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Between 1961 and 1989 border crossing Heinrich-Heine-Straße joined/divided West Berlin and East Berlin. It was erected along Prinzenstraße in western Kreuzberg and former Neanderstraße in what used to be East-Berlin district of Mitte. The name “Neanderstraße” vanished in 1960 when on July 22 the street officially became Heinrich-Heine-Straße.

Interestingly, the change also applied to a section of Prinzenstraße between Sebastianstraße and Annenstraße – obviously to the one located in the Eastern Zone of the divided city. The name “Prinzenstraße” commemorated Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm who went on to become first King and the Kaiser Wilhelm I. A fact which caused some unease on the eastern side of the divide (the Hohenzollerns were high on the pet-hate list of the East German ruling party) and led to the aforementioned adjustment.

The photo above, taken by an amateur Berlin photographer, Roehrensee, in December 1989 shows the Kreuzberg side of the crossing seen from the island in the middle of the Moritzplatz where the photographer’s shadow points towards the east. But the crossing you see in the background was just a small section of the facility – its western entrance/exit as it was.

BorBoder-crossing Heinrich-Heine-Straße in 1968 (photo via Stasi-Mediathek, from Polizeihistorische Sammlung).

In between the latter and a similar arrangement on the opposite side of the crossing in East Berlin there lie a slalom of massive concrete blocks whose main purpose was to slow down the traffic and prevent anyone from gaining enough speed to endanger the security of the control point in both Prinzen and in Heinrich-Heine-Straße. Maximum speed within the border-crossing route was 10km/h.

This more or less standard precaution – not only between Kreuzberg and Mitte but on other border-crossings, too – proved to be lethally efficient. On April 17, 1962 Klaus Brueske, a 24-year-old lorry-driver from Berlin-Friedrichshain, and two of his friends, sped towards the border at 70km/h, trying to break through the border road-barriers in Heinrich-Heine-Straße in a truck loaded with gravel. Brueske, disillusioned with the situation in East Berlin and still mourning the loss of his job with the West Berlin engineering company, AEG (which he gave up after the Berlin Wall separated his home-district from his workplace), hoped to be able to reach West Berlin territory by simply going through the boom barriers put there into place.

The plan could have worked – the border was not as impermeable yet as it became later – and, in fact it, it did. But at the ultimate price. One of the border guards opened fire at the vehicle, shooting 14 times and hitting two of the three young men inside. The lorry came to a halt already in West Berlin, crashing heads-on against a wall in Prinzenstraße 34.

The lorry used by Brueske and his friends after it crashed against the wall (photo from the Polizeihistorische Sammlung)

After all three escapees had been taken to Urban-Krankenhaus in Grimmstraße on the southern side of the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, where Karl Brüske was pronounced dead upon arrival. However, the cause of death were not the two bullets which hit his neck. It was asphyxia. Klaus Brueske died of suffocation, buried under the gravel he had earlier loaded onto the lorry. He was the 16th victim of the Berlin Wall – 16th person to die trying to leave the Eastern Sector of Berlin. The 16th Maueropfer, “the wall victim”.

Two years later another young man would attempt an escape on the same spot and using the same method. Although his escape was part of a drama and not of a plan. On December 25, 1965 27-year-old Heinz Schöneberger from West Germany was lethally wounded by a hand-gun bullet shot at him as the young man was only five metres away from the West Berlin territory.

He and his brother, driving a Ford Taunus hoped to be able to smuggle two East-German women out of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). The women, hidding under the front and the back seats, risked their lives as much as the Schöneberger brothers. It became terribly clear after the car had been stopped by the East German border control.

The same border-crossing photographed by Hans Seiler in 1968 (image via Landesarchiv Berlin).

After ordering the brothers to step out of the car, the guards discovered one of the young women under the back seat. Not waiting for the handcuffs to be snapped around his wrists, Heinz Schöneberger jumped back into the vehicle, locked all doors from inside and sped towards the West Berlin side of the border. Unable to go faster – the concrete slalom route did its job just as expected – he stopped, sprang out of the car, in an attempt to sprint the remaining ten metres.

He died on the western side of the border.

View from Kreuzberg by Johann Heinrich Hintze, 1829 (currently at the Alte Nationalgalerie). The winding road leading to Berlin is today’s Mehringdamm.

Few places in Berlin, especially those not in its very centre, are as popular among both locals and visitors as Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg. A climb up the hill, among towering trees, along meandering paths, with or without a short break to dip one’s feet into the cool water in the astoundingly life-like artificial waterfall, is a must. Once on top, a short stop to gaze down the flowing cascades and along Großbeerenstraße right into the heart of the city will give your lungs and leg muscles short but well-deserved rest – which you will need to go even higher: to the viewing platform of Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg, the National Memorial to the Wars of Liberation.

In fact, you might want to do some climbing today – the day the Memorial turns 200!

