Berlin Long Reads | From Mendelssohn to Benjamin: The Legacy of Jewish Intellectuals in Berlin

The Neue Synagoge in Berlin Mitte
The Neue Synagoge in Berlin Mitte

At first glance, Berlin doesn’t seem a likely hub for either Jews or intellectuals.

It is far removed from the historical center of German Jewish learning (the towns of Speyer, Mainz and Wörms in Western Germany, where the Aschkenazi tradition developed in the 11th and 12th centuries) and didn’t harbour a stable Jewish community in the Middle Ages or the early Modern Age. Moreover, it has a much shorter history then most major European cities (having been founded only in the 12th Century) and lacks any early scholarly heritage, as its first university was founded only in 1810.

Nevertheless, Berlin did become a major intellectual center through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (at times nicknamed the “Athens on the Spree” to symbolize this intellectual renaissance), and the Jewish population played an essential part in the process. In this article, I will explore the roots of this fascinating turn of events and follow its developments through the centuries.

Beginnings: Mendelssohn and the Haskala (1743-1786)

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn

To tell the story of modern Jewish intellectual thought, whether in Berlin or elsewhere, you have to start with the man who first openned the doors of Jewish society to general learning and knowledge – Moses Mendelssohn. But Mendelssohn could not have made the trek from his traditional upbringing in rural Dessau to his broad philosophical views without the opportunitues afforded by the city of Berlin.

When Mendelssohn entered Berlin in Autumn 1743, it was already a political and economic center, capital of the emerging power of Prussia under the leadership of King Friedrich the Second, soon to be known as “Friedrich the Great”. Moreover, the city’s small Jewish community was particularly affluent, because when Jews were invited into Berlin from Vienna in 1671, only the 50 richest families were included – with the express purpose of utilizing their wealth to kickstart the local economy after the Thirty Year War (1618-48). These Schutzjuden (literally “protected Jews”) were bankers, traders and entrepreneurs, who supported the royal court (either by tending to its economic needs or through taxation) and were rewarded with a royal decree of protection. This protection, as well as the very right to live in Berlin, was extended to Jews fulfilling a few important inner-community functions (such the Rabbi, the Cantor etc.), as well as to a few Rabbinical students under the auspices of the Rabbi.

It was this last provision that enabled Mendelssohn, who grew up in an impoverished, devout Jewish family, to enter the city for a period of study with David Fraenkel, his former mentor and current community Rabbi. At the age of 14, when he was invited to the city, Mendelssohn was already condisedered an Iluy (a Talmudic Prodigy) with a great future in the Rabbinical world – but the young man had other things in mind. Despite the stark opposition of his teachers, who considered such learning sacriligious, Mendelssohn secretly managed to teach himself Latin and proper German1 and to read historical and philosophical works in these languages. As he graduated at the age of 21, Mendelssohn chose not to pursue a Rabbinical career, but rather to become a philosopher.

The 1750s in Berlin were an opportune time for Mendelssohn’s choice: the Enlightenment movement – which prized the soverneighty of rational thought as the primary source of knowledge – was gaining traction in Prussia, spurred by Friedrich the Great’s adoption of its key ideas and the invitation of Voltaire, a proponent of the movement, to the royal court. And while Friedrich’s court mostly upheld French as the languge of the Enlightenment, more and more authors and thinkers in Prussia explored these new ideas in their native German. Two of them – the writer and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the published Friedrich Nikolai – promptly met Mendelssohn in Berlin, reveled at the achievement of this self-taught Jewish thinker and assisted him in his first steps as a published philosopher. Mendelssohn’s brilliant works quickly gained notoriety within the literate elites, winning accolades and attracting attention to this never-before-seen-phenomenon – a Jewish philosopher.

It is from this respectable position that Mendelssohn made an overture which would forever set him apart as a trailblazer for the Jewish community in Berlin and elsewhere. Starting in the 1770s, he urged his Jewish bretherin to follow him into the Age of Enlightenment – to seek secular education, to replace outdated Rabbinical authority by the rule of reason and to integrate into cultured German society by learning its language and manners. Despite vehement opposition from Rabbinical and traditional ranks, almost up to the point of excommunication, Mendelssohn’s ideas quickly took hold among affluent Jews in Central Europe, and Berlin, specifically, became a center for this new Jewish Enlightenment, later known as Haskala (Hebrew for ‘education’).

The next generation: Berlin’s “Salon Women” (1786-1803)

Jägerstgrasse in Berlin in the 1800s: including Rachel Levin's house (second from right)
Jägerstrasse in Berlin in the 1800s: including Rachel Levin’s house (second from right)

Following Mendelssohn’s lead, Berlin’s affluent Jewish families approached secular education with the same zeal formerly reserved for the study of the Torah. They saw the ideal of education, knowledge and culture (summarized by the German term Bildung) as their offsprings’ ticket to becoming equal members of society. There was, however, one major difference between traditional Torah study and those new educational goals: following novel ideas of gender equality fostered by Enlightenment thinkers, secular education was extended not only to the young men of the Jewish upper middle class, but to young women as well2.

However, as these women came of age in the last decades of the 18th Century, they faced a world which was frustratingly unprepared to accept them. While their male counterparts could publish their works in respected Journals or study in the few universities which accepted Jews, Jewish women had to settle for the life expected of them – finding a respectable match and playing the roles of a charming hostess, wife and mother. Facing this imminent waste of their intellectual talents, a handful of those Jewish women found a brilliant solution: Instead of going out into the world, they invited the world into their homes, first participating in intellectual salons hosted by their husbands and then starting their own. Based on the ideals of the Enlightenment, these salons were open for anyone who was interested in literary and intellectual conversation – men and women, Jews and non-Jews, nobles and bankrupt poets alike.

Soon enough, several of these salons eclipsed their male-hosted counterparts and became a celebrated feature of Berlin’s intellectual scene. Due to their policy of openness and acceptance, the Jewish women’s salons afforded young artists and writers a wellcome respite from the emptiness of social world in Prussia, domintaed at that time (under the rule of King Friedrich Wilhelm II) by lavish hunting parties and hollow court jestures . No less important were the vivacious personalities of these hostesses, which imbued the gatherings with a dynamic, lighthearted atmosphere, sometimes even bordering on the flirtatious. The salons of Dorothea Mendelssoh (the philosopher’s daughter, known for her bright mind and sharp tongue) and Henriette Herz (a stunning beauty married to a medical doctor 17 year her senior) attracted the likes of poets Friedrich Schlegel, sculptor JG Schadow (creator of the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate), the Humboldt brothers and many more. Their rise put Berlin on the intellectual map of Europe, prompting visitors from Amsterdam and Paris to uphold the apparent integration of Jews and Christian in a single cultural milieu.

First and foremost among the salon women was Rachel Levin, whose prominent position might seem surprising, considering that she was neither affluent nor beautiful. Yet poets, romantics and nobles were drawn to the attic room of this jewel-trader’s daughter because of her personality, intelligence and eloquence, which impressed even Goethe himself. Though not a “writer” in the common sense of the word (she never wrote a novel or any comparable work), she penned over 10,000 letters, including several correspondences with on prevalent literary matters which were published in periodicals to great renown.

Alas, the liberal and intellectual haven of the Berlin’s salons could not last forever, and by the early 1800s they slowly wound down, their demise percipitated both by an internal process and an external threat. On the one hand, the charming hostesses gradually drifted away from their Jewish heritage and upbringing; one by one, they allowed flirtatious conversations to become heated love affairs with Christian intellectuals, usually leading to marriage and a subsequent conversion to Christianity. Meanwhile, the rise of Napoleon in France and Prussia’s mobilization against him spurred nationalist and patriotic sentiments, overshadowing the salons’ literary, humanistic and liberal agenda. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, these “miniscule utopias” were a thing of the past – but their legacy remained ensconsed in the minds of Berliners, Jews and Christians alike.

