On the night of 19th to 20th of May 1880, despite its being a chilly night with frost creeping back into the park on the royal Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel), a fire broke out, destroying the island’s greatest treasure. The now legendary Berlin’s “Palmenhaus” and the priceless collection it contained went up in flames.

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.

Hildegard Knef on stage in Eindhoven in the play “Nicht von Gestern”. Photo by Wim van Rossem / Anefo – Nationaal Archief.

Eiergasse and Nikolaikirche seen from the corner of Molkenmarkt 7 around 1910 (photo by, most likely, Albrecht Meydenbauer for the Königliche Meßbildanstalt – Royal Photogrammetric Photography Office).

The longest of Berlin’s nearly 10,000 streets is Adlergestell: it stretches over 11.4 kilometres through the borough of Treptow-Köpenick. But where do you find the shortest? Well, that depends. On where you stand in your of appreciation of replicas.

If you are one of those people whose sense of aesthetic justice screams: “Nothing but the original!”, then look south towards Alt Mariendorf (a locality within the District of Tempelhof) – by these standards, the title of the Berlin’s shortest street should belong to their 19-metre long Pohligstraße. A little, pardon, stump of a road placed between Forddamm and Popperstraße.

If, however, you don’t mind a bit of solid make-believe and think that a replica is as good as the real thing (provided it traces the same lines), then you will find Berlin’s shortest street right in its middle: in Mitte. In Old Mitte, to be exact. Right next to the city’s oldest church, Nikolaikirche.

Eiergasse (Egg Lane) is but sixteen metres long but it was not always so short. In fact, it used to be almost twice as a long but the post-WW2 refurbishment of the historic plaza at its southern end – Molkenmarkt (Milk Market) – took a toll on Eiergasse’s dimensions.

The small medieval lane got its name from the tradition of placing egg-sellers’ stalls along its route. After in 1699 Elector Friedrich III (soon to become King Friedrich I) ordered that city markets be re-organised and set up anew following slightly more modern principles, like those of improved hygiene. But just as Molkenmarket kept its role as a “sales-point” for dairy products, so was Eiergasse allowed to keep its old, unbroken shell. Twice a week, always Wednesdays and Saturdays, farmers from around Berlin – but also local hen-holders – hurried to the small lane next to Nikolaikirche and offered their goods to hungry Berliners (eggs were one of the staples in their cuisine).

The lost Second World War brought an end to the historic district but the area was doomed whatever the war’s outcome would have been. The bombastic world-capital plans created by Albert Speer and his people for the Nazi Führer, the new über-city of Germania, had no need for the medieval. One of Berlin’s oldest neighbourhoods, inhabited for some 700 years and – admittedly – accordingly weathered, was to be demolished and replaced by an open-air museum presenting historic facades of other buildings torn down in other parts of the city to make space for Hitler’s new toy-town. For that purpose the church at its heart, Nikolaikirche, was promptly deconsecrated and since 1938 remains a profane building.

Eiergasse and Nikolaiviertel on the 1910 map of Berlin.

The war solved the problem of the open-air museum for good but what to do with whatever was left? After the ruins and the rubble had been removed, a new idea entered the stage: the now East Berlin authorities decided to include it in their planning for the future government centre around today’s Lustgarten and Marx-Engels-Forum. This “inclusion” would have meant turning the site into a Spree-basin, a river harbour for tourist boats operating along the river and the Spree Canal. 

Like with everything in life, some plans are best left unfulfilled. A failure to succeed can be a blessing. Once more such failure saved Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel from irreparable damage. The government’s plans had to be adjusted to the lean DDR reality and the fact that perhaps no everyone thought the idea the best possible option. 

And so, with a view towards celebrating the 750th birthday of Berlin (both East and West Berlin did it their own way), a new idea was born – to recreate what was lost. To rebuild the vanished quarters. To bring back what was gone forever. By that time it had become obvious that it would possible to combine the resurrection with East Berlin’s ambitious housing programme and that when realised, some 2,000 people could new homes in the new-old district.

Nikolaviertel Straße Am Nussbaum with a view towards Nikolairkiche in 1997 (photo by Steffen Ritter, via Bundesarchiv).