On March 30, 1821 – the seventh anniversary of the Prussian charge on the Montmartre and of the conquest of Paris, which unavoidably triggered Napoleon’s demise – King Friedrich Wilhelm III arrived on top of the Tempelhofer Berg (also known as the Weinberg or the Runder Berg). The highest natural elevation in what is now central Berlin but back in the days was still part of a district outside the city limits, known as Tempelhofer Vorstadt.

Accompanied by an illustrious guest, Russian Tsar Alexander I – Friedrich Wilhelm’s brother-in-arms in the conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte – Prussian monarch came to witness the unveiling of a monument commemorating their victories in what came to be known as the Wars of Liberation. By the way, being brothers-in-arms was not the only link between the two: Alexander’s younger brother and successor to Russian throne, Nicolai, had married Friedrich Wilhelm’s eldest daughter, Charlotte (or future Russian Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna – welcome to Europe’s royal name-carousel!)

As Prussia’s military ally in the wars against Napoleon it was Alexander who prevented the king – as well as the Austrian emperor for he was wavering, too – from making what could have been the biggest mistake in the history of the Sixth Coalition: he convinced them to take Paris instead of withdrawing the troops. Now it was time to celebrate these good choices.

The rather magnificent Nationaldenkmal für Befreiungskriege – National Memorial for Wars of Liberation – a 200-tonne cast-iron tapering structure installed on an octagonal stone base – was the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Johann Heinrich Strack (who was responsible for the stone base). Originally planned as a neo-gothic cathedral to be erected on Leipziger Platz, it was eventually reduced to what looked like a cathedral tower and measured “only” 19 metres instead. The location was also moved three kilometres south – to a sandy hill on the northern edge of the Teltow Plateau.

Schinkel, supported by several renown contemporary artists with Christian Daniel Rauch as the most prominent among them, created an artwork which truly had everything a memorial of this kind should possess: it was impressive, it was elegant, it was positively oozing with symbols which everybody understood and was happy to see included and, last but not least, it had twelve extremely good-looking statues with faces the crowds back then were often able to recognise.

National Memorial for Wars of Liberation in 1878 shortly before being raised (image by F.A. Schwartz)

The memorial’s leitmotiv was a cross: it was a direct reference to a new military decoration introduced by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1813 after the Battle of Leipzig: the legendary Eiserne Kreuz, the Iron Cross. The foot of the memorial itself is shaped liked one, too, and you will see the shape repeated from the memorial’s bottom to its very top. Literally, to the very top: the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is even crowned with one.

The (also cross-shaped) main section with four protruding arms created space for twelve niches, each of which is home to a Genius of an important battle. Twelve statues for twelve battles. Twelve faces that back in 1821 might still have been familiar. Like Queen Louise, the King’s prematurely deceased wife and probably the most popular monarch in Prussian history – even the villain of the story, Napoleon, seemed to have developed a kind of love-hate attitude towards her.

She, the woman who negotiated with Napoleon in person to ask him to show mercy to Prussia, became the symbol of self-proclaimed emperor’s demise – Luise is the Genius of the Battle of Paris (her daughter, Charlotte – later Alexandra Fedorovna – is the genius of Belle-Alliance, in Anglo-Saxon countries better known as the Battle of Waterloo). Christian Daniel Rauch, who created the genius of Paris not only gave it Luise’s face – he also presented her in a pose strangely alike that of Napoleon himself in his famous 1806 imperial portrait by Ingres. Coincidence? Highly unlikely. Here is why.

Whilst Ingres’s Napoleon has his hands busy holding a royal sceptre – known as the Sceptre of Charlemagne – and what is known as the Hand of Justice, Luise stands empty-handed. With one arm raised high above her head and with the other bent and slightly outstretched as if presenting something to the beholder. Something that seems to be missing.

“Napoleon on The Throne” by  Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1806 (image in PD)

So where is the similarity, I hear you ask. Where is the secret message smuggled in by Rauch? To see it, you must first know that Luise’s raised arm did not simply hang in the air the way it does today – it used to rest on a sceptre, too. A sceptre crowned, of course, with an Iron Cross and a Prussian Eagle.

The empty-handed Luise as the Genius of Paris (image by Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe)

Neither was her right hand empty. Balanced on the palm of her hand and the forearm was… a miniature Quadriga. Famously, in 1806 Napoleon had Berlin’s precious Schadow fourspan removed from the Brandenburg Gate and shipped in wooden crates to Paris. It was to be displayed later as symbol of Napoleon’s triumph over Prussia (and “German tribes” in general) on one of new triumphal arches which French emperor planned to have built in his capital. The plans for this particular Arc d’Triomphe glorifying Napoleon Bonaparte and his second wife, Marie-Luise of Austria, were eventually re-worked, re-shaped and re-designed and turned into Arc de Triomphe d’Etoile.

In the meantime, Berlin Quadriga was stored at Musée Napoléon, today’s Louvre. However, the idea symbolically to humiliate Prussia had to be abandoned once General Blücher entered the stage – Paris – in 1814 and had the precious chariot, henceforth known as Retourkutsche (return coach), promptly dispatched back to Berlin.

