U-Bhf Oranienstraße (now “Görlitzer Bahnhof”) in 1902, the year the line opened.

On February 18, 1902 the first Hochbahn line, now known as U1, opened for public service in Berlin: Berlin’s U-Bahn network, the heart of the BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe or “Berlin Public Transport Company”) was born. Three days earlier a historic event known as Ministerfahrt (Ministerial Round) took place, marking the official debut of the new transport system.

By now this network stretches over nearly 153 kilometres and covers 174 stations (by the end of 2021 two more are planned to open) placed both under and the over the ground. Siemens & Halske, the company behind the network’s original concept, as well as the great people behind the original Hochbahn/Unterpflasterbahn project (Unterpflaster stands for “sub-pavement”- which explains the name U-Bahn) foresaw this development.

To find out more about the origins and the peculiarities of the original section of this incredible public transport system, take a walking audio-tour of the old eastern Stammstrecke (Core Line) and enjoy “Take The U Train: Berlin’s Oldest Elevated Railway Line Part I” (you can also listen to it at home following the route on Google Streets or on a regular Open Street map).  The audio-tour is available via Voicemaps.

It is a downloadable 120-minute long series of recordings telling the story of the line’s genesis, its designers, engineers as well as critics and supporters, and explaining why its winding viaduct is a marvel of engineering and its stations a thing of beauty even if some of the eastern U1 stops (like “Kottbusser Tor”) might seem uninviting.

Let me take you back in time to the days when none of today’s comforts were obvious and when the arrival of the new city railway line was considered by a blessing by some and by a curse by others. We can safely say that history and time proved the latter group wrong.

You can listen to the audio-tour while walking/driving along today’s U1 line (start at U-Bhf Warschauer Straße and end at U-Bhf “Gleisdreieck”) or you can enjoy it as continuous listening from home or any other location. To download use VoiceMap app (you can listen to the tour while walking with recordings triggered manually or triggering automatically per GPS) or visit their page online.

 

View down Belle-Alliance-Platz towards Belle-Alliance-Brücke (Hallesche Brücke today) captured by F.A. Schwartz in 1895. Several years later the Hochbahn viaduct will appear behind the characteristic square buildings in the background, known as Magistratklaviere (Council Pianos). Image via Berliner Landesarchiv.

Belle-Alliance-Platz. The name whose melodious sound equalled the beauty of the place it stood for. Built as the Rondell, one of the three magnificent new plazas designed in the eighteenth century by Philipp Gerlach and inspired by the three grand Parisian squares, it developed over time into what many considered to be the most splendid among all Berlin courts.

Until 1943, when some of the heaviest Second-World-War air-raids, like a giant grinder, left Berlin’s centre in ruins and ashes. As part of the southern Friedrichstadt, Belle-Alliance-Platz suffered particularly grave damage – the Landwehrkanal flowing past it at Hallesches Tor and the plaza itself served as points of orientation for the allied bombers.

Belle-Alliance-Platz in 1912 (view north). Image PD.

After the war, new urban-planning projects turned the old plaza into what it is today: despite (mostly) best intentions and some of the most renown architects having been involved in its design (like the legend of German architecture, Hans Poelzig) it produced a weird fruit – a “space oddity”. A place soaked in heaviness and one which – whatever efforts have been made to change that and many have been so far, especially in the recent years – always feels strangely heartless. You do not stroll on Mehringplatz. You scuttle through or fly past it.

Belle-Alliance-Platz in 1935. Image via Landesarchiv Berlin.

By the way, the name – Mehringplatz – was chosen to honour German historian of Communism and Marxism, publicist and politician Franz Mehring, born in Pommeranian town of Schlawe (today’s Sławno and coincidentally also the author’s birthplace). It honoured him as one of the men and women active in the headquarters of German Social-Democracy, Vorwärts-Haus in Lindenstraße – the building on the edge of Belle-Alliance-Platz was one of the very few which survived the bombings and the Untergang but were demolished later.

View of the old plaza – by then Mehringplatz – from the platform U-Bhf Hallesches Tor. Photo from July 1957 by Willy Pragher via Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg

On February 16, 1946 the no longer existing Belle-Alliance-Platz was renamed Franz-Mehring-Platz but by July 31, 1947 the name was shortened to Mehringplatz. Which turned out very convenient when in 1972 the old Küstriner Platz in Berlin-Friedrichshain, a plaza in front of the old Küstriner Bahnhof and the site for the main building of the East German daily, the “Neues Deutschland”, had its name changed to Franz-Mehring-Platz.

