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.

Vollmer Johannes (1845-1920), Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, Berlin. (In: Atlas zur Zeitschrift für Bauwesen, publ. by F. Endell, Jg. 35, 1885): seen from the south. Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität Berlin Inv. Nr. ZFB 35,001.

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.

Bahnhof Friedrichstraße / Zentralbahnhof in 1882.
Photo by Wilhelm Hermes, Teknik- och industrihistoriska arkivet / Tekniska museet (ARK-K93-G4))

Learn more about Bahnhof Friedrichstraße and the area around it by joining me for my Voicemap.me walking audio-tour of northern section of Friedrichstraße (the audio-tour can also be purchased as a present for your befriended Berlin-fan).

In 2020, a year ago from now, our everyday lives were turned upside down by the worldwide COVID pandemic – a pandemic which still has us in its grip. Nothing is as it used to be: the virus threatens lives in both direct and indirect ways.

Many of us are, quite understandably, so preoccupied with the new reality we have no time or energy to busy ourselves with the past. But perhaps now is exactly the moment when we should look over our collective shoulder and carefully consider what we think that we know. Maybe this is the time to do what Mr Keating, the unforgettable college teacher in “Dead Poets Society”, tried to convey to his pupils: whatever you think you know looks different when instead of sitting at your desk, you stand on it and see things from a new perspective.

Exactly a hundred years before the COVID-pandemic broke out, in March 1920, the city of Berlin found itself in the state of chaos. Reactionary militant groups marched in and threatened to upturn the new German republic using direct and indirect violence – 2020 marked the centennial of what came to be known as Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch.

Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch, also known as Kapp-Putsch, after the names of its two official leaders, Wolfgang Kapp and General von Lüttwitz, was an attempted armed coup organised by a group of German reactionaries. Their plan was to overthrow the post-First-World-War republican government of Friedrich Ebert and replace it with the “good old” Prussian order – which did not mean that they wanted the Kaiser to return. In fact, Kapp is said to have held the former German emperor for a Weichei (coward).

Kapp-Putsch participants at Potsdamer Platz (image by Otto Haeckel, through Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-051-65)

The main cause for the attempted coup might have been less political than many were willing to admit: the putsch broke out because many high-rank German military were about to lose their jobs. The men whose whole lives turned around their army careers, who had been brought up to “serve their country” by waging or participating in military conflicts and wars; men who from very young age had been encouraged and supported in these pursuits by the state (like tin soldiers playing with their own tin soldiers), were about to be made redundant. Such was the decision made in Versailles and eventually accepted by the German government.

The disgruntlement of German troops and their leaders, still unable to accept their defeat with dignity, still kicking and screaming abuse at anyone who dared to disagree, still throwing tantrums and waving their flame-thrower hoses over the nation’s heads, almost led to another great catastrophe. In the end they failed – thanks to what should be hailed as one of the greatest moments in German history, one of the greatest examples of this nation – admittedly not exactly famous for such commendable examples of Aktionseinheit (unity of action) – closing its ranks to prevent an earthquake that could have swallowed them all. The Generalstreik (National Strike), called for right after the start of the putsch, brought the whole of Berlin as well as a great part of the country to a complete halt. And made the military and political machine behind the coup drive right against the wall.

But History is written by repeating stories over and over again and not by mentioning names or events.

Kapp-Putsch (perhaps also because of the catchy name?) had an easy job stealing public imagination – it had it all: Prussian military, political conflict between the old order and the new, class-conflict, Capitalism vs. Socialism and Communism, the von’s and the swastikas on German helmets.

Or maybe it is even less complicated than that? Perhaps it is this irresistible series of images – like an early form of Instagram not on computer servers but in people’s heads – that turned a failed assault carried out by disgruntled and/or traumatised men against a legal and official government of their state into a “classic”? Everybody loves a uniform. The shiny Prussian boots. The determined, stern look on moustachioed faces; the way they stand holding their weapons, the war machines they pull behind them or push before them like giant metal toys.

A postcard quickly issued in March 1920 showing Kapp troops posing on the roof of one of the later destroyed buildings at Hallesches Tor (image via GermanPostalHistory.com)

Sometimes, there is an element of disturbing fascination – it feels like fearful respect or quiet longing to have been part of it themselves – you often sense among those who keep re-telling Kapp-Putsch story with glee. But what do the story-tellers really think about their actions? Are those just filtered Instagram images, the ever-turning carousel of paroles, that they see and hear or do they really have a considered opinion? It is just a thought and by no means one limited to Kapp-Putsch only. But one aimed at making sure that the perpetrators should never get more (or better!) press than those they abused. Or even worse: that the abuse is turned around and consequently presented as virtue.

That is why when talking about the events in Berlin in March 1920 it is important to put the other side of this tale in the limelight.

The putsch, carried out by German Freikorps, voluntary paramilitary troops of strongly anti-republican hue, could have overthrown Ebert’s government: the army under General von Seeckt (even though some members of the Reichswehr supported the Ebert government) refused to follow president’s orders in order not to be forced to shoot at fellow soldiers (famous “Troops do not shoot at troops!”). This was most probably not the only reason for the army’s withdrawal – many powerful men would have welcomed Friedrich Ebert’s and the Weimar Republic’s demise.