The disappearance of both the mini-Quadriga and Luise’s sceptre is a classic Berlin Nasser Fisch – “wet fish” stands in German criminalist jargon for an unsolved case. The two objects vanished during or soon after the renovation of the war-damaged memorial in the 1950s. They have been missing ever since. But once you know they used to be there, the deliberate and, let’s admit it, delicious Napoleon snub becomes quite obvious.

Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg with the Genius von Paris still carrying her regalia some time betwen 1900 and 1918 (author NN, image via Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildarchiv Aufnahme-Nr. 1.110.854 )

Other victories commemorated on Schinkel’s memorial in today’s Viktoriapark had equally famous patrons and Geniuses: General York who led the Prussian army against Napoleon’s forces at Wartenburg (the boat he rests his foot on stands for his success at organising the crossing of the river Elbe). The memorial could not have done without other great Prussian heroes of Napoleonic Wars: General Yorck, General Bülow and, last but not least, General-Marshall von Blücher (in his pre-moustache days as the genius of the Battle of Katzbach).

Tsar Alexander of Russia, the king’s guest that day and the man who became a namesake for a famous Berlin plaza, is also featured: as the genius of the Battle of La Rothière – the battle after which he forced the Austrian and Prussian monarchs to “pull their socks up” and go for Paris at full throttle. Friedrich Wilhelm III himself was, of course, immortalised, too: he became the Genius of the Battle of Kulm. His son and successor, future Friedrich Wilhelm IV, had his features turned into those of the genius of the Battle of Großbeeren.

 

The Geniuses on the Kreuzberg Memorial in Viktoriapark (image by Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe).

The memorial, praised by the King and his guests, was unveiled to loud cheers from the gathered crowds. After the military parade Bishop Rulemann Friedrich Eylert blessed the Nationaldenkmal and a series of gun salutes followed.

On the same day the hill carrying the memorial shed all its previous names and – following the royal wish – was duly re-named Kreuzberg, the Cross Hill.

In 1878 the Kreuzberg Memorial, whose view by then threatened to be obscured by residential buildings growing around it at steadily increasing pace, was lifted and placed on an eight-metre-high stone base designed by Johann Heinrich Strack (the one of the Siegessäule, Belle-Alliance-Brücke, now Hallesche Brücke, and the long-gone Magistratsklaviere flanking the entrance to the equally extinct Belle-Alliance-Platz, or Mehringplatz today).

Aerial photo of the National Memorial and Viktoriapark taken between 1916 when the western part of the park designed by A. Brodersen opened and 1924 when the Katzbachstadion (now Willy-Kressmann-Stadion) was expanded. (Author NN; Photo in PD).

But how was it done? Clearly, lifting 200 tonnes of stone and iron was not a job to be left to amateurs – what was needed was an expert, the best of the best. For many the obvious choice was Carl Hoppe, German engineer, owner of an iron foundry and a machine designer who set up his first factory in Köpenicker Straße. He produced a custom-made hydraulic lift with water pressure of 30 atmospheres, capable of hoisting objects weighing up to 16 tonnes. With twelve such machines Hoppe allowed the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg temporarily to defy gravitation. After the new base had been safely installed underneath it, the memorial took a 21-degree turn while being lowered onto the stone platform, placing it in a perfect line with the street at the foot of the hill: with Monumentenstraße, whose name soon after that was changed to Großbeerestraße (today’s Monumentenstraße used to be called Ziegeleiweg).

When in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act was passed by Prussian government – officially incorporating towns, villages and estates surrounding the capital city and turning Berlin into a metropolis with twenty new boroughs – one of them, Bezirk VI, was named “Hallesches Tor”. However, only a year later, to celebrate the Memorial’s hundredth birthday (albeit not to the day), the city elders decided to change it: on September 27, 1921 it was re-named Kreuzberg.

The Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg – truly worth the climb. (Photo by Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe, your Berlin Companion).

The 200-year-old memorial in Viktoriapark inspired the name of the hill, of the streets in the surrounding district (Yorckstraße, Blücherstraße, Wartenburgstraße to name just a few) AND was the namesake for the whole borough. Not to mention the fact that for the past 200 years it kept both Berliners and visitors happy and fit like a fiddle: the climb is, as Berliners are fond of saying, “nicht ohne“.

For we all know that Berlin has many beautiful viewing points but that you cannot beat sitting at the foot of the National Memorial on a May or July afternoon watching the Goldelse (Siegessäule) blink her golden eye at you right from the heart of the Tiergarten. And look at the Genius of Paris right in front of you – she might be empty-handed but still carries enough history for last at least two centuries or more.

Happy many returns, Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg! And never change.

The Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is part of my Kreuzberg audio-tour available through Voice Maps – you can also listen to it through your computer or smartphone as a preparation for a great Berlin walk you might be taking soon. Enjoy it!

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.