According to Karl Scheffler – and what must be the most often used Berlin quotation ever – Germany’s capital is “dazu verdammt, immerfort zu werden und niemals zu sein” (cursed never to be and forever to become).
Scheffler famously voiced this opinion in his 1910 book “Berlin- ein Stadtschicksal” and it was by no means meant as praise. Like the rest of the book, it reflected the paradox of the author’s relationship with the city. He loved it and he hated it at once. One could say, a conundrum faced by every Berliner before or after Scheffler.
Probably never before was Berlin’s typically unfinished, unready condition more visible than today. Modern digital technologies allow people like us to follow its permanent state of flux almost in real time broadcast. And never are those changes as striking as when you compare images from only a short while ago with its today’s look.
The ‘Berliner Zeitung’ has just published several Google Street-View images from only ten years ago juxtaposing them against photos of the same Berlin vistas today. The pace at which this city has been changing truly matches that of our time. Which might not be as much of a blessing as it is Scheffler’s curse.
Click the image to enter.
berliner zeitung cipping 1.03

Spittelmarkt seen from Leipziger Straße in 1904.

Spittelmarkt, once a central Berlin plaza in the borough of Mitte and today one of the most non-descript places in the city centre.

A 1900 traffic census carried out there rendered following results: between 6 AM and 10 PM the plaza was crossed by 144,223 pedestrians and 21,237 vehicles. At the time, Berlin had 1,888,848 registered residents.

By the end of nineteenth century Spittelmarkt, named after a small hospital (Sankt Gertrauden Hospital) and a chapel built there in early fifteenth century, became one of Berlin’s busiest traffic knots. This was only possible after the 17th-century Gertraudenkirche – built after the old chapel and the “Spittal” burnt down in 1641- was demolished in 1881 and the area underwent a significant re-design.

Gertraudenkirche in 1880, a year before its demolition (photo by Hermann Rückwardt).

In the 1920s another refurbishment followed and approximately a quarter of the century later, after May 1945, Spittelmarkt lay in ruins. Built anew by the East Berlin authorities in the 1970s, it reflected the then “modern” approach to architecture and urban planning. It virtually vanished again, overridden by the expanded traffic lanes as well as overwhelmed by the monstrous concrete high-rises erected around and partly on it.

Spittelmarkt in the 1920s (photographer unknown, PD).

The two map images – sections of a 1910 and a current Google-Map – featured below strongly reflect that change. The western entrance to the 1908 U-Bhf “Spittelmarkt” marked on both of them will help you locate the former within the latter.

Last night #RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) – for obvious reasons our favourite German TV station – treated its viewers to another episode of its highly appreciated documentary series Geheimnisvolle Orte (Secret, or Mysterious, Places).

This time it is all about the KaDeWe: since its opening in 1907 Berlin´s Kaufhaus des Westens (the Department Store of the West) remains an elegant temple of shopping, the Mecca of jet-setting keen buyers.

Adolf Jandorf and family in their villa in Tiergartenstraße, 1908 Berlin (image by R. Siebert).

Its story is a rich tapestry of anecdotes and historically significant moments. Its fate reflects that of Berlin itself almost one-to-one: the Wilhelminian show-off opulence, braggadocio and drama, the Weimar Republic “wild & wasteful” craze and sudden financial slump, the Nazi-era tragedy of the Jewish management and staff, followed by the Second World War wreckage and the resurrection; division of Berlin and the 1960s anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-government student movement for whom the KaDeWe became a symbolic enemy (also because the man behind the store´s post-war resurrection, its post-war manager, held his post thanks to the 1933 Nazi process of “aryanisation” of Jewish enterprises). In 1989 the Kaufhaus des Westens was also among the most important destinations for many awe-struck East Berliners.

The RBB documentary captures all of those moments and the experts as well as the store´s management do their best to elucidate the special, almost royal, status of Schöneberg´s old shopping temple. In our humble opinion, they succeed.

The documentary is in German only, however, the precious historical film material it contains makes it worth watching even if you do not understand a word. Please click the image to enter.

KaDeWe in its opening year, 1907 (photographer unknown).