Intellectuals and Emancipation: German, Jewish or both? (1803-1871)

The Singakademie building in 1843
The Singakademie building in 1843

While Napoleon’s onlaught across Europe brought an end to the salon period in Berlin, it also paved the way towards a greater acceptance of Jews in society. Prussia’s miltary defeat in 1806 led to much-needed reforms, which were inspired by the rational ideals of the Enlightenment and the egaliterian ethos of the Frech Revolution (spread across Europe by Napoleon and his men). One of these reforms, the 1812 Edict of Emancipation, gave Jews most of the civil rights afforded to every citizen of Prussia, including the right to attend universities and hold positions in them. And although most of this edict’s provisions were revoked during the Restoration period (from 1819 onward), Jews retained their foothold in German intellectual discourse and the subject of their emancipation remained an important point of discussion throughout the 19th Century.

However, the dashed hopes of the Napoleonic period left the numerous Jewish graduates of Berlin’s newly established university in a precarious position: They had very little prospect for a career in academia, civil service or the legal system, sometimes severely limiting their oppurtunties to earn a living. Finding no place in the established academic systems, some turned to writing and publishing scholarly books and articles (like jurist Eduard Gans, who came from a wealthy family), while others found work within the community (like Leopold Zunz, a scholar of Jewish history and culture, who worked as a teacher and narrator of the Torah). The contrast between the breadth of their education and the limited possibilities afforded to them, however, drove many Jews during this period to the same escape route already taken by the salon women – conversion to Christianity.

The rationale behind this choice was aptly layed out by banker Abraham Mendelssohn, Moses Mendelssohn’s son, who baptised his children in 1816 and converted in 1822. Abraham Mendelssohn originally planned to bring up his children according to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the moral principles common to the three Abrahamic religions, eventually letting them choose their own religious path – but burgeoning nationalistic sentiments and the reversion of the trend toward emancipation in the post-Napoleonic era forced him to make the decision for them. In choosing “the religion of the majority” he gave his children the advantage of a level playing field within the cultured society of Berlin – an opportunity siezed upon by his son Felix, who not only enjoyed a brilliant musical career but also uncovered and reinterpreted one of the highlights of Christian classical music, Bach’s Matheus Passion. The 1829 premiere of the new-fangled Passion in Berlin’s brand-new Singakademie hall was attended by a veritable who’s-who of cultured society, including the king himself, symbolizing Felix Mendelssohn’s ultimate acceptance into Prussia’s cultural canon.

But while many Jews made the practical choice of giving up their heritage for a pole position in Berlin’s intellectual circles, others looked in, seeking to reform and recreate their religious identity according to newfound intellectual principles. One of the harbingers of this direction was the aforementioned Leopold Zunz, who fostered a new form of Judaism in which the Talmud played the role of a sentimental historical symbol rather than an absolute authority. Zunz, however, lacked the charisma to lead the necessary changes himself; instead, it was the Frankfurt-born scholar Abraham Geiger, later the first Rabbi at the Neue Synagoge in Berlin, who not only believed that Judaism must be radically transformed if it were to survive modernity, but also took the first step toward such a transformation, hosting a conference of reform-minded young Rabbis in Wiesbaden in 1837. Geiger surmised that the real power of Judaism lies in its capacity for self-reflection, which enables it to adapt to changing circumstances; He argued against any limitation on objective research into Jewish Theology and in 1872 established an Academy of Jewish Studies in Berlin, reinforcing the city’s status as a Jewish intellectual center.

It is important to note that the establishment of Geiger’s academy followed a relatively long period, in the early and mid 19th Century, in which Jews found themselves outside Berlin’s main intellectual circles. The royal court of Friedrich Wilhelm IV took an active interest in the city’s intellectual legacy, from the university to the newly-established Museum Island, leaving less room for informal circles (such as the earlier salons) where Jews could make their mark3. Furthermore, the long struggle for emancipation drove Jewish intellectuals to promote a united, democratic Germany with equal rights for all, marking them as anti-establishment figures. Young poet Heinrich Heine, for instance, won great praise as a student in Berlin, but due to his liberal views was unable to attain a position within the establishment – even after he converted to Christianity.

The situation seemed to be resolving, however, in 1848 – when Jewish students and intellectuals were strongly represented among the protestors leading the waves of revolts knows as The Spring of Nations. Among them were Leopold Zunz and the younger Aaron Bernstein, a self-taught author who came to Berlin from Danzig and was active as a democratic writer as well as a founding member of Berlin’s reformist Jewish community. But the failure of the revolt impeded the emancipation process and restricted the ability of Jewish intellectuals to be what they most wanted – Jewish and German at the same time. Only in 1871, when Germany finally unified, was Prussia forced to accept the emancipation laws already passed in the smaller, more liberal states, and the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Berlin was set to begin.

Between Patriotism and Revolution : The Wilhelminic age (1871-1919)

Max Liebermann's villa on the outskirts of Berlin
Max Liebermann’s villa on the outskirts of Berlin

By 1871 , Jewish thinkers in Berlin were finally poised to take their rightful place among the city’s elites. They were affluent, highly educated and eager to sieze the opportunities provided by the city’s new status as the capital of an ambitious German empire. Yet it was this very sense of ‘empire’ (Reich in German), backed by Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron” rhetoric, which confronted them with a new complication: how could they prove themselves worthy Germans, enthusiastically particpating in the creaton of their new nation, without setting aside the liberal agenda which brought them there? In other words, how loyal could they be to a Germany that was still led by a Kaiser and an Iron Chancellor?

One solution to this dilemma was setting up new forms of social organization, devoted to bringing change without destablizing the system; this was the path chosen by Lina Morgenstern, a writer and educator who focused on fields of social study commonly neglected by men. This energetic woman established the first kindergartens in Berlin, the first school for kindergaten teachers, an international conference on women’s work and a chain of soup kitchens, first for war veterans and then for the general population, which earned her popular respect and the nickname Suppenlina. Morgenstern’s activism in welfare, education and women’s rights openned the door to other female Jewish thinkers in similar fields, including Alice Salomon, who pioneered the idea of social work as an acdemic discipline, and Henriette May, co-founder of the League of German Women.

May was also a founding member of another new organization, which sought to balance loyalty and Jewish activism: The Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, or Central-Verein. Founded by a group of intellectuals in 1893, it was the first attempt at a representative Jewish political body in Germany. The founders, headed by medical doctor Martin Mendelssohn4, believed such a body was necessary because emancipation had not brought an end to antisemitism and discrimination – yet took great care to define themselves first and foremost as loyal German citizens.

This patriotic stance, proudly displayed by Jewish elites, ultimately culminating in their near-unanimous support for Germany’s involvement in WWI. In fact, some Jewish scientists and academics were instrumental in the war effort, among them chemist Fritz Haber, who developed poison gas capsules for the German army, and physicist-turned-politician Walter Rathenau, who headed the War Raw Materials Department and supervised logistical support for the empire’s military machine. Together with the rest of mainstream German society, most Jewish intellectuals were swept in the patriotic current, unable to walk the line between liberalism and patriotism, as they have done before.

Yet not all Jews fell into the trap of German patriotism. From the German Reich’s outset, there were some who saw Jewish emancipation only as a stepping stone towards greater social good. One of them was Gustav Landauer,  a leading theorist of anarchism in Germany, who studied history and philosophy in Berlin. Landauer believed that Jews have a special historical destiny, a mission to affect revoltionary social change through interpersonal relations with the people around them. For him, ongoing social revolution attained a mystical quality, becoming a goal which no acquired patriotism could eclipse. The same commitment to ongoing revolution and anarchic-democratic communism can also be seen in the writings of Rosa Luxembourg, who led the left-wing opposition to WWI in Berlin and co-founded the Communist Party of Germany. Their hopes for radical chang led, unfortunately, to a biier end: Both Landau and Luxembourg were executed by right-wing militias in the aftermath of the WWI.

