Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
The 1868 Villa Strousberg in Wilhelmstraße 70, also known as Palais Strousberg, was designed by August Orth for the then most successful Berlin entrepreneur and one of the most powerful men in Germany, Henry Bethel Strousberg.
Strousberg, born #OTD 1823 as Baruch Hirsch Strausberg, a Polish Jew from Neidenburg/Nidzica in East Prussian lake district, Masuren, made a staggering career at whose peak he owned numerous coal and iron-ore mines, steel mills, railway carriage factories and prospering estates. He built 1,300 km of railways in Germany and nearly 1,800 km of them abroad.
Berlin´s Görlitzer Bahnhof in today´s Kreuzberg SO36 – now the site of Görlitzer Park – was constructed to serve Strousberg´s Berlin-Görlitz Railway. The latter was a very ambitious and profitable plan to connect Prussian capital with one of its main cities in the now border region of Silesia (in fact, the Polish-German runs right through the city along the River Neisse/Nysa).
Thanks to Strousberg many other municipalities lived through a period of unheard of boom: Görlitzer Bahn trains transported 70,000 passengers per day! Today´s localities of Adlershof and Grünau, then independent communities, owe their birth to Strousberg´s railway line. Schmökwitz, Zeuthen and Eichwalde on the south-eastern edges of Berlin blossomed at the time. The same applied to nearly every village, town or city connected to the world through Strousberg´s line.
Strousberg´s method of financing his large-scale projects became his nemesis: the famous Strousberg-System where shares were sold to groups of or individual investors operated in a grey zone of what was legal and what not. It needs to be said, though, that similar methods were used by most other Gründer (Eng. “founders”, a collective term for German entrepreneurs of the second half of the nineteenth century and root of the name Gründerzeit used for that period in German history). And like in the case of many others, also Strouberg´s business ventures met with plenty of criticism and a “bad ending”.
Unable to fulfil the conditions of the contract for the construction of a new railway line in Romania – the German-French War of 1875 made it impossible for the companies involved in the project to meet the deadlines – Strousberg fell from grace, losing both money and his high position as an entrepreneur. He spent many years fighting against the tidal wave of criticism, court cases and anti-Semitism (a hugely important factor in Strousberg´s fall) but failed. He died in poverty, aged only 61, unable to provide either for himself or for his family.
In a cruel twist of fate, this wealthy and ambitious adventurer who cared for a challenge more than he did for capitalism or money-making and to whom Friedrich Engels referred to as “the greatest man in Germany” and someone who “will become the next Kaiser”, became the epitome of failure. His name was soon forgotten and old enemies, like the “old money” bankers Hansemann or Bleichröder, felt vindicated and proven right in their abysmal treatment of Strousberg when he was still alive.
The villa commissioned by Henry Bethel Strousberg for his family – he was happily married to a Mary Ann Swan with whom he had seven children – became a symbol of the fall, too. The magnificent, over-the-top building in Wilhelmstraße 70, reflected both Strousberg´s nouveaux-riche arrogant attitude when he was alive and his, for many self-inflicted, demise after his death.
Auctioned off in 1876 the building became the property of Count Hugo zu Hohenlohe-Öhringen who then sold it to the British government as the seat of their Berlin embassy. Bombed in an air-raid in 1943, the old Palais Strousberg survived the war despite having been nearly 80% damaged. Its remains had to be torn down, however, after demolition works at the old Hotel “Adlon” around the corner caused the building to partly collapse. In 2000 new British Embassy opened on the site.