Max Hödel fires shots at Kaiser Wilhelm I on May 11, 1878 in Berlin.

To German Kaiser, Wilhelm I, the year 1878 was what the year 1992 was to be to British Queen Elisabeth II: annus horribilis. Between May and June two people tried to assassinate the monarch on two different occasions. Luckily for him, both attempts proved to be unsuccessful. However, whilst first time round no harm was done whatsoever, the second attempt left the 81-year-old Wilhelm incapacitated for months. In fact, had it not been for his thick military coat and his headwear – the typical Prussian Pickelhaube, or a hard-leather military helmet with a spike on top – he would not have made it at all. 

The trigger was pulled on May 11, 1878 by one Max Hödel, a 23-year-old plumber apprentice and alleged anarchist. The young man who attempted to kill the 81-year-old monarch, but failed to hit either him or the Kaiser’s daughter travelling with her royal father in their coach, became promptly stamped-off as a mental case and locked up at the city prison, the Stadtvogtei, on Molkenmarkt (Berlin’s U-Bahn station “Hausvogtei”, by the way, is named after an older city prison which stood on the northern edge of the plaza).

Stadtvogtei, the city detention centre, seen from the Spree bank (the small lane along the right side of the building was the legendary Berlin Krögel).

Charged with high treason, Hödel got sentenced to death only two months later. He was to be beheaded (traditional punishment for high treason back then) at Moabit prison on August 16th, 1878. For his executioner, Julius Krautz, who went on to become the most famous Berlin Scharfrichter (the later traditional executioner’s garb comprising a black tailcoat, white gloves and a top-hat was his invention), it was the very first job in his new role as a headman. Performing well was, therefore, paramount but Krautz faced a seemingly unusual problem.

Krautz, still new to the decapitation business, did not have his own executioner’s axe yet. Berlin’s prisons were unable to provide one either – the last beheading was already a while ago. The solution was a masterpiece of resourceful thinking: the state borrowed the executioner’s axe from the local museum.

The tool displayed at Berlin’s Märkisches Provinzialmuseum (today Märkisches Museum, Berlin History Museum) was a 1:1 replica of that used by famous German headsman, Friedrich Wilhelm Reindel, from Magdeburg (Reidel sold his axe, beheading block and sword to the Berlin museum but his son, also int he decapitation business, bought the said axe back). On August 15th the replica was pulled out of the wooden block it was fixed in, sharpened and together with the beheading block transported to Moabit.

After Herr Krautz did his duty and poor Max Hödel’s head rolled as it was meant to roll, both the axe and the massive wooden block were returned to the museum and, as if nothing had happened, put where they used to stand before.

Max Hödel (newspaper clipping image via Stadtarchiv Heilbronn).

After in 1908, Märkisches Museum moved from Palais Podewils in Klosterstraße to its beautiful, new, mock-gothic building in Am Köllnischem Park, both objects moved along with the rest of the collection. And this is where you will still find them today, 143 years later. However, they can no longer be rented…

In only two days the Berlin Wall would have turned 60 years old. Would have as luckily for all of us the monster was slayed and the deep cut that ran through the city, the wound that hurt millions, could at last begin to heal.

The scars it left are slowly fading, too, but nothing ever goes away without a trace. For years I have been taking amateur photos of the places where they still could be found. One of them reminded me of a certain spot in Kreuzberg: right off Oranienplatz (where I was once priviledged to share a fantastic, history-laden co-working space with a group of kind and witty people). Right around the corner, down Dresdner Straße and towards Berlin-Mitte where the Wall used to run right through the middle of the street. Corner Sebastianstraße and Luckauer Straße at what is today Alfred-Döblin-Platz.

Several years ago, while construction works for a new residential building on that historic street junction in Kreuzberg were picking up the pace, workers unsealed old cellars of the nineteenth-century tenements which had stood there before the Second Generation of the Berlin Wall was erected. As the wonderful photo by Willy Pragher taken on June 9, 1965 shows, the houses were still there when the First Generation Wall was built (Berlin Wall went through several stages of evolution and this image presents the early one).

Corner Luckauer Straße and Sebastianstraße photographed by Willy Pragher on June 9, 1965 (image through Landesarchiv Baden-Würtemberg W 134 Nr. 078754a).
Corner Luckauer Straße and Sebastianstraße photographed by Willy Pragher on June 9, 1965 (image through Landesarchiv Baden-Würtemberg W 134 Nr. 078754a).

Demolished somewhere around 1970 (the sources quote different dates but the most likely year is 1968), the buildings were not removed completely – the cellars remained. For years, after the Wall had been torn down, people walking down Luckauer Straße next to today’s Alfred-Döblin-Platz on hot summer days wondered about the strangely chilly draft sweeping their ankles as well as about the earthy, musty smell of the cellar in the air where no cellars could be. Several narrow gaps on the edge of the pavement where large stone steps typical of Berlin tenement entrance stairs led nowhere, proved the existence of the old basements which, contrary to everyone’s expectations, had not been filled.

Berlin_Sebastianstraße_Berliner_Mauer_009571 willy pragher 1961 baden würt LArch
Sebastianstraße in 1961: the southern side on the left belongs to Berlin-Kreuzberg (then in West Berlin) while the northern side was in East Berlin (now it is part of Berlin-Mitte). Photo by Willy Pragher, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The construction works I witnessed several years ago uncovered them again and brought to light what had remained buried for 56 years. It seems they had been used, at least parts of them, in the meantime, too: the tiles on the wall of one of the cellars were held by some sort of black foam that was neither nineteenth century nor pre-Berlin Wall. Perhaps the guards spent their time there? Or the place served some other Wall-related purpose? We will never know.

Within a week, maximum a fortnight, the old cellars were gone. It was a strangely satisfying feeling to be able to look into them after having known for years they were there, unreachable under the ground. They were another trace of Berlin’s past which had to go. But not all of it did. It never does.

The construction site in Luckauer Straße (image by notmsparker).
The construction site in Luckauer Straße in 2017 (image own).

One of famous Mulackstraße “Destillen” (cheap bars with basic food offer) on the corner of Ruckerstraße in Berlin’s old and no-longer existing Jewish district known as Scheunenviertel (Barn District), inhabited mostly by East-European Jews. The dairy of H. Ewald could be found at Ruckerstraße 3.
(Photo by Berlin’s most famous cartoonist & photographer as well as social critic, Heinrich Zille). Image in public domain.

“At 11.00 at night Mulackstraße looks like a quarter of an excavated city. On the corner Schönhauser Straße a single streetlight squints at it sheepishly from across the road. A girl patrols the street, incessantly and at a steady pace like a pendulum, as if set in motion by an invisible clockwork.”

from Joseph roth “Neue Berliner Zeitung – 12-uhr-Blatt” (from a series of texts about berlin’s dives published between 23rd and 28th of ferbuary 1921)

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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.