Not surprisingly, the same tensions between conservative and revolutionary tendencies were also manifest in Berlin’s cultural spheres. Jewish artists and collectors were among the pillars of an emergent German cultural establishment, while also working to change the system from within. One prime example is affluent painter and collecter Max Liebermann, whose early work broke artistic and social conventions by accepting poor factory workers in as an apt subject for painting, leading the way into the modern era and ultimately becoming the new establishment (he became the head of the Academy of Arts). This same function, in a way the cultural equivelant of the political balance between social change and patriotism, is also evident in the role which Jewish art collectors played in acquiring impressionist paintings for the Alte National Galerie on Museum Island. The Museum’s curator, Hugo von Tschudi, circumvented the more conservative Prussian purchasing board by asking wealthy, liberal Jews to acquire impressionist paintings and donate them to the collection rather than giving money upfront; in doing so, these Jews served as agents of change – but within the system itself.

A different split could be observed at the same period with the Jewish literary community, one that ran along the line of the same German-Jewish divide which the Central-Verein sought to bridge. While most Jewish authors in Berlin since the Haskala took pride in writing eloquent German prose, by the turn of the 20th Century there was already enough room within the community for those who wrote Hebrew, or even – God forbid – Yiddish. The Café Monopol, a popular literary café opposite Friedrichstrasse station, had by 1908 a separate Stammtisch (‘regular table’) for Hebrew-language authors (like Micha Josef Berdyczewski, whose poignant descriptions of Jewish Shtetls in Russia won critical acclaim, and Itamar Ben-Avi, Ben Yehuda’s son, who came to Berlin as a student), alongside the numerous “German tables” and one “Yiddish table”. The latter was frequently visited by luminaries such as Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem, who both came to Berlin in hope of seeing their plays performed on the German stage.

Outside bourgeois society, Jews were also active in the avantgarde circles which experimented with new and exciting styles in the fields of poetry and theater. One such example is Austrian-born Max Reinhardt, who in 1901 founded Schall und Rauch (“Sound and Smoke”), one of the first cabaret stages in Berlin and a harbinger of the Weimar cabaret style5. Jews were also prevalent in Berlin’s budding expressionist movement, which came together to read their works in improptu literary events at Berlin’s Hackesche Höfe. In 1909, two Jewish members of this group – innovative poet Jakob van Hoddis and gay essayist Kurt Hiller – formed a new literary club, simply named Der Neue Club. A key member of this club, who later achieved fame on her own, was Elsa Lasker-Schüler, known for her unique poetic genius as well as her bohemian, unrestrained lifestyle (extremely uncommon among women at the time).

These divergent thinkers were, however, the exception rather than the rule. Most Jewish intellectuals of the period were deeply entrenched within mainstream German society, upholding the prevailing order and following the dominant Social Democratic Party (SPD) in its support for WWI. Ironically, it was the devestation caused by this very war which brought a sudden end to the ‘good old days’ of the German Empire and set the stage for the final chapter of our story.

So much to do, so little time: The hectic Weimar years (1919-1933)

The main room of the Romanisches Cafe
The main room of the Romanisches Cafe

It is hard to overstate the effect of WWI and the subsequent economic depression on the city of Berlin. Young people who survived those turbolent times rightfully blamed the political and social establishment for its lies and misdirections, thus losing all respect for the authority of their elders. Glad to be alive, young Berliners plunged into the 1920s with an animilistic desire for anything new and exciting, wherever it may lead. Jewish academics, writers and artists, who’d always kept an eye out for change, were drawn to the forefront of these novel ventures, furthering the rapid expansion of the cultural and scholarly spheres.

One of the more conventional avenues taken by Jewish academics in this new world was the study of science. Albert Einstein, already a renowned physicist when he came to Berlin in 1918, encouraged young Jewish students to pursue a scientific career, claiming that in the fact-based hard sciences there’s no room for antisemitic discrimination. This assertion was, however, mistaken: most established scientific faculties in Germany were old-fashioned and rife with prejudices, allowing only Jews with extrodinary talents to advance. As a result, Jews flocked to newly-discovered or interdisciplanary fields, where no traditional authority existed, making them much more likely to stumble upon groundbreaking research and the recognition which came with it: for instance, 9 out of the 27 nobel laureates who studied in the University of Berlin before 1933 were Jewish, including chemist Fritz Haber, biologist Paul Ehrlich and physicists Gustav Hertz and James Franck. Another Berlin educated Jewish Physicist, Lise Meitner (“The Jewish Marie Curie”, as Einstein called her), should’ve received the prize with her partner Otto Hahn for their work on nuclear fission, but was probably snubbed because of the committee’s chauvinistic predilictions.

As scientists propagated to Berlin’s labs and universities, Jewish writers congregated in literary Cafes which sprung up everywhere. The Romanisches Café6 on the Ku’damm, Berlin’s top literary scene at the time, was frequented by Jewish cultural figures such as Elsa Lasker-Schüler, novelist Alfred Döblin (Berlin, Alexanderplatz) and scriptwriter Salomon Wilder (who later changed his name to Billy Wilder), sitting side by side with non-Jewish ‘celebrities’ like Brecht, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Erich Maria Remarque. Such close contact between Jews and non-Jews, formerly subject to curiosity or disdain, had by this point become a ‘non-issue’ in Berlin; Yet rising nationalistic sentiments, which reintroduced old antisemitism by conflating Jews with the growing threat of communism, made the literary cafés frequented by left-leaning cultural figures an obvious target. The Romanisches Café, specifically, was vandalized during a Nazi riot in 1927 and supervised by the Gestapo once the Nazis came to power.

While these Jewish writers reflected the eclectic nature of the Weimar years in their divergent styles and subjects, one could still note a tendency towards social commentary and critique, particulary in the form of satire. Politically engaged journalist Kurt Tucholsky, a self-described “left-wing pacifistic democrat” quickly became one of the most vocal critics of the Weimar republic and repeatedly warned against its anti-democratic tendencies, while young poet Mascha Kaleko published lighthearted verses which poignantly pointed out the ironies of everyday life, merging Jewish black humor and the free spirit of Weimar Berlin into a best-selling combination. Others, not content with standing on the sidelines, picked up the legacy of Jewish social activism; most notable among those was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who advanced our knowledge of human sexuality and picked up the mantel of gay rights, leading Germany to the verge of becoming the first nation in the world to legalize homosexuality.

Berlin’s status as a burgeoning center of Jewish thought is also evident in the sheer mass of scholars and writers who decided to spend a year or two in the German capital. These included, among many others, novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon (in 1913-1918), later a nobel laureate; Israeli national-poet-to-be Hayim Nahman Bialik (1921-22); modernist author Uri Zvi Greenberg (1923); epic poet Shaul Tchernichovsky (in 1922-25); and future Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1928-33). This constant coming-and-going of erudite young Jews contributed, in turn, to Berlin’s reputation as the “place to be” for Jewish intellectuals in the Weimar Era.

The everchanging, interdisciplinary character of this cultural center is best personified by one of the brightest thinkers of the period, Walter Benjamin. A born-and-bred Berliner, Benjamin was a regular of the city’s literary cafés, which he termed “the headquarters of Bohemia”, while also publishing innovative articles on philosophy, literature and art. In line with the iconoclastic attitude of 1920a Berlin, his eclectic worldview combined the Marxist concpet of historical materilism with newfangled forms of Jewish mysticism7. In less than 10 years, Benjamin covered such diverse fields as aesthetic theory, literary criticism and the history of Paris, embodying the hectic spirit of the Jewish intellectuals relentlessly striving to break new ground – as if they somehow knew that the clock was already ticking down for them.