Acting from so obviously lost a position, Ebert did the only thing he still could do: the cabinet left Berlin and got evacuated to Stuttgart. At the same time, he and the political parties supporting his cabinet called upon the People, mostly working-class citizens but by far not only (many entrepreneurs, company-owners and civic servants joined in), to go on strike. The masses responded and a general strike put everything to a halt: factories, railway stations, city transportation system, communications provided no goods or services. Berlin had no running water supply, no gas, no electricity, the public transport system froze. It should not be forgotten what that must have meant for regular people: their lives, already so horribly damaged by the sacrifices they were forced to bear for the First World War, were turned upside own again. Tens, hundreds of thousands of women and children who had nothing (bodies of their men strewn all over the war front lines); tens of thousands of war cripples with physical and/or mental wounds, old people with no-one to take care of them – they all waited in lines at the street pumps to carry some water into their dark, unheated rooms. Ironically, perhaps that is why they did not complain? Because this was nothing new – this was their life since the Kaiser, the kings and the generals decided to sacrifice the whole generation in order not to lose their face?

Berliners queueing for water during the Generalstreik in March 1920 in front of the street pump (Plumpe) in Berlin-Kreuzberg on the corner of Fichtestraße/Hasenheide/Graefestraße in front of “Konditorei Cafe Gerber”). Image: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R11931, via Bundesarchiv, CC.

The Generalstreik was an incredible collective effort that deserves to be lauded – not pushed to the back of the national drawer in the hope that no-one notices before we are gone.  Facing the shooting Freikorps troops (they proudly displayed and even used their machine guns on most main junctions in Berlin’s centre), flame-throwers and the armed vehicles sent against the city, people did an incredible thing: they played dead. The big machine, one whose control is necessary if you are planning violently to grab power over a country, refused to work.

Although official numbers quote 12 million participants, that number was most probably nearer 20 million. The twelve million were only the registered trade-union members – they were, by far, not the only ones who answered the call.

In fact, it went so far that high-rank members of the Reichsbank management refused to grant the putschists access to the funds (another indispensable element of any successful coup). And Albert Brecht, a man in charge of the state seals (needed to prove the legitimacy of the new “government” by being able to stamp the documents issued by them), packed them into his coat-pocket and left the building without any intention to help the authors of the coup.

Poster calling for people to join the March 1920 strike. (Image via LEMO site of Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)

Only 100 hours after the putsch began, Lüttwitz fled the country: first to Saxony and then Hungary. Kapp chose a different destination: he got himself flown out to Sweden. Both left Berlin on March 17, 1920 – 101 year ago today. Ehrhardt, commander of two Freikorps units involved in the occupation of Berlin, went into hiding in Bavaria.

With the putsch over, Friedrich Ebert’s government accepted the oath of loyalty sworn to them by those who only hours earlier tried to help set the world on fire and called for the ending of the national strike (“national” even though places like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg refused to join in). However, by then the events took a life of their own and Berlin was about to face another bloody but mostly forgotten chapter in its history: the 1920 March Revolution.

Now, if you were to stand on your desk to look at the events of March 17, 1920 from yet a different perspective, you would probably also see a small military aeroplane flying to German capital from Bavaria. Before the putsch came to its dismal end, the German capital was visited by a relatively unknown but aspiring politician. He arrived to show his support to Kapp and Lüttwitz as well as be there when the hated republic collapses.

Adolf Hitler’s pilot that night was Robert Ritter von Greim, whom Hitler would appoint as the last head of the Luftwaffe after Göring’s betrayal in April 1945. Greim would also become the man wounded by Red Army missiles while piloting a tiny Fieseler-Storch machine over the Tiergarten in the last days of the Third Reich: the machine was landed on Charlottenburger Chaussee (today’s Straße des 17. Juni) by his passenger and colleague, a Nazi pilot, Hanna Reitsch.

But back in 1920, after landing on a wrong airfield outside Berlin, Hitler allegedly disguised himself as a bearded accountant to make it past the checkpoints controlled by the workers.

The putsch, however, was of course over by then. This event – next to many others that followed – might have heavily contributed to Hitler’s future dislike of the city (despite his initial enthusiasm expressed in a letter to a friend sent during his first visit on a furlough from the front). In March 1920 he said about Berlin: “The Berlin of Frederick the Great has been turned into a pigsty by Jews.” Thirteen years later he would turn it into a Nazi hell. What was missing to stop him and his people was, among others, the Aktionseinheit.

If you enjoyed reading this text, please consider leaving a small donation. Also, from April 1, 2021 the blog will include a members-only section with additional material, including a podcast, as well as an option to choose the topics for the future posts. Thank you for reading Berlin Companion!

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Cafe National, Friedrichstraße 76 in Berlin-Mitte.

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”.

Palais Hitzig in Burgstraße, 1857 (by FA Schwartz whose photo collection is currently being digitised by Berlin’s excellent City Museum, Stadtmuseum Berlin)

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.

Berliner Börse around 1870 (in 1884 it was further expanded to occupy the block). Image PD.

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.

Berliner Börse aerial view (1910). Image PD.

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.

If you enjoyed reading this text, please consider leaving a small donation. Also, from April 1, 2021 the blog will include a members-only section with additional material, including a podcast, as well as an option to choose the topics for the future posts. Thank you for reading Berlin Companion!

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