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).
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.
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.
Weißensee – until 2001 an independent Berlin borough but now just a locality within the new super-borough of Pankow – is mostly known for three things: the Weißer See (a picturesque inner-city lake), the Jewish Cemetery (largest in Europe!) and the Delphi cinema (one of the oldest, still open Berlin picture shows, whose fabulously imperfect interior played the role of the 1929 “Moka Efti” café and dance hall in the TV series Babylon Berlin).
The lake has been a cooling magnet for sun- and water-hungry crowds for well over a century. It still is. On warm days you will find said crowds strolling around its shore, clinging onto the precious lawn- or sand-spot along the waterline or bobbing on the latter’s surface like an inflatable armada of pink plastic flamingos (or rubber doughnuts). And sooner or later nearly all of these people will have visited the Milchhäuschen, an elegant mid-1970s café on the western shore of the lake, straight across the water from the lido.
Ask anyone who grew up in Berlin-Weißensee and the Milchhäuschen is as certain to pop up in their long-forgotten tales of the sun-drenched days at the lake as the plastic inflatable flamingos are sure to appear on its surface today. You went to the lake, you went for a swim and after warming yourself up in the sun, you heard your parents say the magic words: “Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen?“*
For generations of Berliners and Weißenseers this small place at the lake has been a thick thread in that warm worn-out cardigan known as childhood memories.
Interestingly, it is not the first Milchhäuschen that stood on this spot. Until 1965 that name belonged to a lovely half-timbered cottage with a closed wood-and-glass veranda. It was one of the only two buildings erected in the 1880s as part of a never-realised project, an amusement park “Kopenhagener Tivoli”. In 1905 local Weißensee authorities bought it along with the rest of the park and by 1913 had the cottage converted to a place where local families – and children in particular – could enjoy a glass of fresh milk and healthy dairy products.
Drinking good quality milk – fresh, free of pollution and, first of foremost, coming from healthy and TB-free cows (cows can pass tuberculosis onto humans) – was one of the basic measures to boost the health of the youngest city-dwellers (a practice which held in many places – like Poland, for instance – until late in the 1980s). That is why Berlin had more of such “milk bars” (one of the more famous ones stood in Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg).
The milk and dairy products sold at the original Milchhäuschen in Weißensee came not from the cowsheds and meadows of Brandenburg but from… the local hospital. The Säugling- und Kinderkrankenhaus (Infant and Children Hospital) in Hansastraße – the first municipal infant and children hospital in Prussia – kept its own herd to provide nourishing milk to its young patients. The excess of it could be sold at a small profit.
But it was not about money. The terrifying mortality rates among infants and young children in Berlin as well as its surrounding cities and rural communities – until 1920 Weißensee was one of the latter – made the local authorities act before it was too late. Just to give you a sense of how appalling and alarming the situation in Berlin was: in 1900 and 1901 around 30% of all new-borns died within the first year. Most of them in summer, in July and August, and mostly due to infections of the digestive system and diarrhoea.
Why were the numbers so high? And why in summer? The hygiene standards were only one factor. The other one was the plain fact that most mothers had no way of breastfeeding their infants: they spent most of their days working very hard indeed, forced to entrust their babies with relatives, neighbours or older children. Who fed them cow milk. On hot days even fresh milk went sour fast and bacteria spread.
Toddlers and older children were often undernourished, too, and cow milk was a source of many crucial nutritives for them. That explains the idea behind the Milchhäuschen – or Milchwirtschaften as they were sometimes called. They were one way of alleviating the dreadful situation.
The Weißensee Milchhäuschen did exactly that – it helped save and strengthen the children by improving their health. And it definitely made both them and their parents happy by offering fresh yoghurt, cottage cheese and sweet milk-pudding.
Neither the First nor the Second World War brought an end to that tradition. After Germany’s capitulation in May 1945 it did not take long for the place’s fans to return in the hope of finding a bit of normality and that taste of sun-drenched afternoons they remembered from before their world had fallen apart.
Slowly Milchhäuschen regained its old charm and used it to enchant both old and new guests. Until 1965, that is. That year brought its end: rot damaged the half-timbered structure beyond repair and the historic building had to be demolished. It came as a great loss to both the locals and visitors from other boroughs and for a while it was uncertain what would follow.
It took another decade for the new Milchhäuschen to take its place – even though plans for the new building were ready in 1966. From 1976 the bright pavilion with a terrace attracted crowds again – during the day they ate their ice-cream, sipped their milkshakes or iced-coffee and in the evening enjoyed strolling around the lake and the sight of the “Milchhäuschen” neon-sign installed on its roof.
The Wende (Reunification of Germany) in 1990 almost became its end. Luckily, after several years of post-Reunification limbo, when all cards were being dealt out anew, the popular lakeside café eventually found its new owners – before it was too late. Today’s “Master of the Milk Cottage”, Sebastian Wachenbrönner, took over from his father, Oswald, who leased and renovated the venue in 1995.
Before its re-opening in 1996, today’s Milchhäuschen had to undergo extensive restoration works. As a result the interior of the 1976 pavilion had to be made anew while the new owners retained the original outer shell. It was important to keep it – not only for sentimental reasons. Unbeknownst to many, that small pavilion at the Weißer See was designed by Ludmilla Herzenstein. Her name might not tell you much but go to Karl-Marx-Allee 102-104 or 126-128 where a row of poplar trees hides the slightly set back residential buildings known as Laubenganghäuser (Balcony-Access Blocks) – the very first two buildings built in 1952 along the planned Stalinallee – and you might see the common denominator. Clean-cut, practical, simple, accessible. And with a lot of light. “Too elitist”, “too modern”, “too pre-war-like”, said the Soviet-oriented Berlin authorities promptly and introduced a new ruling style along the Stalin Boulevard.
The Laubenganghäuser, however, could stay but that row of poplar trees before them is not a coincidence. And even years later, Ludmilla Herzenstein still believed that her design for new accommodation for the working-class Berliners would have been the right path to follow. Just as it was in 1929 when the Berlin legend of German modernist movement Neues Bauen, Bruno Taut, employed Herzenstein as the building site manager for what is known today as Onkel-Toms-Hütte or Papageinsiedlung in Berlin-Zehlendorf, one of Berlin’s Modernist heritage sites.
So that is why, thanks to an almost forgotten female Berlin architect, Ludmilla Herzenstein, right now somewhere inside the Milchhäuschen at the Weißer See there lives the spirit of Bauhaus. And is probably having a milkshake.
*Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen? – literally: “I’m sweating like a roast! How about an ice-cream?
Ella Fitzgerald described her as „the best singer without a voice“. Her mother pronounced her “talent-free”. And during her test performance at the State Film School in Babelsberg her typical Berlinerisch pronunciation and the habit of swallowing word-endings made the examiners cringe. Yet despite all those apparent shortcomings, Hildegard Knef, who never claimed to be a talent or a beauty, became a head-turner, a star and a legend. And not only in Berlin.
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.
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 Nationaldenkmalam 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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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 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!
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