Afterword: Leaving it all behind

Walter Benjamin left Berlin in 1932, settling in Paris. In 1940, as the Nazis approached the city, he escaped to the south of France, planning to reach the US through neutral Portugal. But when his group’s application for safe passage through Spain was rejected, and they were threatened with deportation to France, he committed suicide on September 26th, 1940.

Benjamin was one of the few Jewish scolars and writers from Berlin who lost their lives to Nazi persecution – most of them eventually took adavntage of their worldly contacts to find safe haven elsewhere: Einstein found refuge in Princeton, Meitner fled to Sweden and Lasker-Schüler recreated her Bohemian circle in Jerusalem. Yet for many of them, especially those who dealt with words and ideas, leaving Germany meant losing their intellectual homeland – a devastating loss of a formative part of their identity. Mascha Kaleko’s immigration to New York cut short her budding literary career and left her with a sense of disloaction, never to be remedied; and Kurt Tucholsky, exiled and weakened by illness, most probably took his own life in Sweden in 1935, at the age of 45.

With the abrupt termination of these promising careers, and the dispersion of others through the world, came a brutal end to the academic and intellectual Jewish center in Berlin, which had endured since Mendelssohn’s first circle in the mid 18th Century. It is my hope, that recent concentration of Israeli and Jewish authors and scholars in the city will allow Berlin once more to emerge as a city of Haskala – Jewish education, enlightenment and rational thought.

1 Rabbinical students at the time mosly spoke Judendeutsch, an early form of Yiddish

2 It might be worthy to note that this education was informal, relying on private tutors who came into the family hone, rather than formal; the first Englightenment-inspired Jewish school in Berlin, established in 1778, did not accept women in its ranks.

3 The system, however, did reward a few converted Jews, such as Eduard Gans (who became a professor in the university), composer Felix Mendelssohn and even Rachel Levin, who married Goethe’s biographer, converted to Christianity and reopened her salon.

4 Unrelated to Moses and Felix Mendelssohn, as far as we know.

5 Reinhardt would later turn a bit more mainstream, as the manager of the Deutsches Theater and a patron of Berthold Brecht

6 John Hoexter, a young Jewish writer who was always short of money, jokingly nicknamed it Rachmonisches Café (from Rachamim, meaning mercy in Hebrew), because of the multitude of Jewish writers whom he would beg to read his work (or at least invite him in for coffee)

7 partly inspired by his good friend, Kaballah researcher Gershom Sholem, who grew up in Berlin but left it for Munich and Israel.

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Ronen Altman Kaydar.

 

 

Berlin Long Reads | Visions Of Germania

A model depicting the Great Hall, the centrepiece of the Germania project
A model depicting the Great Hall, the centrepiece of the Germania project

In the second installment of our Berlin Guides Association Long Reads series, member and professional archaeologist Nick Jackson takes a closer look at the myth surrounding Adolf Hitler’s vision of transforming Berlin into the centrepiece of the Greater Germanic world empire – the Welthauptstadt Germania. 

In the spring of 1936, Adolf Hitler told his court-architect Albert Speer that he had a surprise for him: an architectural assignment. The “greatest of all”.

Speer had been working as de-facto Nazi architectural director since 1934. This new assignment would crown the ambitious young man’s rise to greatness, leading to his appointment in 1937 as ‘General Building Inspector of the Reich Capital’ (GBI).

Albert Speer with Adolf Hitler at Obersalzburg

The assignment itself was to rebuild Berlin, making Hitler’s still crystallizing vision of a world capital in stone, transforming a city he considered an ‘unregulated accumulation of buildings’ into a capital rivalling Paris or Vienna, two cities the urban plans of which a younger Hitler had absorbed deeply.

Interestingly, Hitler wasn’t comparing the new future Berlin to say, Washington, though the plans have a similarity in their general style and expressions of power. New, purpose built cities lack life he thought……giving Karlsruhe as an example. One of the twelve cities consulted by Thomas Jefferson when planning Washington DC.

By 1937, four years after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, significant new building programs had already been completed or were in planning for nine cities all over Nazi Germany. Speer’s Nuremburg Zeppelin Field stood and had filled the silver screens in ‘Triumph of the Will’, and his revamp of the Olympic stadium furnished the 1936 Berlin Nazi Olympic spectacular. A year later, and following Speer’s new appointment as General Building Inspector, plans were afoot to build a technical-school complex to the west of Berlin in the Grunewald forest.

But it was tricky. Contrary to most people’s understanding of the machinery of Nazi power, the yay or nay for the rebuilding of Berlin still lay within the remit of the mayor, Julius Lippert. Until January 1937, Lippert’s municipal administration had been resistant to Hitler’s plans.

Berlin mayor, Julius Lippert (left)
Berlin mayor, Julius Lippert (left)

Lippert was no ‘suit’. Lippert’s job as mayor had been a Nazi appointment. He was a Nazi. He had been involved in the murder of Weimar foreign minister Rathenau in 1922. Such was the confusing sophistry of the National Socialist approach that, much later, Speer himself would praise Rathenau’s post-WWI national economic revival program whilst in prison, and even based his own organisational structure on Rathenau’s when he was Armaments Minister from 1943.

Lippert would ultimately be side-lined as Speer grabbed new powers for the Germania project in 1937 and was eventually fired in 1940, thereafter returning to the army. To be fair, Hitler’s plans for Berlin were so grotesque perhaps Lippert can be forgiven for resisting.

But how radical were these ideas really? Was this the first time such a rebuilding project of Berlin had been considered? The answer is no. Previous plans had been put forward, perhaps the most significant (a model that had certainly influenced Hitler himself) having been submitted by architect Martin Mächler in 1917.

The Mächler Plan – The Forum vs The Block

Mächler’s offering was part of a decades-long set of proposals attempting to solve the central Berlin urban planning problem: the lack of a viable north-south rail and road network traversing a rapidly expanding metropolitan area. The political centre around the Reichstag and beyond the urban sprawl of tightly packed ca. 1880’s tenements had been split by a web of slow, traffic stopping railway lines that hamstrung Berlin as a functioning metropolis.

By 1929, the population of Berlin had swelled to 4.9 million, exacerbating these problems. This situation was at odds with a city centre designed for a population of 500,000 that stylistically still belonged to the late 19th century.

There was also deliberate political foot-dragging in the Reichstag amongst the parties of the right, aimed at stopping a new ‘Greater Berlin’ bloc of Social Democrat voters creating majorities. A move to unify, with new infrastructre developments, the ca. 200 communities spread throughout what were really eight small cities that made up Berlin as a whole, would have a substantial impact on the political landscape.

Overhaul plans were, however, eventually submitted in an international architectural competition in 1909. None were considered that plausible, but most had basic similarities. The judges had to consider not just the practical planning solutions on offer, but to assess the impact of Imperial reaction to the still somewhat new German capital’s potential ‘new face’ as a reflection of the times, for all time…..or so they thought.

This was a deep stylistic and symbolic clash between those who vision tied with the bombastic imperialist ambitions of pre-WWI Berlin (Mächler’s plan reflects this) and the more progressive, modern urban designers eager to reflect the city’s growing power as a modern, global, industrial, democracy. Perhaps this clash can best be summed up in two labels. The former group spoke of the ‘Forum’, the latter of the ‘uniform residential Block’.

The basic take away of the 1909 competition was this:

  • Berlin needed new north-south rail networks, connecting between two new stations at each cardinal point, replacing the downtown terminus stations of Potsdamer Platz and Anhalter Train Station
  • A new road system, complimenting these rail networks and embracing the suburbs, was also needed
  • In addition, more residential blocks should be built, along with some sort of monumental centre reflecting the power of the then, young and ambitious German Empire.

This is precisely what Hitler would plan, falling into the Forum rather than Block camp. It would have a Roman style and a Roman name – Germania. Concocted to hint at the roots of an ‘ancient’ master race destined to rule Europe and the world.