The new Nikolaiviertel built within the silhouette respected its grid but is only vaguely a replica of the old. The pre-fab concrete residential buildings – often mocked for their being “painfully DDR” by those who forget that pre-fab concrete architecture was something their architect, Manfred Prasser, learnt how to design them in Paris from an eminent Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – stood the test of the public and the test of the time. Go for a walk through the narrow lanes on a quiet evening in May and you are almost certain to oversee the concrete and focus on the pleasant instead.

Turn into the new-old Eiergasse, Berlin’s shortest street, from Molkenmarkt and you are almost certain to feel that even a 1980s East German architecture can become a time-machine.

The terror did not begin in 1933. The Nazis brought to the surface and unleashed something that accompanied the life of the young German republic from the start. When we think of the 1920s in Berlin today, we mostly have two things in mind: the – by now almost proverbial – volcano on which people seemed to have been dancing in abandonment and with gusto, and the billion-mark banknotes used to paper the walls after the raging hyperinflation made money lose all of its old meaning.

Blutmai (Bloody May) clashes between the police and Communists in working-class areas of Berlin, provoked by an unprecedented violence on the part of the police force, 1929. (Image via @BPK and @Tagesspiegel)

Careful observers back then knew it: nothing good can come out of this brand new world where the few, wrapped in pricey fur-coats and silk, were pouring champagne into their throats while the many faced daily struggle not to go under – only to lose in the end. With still others, operating in the background to jam the world around them – even kicking and screaming – into the old mould.

The atmosphere in the streets of Berlin was raw. Fighting political groups clashed regularly, not even trying to attempt a dialogue or a negotiation. This was not how they learnt it. Auf die Fresse hauen (smack their gobs) was the only “dignified” reaction – it was easy as required no mental effort and spared the involved the difficult process of decision-making.

But this knee-jerk reaction present on all sides of all conflicts but mostly, of course, between the Communists and the Nazis, reflected a deep-seated problem that people like the pacifist and publicist Carl von Ossietzky or the journalist Gabrielle Tergit (the latter wrote about these clashes and their outcomes as the Berliner Tageblatt court reporter in the Criminal Court Berlin-Moabit) could see. It revealed a dangerous potential for violence simmering and coming slowly to boil right under the apparently smooth surface of – admittedly confusing and confused – social norms of the Weimar Republic.

Ossietzky was a pacifist. He declared himself an opponent to militarism and the typical Prussian worship of violent conflict early on. Which did not prevent him from being drafted during the First World War and being sent west. Like another self-confessed opponent of war, Kurt Tucholsky, whom he would later succeed as the editor-in-chief to the Weltbühne magazine. Their texts – Tucholsky’s full of wit and just the right amount of sarcasm and Ossietzky’s equally sharp anf filled with extremely apt comments on “the state of the nation” – contain words of warning that were promptly ignored by those they were meant to alert.

Carl von Ossietzky (via German Resistance Memorial Centre)

Early in the 1920s Ossietzky wrote: “Where men fail, a call for the One Man can be heard. Fascism, which in different places always presents itself in different cloaks but is invariably wrapped in new nationalist colours, shares one common feature whatever the country: the longing for a dictator. The listless nations search for one brain to do the thinking for them, for one back to carry the load on their behalf,” („Weltreaktion – Ihr Unsinn und ihr Sinn“, the Berliner Volks-Zeitung, 13 May 1923; translation own). That was ten years before the Nazis could claim uncontrolled power.

Carl von Ossietzky paid a high price for his steadfast rejection of violence, militarism and anti-Semitism (be it in words or in deeds). His far-sighted approach and unwavering will to warn others about possible consequences of not speaking up when speaking up was called for (as perhaps the only way available to some to help prevent the violence and terror that were spreading) had him first imprisoned and then sent to two concentration camps once the terror and the violence prevailed.

Ossietzky’s first sentence of eighteen months in the Tegel Prison in Berlin followed his decision as Die Weltbühne editor-in-chief: he supported and published a text by an engineer, Walter Kreiser, who revealed that despite the strict armament limitations put on Germany in the Versailles Treaty (numbers within the army, including air force, were to be kept at a bare-minimum level), behind the victors’ backs the military and reactionary forces within the Weimar Republic were busy creating a “new model army”. In this case, a new Luftwaffe.

