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.
The first time I came here I tried to piece together how it would have looked before the bombs and bullets were unleashed, and apart from one or two exceptions it wasn’t easy, but it’s a bit different now because information boards have been erected at locations of interest.
If you have the same mindset as me, and want to know something about where Hitler and his henchmen planned the Thousand Year Reich, then take a wander down Wilhelmstrasse with me and find out more.
The first place to visit for anyone half-interested in the politics of Germany is the Reichstag which I’ve covered separately, and so I’m starting this walk at the nearby Marschallbrucke end of the street.
Many of the buildings around the bridge are part of the Bundestag (Lower House of the German Parliament), and for obvious reasons are mostly modern, but it’s not long before we reach Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate.
The road is closed to traffic as it passes by the British Embassy, which I’m pleased to say is a fine architectural addition to the Berlin landscape (or at least it is to me).
Opposite is a rare survivor from the past. It used to be the Prussian Ministry of Education and now an office building for the German Parliament.
Instead of continuing on down Wilhelmstrasse Turn right at Behrenstrasse and take a look at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, part of which lies over the villa that used to belong to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s Reich Minister for Propaganda. The only thing that’s left is his bunker that lies beneath the memorial, which seems fitting somehow.
If we continue to walk along Cora Berliner Strasse and then cross over Hannah Arendt Strasse into Gertrud Kolmar Strasse we come to the site of Hitler’s Bunker in the Ministergarten.
When I first came here quite a number of years ago there was nothing to suggest that this was the location where Hitler committed suicide, but I had done enough research to think that it probably was.
Under the Soviet occupation the bunker was largely destroyed but not completely, and several corridors are said to still exist. Apartments have been built over the top of it with a small playground in the middle, and I remember sitting here alone thinking about what stories this place could tell, when a young mother and her two small children came to the playground. Whether they knew what was underneath their feet I’m not sure, but from what I’ve read Hitler loved children.
During the last days of his life in the bunker he married Eva Braun. It was too late for them to have children of their own and across the other side of the street is the spot where their bodies were reported to have been burned.
After you’ve come to terms with the situation, take a left turn back onto Wilhelmstrasse where the Palais Schulenburg or Bismarck’s Chancellery (whichever you prefer) once stood. Today there’s a steel sculpture here of Georg Elser who attempted to assassinate Hitler in Munich in 1939. How different things might have been if he had succeeded!
Crossing over Leipziger Strasse brings us to what was the largest office building in Europe when it was completed in 1936. It was built for Hermann Goering’s Ministry of Aviation and it still amazes me how a building of this size wasn’t destroyed by the allied air forces when it must have been known what it was used for. I suppose it was just too big to obliterate. Today it’s used by the Federal Ministry of Finance (see main picture).
During the Cold War the street met the Berlin Wall at the junction with today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, and although this is as far as I’m going for now, I can’t leave this part of Berlin without mentioning the fact that across the road are what remains of the SS and Gestapo headquarters – and left to wonder what the world might have been like if Whitehall had got to look like Wilhelmstrasse.