Hitler’s inherited design approach to a Berlin of new architectural scale had major implications for the future, projecting in building size not just a new relationship with the capital but expressions of power. The new capital would possess a “magical power like Mecca or Rome” he thought, symbolizing a “new faith” for the people of Germania to see through their task of fate – to dominate the world.

Hitler’s Plan

Adolf Hitler's personal sketch for the design of Germania's Triumphal Arch
Adolf Hitler’s personal sketch for the design of Germania’s Triumphal Arch

Hitler had been formulating his plan for Germania since the mid 1920s. Mentions of a future rebuild of German cities appear in ‘Mein Kampf’, and by 1925, the year it was published, Hitler had already made sketches of monuments. Perhaps the aspiring artist had returned to dreaming of architecture once more the previous year, as a nationwide ban on the NSDAP and his publically announced withdrawal from politics had forced him to his fall-back dream. Adolf Hitler: the great architect?

Or maybe the sketches were a result of the upsurge of energy he felt at the final lifting of the ban and the reformation of his political machine and newfound destiny? Either way, pencil was put to paper, and these same sketches dusted down to show Speer in 1936. (Speer kept all of Hitler’s sketches and scribbles. By 1945, it was a collection totalling 125 pieces.)

Within eight months of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, official meetings had been called to discuss the first phase of the Germania project: the construction of the new north-south axis and a new southern station.

At this early stage, his plans were vague – but he was pondering a ‘Great Hall’, and already the dominating theme in any future design was the calculated expression of military power.

The second phase took shape from 1937. By then, the first isolated projects had been completed:

  • The western stretch of the east-west axis road, including Speer’s revamped Olympic stadium, had been completed in time for the 1936 Olympics; the eastern stretch reaching to the Brandenburg Gate would be opened for Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration in April 1939.
  • The pavilions on either side of the Brandenburg Gate today were scheduled to be moved to flank the new, wider road width in this phase of construction, to allow increased traffic flow onto Unter den Linden. But this was never implemented (late 1939 turned out to be a rather busy period).
  • Tempelhof Airport had been under re-construction for 3 years (already with a view to incorporating new access to a revamped rail system) and was absorbed by the official Germania planning office in 1937, and finished in 1941.
  • The Air Ministry was already open.
  • The old Chancellery had been extended, as had the new wing of the Propaganda Ministry, both on Wilhelmstraße.
  • A Germans Workers Front Headquarters and two insurance companies’ management buildings had been constructed in western Berlin on Fehrbelliner Platz by 1935, where they still stand.
  • Similarly, the Exhibition Hall, part of the International Convention Centre (ICC) today, was finished by 1936.

In November of 1937, Hitler laid the foundation stone for the Military Academy complex in the Grunewald forest; the future plans in this area included a Hitler University and hospital district north of this complex, too. This got as far as 1:1 façade construction mock ups, and to an initial construction phase before eventually being buried by 70 million cubic meters of western rubble after WWII.

Visions of Germania

Adolf Hitler's sketch for the Great Hall, as part of the Germania project
Adolf Hitler’s personal sketch for the Great Hall, as part of the Germania project

By the end of 1933, demolition had started to create space for a new Imperial Bank headquarters (part of today’s Foreign Office) along the Spree river, by Museum Island. Hitler himself judged the competition for this one (entrants of which, in this very early phase of Hitler’s dictatorship, included Mies van de Rohe – the last director of the Bauhaus school that was closed by the Nazis a month after the competition) and awarded the project to Heinrich Wolff. It was finally opened in 1940. Interestingly, this building still reflected the functional modern style ridiculed soon after Hitler came to power and forcing modern architects like Mies to emigrate.

The proposed north-south axis with the Triumphal Arch and Great Hall
The proposed north-south axis with the Triumphal Arch and Great Hall

The main thrust of Speer and Hitler’s Germania plan was the new north-south axis road, planned eventually as 38km of boulevard, 7km of which would become a monumental ‘Street of Splendours’ ploughing through the city centre – starting just west of Tempelhof Airport from the new South Station, its façade 400m metres wide, to be clad in copper.

This and the east-west boulevard would have divided central Berlin into four quadrants, with a view that, as the future population rose to a projected 15 million, radial streets could connect these four axis limits with the addition of three more airports, in what was then still well outside the city centre.

All the most important visitors were to arrive by train. Tempelhof Airport, considered too close to the city centre for future plans was eventually destined to become an amusement park.

Greeting arrivals at the southern station would have been a plaza 1km in length, decorated with war booty, an arrangement that Speer thought similar to the avenues leading to the great Karnak Temple in Luxor (although there were rows of Ram Sphinxes not artillery pieces). Surrounding buildings would have included cinemas, hotels, and other entertainment venues.

Dominating the view to the north would have been Hitler’s triumphal arch, bearing the names of Germany’s 1,800,000 WWI war dead. This is the monument he had made a sketch of in 1925 and subsequently kept. The arch was to be three times the size of the famous Parisian arch. A start was made to test the marshy Berlin ground to see whether this was viable, and this construction still stands today.

Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer in Paris, 1940, alongside sculptor Arno Breker
Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer in Paris, 1940, alongside sculptor Arno Breker

This arch was one of the most symbolic of the Germania plan constructions. It has an instantly identifiable Parisian aesthetic – but also subtlety incorporates the main populist promises of the Nazi political platform. Its completion would erase the shame of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, atone for the betrayal of the Weimar Government, and – bearing the names of 1,800,000 war dead – would finally transform November 1918 into some sort of victory.

Visitor neck ache would continue after clearing the arch, as the central monumental wonder the ‘Great Hall of the People’ hove into view beyond, 290m high, with a planned dome of 250m diameter. In contrast, the dome of St Peters in Rome is 42m metres in diameter.

The design of the dome hints at the Pantheon in Rome. Hitler visited Rome in 1938 but his inspiration for the Great Hall pre-dates that visit, since in 1925 it appears in the background of Hitler’s arch sketch.

On the way to the entrance to the court that the Hall dominated, visitors would pass the headquarters of industrial concerns, opera houses, a new home for the Philharmonic, the Soldiers Hall and be confronted by Nazi Party organisation buildings flanking the 120m wide roadway via a large circular plaza, located roughly where todays Potsdamer Platz is to be found. Hermann Goering’s new office complex was to be here. One corner would have housed a new British Embassy.

Almost none of these plans ever got off the ground, with the execption of the ‘Tourist House’, as well as the New Reich Chancellery. The Tourist House was torn down after the war, although its pedestal base is still visible, incorporated into van de Rohe’s (and he’s back) New National Gallery from the early 1960s. The New Reich Chancellery (the first version at least) was finished in record time in January 1939 and then demolished in 1947. This was huge, though the central corridor through the building to Hitler’s office was originally conceived as being more than twice as long as its final 220m. The later, final Chancellery building would have flanked the Great Hall square to the south of Hitler’s palace.

Sketch of Germania with the proposed Soldiers Hall (centre)
Sketch of Germania with the proposed Soldiers Hall (centre)

Beyond all of this would be the new centre of what Hitler would dub a ‘world capital’ in 1942. A new town hall, the Army, Navy and Police would all get new government offices around the Great Hall, as well as a ‘Palace’ for Hitler. Palaces really didn’t suit Hitler’s public persona as a simple ‘man of the people’, but the Nazi leader felt his successor would need a building imbued with his spirit after his death (he felt he might die young), so he was prepared to move in.

To realise these specific plans, the buildings around today’s Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz were purchased from 1937 and demolished. Other adjacent domestic areas were also erased. It was during this project that the Victory Column and statues of Bismarck et al made their forced migration to the Tiergarten Park where they stand today.

