A walk along Karl Marx Allee may not be everybody’s idea of a morning or afternoon out in Berlin, but if the old communist GDR ideology fascinates you as much as it does me, then try and find a gap in your itinerary to come and take a look at this grand East German boulevard.
Stretching almost 2 kilometres from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor, Karl Marx Allee is 89m (292ft) wide with 8 storey apartment buildings built in the socialist realist style lining both sides of the avenue: It never took on this appearance of course until the road found itself inside the Soviet sector after the end of World War II.
From the 1780s onwards, the road was called the Große Frankfurter Straße and connected Berlin to Frankfurt on the Oder, but on 3rd February 1945 a heavy Soviet air raid reduced it to rubble.
In December 1949 the road was renamed Stalinallee in honour of the incumbent Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and two years later a 16ft high bronze statue of him was added to the landscape – but there were bigger plans ahead.
Anyone interested in finding out what life was like living with the Berlin Wall should come to Bernauer Strasse. The street was right on the dividing line between East and West and is now part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, an open-air exhibition (if that’s the right word) which includes a Memorial, Reconciliation Church, Documentation Centre and 80 metres of the Wall.
Before the end of World War II, the whole length of Bernauer Strasse, was the border line between the districts of Wedding and Mitte, and consequently when the city was carved up by the victors at the end of the war, the street became part of the border between East and West Berlin.
Although Wedding found itself in the Western French sector and Mitte in the Eastern Soviet sector, there was no physical barrier between the two, and people were free to travel anywhere within the city. There was however, a vast difference between how people lived in their respective sectors. The Western side of the city was not only more affluent, but it also had luxury shops, restaurants and entertainment venues for people to spend their money in – and East Berliners wanted to spend what cash they had in West Berlin; and as time went on, a steady trickle of people started to leave East Berlin for a better life across the border.
The 1945 Potsdam Agreement had left Berlin wholly located within the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and once people were in West Berlin, they could then travel out of the city – and out of the Eastern Bloc. The trickle of people from East to West turned into a flood and by 1961 it was reckoned that more than 3 million East Germans had left the GDR via Berlin.
To stop this hemorrhaging of people to the West, the GDR authorities decided to build a physical barrier, a barrier which over time became more and more difficult to penetrate – and there was no better example of how the Berlin Wall divided the city than Bernauer Strasse.
Between October 22nd – 28th 1961 the eyes of the world were focused on Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin during the years of the Cold War. A stand-off between American and Soviet tanks could have resulted in quite possibly, WWIII, but both sides had the sense to realise the consequences and serious conflict was avoided.
I’m sure that many of you will know how all this came about, but I think it’s worth repeating anyway.
The background to the drama goes back to the end of WWII when Germany was divided up by the four main countries responsible for its defeat – Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Although they were united in defeating Nazi Germany, the differences in ideology between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union had been obvious for quite some time. Really, it was just a case of agreeing to disagree while they defeated the common enemy of Nazi Germany.
At the end of the war Germany was divided up into West Germany, (controlled by the Western alliance), and East Germany (controlled by the Soviet Union). Berlin, which was situated deep inside the Soviet sector, was also divided up by the victors into West and East Berlin.
If the outcome of WWII had been different, and London had been beaten into submission instead of Berlin, then imagine if you can, what Whitehall would look like now: Wilhelmstrasse is (or was) Berlin’s ‘Whitehall’.
The road runs for one and a half miles between the Marschallbrucke on the River Spree down to Hallesches Tor in Kreuzberg, but the most interesting part from a historical point of view, is the section between the bridge and Niederkirchnerstrasse where the Berlin Wall split the city into two.
Originating from the time of King Frederick William I, this once wealthy residential thoroughfare, developed into Prussia’s main government district with many of the buildings being taken over by the state, including the Palais Schulenburg for Otto von Bismarck’s Chancellery.
At the end of WWI, the area came under the control of the Weimar Republic, but on 30th January 1933 there was a new Chancellor – Adolf Hitler, who immediately set about building a new chancellery for the Third Reich at the junction of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss Strasse.