Carl von Ossietzky in front of the Tegel Prison on May 10, 1932 – next to him his solicitors and representatives of the German Human Rights League (photo by Foto Röhnert, via Bundesarchiv).

The article explained the mechanism behind the trick and revealed the locations were the secret plan was being put into life. The article was signed by Hans Jäger which you can translate as “Hans Hunter” or “Hans Fighter” (like in an air force fighter). Needless to say, Die Weltbühne publication rubbed many (openly and secretly) uniformed backs up the wrong way. As the man in charge of the magazine, Ossietzky was pronounced guilty of revealing national military secrets and thus threatening national security and was duly punished. Kreiser fled to France.

Upon Ossietzky’s arrival at the Tegel Prison crowds of supporters who had gathered before the gaol openly showed their loyalty. He never took the advice given to him by friends and foes to leave Germany and go somewhere where he would be less present in German politics, like Switzerland.

His last chance of a pardon by President Hidenburg was not taken either. On the contrary, Ossietzky, who already in 1927 defined the elderly statesman as a “Venerable Zero”, kept up his criticism of the weathered general and politician who by that time had turned into a fossilized legend.

Von Ossietzky in Konzentrationslager Esterwegen in 1941 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-93516-0010 / Walter Sohst, Heiner Kurzbein / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Carl von Ossietzky was released in December 1932 but it was the Germany he was feared could happen that he was released into. Only two months later, in February 1933, and just days before the ultimate Nazi victory – the claiming of the state power – von Ossietzky was arrested again. This time, however, he was sent to a new kind of prison: a concentration camp Sonnenburg near Küstrin. A year later, together with other prominent prisoners – like Social-Democrats Julius Leber, Theodor Haubach and Friedrich Ebert (son of the first president of the German Republic) – Die Weltbühne editor found himself in the KZ Esterwegen (KZ stands for Konzentration Lager or concentration camp) at the German-Dutch border.

In Esterwegen, a notorious place on wide-spreading Eifel moors (the drying of which was the prisoners’ task and torture), his path crossed with that of one of the best German cabaret artists of the time, Werner Finck. Finck described their first encounter as a proof of Ossietzky’s wit and humour: even though he was gravely ill and bed-ridden at the local “hospital ward” (the chalkboard sign above his head read “Kollaps”), Ossietzky greeted Finck with the words, “I never even dreamt that one day the two us will be in the same camp again…” (Lager stands for both a camp as a place and as a group of like-minded people). Finck was both touched and impressed – the man before him was, after all, wasting away. A rumour had it (one repeated after the war by at least one of the man’s fellow-prisoners) that Ossietzky was free game and meant never to leave the KZ alive – he was said to have been injected with myobacterium tuberculosis

1933: German pacifist writer, Carl Von Ossietzky (1889 – 1938), in a concentration camp uniform. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. (Photo by Hulton Archive via TIME Magazine article about von Ossietzky’s Nobel Prizehttps://time.com/3484975/nobel-peace-prize-ossietzky/)

In 1936, shortly before the Berlin Olympics, Carl von Ossietzky was released from Esterwegen and brought to a military hospital in Berlin-Spandau. The Nobel Prize Committee finally responded to appeals to help save him by awarding the renown pacifist with the Peace Nobel Prize and announced that the 1935 award (none was given the year before) would go to Germany. Along with the money that the winner was entitled to (money soon squandered by a crooked accountant hired by the unsuspecting Maud Ossietzky, Carl’s English wife). By the way, Carl von Ossietzky was the last German Nobel Prize winner 1936-1945: Hitler ordered that no Germans needed be considered as candidates.

Ossietzky’s active TB meant he was in need of specialised health care and the choice fell upon a private TB clinic in the north of the city – Krankenhaus-Nordend ran in Berlin-Niederschönhausen by Dr Dosquet. This is where two years later, despite excellent care and the loving presence of his wife (they shared Carl’s small and, following Dr Dosquet’s orders, quite chilly clinic room for the whole length of his stay there), Carl von Ossietzky would die on May 4, 1938. Killed by the disease and by the violence and torture he had been exposed to during his time in the Nazi KZ. A year later another world war broke out.