berlin 19 03 1911 women marching

The photo above was taken on March 19, 1911 in Berlin, on the eastern side of the Garnisonskirche in Berlin-Kreuzberg, at a roundabout known today as Südstern.

The marching women belong to a group of nearly 45,000 who joined one of the 42 official rallies (not counting the spontaneous ones) organised by Berlin’s trade unions together with the German Social-Democratic Party – with Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz (first female in a leading party position in Germany as well as the first female member of the 1919 Reichstag) as their main female leaders. By 1911 as many as 107,693 women had joined the SPD.

On March 8, 1914 the International Women’s Day was celebrated in Berlin for the fourth time. However, the date was not so much symbolic as a matter of convenience: March 8 was a Sunday that year. The rallies and marches had one main goal: general suffrage for all adult German women. It would take another four years and a war as well as the Kaiser’s abdication for women to be granted the right to vote. It happened on November 12, 1918.

Although celebrated in Europe and North America since the beginning of the twentieth century, March 8th did not become an official holiday until 1975 when the United Nations proclaimed it as one. The date the 8th of March commemorates several historical events which led to that proclamation: firstly, the New York garment workers’ march in 1908, when 15,000 female (but not only) sweatshop employees came together on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, to demand better working conditions as well as salaries which would guarantee them decent and dignified life.

Nine years later on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar observed at the time in Russia) another group of textile workers – approximately 15,000 women – took to the streets of Petrograd (now Sankt Petersburg), the capital of the Russian Empire, demanding “Bread and Peace”. Seven days later, the Russian Tsar abdicated and women were given the right to vote. Afterwards the day, March 8th, was celebrated in Russia as Women’s Day.

The 1917 strike in Petrograd. (photographer unknown, image PD).

In Germany of the 1930s and early 1940s, International Women’s Day – too socialist and too feminist in the eyes of the Nazis – was replaced by the Muttertag, Mother’s Day, clearly showing the world what role the German Woman was supposed to fulfill. Hitler himself made a point of instilling in women the “right” sense of their role within the new order: “The term ‘women’s emancipation’ is nothing but a product of a Jewish mind.”

Women whose sons died on battlefields and/or whose daughters proved themselves in the Geburtenschlacht (Battle of Births), or who – alternatively – produced a particularly high number of new Reichsbürger themselves, received medals, known as Mutterkreuze (reference to the Iron Cross given to their “heroic” men). So even though Muttertag was not sensu stricto a Nazi invention – it was called to life in 1923 by the Association of German Flower Sellers – it became synonymous with Nazi propaganda and their national politics.

Interestingly, after 1945 the divided “Germanys” went in two different directions in this respect, too: while in West Germany the Western Allies, especially the US forces, promoted the celebrating of the Muttertag again, East Germany – like all other Eastern Bloc countries – rejected it as a Nazi tradition and chose to celebrate exclusively the International Women’s Day instead.

For those who grew up in the DDR or the PPR (Polish People’s Republic), March 8 and the International Women’s Day are bound to bring up some of the best (and the worst) memories.

Those might have been only perfunctory celebrations – full of wilting carnations, sweet wine, cheap pralines and extra coupons for a pair of new tights (like with meat, butter, oil and flour, there was also a great shortage of those) – but it is hard not to think that in many ways, we were closer to women like Zietz, Zetkin, or Luxemburg then than we are today.

Gustav Wunderwald, 1927, U-Bhf “Schönhauser Tor”

It is never easy to find your way within a vanished city. But then again, it is never boring to try to do so. Especially when such quest involves deciphering a beautiful painting. Like this 1927 work by a gifted artist, Gustav Wunderwald.

“Film-Palast Schönhauser Tor” was a popular cinema built in Hankestraße 1 in Berlin-Mitte. But the address most likely won’t help you find its former site – it vanished from the maps of the city just as the cinema disappeared from Berlin’s cityscape. In 1969 Hankestraße became the northern section of today’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, which means that Gustav Wunderwald’s painting shows the place shortly before the street crosses with today’s Torstraße.

The location of the cinema on a 1928 aerial photo of Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz).

The U-Bahn station in front of the cinema, opened in 1913, was the picture show’s namesake: after several re-naming campaigns (including “Bülowplatz”, the Third-Reich inspired “Horst-Wessel-Platz” and post-war “Liebknechtplatz” followed by “Luxemburgplatz”), station “Schönhauser Tor” on today’s Line U2 was eventually called “Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz”.