After Hitler’s suicide in the Chancellery bunker and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the street found itself within the Russian sector as far as Prinz Albrecht Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Bomb damage and the Battle for Berlin had left the area in tatters, and as neither the Russians nor East Germans had any reason to save whatever was left, the land where Prussian palaces once stood, was now either part of No-Man’s Land separating East and West Berlin or built upon with Eastern Bloc architecture.
There are three Soviet War Memorials in Berlin, one in Treptower Park, another in Pankow, and this one in the Tiergarten, which is probably the most well-known of the three, and unveiled just two months after the fall of Berlin to the Soviet army in May 1945.
The Battle for Berlin cost 80,000 Soviet lives and over 2,000 of them are buried here at this large memorial not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Ironically, after the partition of the city into 4 zones, the monument fell inside the British sector.
All parties agreed to allow it to be guarded by two Soviet soldiers, which it did until 1993.
In the middle of The Tiergarten at Grosser Stern, stands the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, and if you’ve got €3 – and the energy – it’s possible to climb the 285 steps to the viewing gallery that sits just under Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory.
The monument was designed by Johann Heinrich Strack, and the 8.3m golden statue on top of the column was added by Friedrich Drake and represents both the Goddess of Victory and Borussia, the Latin name for Prussia. Her face is supposedly based on Drake’s daughter and known as the Goldelse (Golden Else), or roughly translated as ‘Golden Lizzie’.
The official German name for the park known as The Tiergarten is Grosser Tiergarten, which helps to distinguish it from the district of the same name.
This huge park in central Berlin covers an area of some 520 acres roughly enclosed by the River Spree on its northern edge to the Tiergarten Strasse in the south, and from the Brandenburg Gate in the east to the zoo in the west.
The Strasse des 17 Juni runs through the centre of the park from east to west, and where it meets the Großer Stern (Great Star) the Siegessaule (Victory Column) stands sentinel over the whole park around it.
Only Templehofer Park (the former Templehof Airport) and the English Garden in Munich are larger so it’s best not to underestimate its size before deciding on where to go.
The name Grosser Tiergarten literally means ‘Large Game Park’ and gives a clue to its original use.
In the 16th century the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm, turned this marshy ground into a hunting enclosure, but during the 17th and 18th centuries the area was gradually turned into more formal pleasure grounds for the people of Berlin – wide avenues were constructed, trees planted, and monuments erected.
In contrast to the other glass and steel structures in the square, the building is constructed out of peat-fired bricks with a design more reminiscent of a New York skyscraper. It soars 100 metres up into the Berlin sky and was completed in 1999.
Mainly built with office space in mind, I don’t suppose too many people will be overly enthusiastic about these statistics, but it might interest people more if I say that the fastest elevator in Europe catapults you up to the 24th floor in just 20 seconds where there is an open-air viewing platform with some of the best views in Berlin.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz must have been an architect’s dream. The square was divided up into four separate areas which were to be redeveloped by four different developers, one of which was the area now occupied by the Sony Center.
During the ‘Golden Twenties’, the site was occupied by ‘The Esplanade’, one of Berlin’s most prestigious hotels. Frequented by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, the hotel was even used by Kaiser Wilhelm II who entertained guests in one of the hotel’s magnificent halls.
90% of the hotel was destroyed by allied bombing raids in the winter of 1944/45, with the Kaisersaal (as the hall became known) and the breakfast room the only rooms to survive. After restoration of what was left, it once again fell into disrepair following the building of the adjacent Berlin Wall.
After the Wall came down, what remained was listed as a historical monument, which created a problem for the architects of the new Sony Center. The outcome was that the Kaisersaal was moved 75 metres and incorporated into the new design behind a glass wall, and the breakfast room was dismantled piece by piece and re-created for the new Café Josty, the original being a popular Potsdamer Platz meeting place for artists in the early 20th century.