This demolition didn’t go unnoticed by the Berlin population. In fact, in what is now the Schaubühne theatre on the famous Kurfürstendamm, a Cabaret trio performed a sketch mocking the blasé approach of Speer’s GBI office demolitions, only to be banned in 1938 as lacking in ‘humour’ and faith in National Socialism. Even architects working close to Speer let off emotional steam. Hans Stephan, an architectural draughtsman, used his artistry to produce private cartoons, showing artillery blasting away residential streets, scenes reminiscent of the far less benign blasting of the Red Army in April ‘45.

All of these proposals (not just a first phase but a second phase, too) were to be finished by 1950. To accomplish this the process of decision making had to be streamlined, hence Speer’s increase in powers, the gift of new offices at the Academy of Arts by the Hotel Adlon, and the final removal of mayor Lippert in 1940.

The budget was an estimated 4-6 Billion Reich Marks, some ca. 50 Billion US Dollars by today’s money.

Interestingly, the plan did actually involve the construction of housing, too. An additional 160,000 new apartments were intended to be constructed as part of the Germania project. Although the demolitions to make way for the main Germania buildings destroyed many more than the 2,000 new apartments that would be eventually completed on Grazer Damm in Schöneberg, and in Charlottenburg near Westhafen.

 

The Human Cost of Germania

Prisoners at the Klinkerwerk at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 1939
Prisoners at the Klinkerwerk at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 1939

In 1942, as Hitler was still pondering the name ‘Germania’ for this new city, defeats on all fronts in WWII meant the dream was over before it really managed to gather momentum. Germania was never officially scrapped as a project, not much had progressed after 1940 anyhow. When, in 1942, the bank account of the Building Inspectors Office was finally and quietly dissolved, this freed up 321 Million Reich Marks for military purposes. Speer himself would move to a new ministry one year later – organising the war production industry.

In another fundraising twist related to the Germania project, commemorative medals were distributed on receipt of donations for the 1943 ‘winter relief fund’, the year of the Stalingrad disaster. Embossed on these medallions were Germania buildings (often the proposed ‘Soldiers Hall’ – half way up the eastern side of the north-south axis road), implying that the future still included their completion.

In between, though, there was the grimmer side, in which Speer himself was directly involved.

A swathe of desirable residential area running from Zoo station in west Berlin to Olivaer Platz on Kurfürstendamm, and two blocks north and south along this axis, were to be cleared of their Jewish inhabitants and used for rehousing non-Jewish Berliners evicted as a result of Speer’s clearances. Later, as the first bombs fell on Berlin, re-housing bombing victims became urgent, so in 1941 the eviction and deportation of Jewish Berliners began, freeing up their apartments for others.

These building plans also played a role in the extension of Himmler’s murderous SS empire: the founding of the German Earth and Stonework Company, exploiting labour from KZ Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. After a brick factory at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp was closed in 1937, just north of Berlin the construction of a huge brick works on the canal at nearby Sachsenhausen was completed, with work there costing hundreds of lives. Penal Company leader, Ficke, said of his time at the Brick Factory: “During the 3 months I worked at the brick factory, 100 of my prisoners died, many were simply shot, others from exhaustion.”

Although Albert Speer would emerge from WWII eager to downplay his knowledge of the extent of Nazi atrocities, the barrack compound at the eastern end of the Brick factory at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp would bear his name: ‘Commando Speer’.

Several other concentration camps produced granite blocks for Germania and other projects. In what can only be described as tragically ironic, the materials produced – despite the immeasurable suffering of the prisoners – were often sub-standard and considered unusable, largely due to the incompetence of the SS. The bricks were made with the wrong clay and the granite cracked easily, so the materials would eventually mostly be used for road curbs and cobbling.

 

The End of Hitler’s World Capital

The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in 1945
The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in 1945

In October 1941, at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, Hitler’s dinner conversations, at a time when Operation Barbarossa was going strong in Russia, are an odd but interesting read, recorded for posterity by stenographers in a project that was originally called the ‘Bormann Notes’.

It was at this time (October 1941 when things first started to go wrong on the Eastern Front. Yet Hitler’s conversation’s varied greatly and didn’t also seem urgen or even pertinent. For instance, just after the first snows of the Russian winter fell, Hitler waxed lyrical on the need to reform the meteorological service. Weeks later, as the first deportation trains filled with Jews left Berlin for the concentration and death camps, his monologues would deal with the eradication of the Jewry (as the Rumanian army was fighting alongside German forces in Russia – Rumania’s Jewish population is specified). The next night, the theme was how Jesus wasn’t Jewish.

Hitler also spoke often of his Germania project at this time. Perhaps, because in early autumn 1941, when the war still seemed to be going to plan, Hitler started pondering the long-term ravages of Millennia on his newly built cities, that in his mind’s eye were already complete. He thought how one day, in about 2000 years, some of these buildings would still stand, like ruins in Rome, but bigger.

But the ruination was complete just four years later.

Berlin, as Hitler’s capital, was bombed over 350 times between 1940 and 1945. By early May 1945, as the Red Army assault on Berlin came to an end, the city had been reduced to approximately 27% rubble, what hadn’t been completely destroyed was badly damaged. ‘Total war’ had devastated the country whose leaders had cheered its application. Millions lay dead.

The designs of all the major Germania buildings had been completed: many emerged from the planning table as models, a few buildings had even been realised, although many of those were now heavily damaged. The cuts in Berlin’s urban landscape in preparation for buildings that were never remained empty.

A post-war survey (1945) amongst the German population records that about a quarter of German adults, and half of German youth, thought the best mechanism for a swift national relaunch of a shattered Germany would be the guiding hand of a ‘new, strong Führer’.

This attitude presented the victorious Allies with a multi layered dilemma. How should Germany be treated? How could a peaceful future be constructed in Europe with Germany at its core, given the tensions between it occupiers and the apparent lingering Nazi creed amongst the population?

On a basic, practical level, occupied Germany was simply stripped of its technological and industrial capacity, basically a war booty scheme. But additionally, a policy beginning in 1946/7 demanding that physical reminders of the Nazi regime be systematically removed obviously had a profound effect of the surviving Nazi-era buildings.

This complied with the ‘4 Ds’ policy agreed at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. One ’D’ was the major goal of ‘Denazification’ of the population (10% of which had been NSDAP members). Physical removal of buildings representative of Nazi regime would aid this process of consigning the period to the past – before this new, post conflict ‘Zero Hour’.

But soon after, new global developments gave these programs a new hue. The victors desperate scramble for Nazi period technology had been primarily directed at military applications, most famously the V rocket program developed from 1936. The horrorific details of the conditions at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp and its underground rocket plant were pushed aside after liberation as the rush for weapons that touched the edge of space took priority.

Why? Because the ‘war’ continued immediately after May 1945, but the ‘enemy’ had changed, and the stakes were just as high.

These new tensions and priorities in a world now divided between East and West had a profound bearing on the physical rebuilding policy of Berlin. Shifting the treatment of Berlin’s ruins from ‘Denazification’ to ‘Bi-glorification’.

Ironically, many of the architects involved in rebuilding many west German cities had been on Albert Speer’s GBI board from 1937.

Each side of Berlin now set about clearing and rebuilding to show its positive future and dominance in concrete. This policy shift produced the showcase East and West Berlin of the 1950s that makes up a substantial part of the city today. As the ruins became less frequent in number, sentimentality attached to them grew amongst the population. The image that portrays this best today is the old and new church designs of the Gedächtniskirche in the heart of West Berlin, the ultimate ‘yesterday and tomorrow’ duo of bullet scarred stones of the past, and the steel and glass of the city of future and new dreams.

This new policy shifted focus away from destruction of Nazi period buildings that might otherwise have been demolished. The Olympic stadium, Tempelhof airport, the former Air Ministry amongst others benefitted from this, something that created the catalogue of Nazi period remains for us to discover today.

Although it remains a small catalogue….

 

What Remains To See Of Germania?

