Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


On December 3rd, 1866, a cold and damp Berlin winter day, the country and the king were in mourning: General Ernst von Pfuel was dead.

Gone was the man who together with Blücher robbed Napoleon of his French stronghold, Paris, and later ruled the city on behalf of the Prussian king. Gone the man who was the main force behind the almost miraculous return of the stolen Quadriga to the top of Brandenburger Tor (read more about it here). But first and foremost, gone was the man who prevented thousands of Prussian soldiers from losing their lives not in “the glory of the battle” but through stupid – and sadly pretty common – drowning.

In 1817 Pfuel opened the first Prussian Militär Schwimmanstalt in Berlin – a swimming school for the military. In Köpenicker Strasse 12 in today´s Berlin-Kreuzberg, right in the middle of the river Spree appeared a curious wooden construction. A training pool was created by having thick posts rammed into the river´s bottom (pun completely unintentional) and building a sort of a roofed-over arcade around the opening to provide a bit of privacy when changing clothes or suffering a nervous breakdown.

Pfuelsche Badeanstalt in the 19th century (photo through Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin)

Pfuelsche Badeanstalt (photo through Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin)

Which, as it was, happened not so seldom. For many of the soldiers feared General Pfuel´s swimming courses as much, if nor more than an armed opponent:

„Many gave up and surrendered to win slow submersion and save their head from going under. Others peered down dolefully as if looking into their grave and the louder the Master´s encouragement became, so grew their faces paler and paler. Still others´ hearts were beating so hard that you could see their belts move; and one even crossed himself in panic to end up, if must be, like a Christian.”

Swimming Lesson by Honore Daumier, 1841

Swimming Lesson by Honore Daumier, 1841

Still, in the first 50 years of its exsistence Pfuelsche Schwimmanstalt trained 70,000 new swimmers, both military and civil! Although initially planned for soldiers only and, indeed, well attended by the young men from the nearby Kasernen (especially from the barracks of the Garde-Pionier-Bataillon in Köpenicker Strasse on whose land the Anstalt was built), it was soon opened to a wider public. Particularly school children profited from its training: children from the neighbouring schools who often grew up at the river without being able to swim.

After swift but intensive theory part, all participants had to submit themselves to hard drill introduced by General Pfuel himself: strapped up in leather harness and having done some “dry” excercises on the ground, they found themselves attached to a long pole and were kindly invited to take a dip (teaching technique known as Angel-Lehrweise). Some of them declined the invitation, others prayed and took the risk. That was clearly the dramatic moment referred to in the above quotation.

Those who completely overcame their fear and wished to test their abilities after several hours or days of training, could prove themselves by swimming from the pool to the river´s shore and back. This final exam was awarded with a special certificate confirming that the person could, indeed, swim.

The 50th anniversary of the opening of Pfuelsche Schwimmanstalt in Köpenicker Strasse

The 50th anniversary of the opening of Pfuelsche Schwimmanstalt in Köpenicker Strasse

Pfuelsche Schwimmanstalt served people for well over 100 years. In 1927 it was still used by the public as a state-owned facility managed by Schutzpolizei. However, it lost its educational role: the river Spree was too deep for non-swimmers by then (or so the official reason).

In 1933 it was closed down for good.

During WW2 the rests of the General Pfuel´s Swimming School were destroyed along with the old Kaserne it was build next to. Today you cannot go swimming there any more. Not only because nobody of sound mind would risk taking a dip in the Spree at all but also because it is hardly any fun swimming next to a supermarket and a car park.

Schwimmanstalt in 1874 (Straubes Berlin Stadtplan)

Schwimmanstalt in 1874 (Straubes Berlin Stadtplan)

As for General von Pfuel, he might be remembered by many as a great military man but equally many should know him as the father of a swimming stroke known as breaststroke. So next time you are gracefully cutting through the surface of the water with your head upright and proud, give a kind thought to the man who wanted us to swim not so much as fish as like frogs.

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