At a point where five roads converged at the old Potsdam Gate, Potsdamer Platz became the busiest and most recognized intersection in Germany – if not Europe. It became so busy that Europe’s first recognised traffic lights were installed in 1924 to help keep things moving.
Its heyday was during the Roaring Twenties, when film stars such as Marlene Dietrich helped catapult Berlin onto the world stage of show business. It was the place to be and be seen. Grand hotels were built to accommodate the rich and famous, as did luxury stores, bars, and restaurants. The inter-war years had been good to Berlin, but it wasn’t to last.
Berlin is a city that has seen many contentious projects over the years but The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has to be one of the most controversial of all. It wasn’t just because it covers part of the site where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had his office, but for a variety of other reasons.
The memorial was conceived by journalist Lea Rosh and designed by New Yorker Peter Eisenman. The area is about the size of three football pitches and just a few minutes away from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide on 30th April 1945. Being flattened during the war, the site is in an area of high real estate value, which for some was probably a lost opportunity to make a good deal of money, but the Berlin authorities did the brave thing and endorsed the project with the hope that it would help the city come to terms with its inauspicious past.
Built between April 2003 and December 2004, the monument consists of 2,711 slabs of concrete known as ‘Stelae’ arranged in a grid pattern on sloping ground which Eisenman wanted to be an “uneasy, confusing atmosphere”. Apparently, he got his idea from the overcrowded Jewish cemetery in Prague.
Alexanderplatz, or Alex, as it’s known to Berliners is a windswept pedestrianised plaza doubling up as a meeting point and transport hub in what used to be East Berlin.
It was the downtown centre for the locals when it was behind the Iron Curtain, and now one of the main focal points for the united Berlin of today – and no visit to the city would be complete without visiting Alex.
The square was the communist authority’s idea of a modern cityscape, and although it’s had its fair share of critics over the years, it wouldn’t surprise me if there wasn’t a fair number of people who wouldn’t want to see it change too much either.
At 368m, Berlin’s TV Tower is the tallest structure in Germany, so there’s no excuse for not seeing it.
There’s an enclosed viewing platform at 203 m, and fortunately you don’t have to climb up the 986 steps because one of the two lifts will whisk you up there in just 40 seconds.
It’s a good job the lifts are quick because they’re not very big and waiting times can be considerable.
Almost 1.2m visitors a year pay to come for a panoramic view of Berlin and if you don’t mind paying an extra premium you can have a fast track entry. Better still if you can get here for the 09.00 opening you won’t need to pay the extra and you won’t have to wait long either.
The prime reason for building the TV Tower wasn’t to give tourists a grandstand view of Berlin of course, but to provide radio and television transmissions, and also no doubt, to make a political statement that the GDR was capable of building structures every bit as impressive as those across the wall could – and in this instance, in my opinion, they were right.
The area on the north-east side of the Spree around Nikolaiviertel and Spandauer Str was the oldest part of Berlin. I say was because the events of the Second World War virtually wiped the whole area off the face of the map. Very little remained intact, and although the Nikolaiviertel district was put back together in a way that only the communist authorities could have thought looked good, the wasteland that was once known as Marienviertel, has been left more or less as an open concrete space between the river and the TV Tower.
Marienviertel is no longer known by that name, but literally speaking it means St. Mary’s Quarter, which pays homage to Marienkirche or St. Mary’s Church.
The church was the only building to be re-constructed in the quarter after the bombing and is worth visiting if only for its historical connection. The original church was built in the 13th century and now stands isolated on the edge of an unnamed square and adjacent to Karl-Liebknecht Str.
Berlin’s protestant cathedral was only forty years old when it was bombed by the allies in 1944, and it wasn’t completely restored until 2002. It’s never even had a Bishop’s chair – or even a Bishop – and yet it should be on every visitor’s list of things to see in Berlin.
Situated in the oldest part of the city opposite the Lustgarten, this neo-renaissance building was built by the young Emperor Wilhelm II as his private church to compliment his family’s city palace across the road. It immediately had its critics when the building’s religious significance appeared to take second place to the importance of the Emperor and the Hohenzollern dynasty, but somehow, it’s this connection with the German Empire that makes it especially interesting.
