Photo of “George Smiley” shot from the hip while travelling on an escalator at U-Bhf “Rotes Rathaus”, which – with 10 minutes to spare – I decided to explore a bit. The gentleman, who looked like a time-traveller among groups of Funktionswäsche1-clad tourists from Nordrhein-Westfalen or Baden-Württemberg and confused-looking guests from the Far East, headed briskly for the exit, with myself trailing him in the hope of catching him “on film”. Stood on the escalator behind the man, I discreetly pointed my smartphone up and hoped for the best – this was a “blind” picture. The stars aligned:-)
(Berlin, the plaza before Rotes Rathaus – Berlin City Hall – facing Alexanderplatz, with Fernsehturm on the left)
Funktionswäsche: lit. activity underwear; in Germany it often stands for very a very practical, no-frills attitude to life, which might be considered a tad boring and a bit too streamlined for perfection by others. ↩︎
Between 1961 and 1989 border crossing Heinrich-Heine-Straße joined/divided West Berlin and East Berlin. It was erected along Prinzenstraße in western Kreuzberg and former Neanderstraße in what used to be East-Berlin district of Mitte. The name “Neanderstraße” vanished in 1960 when on July 22 the street officially became Heinrich-Heine-Straße.
Interestingly, the change also applied to a section of Prinzenstraße between Sebastianstraße and Annenstraße – obviously to the one located in the Eastern Zone of the divided city. The name “Prinzenstraße” commemorated Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm who went on to become first King and the Kaiser Wilhelm I. A fact which caused some unease on the eastern side of the divide (the Hohenzollerns were high on the pet-hate list of the East German ruling party) and led to the aforementioned adjustment.
The photo above, taken by an amateur Berlin photographer, Roehrensee, in December 1989 shows the Kreuzberg side of the crossing seen from the island in the middle of the Moritzplatz where the photographer’s shadow points towards the east. But the crossing you see in the background was just a small section of the facility – its western entrance/exit as it was.
In between the latter and a similar arrangement on the opposite side of the crossing in East Berlin there lie a slalom of massive concrete blocks whose main purpose was to slow down the traffic and prevent anyone from gaining enough speed to endanger the security of the control point in both Prinzen and in Heinrich-Heine-Straße. Maximum speed within the border-crossing route was 10km/h.
This more or less standard precaution – not only between Kreuzberg and Mitte but on other border-crossings, too – proved to be lethally efficient. On April 17, 1962 Klaus Brueske, a 24-year-old lorry-driver from Berlin-Friedrichshain, and two of his friends, sped towards the border at 70km/h, trying to break through the border road-barriers in Heinrich-Heine-Straße in a truck loaded with gravel. Brueske, disillusioned with the situation in East Berlin and still mourning the loss of his job with the West Berlin engineering company, AEG (which he gave up after the Berlin Wall separated his home-district from his workplace), hoped to be able to reach West Berlin territory by simply going through the boom barriers put there into place.
The plan could have worked – the border was not as impermeable yet as it became later – and, in fact it, it did. But at the ultimate price. One of the border guards opened fire at the vehicle, shooting 14 times and hitting two of the three young men inside. The lorry came to a halt already in West Berlin, crashing heads-on against a wall in Prinzenstraße 34.
After all three escapees had been taken to Urban-Krankenhaus in Grimmstraße on the southern side of the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, where Karl Brüske was pronounced dead upon arrival. However, the cause of death were not the two bullets which hit his neck. It was asphyxia. Klaus Brueske died of suffocation, buried under the gravel he had earlier loaded onto the lorry. He was the 16th victim of the Berlin Wall – 16th person to die trying to leave the Eastern Sector of Berlin. The 16th Maueropfer, “the wall victim”.
Two years later another young man would attempt an escape on the same spot and using the same method. Although his escape was part of a drama and not of a plan. On December 25, 1965 27-year-old Heinz Schöneberger from West Germany was lethally wounded by a hand-gun bullet shot at him as the young man was only five metres away from the West Berlin territory.
He and his brother, driving a Ford Taunus hoped to be able to smuggle two East-German women out of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). The women, hidding under the front and the back seats, risked their lives as much as the Schöneberger brothers. It became terribly clear after the car had been stopped by the East German border control.
After ordering the brothers to step out of the car, the guards discovered one of the young women under the back seat. Not waiting for the handcuffs to be snapped around his wrists, Heinz Schöneberger jumped back into the vehicle, locked all doors from inside and sped towards the West Berlin side of the border. Unable to go faster – the concrete slalom route did its job just as expected – he stopped, sprang out of the car, in an attempt to sprint the remaining ten metres.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Running a blog is a wonderful but time-consuming job, one that requires plenty of reading, plenty of writing and even more research and double-checking. If you have enjoyed reading this post and like what you find on kreuzberged.com, a website for all Berliners and Berlin fans worldwide, please consider making a small donation or subscribing to access longer posts published especially for regular readers. It will help cover the costs of running the page and allow the author to focus on what she does best: digging for fascinating stories in Berlin's past and present to share them with you.