The cinema itself was known under several different names, too. When it opened in 1926 it commemorated the old, eighteenth-century city gate but by 1934 it had already been known as the “Hanke-Lichtspiele”, the “Gloria-Palast” and in the end as “Ton-Eck” (Sound-Corner). With seats for 600 and later around 500 guests, it offered pleasant and intime atmosphere while remaining modern and situated in a perfect mid-city location. Sadly, the latter became its downfall – the cinema did not survive the Second World War.

But what remains is this fine image of it, a sunny ghost captured by the painter who found joy in exploring the metropolis, providing us with pictures of it we would otherwise never get to know.

Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg.Platz) with Oskar Kaufmann’s Volksbühne Theatre. The “Schönhauser Tor” cinema as well as the two buildings behind it visible in the top-right corner. (Image: AKG-Images, author NN, 1928).

The Lichtburg Cinema in Berlin-Gesundbrunnen in 1930 (image PD)

What looks like a symbol of cinematic call to arms was one of the nearly 400 Berlin cinemas on the city’s 1929 map. What made this one quite exceptional was the opulence and at the same time the austerity of its design.

The opulence of illumination was quite typical of that time and not only in Germany’s capital but Berlin clearly excelled: Europe-correspondent for the “New York Times”, Mildred Adams, described Berlin as “the best lighted city on Earth”. Fifteen vertical opal glass windows were screens for altogether 1,000 light bulbs which turned the cylindrical section of the building into a bright, almost floating structure. The ship searchlights on its top, where the glass roof terrace offered a wonderful view of the city, both during the day and at night, created a lighthouse effect that made the place stand out on yet another level.

The Lichtburg and the entrance to the U-Bahn station Gesundbrunnen (right) in 1935. Image via Heimatsmuseum Wedding.

Here in Gesundbrunnen – a very much working-class district – the “Lichtburg’s” architect, Rudolf Fränkel, created one of Berlin’s new Kinopaläste (literally “Cinema Palaces”), buildings which next to the screening rooms also housed restaurants, cafes, dance rooms and bowling alleys. They were real entertainment hubs, offering what we could call “a full experience” or “all-inclusive offer”: a film screening followed (or preceded) by a nice meal and/or a drink and a dance to round the evening off.

Fränkel’s design for both the cinema and the residential estate it complemented, Gartenstadt Atlantic (a fantastic instance of Berlin’s social housing projects of the 1920s, built between Behmstraße and Bellermannstraße), counts as one of the best examples of a movement in German architecture known as Neues Bauen (New Objectivity). Or rather would count, if the “Lichtburg” had not been demolished in 1970.

The Lichtburg as the Corso Cinema in the 1948 (photo by Abraham Pisarek via Deutsche Fotothek)

This listed-heritage building, which partly survived the Second World War and continued to serve as a cinema (the name was changed to the “Corso”), was only partly a victim of the Berlin Wall. Having lost most of its audience who crossed over for screenings from the neighbouring East Berlin, it closed down in 1962 and was later converted into West Berlin’s Senate Reserve site (until 1990 food and other other necessities, like toilet paper, were duly stored in West Berlin in case of another Berlin Blockade from the East). The old “Lichtburg” became home to tonnes of grains and thousands of tins.

Unfortunately, by 1970 its second Nemesis arrived – something that came to be known as Bauwirtschaftsfunktionalismus. Crudely speaking, it stands for the typical – not only in Germany – 1960s drive to demolish the old and replace it with the new because it is easier and cheaper and perhaps even more fun to build from the scratch (not to mention the construction boom and some seriously sunny days not only for the construction industry that followed). It is still quite incomprehensible why and how a listed-heritage building of this value could be torn down like this (one of many in both East and West Berlin) – a loss particularly painful today, when the city is trying to re-direct the (hopefully soon returning) crowds of tourists away from its centre.

The demolition of the “Lichtburg” in 1970. (Image via an excellent Berlin heritage maintenance organisation and tour service Berliner Unterwelten – who, by the way, have been badly hit by the consequences of the pandemic and rely on donations to survive the lockdown – details on their page).

For there is no way that anyone visiting Berlin would have missed the guiding lights this magnificent old building would have sent from afar. As it is, what remains are a sculpture commemorating the cinema (in Behmstraße 9), a plaque honouring both the architect, Rudolf Fränkel, and the cinema’s owner, publisher Karl Wolffsohn, and a shadow of the temple of light.

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.