survive the Battle of Berlin. The graveyard in Treptower Park may be the most impressive one – the others have their (dis)advantages as well. In this article, I don’t want to overwhelm you with their constructional facts – the more with a bunch of images. New to me is that the Soviets often constructed an obelisk at these graveyards. What I’ve already expected is the serious decoration of hammers & sickles, as well as Soviet Stars. I’ve tried and counted them, which has been more easy than figuring out how many Red Army Soldiers are buried at this very location…

The Soviet War Memorial. Berlin-Marzahn, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Going to Berlin’s Far East, one finds a memorial for Soviet Soldiers at the Friedhof Marzahn. The silence may be slightly disturbed by the 10meter high obelisk. The Red Army soldiers that fell during the Battle of Berlin are buried on the west-, north- and southside. However, throughout the Cold War – more Soviets (soldiers and civilians) were overwhelmed here. While visiting, it is worth combining it with the East-German memorial to the Porajmos, as the mass-murder on Sinti and Roma (or: Gypsies) is called.

Entrance and obelisk of the Soviet War Memorial. Berlin-Marzahn, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Cadavers? ~150? ~3000? It’s a confusing history.
Hammers and sickles? Seven.

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Obelisk for the fallen Red Army Soldiers (Berlin-Buch, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

A rather small memorial to the fallen Red Army soldiers is located in the High North of the German capital, at Berlin-Buch. There is not too much to say about it, so I won’t!

Detail at the obelisk for the fallen Red Army Soldiers. Berlin-Buch, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Corpses? Ain’t got a clue. Could be 0, could be a couple of hundreds.
Hammers and sickles? Two.

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The Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Tiergarten. Backside details. Berlin-Tiergarten, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

The Soviet War memorial at the Straße des 17. Juni may be the most paradoxical one. Its central location brings many tourists, although this doesn’t have to waste the intimacy when you have an own thought about it. Therefore, I am happy to have a personal theory about the memorial’s location at the Straße des 17. JuniThat means, I think that the Straße des 17. Juni has its name due to the Soviet Memorial! For all of this, you have to understand that it has been the only Soviet War Memorial that was located in the Western sector. This even means that the Soviet soldiers who were protecting the memorial, were again protected by English soldiers. So, when the uprise of 17 June 1953 was defeated by the Russian tanks, the Englishmen named the Charlottenburger Chaussee after this uprise within a month. They could have taken any other road to change its name and dedicate it to the courageous protest…. So, won’t the attendance of Soviet tanks that glared over this boulevard have anything to do with this?

The Soviet War Memorial at the Straße des 17. Juni (Berlin-Tiergarten, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Dead bodies? ~2000/~2500
Hammers&Sickles? A golden one.
Tanks? Two from steel & another three in gold as well.
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Gravefield for the Red Army Soldiers at the St. Pius Friedhof. Berlin-Lichtenberg, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

The Red Army Soldiers at the catholic St. Pius graveyard are in contrast to all other Soviet graveyards. Nothing besides an orthodox cross remember the souls that rest here…

St. Pius Friedhof, Lichtenberg. Common gravestone for the Red Army Soldiers. Berlin-Lichtenberg, March 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Carrions? ~1550/~1650
Hammers and sickles: 0

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Entrance at the Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.

The Soviet memorial Berlin’s northern park of the Schönholzer Heide is not to be missed. First of all, it is the place where most Red Army Soldiers found their rest: 13.200 in total. The main monument may be less of a thrill than the one at Treptower Park – it is compensated with the leadlight socialist artwork of hammers and sickles, while J. Stalin gave some comment again.
Carcasses? ~13.000
Hammer and sickles? Countless.

Mother with Son and the obelisk. Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013.

Hammer and sickle plus the world. Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.

Fake fire decorated with hammers and sickles. Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.

Countless stars inside the obeslisk. Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.

Soviet Stars in mosaic. Soviet War Memorial, Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.Hammer and sickle plus the harvest. Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, photo by Joep de Visser.

View over the graveyards of Red Army Soldiers. Soviet War Memorial, Berlin-Pankow. October 2013, 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.

The Czech Embassy. A representative of brutalism.