Looking at Mehringplatz today it is hard to believe that less than a century ago the plaza at the southern end of Friedrichstraße was a place to behold. If there is one place in central Berlin which could do with some reconstruction or even blatant replicas, then this must be it. Sadly, the chances of that happening are, to put it mildly, poor.

With Mehringplatz as a densely populated residential area surrounded by a towering Plattenbauten (high-rises), the only hope anyone can have of the plaza becoming less estranged is to see its charming central ring – with a historic Cantian Friedensäule – finally left in peace. After it had been renovated and the surrounding statues of sitting muses cleaned and restored as well, it has become stuck in a sad groundhog-day cycle of an endless construction site involving the underground station “Hallesches Tor” placed right underneath it.

Mehringplatz seen from above in 1975 – the high-rises placed on the northern edge of the plaza were meant to shield the plaza itself from the noise of the never-built motorway (Südtangente).

The Berlin curse of “always becoming and never being” is nowhere as palpable as in the shade of the old Belle-Alliance-Plaza in Kreuzberg.

 

The gate to Schloß Monbijou captured by Hermann Rückwardt in 1885 (image PD).

Schloß Monbijou – here its decorative gate captured by Hermann Rückwardt in 1885 –  is one of Berlin’s lost palaces and sites. Built on the northern bank of the river Spree opposite today’s Museum Island, it started in the seventeenth century as a model farm.

In the 17th century the first wife of the Brandenburgian Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, Luise Henriette of Orange – Dutch and excelling at both gardening and horticulture – set up a model farm where Park Monbijou is today. After her death in 1667 her Vorwerk vorm Oranienburger Tor (Farming Estate outside the Oranienburg Gate) became one the Great Elector’s gifts to his second wife, Dorothea.

Her still rather modest summer house she had erected for herself and her family was later replaced by a “bijou” (only 400m²) palace built by the husband of King Friedrich I’s concubine, Countess Wartenberg. The King thanked his general for providing him with so charming a house and promptly gifted it to the latter’s wife to use it as hers and the monarch’s love-nest. A bit of a French twist in an otherwise very Prussian story.

But it was not her who eventually gave the place its immortal name: Friedrich II’s (The Great) mother, Sophie Charlotte, came up with “Monbijou” or “My Jewel”. Her son named his favourite palace in Potsdam “Sanssouci” (Carefree).

Refurbished several times over the next 200 years, in 1887 it became home to Berlin’s Hohenzollern Museum devoted entirely to the history of the last ruling house of Prussia. After the First World War and the collapse of German monarchy its collection remained in the hands of the by then former ruling family but both the site and the palace itself became the state property. The new republican government took it upon itself to maintain the museum and allow the citizens to take long sentimental trips down the imperial memory lane.

Hit by bombs during the November 1943 air-raid, Schloß Monbijou partly burnt down. Most of the collection had been removed by then and stored in one or several of the secret Nazi storage locations, only to be discovered by the Red Army troops and taken as war booty to the USSR. It is also possible that many of the objects were taken – effectively stolen – by other people and remain in private hands until today.

As for the palace, its remains were demolished in the late 1950s as an unwanted remainder of the Hohenzollerns and the role they played in the lead-up to both world wars. The park originally surrounding the palace – by then an empty site – was used to create a public park and (by now probably visited by millions of them) children’s lido. The lido, one of the most popular places for children in Berlin, operates until today.

Park Monbijou and the lido on July 14, 1955. Photo by Rainer Mittelstädt via Bundesarchiv.

 

 

foto uit Spaarnestadarchief, tijdschrift Het leven kleiner
Image from a Dutch magazine “Het Leven” (via Spaarnestadt Archive).

Here is a typical Berlin Balkonia, little man’s and woman’s green paradise, in its rooftop edition: as a small garden and a chicken-pen.
This model example of self-sufficiency was necessary to survive dire food-shortages of the First World War – shortages which were particularly acute in the capital and led to long periods of starvation not only among the poorest. Many Berlin children did not survive those and if they did, they often suffered their consequences – mentally and health-wise – for the rest of their lives.
This idyllic image is a witness to a very bitter truth: that unless you were able to provide your own food yourself, your family was in danger. And that in 99% of the cases this responsibility had to be shouldered by women – whose children were at great risk.