Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Berlin might be one of the youngest European metropolises and its fame encompassing mostly the past century or so but in reality its history is much older, much richer, much more surprising than the city is sometimes given credit for. It is an often overlooked fact that this city, in the late nineteenth century still ridiculed by many for its allegedly provincial character and lack of History with a capital “H”, was once home to two of the most famous chivalric orders and Crusaders.
In March 1312 Pope Clemens V officially charged the Order of Knights Templar – one of the then most esteemed and powerful chivalric orders returning from the Holy Land and Jerusalem – with crimes of apostasy, heresy and blasphemy. As a result of an intrigue spun by the Pontiff, who craved more control over the knights who had settled in Brandenburg, with French King Phillip IV (Phillip the Fair), who wished finally to lay his hands on the legendary Templar riches, on October 13 (Friday the 13th) 1314 the order was dissolved, leaders executed, their assets seized and vast northern-European land properties given to new owners. Ones also known from the chapter “Crusades”: the Order of Saint John or the Knights Hospitaller (German die Johanniter).
That is how in 1318 die Johanniter were able to establish their bailiwick in Brandenburg. Their commandery settled in Tempelhof: an estate and a village which grew around the Templars’ Brandenburgian headquarters and were named in their honour. Next to Tempelhof the newcomers took over a settlement which became Richardsdorp (future Rixdorf and from 1912 Neukölln), Marienfelde, Mariendorf, as well as the old Spreeheide (or Hinterheide) which today would be more or less the area of Alt-Treptow.
But that was not all. Next to villages and fields, the Johanniter were also granted all the Tempelherren vineyards covering a range of gentle hills stretching between Schoeneberg (Berlin-Schöneberg today), through today’s Viktoriapark and Chamisokiez in Kreuzberg down to Rixdorf – a range of hills whose highest elevation is today’s Kreuzberg. By the way, the culture of wine-making, first introduced by the Templars, is still kept alive in thirteen Berlin vineyards today.
The Johanniter, impressed by what they found in Brandenburg continued their predecessors’ work. Their focus at this point was mostly on agriculture and soon the land south of the Weinberg (Wine Hill was one of the early names of today’s Kreuzberg) in the western part of today’s locality of Kreuzberg, or Tempelhofer Vorstadt, turned into a perfect old-fashioned rural idyll: made up of lush gardens, fertile fields and spreading vineyards.
But then things went pear-shaped and the Tempelhof knights entered an open conflict with their northern neighbours: two cities located on the other side of Schafsgraben (Sheep Ditch) – the future Landwehrkanal.
The feud, which peaked in the late summer of 1435, began several years earlier and had an allegedly altered course of the border at its heart: a matter in which, as is so often the case, both sides claimed the others were cheating.
The showdown took place on August 24, 1435 when the Johanniter, who for a long while had accused Berlin-Cölln of secretly moving stone boundary markers further and further south, received a message that a group of Berliners had been spotted doing their mischief.
That message had the knights immediately up in arms. With four Dorfschaften (obligatory troops sent by each village) of foot soldiers and 300 knights led by their Komtur (the knight commander), Nickel von Colditz, they hurried to catch the wrongdoers red-handed. Having spotted fleeing villains they chased them down to Berlin’s city gate where they were confronted by an angry mob awaiting their arrival. What followed was surely not idyllic at all.
Surprisingly, neither physical strength nor battle experience of so fine and weathered a crew helped the Knights of Saint John in this border brawl with Berliners. Despite great losses suffered on both sides (we can guess there were some dead and plenty of wounded), the Johanniter had to accept their defeat and were forced to accept the winner’s conditions.
And so on September 23, 1435 – exactly 583 years ago yesterday – the head of the order, Grand Master Balthasar von Schliewen, met with the sister-towns’ deputies to put an end to the feud. He signed a document passing the rights to the villages of Tempelhof, Richardsdorf, Marienfelde and Mariendorf as well as the land between the Tempelhofer Berge and the contentious border onto Berlin and Cölln. However, it was not so much a property sale as giving the land in “perpetual fiefdom”.
The Knights Hospitaller left the negotiation table with 2,440 Schock Prager Groschen – a sum which they are said to have duly invested in expanding the castle and the city of Schwiebus (now Świebodzin, Poland). The southernmost streets of the old borough of Tempelhof are Schwiebusser Straße and Züllichauer Straße today: Züllichau and Schwiebus were both part of the order’s Silesian estate.
Out of the conflict and those bloody events a Berlin tradition was born that used to be cultivated for many years later. Every year when harvest was over a group of boys who had been confirmed that year gathered at the city limits. From there, led by the Mayor and the city elders, they proceeded in a festive parade from one boundary marker to another and memorised their exact position. The process of learning, known as Grenzbesichtigung (Boundary Review), was accompanied (but probably hardly facilitated) by whipping, slapping and generous amounts of Haarraufer (tearing at one’s hair).
Today Berlin Templars, gone for 700 years, exist again (since 2014) as a small Ordenshaus (preceptory) established in the historical, twelfth-century village church of Tempelhof. The name “Die Johanniter” stands first and foremost for charity as well as invaluable medical assistance: many of Berlin’s ambulances carry the symbol of the Order of Saint John whose Bailiwick (branch) of Brandenburg still resides in Berlin. The current Grand Master is Oskar Prinz von Preußen, the great-grandson of the last German emperor, Wilhelm II, the Protector of the Order of Saint John.
However, traces of both old chivalric orders are still there. You will find them in the name of Tempelhof itself as well as in Mariendorf and Marienfelde – both named after the order’s holy patron, Mary. Sadly, the old Ordenspalais, an elegant eighteenth-century mansion built on Wilhelmplatz and from March 1933 used by Goebbels’s Ministry of Publish Enlightenment and Propaganda, was destroyed during the Second World War (today only its annex, used by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, exists).
You will also see the chivalric orders’ reflection in many street names: in Kreuzberg’s Tempelherrenstraße, Johanniterstraße, in the tiny street known as Am Johannistisch (At John’s Table); in Tempelhof’s Colditzstraße and Volkmarstraße, or in Neukölln’s Richardplatz named after a Knight Hospitaller appointed by the Order’s Grand Master to establish a settlement there – future Richardsdorp.
So when tasting wine made of grapes cultivated on Berlin’s soil – from the vineyard on the Kreuzberg, in Humboldthain, in Stadion Wilmersdorf or in Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, do spare a thought for those who saw a glimmer of liquid gold in Berlin’s “endless sand and dust”.