Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On April 25, 1945 the Schlacht um Berlin (the Battle for Berlin) was in full swing and its outcome more or less clear. With the allied armies pushing relentlessly into the city from all directions and with the fast depleting army of Berlin’s defenders, many of Hitler’s subordinates had given up all hope of not so much victory as survival.
At the western end of Hermannplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg the members of the SS Division Nordland – mostly French volunteers – led by their newly appointed head, SS Brigadenführer Gustav Krukenberg, finished installing the explosives necessary to blow up the old department store.
During the Second World War Karstadt am Hermannplatz, once the biggest and most modern department store in Europe, was used as a food storage and a Heeresbekleidungsamt, an office responsible for providing uniforms and other sorts of necessary clothing to Hitler’s army.
The theory that the reason for the demolition of the building was the NSDAP membership card archive allegedly kept in the bank vaults under the store (the cards were to be used later as evidence in Nürenberg Trails) does not seem to hold water, though.
It is far more probable that Nordland troops did not want such a perfect assault position to fall into the hands of the enemy: shooting from Karstadt would have been like shooting fish in a barrel. A very solid and safe barrel, to boot.
Now, with the Soviet 5th Shock Army under General Berzarin already on this side of Teltow Canal and inside the S-Bahn ring, the SS troops knew they would not be able to hold their positions around Hermannplatz for long. General Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army which reached Tempelhofer Flugfeld would be reaching their “stronghold” soon, too.
The decision to blow up the Karstadt store to prevent it from being taken over and plundered by the Soviets was taken quickly. Civilians who were trying to find food inside the building were all forcefully removed already four days earlier, upon Nordland’s arrival (you can read a fascinating and disturbing account of that and other events as part of the childhood memories recorded through Gelsenzentrum.de).
Krukenberg himself gave a signal to blast the old Karstadt away. Gone were the over 70,000 m² of space, the famous roof gardens, the delivery van lift and the 11-storey towers. Ironically, despite the heavy fighting between what by the end became five (!) Soviet armies and two German divisions, hardly any other buildings around Hermannplatz suffered the same fate.