THE CHALICE, THE EAGLE AND THE CROSS: NEUKÖLLN’S COAT OF ARMS

Rixdorf on the 1895 Straube-Plan von Berlin (technically, Rixdorf was not part of the city yet) with the old Bohemian village sites marked in yellow. (map in PD via Harvard Map Collection 990107769010203941)

On April 1, 1899 Rixdorf – once the largest village or rural community in Prussia – was at last granted its city right. Twenty one years later, together with six other cities, 59 rural communities and 27 estates, it became incorporated in the new metropolis, Greater Berlin.

But if you look for the name “Rixdorf” in Berlin today you will only find it referred to only indirectly, as in Rixdorfer Schmiede (Rixdorf Smithery on Richardplatz), Rixdorfer Höhe and Rixdorfer Teich (a rubble hill and a pond in Volkspark Hasenheide) or in locally-produced beverages (Rixdorfer Galgen and Rixdorfer Brause, a herbal liqueur and a – highly recommended – fizzy lemonade brand respectively). But what happened to Rixdorf itself?

In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his royal consent to the re-branding of a place which suffered ill reputation but wished to improve its ratings along potential sponsors and investors. Rixdorf, (in-)famous for its funfairs, its distilleries and rich entertainment offer as such (especially in and along today’s Hasenheide), wished to shed its colourful old skin and become a serious player on the property market. In short, the city elders wanted to attract “a better sort of people”. In 1912 the Kaiser kindly helped by letting them re-name the place “Neukölln”.

Rixdorf’s coat of arms 1903 (via berlin.de)

Still back in May 1903 Rixdorf, after several years of consideration and debating 25 different designs, the city finally decided on its coat of arms: a shield divided into three fields (each in a different old imperial Reich colour: black, white and red) with a brickwork crown above them. Today’s coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln is the 1956 version of the original design.

Coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln

And as with all city coats of arms, it tells a story of the place itself.

The brickwork crown with three towers stands for the city rights granted to Rixdorf in 1899. Today the middle tower features a small picture of a bear: a clear sign that Neukölln became part of the Greater Berlin – the 1903 coat of arms showed a city gate instead.

The top left shield beneath the brickwork crown – the black field – refers to the part of Neukölln once known as Böhmisch-Rixdorf, whilst the white field stands for its sister-community, for Deutsch-Rixdorf.

Böhmisch-Rixdorf, or Bohemian-Rixdorf, was established by protestant refugees from Bohemia, the Hussites. They arrived in today’s Berlin in the first half of the eighteenth century invited by King Friedrich Wilhelm I (aka the Soldier King). The Hussites were fleeing religious persecution they suffered at home in then re-catholicized Bohemia and the Prussian monarch was happy to welcome new, industrious and thankful residents in his still partly depopulated (hashtag: Thirty Years Wars) realm. The king needed hands to work and the Bohemians a place to stay – it a was a perfect match. What started with eighteen families soon turned into a strong colony of Czech-speaking Prussians.

The silver chalice on the black field symbolises the “common-” or “communion chalice” used to offer wine to members of the Hussite community during the church service. One of the four principal dogmas of the Hussites, described in the “Four Articles of Prague”, was “communion under both kinds”: during the communion, church members received both the host (a thin white wafer representing the body of Christ) and a sip of red wine which stands for Christ’s blood.

This common chalice became the symbol of the Hussites – while the popular name of the movement refers to Jan Hus, the ill-fated forerunner of Protestant Reformation, in Czech (their mother-tongue) his followers were known as Kališníci -“Chalice People”.

Their new settlement outside Berlin was dubbed Böhmisch-Rixdorf to differentiate between them and the other, older Rixdorf, which henceforth was known as Deutsch-Rixdorf. The top right field – the white one – on Neukölln’s coat of arms commemorates this settlement.  The red Brandenburgian eagle was the sign of Brandenburg’s Askanian rulers. The eagle and the golden clover on its wings were already featured on Berlin’s oldest seal. The symbolic of the eagle is quite obvious – the trefoil (three-leaved) clover stands for the holy trinity and is a Christian symbol.

To sum up: so far we have a silver Bohemian chalice for Böhmisch-Rixdorf and the red eagle for its Deutsch counterpart. But what is the meaning of the eight-pointed silver cross in the bottom – red – field?

If you know the history of the Crusades or modern history of charity organisations, you will quickly recognise it as the Maltese Cross, symbol of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, also know as the Hospitallers. And what do the Crusaders have to do with Rixdorf? Reader, they created it. Or, rather, developed further. After their Holy Land brothers-in-arms from the Knights Templar (in German Tempelherren) had established it as a farm and settlement on the land they were offered to live on by Brandenburgian rulers upon Tempelherren’s return to Europe (they got it together with, among others, today’s Tempelhof and Marienfelde which owe their names to them). The Hospitallers took it over and turned into a village in 1360 after the Templars met their sad end at the hands of French king, Phillip the Fair. The village was christened Richardsdorp. The said “Richard” was most likely a high-rank knight from the Order of the Cross and and the estate’s, called Richardshof, former administrator.

So there we have it, Rixdorf/Neukölln: the city wall, the bear and the eagle, the silver chalice and the Maltese Cross. Coats of arms are not only aesthetically pleasing and a symbol of status – they also tell often complicated stories, honouring the Past in one elegant snapshot.