There are some remnants of defensive architecture of interest above ground, for instance the destroyed anti-aircraft towers in Friedrichshain and Humboldthain parks, for example, would have been integrated into Hitler’s general plan. But as for remnants of core Germania proper, very little remains. For some time, the most obvious examples of Germania in Berlin existed as absence; the voids where Germania should have been. Until recently, these voids were still noticeable.

The open spaces established by the Nazis remained after the post-war frenzy of clearance and rebuilding reached a stasis several decades later. Partly this pause was driven by economic realities and, of course, the erection of the symbol of division, the Berlin Wall, in 1961. But the lack of action in some areas was a product also of a strange conundrum of architectural planning faith on both sides. How far should post-war planners develop West Berlin, for example, as a fully independent ‘island’ city? How could the future possibility, however small, of a unified city – and the subsequent need for integration – be factored into immediate architectural decisions?

Though the political importance of creating showcase ‘capitals’ in both Berlins still produced two new 1960s city centres – most visibly the TV tower and new Alexander Platz complex, and to a certain extent the Bikini House and the Europa Centre at Zoo in the West – post-war planners, both East and West, without consultation, still seem to have given a tacit nod to the previous long term urban design issues that had been under discussion half a century before.

This meant the great 1930s demolition areas around the Reichstag for example remained open until very recently (late 1990s).

This connects also to the other Berlin difficulty resulting from its past: does building a new (now post ‘Fall of the Wall’) German capital in a hole created by Speer today mean you’re in some way completing his task? Perhaps this is why the new ‘Ribbon of Government’ buildings are designed to run at 90 to the Nazi orientation and directly through the site of the proposed Hall of the People (most of which is left as green space)?

Today’s new road and rail tunnels under the Tiergarten park are a final realisation of the urban design plans of Mächler, Speer, and Hitler a century ago. They are essential, but conveniently invisible.

Below ground, where many Nazi period constructions lay, only ca. 5 % was touched. This, and the fact that they are invisible, difficult and expensive to approach means there is still a Nazi underground world beneath Berlin, it’s just that few of us get to see it. Beneath the Tiergarten Park, roughly below the road opposite today’s Soviet memorial,  are three tunnels that would have taken traffic on the new north-south axis underneath the existing east-west axis road widened by Speer in 1938-9.

Of the few visible remnants of Germania worth mentioning (beyond the mid 30s buildings mentioned above) one is the remains of the ground test device (Schwerbelastungskörper) for the Triumphal Arch, the other a marker for the clearances.

Still standing at General Pape Straße 100, built by French POWs in 1941 is the massive 12,000 tonnes, 32m x 25m concrete ‘drawing pin’ load tester built to assess the subsidence potential of what would have been the eastern footprint of the arch itself. Six centimetres of subsidence would have been the limit, in-fact it sank over eighteen centimetres, making the construction inviable without enormous amounts of foundational packing material, actively considered at the time.

Just north of this, the modern road bridge straddles the wide expanse of both old and new railway tracks running north-south through the heart of Berlin. It is here that one can visualise Germania’s proposed great road looking north, and the huge station to the south. This is where core Germania would have stood.

Less well known is a commemorative marker in the Alter St Matthäus cemetery on Großgörschenstraße near Yorckstraße S-bahn. Here, on the northern wall, is a commemoration to the houses demolished by Albert Speer in the late 1930s. Also in the cemetery lies a grave marker for Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg and his confederates, who were buried here for one night, then exhumed and dumped in a place unknown following their execution – having failed to kill Hitler in July 1944.

Some brave folk realised at the time the madness had to be stopped….. It took others much longer to realize. Albert Speer, who would survive the war to see his project unrealised, was among the latter.

In his fascinating, but questionable, post-war account of his role at the heart of the Nazi dictatorship and head of the Germania project, Speer recounts a story of a dinner in Paris. He tells of a theory he had developed that in post-Revolutionary France, the new architecture and design style reached the peak of beauty only to be corrupted by the increasingly lavish and overly ornamental Empire style. Could the corruption of this beauty be a result of hubris and decadence, and be seen now as a indicator that contributed to the collapse of the Empire? Speer regretted that during the planning stage of the Germania plan, in the scale, the ornamentation and sheer ‘eagle grasping the globe in its talons’ ness of the new Nazi Berlin, he didn’t see these ideas as hinting at a decadence that would usher in that downfall either.

Nick Jackson

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Nick Jackson. A professional archaelogist with experience in the Near East, Nick divides his time between book research, Berlin touring, Nazi bunkers, travel journalism, lecturing on WWII Europe and the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and some TV documentaries. For more information on Berlin’s Third Reich history, visit Nick’s profile to book him as a guide or his website: www.jacksonberlintours.com.

Berlin Long Reads | Medieval Berlin – The Neglected Tale Of Two Towns

Medieval Berlin - The Old City
A view of Berlin’s river Spree near the Mühlendamm, 1910

In the first installment of our Berlin Guides Association Long Reads series, member and professional archaeologist Jamie Sewell takes a closer look at the neglected history of medieval Berlin. Berlin’s growth from two twin towns brought together by a river to a thriving economically vibrant city and the second home to the royal House of Hohenzollern.

In the heart of the modern metropolis of Berlin today, there seems at first sight to be little indication that there was once a small but thriving medieval town here. But if you know where to look, and have a good guide, medieval Berlin may be re-awoken in the visitor’s imagination.

The river Spree still meanders through the city just as it did at the beginning, on which two towns were originally founded, Berlin and Cölln, facing one another on opposite banks in a region known as Brandenburg. Any medieval documents that might have informed us when, why, or by whom the two towns were founded were already lost to the flames of catastrophic fires during the towns’ early history. Yet slowly but surely over the last three decades, historians and archaeologists have been piecing together the fascinating story of the early city, a process it has been my privilege to be involved in.

The medieval Marienkirche in the late 1960s surrounded by buildings sites
The medieval Marienkirche in the late 1960s surrounded by buildings sites

The drama of Berlin’s twentieth century history is largely responsible for why this investigation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Wartime bombing of the historic centre was particularly intense, the entire area of which ended up in Soviet controlled East Berlin in 1945. In turn, with the creation of the German Democractic Republic in 1949, East Berlin became the socialist state’s capital, and its leadership was intent on leaving the past far behind. Grand plans for a modern futuristic city were realised in the 1960s and 1970s exactly in the area of the early town, for which the ruins of pre-war Berlin were swept aside. Yet the most important of the surviving medieval structures were left standing, punctuating the futuristic urban landscape with incongruous reminders of Berlin’s historic roots.

Since German reunification in 1990, building activity in the old centre has once again become frenetic, but with an important distinction from the earlier projects of the 20th century; systematic archaeological excavation has taken place ahead of each new construction project within the areas of medieval Berlin and Cölln. As the medieval walking-surface lies up to 2.5m below the street level, much has been preserved, much has been found, and bright new light continues to be shed on the town’s early history.

The new story of old Berlin

Most importantly, Berlin has been re-dated as a result of new archaeological data. For many years, Berlin’s “birthday” was believed to be 1237. But this is merely the year in which a surviving document from the nearby town of Brandenburg on the Havel was undersigned by Simeon, who is listed as a priest of the St. Peter’s church in Cölln. This merely proves Cölln already existed in 1237, while the earliest surviving document mentioning Berlin dates to 1244. Using the latest scientific techniques, radio carbon (C14) dating of skeletal material from the oldest urban cemeteries makes it almost certain that both Berlin and Cölln were actually already established by the mid-twelfth century, a century earlier.

Berlin's medieval townhall in the 19th century
Berlin’s medieval townhall in the 19th century

Why two towns in the same place? This remains a difficult question to answer, but it was certainly not unusual, as dozens of cities across central Europe originally comprised multiple distinct urban nuclei founded alongside one another. Over time they fused into one urban entity. Berlin and Cölln only merged definitively in 1709.

