Bahnhof Friedrichstraße (Friedrichstraße Railway Station) – whether you have ever been to Berlin or not, you must have encountered this name. You will find it in novels, in newspapers, in films and in history books.
From the moment it was completed in 1882 and opened as Berlin’s first central railway station (in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm I), Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, has consequently played a huge role in Berlin’s history. The last chapter was probably the least glorious one: the station famously served as terminus for trains arriving from West Berlin and as a nearly insurmountable barrier for the travellers from the East (whose departures in the direction of the setting sun were strictly controlled and even more strictly regimented).
The postcard shows the station as it was in its original form – today’s looks practically nothing like it after the refurbishment carried out in the 1920s, additional “tweaking” in the 1930s and then, unavoidably, the World-War-Two “adjustments”.
But despite those extensive changes, one thing remained as it always was: the 160-metre long station building stands on a gentle curve and its body had to be constructed along that line. For not only was it erected on quite swampy ground but it also had to fit into the long line of land-plots used for erecting both the viaduct and the stations – a line consisting principally of the city’s own land: filled in canals, old royal wood storage sites, etc. And it had to fit into the gaps between the already erected buildings.
You can see that curve very clearly from the outside, especially if looking at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße from the south: from Georgenstraße and from Dorothea-Schlegel-Platz (one of the those Berlin plaza’s whose name hardly anyone knows and hardly anyone realises that it is a legitimate plaza in the first place; vide Marlene-Dietrich-Platz). But it is upstairs, on the platforms that this curved line becomes most obvious. As it already was in 1882.
Friedrichstraße is one of the best-known, most central streets in Berlin. Yet, it feels like the least appreciated, with most people hurrying along focused on getting somewhere else. And it is easy to see why: the street does not exactly invite you to linger. It is surprisingly narrow (just look around the corner at Unter den Linden!), has hardly any trees, and offers next to no chance to sit down and enjoy the view. But, contrary to some people might think, it is worth your while.
On my new walking audio-tour created together with Voicemap.me (my third audio-tour on their platform), I will take you on a walk along the northern section of the street to find the often-overlooked details hidden in plain sight.
Like no other street in this city, Friedrichstraße, with its 33 crossroads and one bridge, represents Berlin’s history in a nutshell. It has been part of nearly all of the city’s ups and downs and served as a venue for enough historic events to fill dozens of film scripts and history books.
In Berlin, it always pays to be curious. So, whether it is your first time in the city or you are a returning visitor or even a local wishing to explore it more, join me on my stroll and uncover the lesser-known or half-forgotten facts and places in and around this street. The idea of going on an audio-tour – something I am a big fan of myself – is especially appealing now, in the time of the pandemic and strictly limited social contacts. And it is a wonderful way of spending your time in Berlin, if – again like myself – you are very happy exploring the city on your own. All you need is your smartphone, headphones and the voicemap.me app you can download from the app-shop of your choice.
Allow just over an hour for this walk. COVID-19 regulations permitting, you can stop at one of the many cafes and restaurants you’ll be passing by en route. Or simply grab a cup of tea or coffee to go.
I hope you enjoy the tour! It was made with lots of love, lots of research and in sometimes freezing weather conditions – it was definitely worth it.
Please click the image to enter the audio-tour page.
Among many postcards of what used to be one of Berlin’s main thoroughfares and most popular streets, you will find this image: “Café National” – Friedrichstraße No. 76 corner Jägerstraße. Following the fashion of the time, the photo is quite obviously a collage – a composite or early cut-and-paste technique. Something you probably noticed at once, mildly disturbed by the oddly artificial, staged arrangement of people in the photo. And by the funny proportion-ratio between various objects.
Thanks to its location and cosy yet elegant furnishings “Café National” was quite a popular venue from the start. Its guests greatly appreciated the four Venetian glass mosaics decorating the interior walls: designed by Wiener, they symbolised four different nations and were made for the café by Dr. Salviati, a renown mosaic-maker whose own shop was located at No. 149. Salviati’s is largely forgotten today but one look at the fantastic mosaics decorating Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten and you know: this was no just any glass-beads game. Salviati was big.
Which would suggest that “Cafe National” did not open to cater to the taste of the “Great Unwashed”. Its target audience had to have reached a certain financial level, mid-middle-class and up, you understand. The place did quite a lot to win them, too: it gained its fame as the “largest billiard club in Berlin” (posters in the upper-floor windows bear witness to that). Billiard, as it is easy to guess, was not a working-class leisure activity.
But the glory days of Friedrichstraße did not last long. Soon enough it was the west of the city – or then still, in fact, completely different cities like Charlottenburg, Schöneberg and beyond – that became the desiderable addresses for the well-heeled Berliners. And when they and their families abandoned the city centre for the plush, leafy neighbourhoods of Grunewald, Lichterfelde or Dahlem, and began to do spend their time on Kudamm and at the KaDeWe, the fate of Friedrichstraße was sealed.
From then on this is where you went to have cheap fun. This is where you went you came from a provincial little town somewhere in West Prussia and wished to spend a couple of days breaking your marital vows and as many of the ten amendments as you possibly could without getting caught or thrown into Hell-fire at once.
After the First World War and in the early 1920s, with the hyperinflation raging in Berlin, destroying human lives and sinking businesses, Friedrichstraße became synonymous with abandonment and sin – it became the volcano on which all those lost souls seemed to have danced.
