“Where are we headed? We’re no longer in control. We determine nothing and we lead no one. He who believes we do is a liar. Shadows and ghosts shimmer around us. Don’t touch them, they only give way, sink and collapse. A light is appearing but we know not whether it’s twilight or dawn.”

Kurt Tucholsky “Die dämmerung” 1920
Berlin’s largest and most beautiful lake, the Müggelsee, doing justice to its name: “Müggel” is a Slavonic word for “fog, mist” (same etymology like Polish word “mgła”).

The following text was originally published in “NOTMSPARKER´S BERLIN COMPANION or EVERYTHING YOU NEVER KNEW YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT BERLIN”

The Zehlendorfer Dächerkrieg or ‘Zehlendorf Roof War’ was a bitter conflict between two schools of architecture – represented by two architect collectives known as Der Ring and Der Block – which took place in Berlin before the Second World War. What began as an artistic squabble, eventually proved to be about much more than just the shape of the roofs.

Onkel Toms Siedlung (Papagaiensiedlung) in Berlin-Zehlendorf, 1930.

In the 1920s, a large piece of land along Argentinische Allee – between Krumme Lanke and Fischtal Park – was divided and sold to two different construction companies with entirely different visions for their respective projects. One of those projects, the Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf – better known as Onkel Toms Hütte, Onkel Toms Siedlung or the Papagaiensiedlung (Parrot Estate), because of the vibrant hues of the façades – was designed by a group of Modernist architects from the progressive collective Der Ring: Hugo Härting, Otto Rudolph Salvisberg and, last but not least, Bruno Taut. The latter was an erstwhile advocate of the garden city, who had come to embrace the ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) popular among German modernists.

The conflict between two schools was big enough a topic to be discussed in the press.

Together with his colleagues, Taut – who was a member of Der Ring, a group of architects promoting modern architecture created to meet both individual and collective needs – believed that form should follow function and that people deserved light and fresh air instead of damp and gloomy tenements – designed a series of houses that were sober and minimally adorned, with large windows and flat roofs. It was the roofs in particular which would become a source of ire among the well-heeled residents of the pre-war Zehlendorf: not only did the flat-roofed houses look nothing like their own highly decorative villas, but, adding insult to injury, they were to be inhabited by people of the middle- and working-class.

But ‘good’ news was on its way: the Siedlung (housing estate) planned on the other side of Argentinische Allee was clearly intended as a counterbalance to Taut’s architecture. Paul Schmitthenner – later a prominent Nazi party member who worked in collaboration with Heinrich Tassenow – designed a series of traditional, gable-roofed houses which were built between 1938 and 1940; flat roofs, according to Schmitthenner, ‘do not belong to this culture – they belong in Arabia or in Palestine.’ Schmitthenner’s approach fit well with the budding Nazi Kulturkampf: saddle roof, gables and lattice windows became synonymous with ‘true German culture’, while Taut’s more minimal, modernist designs, designed to improve the living conditions of their inhabitants, were viewed as distinctly ‘un-German’.

Kameradschaftssiedlung Zehlendorf

Indeed, the very purpose of Schmitthenner’s Siedlung appealed to a particular (and sinister) understanding of ‘true German culture’. Originally known as the SS-Kamaradschaftssiedlung Zehlendorf, the residential estate was designed to accommodate high-ranking SS (Schutzstafel) officers and their families, providing them with space and conditions necessary for, as one SS officer’s wife put it, ‘men, who belong to the racial elite of the German nation, [to] pass their invaluable genetic material onto a possibly large number of racially-sound offspring’. Although it may sound like a Nazi breeding facility, the Siedlung was in fact a well-designed housing project with a group of detached houses for higher ranking officers, followed by semi-detached and terraced houses for those of a middle rank, and three-storey blocks of flats for the lower-rank officers without children.

With a ‘village green’ in the middle of the compound, as well as generously planted trees, quiet paths and small gardens, it was not ultimately too far removed from the early twentieth-century ideal of a garden-city by which Bruno Taut, the architect of the modern Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf on the other side of the road, had also been inspired. Despite the attractive living conditions, the SS-Kameradschaftssiedlung failed to gain even half the popularity of Taut’s Waldsiedlung: the high-ranking SS officers were not interested in living so close to colleagues of lower rank, and remained in their nearby villas instead. Those who did move in complained about the houses being too small and the rents too high; their frustration was further increased by the fact that neither the promised kindergarten nor the private club, the SS-Mannschaftshaus, were ever built. Although the project had been supported by the Heinrich Himmler’s Hauptamt Rasse und Siedlung, the SS office responsible for safeguarding racial purity, Himmler himself would distance himself from the estate starting from the official opening ceremony which he failed to attend.

Papagaiensiedlung in Zehlendorf, here seen from Wilskistraße (image by gyxmz, Wikipedia).

Both Taut’s and Schmithenner’s Siedlungen survived the Second World War mostly intact. Schmithenner’s – which became known as as Hessisches Viertel after 1947 – was forced to change almost all of its street names: Victory Street, Service Road, Fidelity Lane and Führer

Plaza suddenly sounded out of place. However, a few streets retained their pre-war names: Im Kinderland and Himmelsteig (Path to Heaven), may sound reasonably innocuous now, but for anyone who knows the context, they contain obvious reminders of a past that most would prefer to forget.

Did you know that until 1922 the plaza in front of Berlin’s oldest railway station had a rather irregular shape and required special design efforts because of an eighteenth-century cemetery that stood in the way? The old Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof – Holy Trinity Cemetery – was the first burial ground of the Holy Trinity Parish and even though it was not much used for the purpose it opened for, it remained in the very heart of Berlin for nearly two centuries, providing shade to weary travellers – who could lean against its walls but could never enter – and a lot of headache to the city-planners.

To learn more about the forgotten Berlin burial site, listen to the new episode of Berlin Companion Podcast on your podcast-streaming platform of choice. Landing Saturday, June 4th at 9 AM Berlin time!

What do large cities do when they run out of space to bury their dead? They go beyond their limits. Traditionally all large European cities like Paris, Vienna or London eventually established new burial sites further and further from their centre. Vienna even considered using the pneumatic tube system to transport their deceased to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery).

By the end of the nineteenth century Berlin faced a similar problem and dealt with it the same way: by opening new cemeteries on its outskirts. In two cases it went even further: it set up new burial grounds in Brandenburg. Here’s a short story of one of them and the railway line (not a pneumatic one) built to serve its guests – a line which opened for regular service on June 3, 1913.

To visit Stahnsdorf Cemetery with a guide, please visit the cemetery’s web page at
Veranstaltungen – Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf (suedwestkirchhof.de)

To find out more about the famous Berliners buried in Stahnsdorf visit:
Wikipedia page of the cemetery

To see maps of the railway line known as “Leichenbahn” visit (highly recommended) page of
Stadtschnellbahn-Berlin

To watch a short film presenting the state of the line’s remains today go to
The Vanished Railway Line to Stahnsdorf by AirBerl

Sounds:
Main theme: “Assembly Line Frustration” © Ionics Music | TerraSound.de

Via Freesound:
Bells and religious hymn on the top of “Dell’Avocata” mountain by Felix Blume
“Magnificat” by Tarikki
“Spooky Dark Pad” by John Wally
“Secundo tempore2” by John Wally
“Train Stopping” by Vlatko Blazek
“Gates of Heaven” by Theo Ther
“Wales Steam-train” by Jrosin

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