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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Alexanderplatz, a monumental plaza in Berlin-Mitte, is the second most popular spot in the city after Kudamm. Well over 350,000 people visit it every day: it is by all means one of the busiest public spaces in Berlin. What began in the 13th century as a hospital site outside a city gate (Oderberger Tor, later known as Königstor), gained weight when re-purposed as a city market: at first, used mainly for trading cattle, it had a regular wool market added to it in the second half of the 18th century.
What Berliners called Ochsenmarkt or Ochsenplatz (Oxen Market or Plaza), was also used by the military: like most other Berlin markets it doubled as an exercise site for the numerous local troops. That explains the site’s other name used at the time: Paradeplatz.
In 1805 to honour Prussia’s big ally in the war against Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, the plaza was christened “Alexanderplatz”. The Russian Tsar had just visited Berlin and King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Alexander’s lifelong friend, welcomed him with a lavish military parade organised just there. A couple of days after the event the plaza changed its name.
As for the street named after the same Russian ruler, Alexanderstraße, it retained its original, baroque-sounding monicker – An der Contrescarpe am Stelzenkrug (Contrescarpe was the outer edge of the moat surrounding Berlin/Cöln fortifications) – until 1819.
The 19th century was the golden era of Alexanderplatz: the Stadtbahnof Alexanderplatz, a large city- and long-haul-train railway station which opened in 1882, allowed more and more people to contribute to the quick development of the neighbourhood. Guests arriving from outside the city were thrilled to stay at one of the 185 rooms inside the “Grand Hotel Alexanderplatz” which welcomed its first guests less than a year later.
After the Zentralmarkthalle, a new Central Market Hall, designed by the ingenious Hermann Blankenstein, replaced the need for the weekly market am Alex, the plaza was redesigned and received a new, far more elegant visage. Hermann Mächtig, the City Garden Director who had just turned a sandy hill in Tempelhofer Vorstadt into a stunning city park – Viktoriapark in today’s Berlin-Kreuzberg – modernised Alexanderplatz and helped it gain world fame.
Soon afterwards it was discovered by great Berlin department stores: Tietz, Wertheim and Hahn all wanted to partake of its prominence and unbelievably lucrative central location. Tietz, who was the first to erect his store there, needed seven years to complete his Alexanderplatz empire. But when the first section of the Warenhaus Tietz opened in 1905 (the last one was inaugurated in 1911), its 250-metre long façade was the longest department store front in the world. And it provided attractive background for the real Queen of the Plaza: Berolina. Emil Hunderieser’s giant bronze beauty surveyed over Alexanderplatz from 1890 until 1942 – with several years of a year when the U-Bahn station under the plaza was being refurbished.
The break Berolina had to take take from guarding her post lasted several years: Berolina was removed from her original spot in 1927 to carry out construction works for the extended U-Bahn station “Alexanderplatz” as well as the erection of Peter Behrens’s Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus (both survived the war and are wonderful examples of modern pre-WWII Berlin architecture). In 1933 she returned to Alex, after the District Council of Treptow where she had been stored in the meantime refused to keep her at a storage near the S-Bahnhof “Treptower Park”. Placed in front of Behrens’ buildings she looked slightly overwhelmed and never recovered to her old glory.
In August 1942 she was removed from her plinth – which, too, had to move from in front of the Tietz Department Store to before the new Alexanderhaus), transported to Neukölln and quite certainly melted.
After WWII, as an important part of East Berlin, Alexanderplatz underwent another significant metamorphosis: it was given a completely new face again. But that story is featured in the next post from the treasure trove of Berlin Companion.
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