Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Did you know that in the nineteenth century trees growing along Berlin’s main boulevard, Unter den Linden, were in such bad condition that even foreign newspapers complained about the disappointment? Considering the said linden were also the street’s namesake, the pain of confrontation between one’s expectations and the reality turned out to be particularly acute.

In September 1874 the Chicago Tribune informed its readers that Unter den Linden, “the great central street […] nearly two miles long and three-quarters of a mile broad, extending from the old Royal palace, or the Schloß, on the Island, to the Brandenburg gate”, was full of trees which were a disheartening “parcel of sickly, scrubby, decaying trees of no beauty of ornament”. The cause of their pitiful state was identified by the author as “the deleterious fumes which escape from the gas-pipes in the ground” – those leaks made it impossible for the city authorities to make the linden flourish.

Unter den Linden, image by Georg Bartels, 1901

No matter how subjective his view, the Chicago Tribune reporter – who happened to be the newspaper’s co-owner and managing editor as well as Mayor of Chicago, Joseph Medill (hidden behind the initials J.M.) – must have had a good reason to feel frustrated and cross. A decade earlier a German visitor, Hildegard Freifrau Hugo von Spitzemberg – better known as Baronin von Spitzemberg – also had little positive to say about the heart of the Prussian capital.

To quote from her famous diaries (entry for June 3, 1863), the cultivated lady had the following to say: “Apart from the pretty shops I did not find much else to admire – but for coaches and horses there was nothing to see (before noon); local people’s lack of elegance or charm is appalling, and die Linden [both the trees and the boulevard’s popular name] so small and so miserable and so covered with dust, that they appear not green but grey…”

Lindenallee (later Unter den Linden) in 1691. We can safely assume that we are dealing less with the reality and more with the artist’s vision of the trees .

Although their look slightly improved over time (also because gas-illumination was replaced by electric lights and the quality of the gas mains got better, too), in the mid-1930s it was time to say good bye to the old trees lining Berlin’s most famous street. The Nazis felled all of them in preparation for the refurbishment of the city centre prior to the 1936 Olympics. New trees were planted later but those did not survive the ultimate 1945 “visit” from the Soviet Red Army and the fiery “welcome” they received from what remained of Hitler’s troops.

Today, Under den Linden is lined by as many as five different types of linden. Next to the sturdy Winterlinde, the small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata) – which, by the way, was the tree of the year 2016 –strollers enjoying the 60-metre wide Linden (as in street) will have a chance to admire fine examples of the Silberlinde (Tilia tomentosa), Stadtlinde (Tilia cordata “Greenspire”), Holländische Linde (a natural hybrid known as Tilia europea) as well as its variation, the Kaiserlinde or “Kaiser’s Linden Tree”, uncommonly known as Tilia europea pallida.

Friedrich August Calau’s lithograhic image of the Akademiegebäude in Unter den Linden and the trees prior to the introduction of gas-illumination, around 1800 (image via BBAW Archiv).

The latter’s common name is often a source of confusion since it stands for both the man-made tree hybrid as well as for a tree planted to commemorate an event related to the Kaiser: his birthday, the day he was enthroned, the 25th anniversary of the latter, etc. Which means that a Kaiserlinde could also be any other kind of a linden tree. And since trees have always been cheaper – and more pleasing to the eye – than fancy monuments and statues, there are thousands of them to be found all over Germany today.

The most famous among them might be the Kaiserlinde in the village of Niederorla in Thüringen: planted in 1991, it marks the topographic centre of the re-united Germany.

If you enjoyed this story, you might be interested in reading Part II of my “Berlin Companion”, chapter “Nature in Berlin”, published in April 2018: “Notmsparker’s Second Berlin Companion” is available through


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