Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Berlin´s TV Tower with one of its famous concrete “wings” (image by notmsparker).

Annual celebrations of German Re-Unification Day overshadowed another very important Berlin anniversary: an event which, too, took place on October 3 and gave Berlin its second most recognisable symbol (the first one being, of course, the Brandenburg Gate).

On that day in 1969 East Berlin´s Fernsehturm, the TV Tower, opened for business.

The ceremony was attended by all top SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) officials, with Walter Ulbricht, the party´s leader, as the guest of honour. They arrived to celebrate the obvious success of both East German engineering and East German design.

View from the future restaurant on top of the Fernsehturm towards Karl-Marx-Allee and Alexanderstraße (image through Bundesarchiv).

Although most visitors perceive it today first and foremost as a viewing platform, offering a splendid view of the by now re-united city, the 368.03-metre tall edifice was constructed as the country´s main telecommunications mast and the answer to the 1920s´ Berliner Funkturm reaching a “meagre” 146.7 metres above West Berlin.

During the 1952 Radio Conference in Stockholm, East Germany – not recognised as an independent state – received only two radio frequencies to call their own. The Fernsehturm was built to improve radio signal reception and transmission in the country.

The biggest problem was location. Before they agreed on today´s spot (although “agreed” is stretching things a bit: very clear orders came from on high), the DDR authorities had made two spectacularly failed attempts. Their initial choice was the top of the Müggelberge, a hill range along the Müggelsee, Berlin´s largest lake in of Köpenick. It was a poor choice, too, considering that it would have placed the mast too far from the city centre and posed a genuine threat to airplanes using East Berlin´s Schönefeld Airport only eight kilometres south of the Müggel Hills.

Stump of the original East Berlin Fernsehturm, known under the code-name F4, built on the Müggelberge hills and still used as a telecommunications base (aerial image through Wikiwand).

Another attempt followed, this time in Volkspark Friedrichshain, a large and widely popular municipal park in the double borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. However, there the project´s managers actually saw it fail twice: first in 1962 when the money allocated for the construction was used for another big East Berlin project, the Wall.

Whatever works had been carried out up to that point, like the residents´ relocation or demolition and drilling works, had been in vain. Several years later, though, the idea was dusted off and revived to the acclaim of the Party. For a moment it seemed that Berlin´s and Germany´s tallest building would rise in Friedrichshain.

Until a Swiss urban planner and architect, Hans Schmidt, commissioned by the DDR authorities to assess the plan, spoke against it and convinced Ulbricht that a more central spot would create far more attractive visual axes, vistas focusing on the Fernsehturm as a central object. Volkspark Friedrichshain was off the hook.

The area around Alexanderplatz and in Marx-Engels-Forum with Berlin´s TV Tower in a 1970s book “Berlin: Hauptstadt der DDR” by (very aptly named) W. Volk

Gone, too, was Hermann Henselmann´s, the tower´s and East Berlin´s chief designer, original idea to cover its shaft with white-and-gold mosaic and the sphere on top of the shaft with ruby glass (Rubinglass, precious material produced by adding gold chloride to a standard batch of glass, was invented in Berlin: in 1679 by Johannes Kunckel).

Speaking about different designs, it is probably safe to say that most of us are glad about the failure of another idea which saw the Fernsehturn as a double-top tower, not unlike Munich´s Frauenkirche. Luckily, it was quickly rejected by Walter Ulbricht with the words: “It´s not chimneys we´re building here, comrades!”

Approximate location of the TV Tower on a 1945 aerial map of Berlin´s centre.

Eventually, the TV Tower was built between 1965 and 1969 in the direct vicinity of Alexanderplatz, west of “Alexanderplatz” Railway Station. Its 248.78 m tall shaft, made of 26,000 tonnes of concrete and steel (the steel was, by the way, kindly provided by the DDR´s West German business partner, Krupp), supports a giant sphere comprising 120 sections. Each of those weighs ten tonnes. No wonder that the heavy-duty railway crane installed on the shaft itself needed full 22 minutes to heave each of them to the top. They were brought to the crane one by one after first being assembled on top of a 35-metre replica shaft erected between the Marienkirche and the Rotes Rathaus. This was the engineers could test the sphere´s condition and make sure it was flawless.

Eventually, the crown of the future Fernsehturm received elegant coating while the viewing platform as well as the restaurant located inside it were fitted with high-tech, thermal Belgian windows, guaranteeing comfortable temperatures inside plus a brilliant view outside.

Section of the Fernsehturm sphere being lifted into position (image through CSM Geschichte).

Today the tower receives up to 5,000 guests daily. Almost without an exception all of them greatly enjoy the journey up to its top – two high-speed lifts installed inside the shaft need only 40 seconds to shuttle them there. On particularly windy days the lift´s speed is reduced from 6 m/s to 4 m/s or even down to 2.5 m/s: otherwise the lifts´ steel ropes smash against the shaft walls. In case you were wondering what safety and emergency measures are in place at the Fernsehturm, here are two. The first one being, in case of a fire or other life-threatening situation inside the sphere, an emergency platform was installed outside the shaft, some 200 m above the ground (think: windy). The other horror scenario would be the tower collapsing or just falling over – something that, understandably, bothered and still bothers many visitors. In the days of the DDR a common answer to this among the restaurant´s (or “Tele-Café´s”) guests was: “Well, if does fall over, then we´ll be in West Berlin in no time.” Jokes aside, the answer is that there is no such emergency scenario at all: as the TV Towers head technician once said, “Nothing is impossible but this is unlikely”.

The viewing platform and the restaurant (in the early days visiting time was limited to 30 minutes on the former and one hour in the latter) offer a breath-taking, 360° vista of the city. On good days visitors can see up to 42 kilometres deep into Brandenburg – although there have been reports of guests being able to see as far as the massive dome of “Tropical Islands”, the tropical holiday resort 70 km away from Alexanderplatz and the tower itself).

On 28.7.1970 31 Palestinian children visited Fernsehturm´s “Telecafe” Berlin, during their several-weeks long holidays in East Berlin organised by the “Wochenpost” magazine.

1,400 out of the 5,000 visitors are the lucky guests of the restaurant placed above the viewing platform. While enjoying their meal – prepared in the vast kitchen located in the cellars under the tower and transported to the top in a special lift – they enjoy the gradual change of view. The sphere on top of the Fernsehturm is moving. It needs 30 minutes to do a full rotation. That is only half the time it used to need to do the same before the 1990s renovation works.

Visible from practically everywhere within and outside the city (do check – it is quite astounding from how many different spots you can see it), Berlin´s most powerful landmark was completed as the third tallest building in the world after the Ostankino Tower in Moscow and the Empire State Building in New York. Now it is the fourth tallest freestanding construction in Europe and remains Germany´s tallest building until today.

Below you will find a collection of private photos made during the Fernsehturm´s construction by Mr Klaus Liesack, who was one of the tower´s builders, mixed with press photos issued to the public.



  1. Gary Costello
    October 4, 2017

    Fantastic article cutting through the dull day and releasing some sunshine ☀
    Not one of my favourite Berlin landmarks but a landmark none the less.
    Thank you again for a wonderful “long read”.

  2. Mary Freer
    October 18, 2017

    Great article. We eat at dusk in the restaurant every visit to Berlin. I’d never realised the food is cooked ‘elsewhere’. The food quality is much better now than our first visit.

    • notmsparker
      October 18, 2017

      I´m glad you enjoyed both the text and the restaurant!


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