From the outside it almost looks as though the intention was to create a church on the lines of St. Peter’s in Rome but being a protestant church, I suppose it was more likely to have been influenced by somewhere like St. Paul’s in London.
The German Historical Museum’s permanent exhibition is located in the early 18th cent Armoury building on Unter den Linden, with a modern extension housing temporary exhibitions in the Exhibition Hall at the rear.
The collection of Germany’s important historical artefacts has taken a few twists and turns along the way, but with reunification came the opportunity to present them all under one roof, and in 2006 after five years of renovation, the doors opened to the Armoury giving Germany a historical museum that it could be proud of.
As its name suggests, this baroque building was originally built to house the Prussian arsenal before being turned into an army museum. During the Nazi period, this museum was the location for an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.
Rudolph Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, an officer in the German army, intended a suicide bombing when he was giving a tour of the Armoury to Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and other top officials. He set the device to blow up ten minutes into the tour, but the plan failed because Hitler rushed through the museum in less than ten minutes! Apparently, Gersdorff only had seconds to spare before being able to diffuse the bomb and save his own skin. His attempt was kept secret and he carried on living until the age of 74 and died in 1980.
This famous university isn’t a visitor attraction in the true sense of the word, but its historical background makes it more than worthy of a review.
The main building is situated in Unter den Linden opposite Bebelplatz where the Old Library faces the Berlin State Opera House.
Outside the main building are two statues. One is of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the university in 1810, and the other one is of an explorer and natural scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm’s brother, who also happened to work at the university.
Along with his accomplices, Wilhelm adopted four classical faculties for Berlin University (as it was then called) – Law, theology, medicine, and philosophy. It was so successful that a total of 29 Nobel Prize winners passed through its doors, including Max Planck and Albert Einstein. Other historical figures who studied here were Otto von Bismarck and founders of the Marxist Theory Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990, an opportunity arose to bring the Federal government back to where it belonged in Central Berlin.
I don’t suppose it took much deliberation as to where to locate the new parliament. The Reichstag may have been battered and bruised from the events of the 20th century, but it was still standing, and the wasteland that was left surrounding it created a blank canvas for developers who could no doubt envisage a new dawn for a new Germany in the new millennium.
Politics isn’t an exciting subject for many people, but rarely has politics been boring in Germany, and if you venture into this part of the city, which is more than possible, then it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking at.
One of Berlin’s most famous landmarks is the Reichstag.
This iconic building has helped the German Bundestag become the most visited parliament in the world, partly because of its architecture, partly because of its accessibility, but mainly because of its history.
Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the final stone of this neoclassical building in 1894 and it has continued to play a pivotal role in German history ever since. Initially the parliament was really that in name only and the Kaiser was the man who dictated the terms, but in November 1918 Phillip Scheidemann announced from a window here at the Reichstag that the country was now to become a republic and the Weimar Republic was formed.
The republic was just fourteen years old when the Nazis came to power and the dubious Reichstag fire of 1933 helped change the course of history. The events that followed are obviously well documented elsewhere, but as World War II came to its final moments, one of the most memorable images of the conflict show the victorious Russian army raising the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag. Even today it’s still possible to see bullet holes if you care to look for them.
Anyone who walks between the Brandenburg Gate and The Reichstag can’t fail to notice 14 white crosses spread along a fence next to the Tiergarten. These crosses are obviously a memorial to those who died trying to get across the Berlin Wall, but they’re not supposed to be here – but why not?
It’s not because the authorities don’t want the events publicised because there’s an official memorial on the banks of the River Spree behind the Reichstag.
The reason that they’re not wanted is down to the man who has chosen to erect his own personal memorial here – a man by the name of Gustav Rust. It’s more than possible you’ll bump into Herr Rust if you walk along Ebertstrasse because he seems to be here most of the time.