Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Bethanienhaus – engraving by W. French.

On October 10, 1847 – exactly 170 years ago today – one of Berlin´s oldest hospitals and Kreuzberg´s most famous squatter site (now an art and culture centre), Bethanien Krankenhaus, located at today´s Marianennplatz, opened its doors to welcome first patients.

The rather magnificent building – luckily, destroyed neither by war nor by West-Berlin urban planners – was designed by Ludwig Persius and Theodor August Stein. Stein took over from Persius after the former´s unexpected death in 1845. The architects knew each other from their “school days”: both were pupils of Berlin´s über-architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel (who, incidentally, died exactly six years and one day earlier, on October 9, 1841).

Bethanien in 1850: Luisenstädtische Kanal had been built to its right. Notice the windmill in the background to its left!

The monarch himself attended the hospital’s opening ceremony: King Friedrich Wilhelm IV introduced the new matron, 36-year-old Marianne von Rantzow (also spelled as von Rantzau) who arrived accompanied by nine other deaconesses. German Diakonissen are non-clerical members of an early-nineteenth-century protestant movement whose mission was providing care to the sick, the old and to children and their families. Von Rantzow and her “team” were called by the King from the Kaiserswerth Diaconate, established in what is today a district of Düsseldorf, where the modern European and American Diaconate was born. In 1851 the future English social reformer and one of the founders of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, arrived in Kaiserwerth to learn from the establishment´s patrons, Theodor and Caroline Fliedner (by the time Nightingale arrived in Kaiserswerth Theodor Fliedner´s first wife, Frederike Fliedner, next to him the other original founder of the Diaconate, had been dead).

Bethanien in a 1855 engraving with the (by now enclosed with a railing) canal to its right.

But back to Berlin and Bethanienhaus. For the next seven years, until her premature death from cancer, Marianne von Rantzow remained at Bethanienhaus´s helm: she managed not only to expand the ranks of her helpers, thus building a strong diaconate movement in Berlin (it exists and continues its work until today) and providing an increasing more professionalised service to the hospital´s patients but she also successfully resisted all attempts of the clerical staff at influencing and even overriding the way she ran the house.

As a way of disambiguation it should be said, however, that it was not the hospital´s original matron who was honoured by having her name commemorated in the names of the adjacent street and plaza: Mariannenstraße and Mariannenplatz were named after Marianne of Prussia, born Princess Maria Anna Amalie of Hesse-Homburg, who after Queen Luise´s premature death in 1810 acted as Prussia´s First Lady.

Princess Marianne von Preußen.

Marianne von Rantzow had to wait until 2006 to have her name commemorated in a similar way: Marianne-von-Rantzau-Straße near East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain honours Bethanienhaus´s first matron.

Upon its opening Bethanien, now surrounded by a dense network of streets and nineteenth-century Berlin architecture which form SO36 (East Kreuzberg), used to stand outside Berlin´s city limits among fields and gardens. Very soon it found itself on the bank of the Luisenstädtische Kanal, a city canal connecting Urbanhafen with today´s Engelbecken and with the River Spree (the canal was filled in in 1926). In 1848 the area became a scene of one of the most memorable Berlin battles, the Battle of Köpenicker Feld: one in a series of powerful social and political clashes initiated in the capital by the March Revolution of 1848 (which itself represented only one in a chain of similar events in Europe).

The Schlacht am Köpenicker Feld was a consequence of tremendously tense atmosphere in Berlin caused by the March events in the city. The last straw turned out to be an attempt to introduce machines on the canal´s construction site: machines which would have replaced workers and deprived them as well as their families of their only income.

The Battle of Köpenicker Feld was closely followed by another famous Berliner: between 1848 and 1849 Theodor Fontane was Bethanien´s Giftmischer (literally: “poison mixer”, a pharmacist). His pharmacy was preserved and can be visited in the Kunstraum Bethanien.

The story of Bethanienhaus´s difficult fate in the West Berlin of the 1970s and 1980s will be told in another post tomorrow. Meanwhile, let us celebrate the Geburtstagskind: Happy Birthday, Bethanien Krankenhaus!

Bethanienhaus: main entrance Mariannenplatz (image by Jörg Zägel, Wikipedia).



  1. Gary Costello
    Oct 10, 2017

    Looking forward to tomorrow!
    Another fantastic article with the usual fine pictures. I can feel the clouds retreating already😀
    Thank you.

  2. Karl
    Oct 10, 2017

    Sehr interessant! Es heißt allerdings Kaiserswerth. Gruß aus Düsseldorf

    • notmsparker
      Oct 10, 2017

      Danke! Ich hatte das Gefühl, dass ich etwas falsch buchstabiert habe:-)

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