Backside of the Czech Embassy, Berlin-Mitte (January 2014). Photo by Joep de VisserIt is a construction, critised with the cliche sentence “You have to hate it, unless you love it” and I clearly don’t belong to the group of haters. I’m talking here about the Czech embassy, standing in the historical ministerial quarter. Most people think of this embassy as a cold hearted UFO from an outdated communist era, or in short: a heap of concrete. For me though, it is mostly an artpiece of (semi-)vanguard architecture from the 1970s. Eversince I’ve investigated this embassy, I changed my opinion about this style of appearance – widely known as brutalist.

The embassy only has a history of 35 years, when it opened as the Czechoslovak embassy at the Otto-Grotewohl Straße. Already in 1948, the Czechoslovakians had a representitive in the Soviet sector. When the GDR was proclaimed in October 1949, the Czechoslovakian authorities acceded their comrade-state only eleven days later. By 1953, the original representitive mission officialy turned into diplomatic relation. It remains unclear, but I’ve got the impression that the Czechoslovakians were not given an embassy for themselves. So, in despite of being befriended nations – this situation don’t come too amicably to me. In 1973 though – the Czechoslovakian Republic improved their relations with Western Germany. I am not sure whether the improved status with GDR’s rival contributed to it, but shortly after – the Czechoslovakian comrades were given a parcel in the ministerial quarter in East Berlin.

When they were given this building site in the 1970s, it is said that the Czechoslovakian representitives were not amused by its location at all. In stead of the majestically neighbourhood which the Wilhelmstraße once was, the area wasn’t much more than a wasteland fairly next to the Berlin wall. At the other side of the Wilhelmstraße, Hitler’s bunker was being deconstructed in the meanwhile. As far as there were embassies, they were populated by befriended regimes. At the eastside of the Czecoslovakian parcel, the cheerful Peoples Republic of North Korea builded its embassy at the Glinkastraße by that time.

Between 1974 and 1978, the brutalist design by Vladimír Machonin and his wife Věra Machoninová was realised. By fact, the design was already finished when they got the assignment. It was already intended to be the embassy of Kenya, where it somehow wasn’t realised. Not only the construction, but also its interior was designed by the architect couple. The characteristicly round pillars at the ground level have actually two functions. They make the embassy look like it hovers over the ground, while it also hides the entrance from the public eye. Inside, the main colours yellow, orange and red reveal that the embassy is from the 1970s indeed. At the first and the second floor, the cinephile civil servants even had a cinema in their embassy! Its interior was decorated in a fitting way: blue seats, wooden orange walls and a blue velours curtain. The rest of the embassy though, was filled with office space for -at its peak- 250 employees.

When the embassy opened in 1978, the architects were not rewarded for their efforts. This had nothing to do with a negative receival by fellow architects, on the contrary: the success should stay a secret. After the liberal movement of the Prague Spring in 1968 was knocked down that same autumn, many reformers -among them the Machonin couple- were excluded from their professions. That means, officially: in reality, it was held a secret that the dissident architect couple were the masterminds behind the brutalist embassy, up till the communist regime fell in 1990.

With the fall of communism, the story didn’t end for this embassy yet. While Germany united itself in 1990, Czechoslovakia splitted up at New Year’s Day 1993. The Slovakian embassy got themselves a parcel at Tiergarten, while another embassy in Bonn -capital of united Germany- hosted another Czech delegation. Moreover, a bunch of jobs actually were redundant – since the former communist state wouldn’t leave anyone workless. All together, the number of employees at the Wilhelmstraße decimated till about 30. Up till nowadays, most of the office space is unused. Since November 2012, the Tschechisches Zentrum (Czech Center) is opened at the backside of the building, facing the North Korean embassy – which now is a youth hostel. This is though a temporary solution against the vacancy. According to an article in June 2013, the Czech state looks for an interested real estate to take over their embassy, while a parcel to construct a new one is looked for again.

Sold or not, it is clear as the day that the embassy should be listed as a protected building (which it is not nowadays!). The Czech embassy could be the best example in its architectural style, at least in Berlin. While brutalist architecture usually is sensitive for unintended effects -such as graffiti tags or small constructions with an antenna at the rooftop- this guarded building kept its charm. Speaking for myself, I fervently hope that its current appearance remain untouched. Moreover, the intact retro design comes as absolutely unique to me. Before the embassy closes, I -somehow- hope to get to see one of Chytilová’s films in the notorious cinema!

Frontside of the Czech Embassy, Berlin-Mitte (January 2014). Photo by Joep de Visser

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.