But our “Cafe National” paved this road long before the so-called “Golden Twenties” hit Berlin. Still before the Great War broke out this café was a favourite address for the Friedrichstraße prostitutes working between this street and Leipziger Straße: this is where they came to warm up and have some rest.
In his 1955 autobiography “Ein kleines Ja und Ein großes Nein” (A Small Yes and a Big No”) brilliant German painter, George Grosz, wrote: “Friedrichstraße was crawling with whores. They stood in the house-doorways like sentries, whispering their classics. ‘Kleiner, kommste mit?’ Those were the days of great feather hats, feather shawls and laced-up bosoms. A handbag swung back and forth was the guild’s trademark. The best-known whore-café was the Friedrichstraße ‘Cafe-National’.”
He was right. If you have another look at our postcard, you will see it at once: the cut-out ladies pasted into the photo might not be swinging their handbags but the way they reveal their ankles under exciting layers of frilly underskirts, says it all. We might safely assume that it is not to the “Cafe National” that they and their clearly interested cut-out partners would be going next…
The building which used to house the café is long gone – its site is occupied today by Berlin’s “Galerie Lafayette”.
When Friedrich Albert Schwartz, nineteenth-century Berlin photographer to whom we owe many absolutely invaluable images of the city, placed his camera at Friedrichsbrücke, spanning the Spree between what is now Museuminsel and Anna-Karsch-Straße, he quite likely knew he would be taking a photo of a building facing its doom. It is quite possible that the fact that the old Palais Itzig had been sold and would be demolished was exactly the reason for his commission.
Palais Itzig, once owned by one the mightiest men in Berlin, Prussian Hofjude, Daniel Itzig (“Court Jews” were privileged Jews who took care of royal finances on German courts), was one of the most impressive, elegant and largest residential buildings in the 18th-century Berlin.
Itzig had it erected in Burgstraße: it rose along the river Spree and in close proximity to the Royal Palace. In fact, its architect August Gotthilf Neumann did not start on a blank page. Apart from seven houses that occupied the plot, Daniel Itzig bought the never completed Palais Montargues – another elegant estate house designed by Philipp Gerlach (the one of Pariser Platz, Leipziger Platz and the Rondell or the predecessor of today’s Mehringplatz) for Prussian-French General Peter von Montargues. Think of it as a kind of an architectural Babushka: a house within a house within a house.
And so Gerlach’s design was altered, incorporated, refurbished and extended. The seven neighbouring houses had to go to make room for the spreading body of the new palace, which was after all to provide home to the royal mint-master, banker and head of Berlin’s Jewish community (as well as a great supporter of Moses Mendelssohn’s Haskala movement of enlightened Judaism). And to his family of 17: Daniel Itzig and his short of heroic wife, Mirjam Wulff, had 15 children. Ten daughters and five sons who themselves went down in history but that is another story.
Palais Itzig was a thing to behold – due to its very size it was definitely impossible to overlook. What made passers-by gasp when seeing it on the outside, made others go quiet with awe when invited to see it from the inside. Not only did it have a large private gallery full of precious paintings and a spreading garden with a fountain – the garden stretched between the generous main courtyard on the side of the Spree and the Heilig-Geist-Spital (whose chapel built in 1300 still stands in today’s Spandauer Straße). It also offered all possible comforts and even had its own in-house synagogue.
As always, this display of wealth and an ostentatious mark of success met with resentment. Which in this case was, of course, additionally amplified by anti-Semitic resentment and did not get any less later, after Daniel Itzig’s death. The Itzig family became the target of both concealed and public mockery as well as rude jokes and their surname was used by some as synonymous with “Jew”. It must be said that the resentment towards the Itzigs was not reserved for no-Jews only – the family’s break-up with traditional Judaism and support for its “enlightened” form became a source of deep bitterness within the Jewish community itself.
When the family’s fortune turned by the end of the 18th century, Palais Itzig became an asset which had to be dropped: in 1817 it was sold to Dr Nathan Friedländer. And 49 years later his son, Carl Jacob Friedländer, signed a sales contract himself. The old Palais Itzig/Friedländer became the property of a business group known as Korporation der Kaufmannschaft (Traders’ Corporation).
Their plan was simple: the old palace should be demolished to win the plot back for a new construction site – Palais Itzig had to go (we are now in that picture taken by FA Schwartz). The new building would symbolise the modern capital and modern capital markets: it would become the Berliner Börse – Berlin’s new stock exchange.
Berlin’s famous Stock Exchange in Burgstraße used to line the northern bank of the river Spree opposite Berliner Dom until the end of the Second World War (its ruins were demolished in 1958/59). It housed two largest hall rooms in Berlin and was regularly visited by tourists curious to see the building they could read about in the most renowned guidebooks.
Few of them knew Berliner Börse’s little secret. It was designed by a respected Berlin architect, Friedrich Hitzig – the same man who created, among others, the city’s first market hall in Schiffbauerdamm, the original Reichsbank building in Jägerstraße as well as Berlin’s first observatory, the Sternwarte (where he assisted his teacher, Karl Friedrich Schinkel). Now he was commissioned to design one of the largest buildings in Prussian capital.
And so Friedrich Hitzig’s stock exchange building was erected on the site of the old Palais Itzig. And the little secret? Well, Daniel Itzig, the palace’s original owner happened to be Friedrich Hitzig’s paternal great-grandfather. Berliner Börse’s architect’s surname was the altered form of the name Itzig – chosen by the family after converting to Christianity and to escape anti-Semitic jeers.
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