Berlin/Cölln was founded as part of a much broader eastwards migration and settlement of German-speaking people from the Holy Roman Empire, a movement encouraged by its emperor. Huge numbers of new villages and towns were founded in Brandenburg in this era in areas that had formerly been occupied by Slavic-speaking peoples. Berlin/Cölln was founded towards the eastern limit of this migration, perhaps with the character of a frontier town in its early days. One of the more popular theories regarding the origins of the name ‘Berlin’ is that it is derived from a Slavic word meaning ‘swamp’. Possibly, but we now know the last Slavic settlement in the area of the future medieval town was abandoned long before the latter was founded. To what degree the Slavs moved on or integrated themselves in the new communities is a question that new scientific techniques developed for the study of ancient DNA are in the process of helping us answer.

By far the most important determinant for the location of Berlin/Cölln was the river Spree. It was possible to sail downstream from Berlin along a series of rivers all the way to the market at Hamburg, and then beyond to the North Sea. A return journey was facilitated by beasts of burden on tow paths that hauled the flat-bottomed river barges back up the river. Long distance river-borne trade was thus foreseen as the primary source of income for the two new settlements, and mercantile entrepreneurs were surely among the interested parties who were responsible for founding the twin towns. Finally, at the centre of every medieval town was a church, and Berlin/Cölln was no exception, meaning that the papacy’s representatives were involved in all new foundations of towns and villages.

Berlin’s original church was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of merchants, but also sailors, suggestive of an intertwining of mercantile and ecclesiastical interests in the foundation.

A thriving vibrant settlement and member of the Hanseatic League

By late thirteenth century, Berlin/Cölln was thriving, and has since been described as the most economically vibrant settlement between the Oder and the Elbe at this time. It had received an urban charter that conveyed the right of self-government and specific commercial privileges and legal protections for it citizens. Effectively, these measures regulated commerce to the benefit of the local merchants and artisans. The body of the town council comprised the wealthier of the resident merchants who made sure their interests were prioritised.

Moreover, Berlin had become a member of the Hanseatic League by this time, a vast network of towns run by merchants pursuing policies of mutual economic benefit. From the surviving contemporary documents, we know that the main exports of Berlin/Cölln were timber and rye, with salted fish and textiles from Flanders brought back down the river. But more exotic items such as cinnamon, figs, ginger, oil, pepper, rice, saffron and wine, also made their way to the two towns. It’s easy to forget in today’s era of modern transport, just how vital the river was for the conveyance of goods to and from the city, all the way down to the early 20th century.

The economic prosperity of Berlin/Cölln in the thirteenth century is reflected in the archaeology. Berlin almost doubled in size, with the creation of a new market area and a second church dedicated to St. Mary (Marienkirche). Cölln’s population seems also to have grown rapidly as the cemetery of its church of St. Peter (Petrikirche) was greatly augmented at the cost of the habitation around its perimeter. New fortifications of stone and brick, equipped with towers, were built around the two towns. Houses at this time were timber framed with clay floors and roofs of thatch or shingles. Extensive areas of domestic gardens have been found archaeologically in the urban area. Pollen and other botanical remains indicate they were being used horticulturally to produce vegetables and fruit.

I helped in the excavation of a large structure in the back garden of a property, dated to the thirteenth century, which has been securely identified from its contents as the oldest known brewery in the city. Although Berlin has undergone many dramatic transformations over the centuries, it’s comforting to know that the Berliners’ love of beer has never been affected by them, and has remained a cultural constant.

The arrival of the House of Hohenzollern

By the thirteenth century, the Margraviate of Brandenburg had been created under the rulership of the House of Askania. The margrave had a mobile court, moving from place to place to control the populace and collect revenue. When in Berlin, the margrave resided in a large property, the oldest surviving reference to which dates to 1261. Around this time, he donated a parcel of this urban plot to the Franciscan order of friars who founded a priory on it, the church of which still survives as a visitable ruin near Alexanderplatz.

Rediscovery of the medieval residence of the margrave during demolition work in 1931
Rediscovery of the medieval residence of the margrave during demolition work in 1931

The last Askanian margrave was still a child at the time of his death in 1320. With no Askanian heir, Brandenburg subsequently passed through the hands of two other noble houses before being acquired by the House of Hohenzollern in the early fifteenth century.

This marked the beginning of the downturn of Berlin and Cölln’s medieval prosperity, especially under the rule of Frederick II (1440 to 1470). To the great dismay of the local population, Frederick had a palace constructed on the island of Cölln, effectively ending the tradition of the peripatetic court, making Berlin/Cölln the permanent capital of Brandenburg. Step by step, Frederick expropriated the land and the revenue of the city’s ruling merchants, and in 1442 he forced all of the towns in Brandenburg out of the Hanseatic League. Economic stagnation was the result, reflected in the oldest surviving plan of Berlin/Cölln, drawn up by Johann Gregor Memhardt.

The Memhardt plan of Berlin/Cölln, 1652
The Memhardt plan of Berlin/Cölln, 1652

Although it dates to 1652, the full extent of the city depicted in the plan only corresponds to the area of the city as it had been in the late thirteenth century, complete with the original old medieval fortifications. This reflects a complete absence of further urban growth between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the plan also reveals the now extensive area taken up by the growing palace complex and its manicured gardens. In time, the palace would be enlarged still further under the Hohenzollerns and become the primary official residence of the King of Prussia and, subsequently, of the Emperor of the German Empire.

What remains of medieval Berlin?

Visitors can still see architectural traces of the Middle Ages in Berlin.

The Nikolaikirche - The main church in medieval Berlin
The Nikolaikirche – The main church in medieval Berlin

No wooden buildings have survived intact above ground, and only the most important public buildings of the era were built from stone and brick masonry. Of those, the most significant for the medieval population were the churches. Continued investment over time altered their appearances according to changing architectural trends, so each is a result of multiple structural phases. Berlin’s oldest surviving church is the St. Nicholas Church (Nickolaikirche) close to Alexanderplatz. A significant portion of its original Romanesque phase is visible in the form of worked granite blocks comprising the lower half of the westwork or western tower. These blocks of granite have travelled a great distance.

Geologically speaking, Berlin is located within a former meltwater valley created at the end of the last Ice Age. Melting glaciers deposited vast quantities of sand and gravel upon which Berlin was later built. Large granite boulders were transported from Scandinavia within the glaciers and then dumped in the Berlin-area as the climate warmed. These boulders were used by the medieval Berliners in the construction of their more monumental buildings. Another example of a church tower built of this stone is the thirteenth-century St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche), located about 400m to the north of the Nickolaikirche. In the nineteenth century, a late medieval fresco was rediscovered just inside the entrance of the church depicting a so-called Dance of Death, a reminder to the parishioners of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. It has been restored and is on display. Perhaps older still, is the Holy Ghost Chapel (Heilig-Geist-Kapelle) located in the nearby Spandauer Straße. It was formerly the chapel of one of the three medieval hospitals of Berlin/Cölln that cared for the sick, poor, and elderly. Its lower walls comprise the same granite blocks upon which a late Gothic red brick and white painted superstructure was subsequently built.

Excavation in 2008 of the medieval cemetery and settlement of Cölln
Excavation in 2008 of the medieval cemetery and settlement of Cölln

On Littenstraße, several disparate sections of medieval Berlin’s town wall are visible and memorialised, as are the substantial ruins of the church of the Franciscan priory. Long term and large scale archaeological excavations are currently underway at the adjacent Molkenmarkt, the results of which should enhance our understanding of Berlin’s medieval phases still further.

On the other side of the river Spree in former Cölln, if one enters the lobby of the Hotel Capri on the junction of Breite Straße and Getraudenstraße, it has a large glass floor beneath which one can view the foundations of excavated medieval houses. At the time of writing there is a large building site immediately to the west of the hotel, where from 2007 to 2009 a team, including myself, excavated Cölln’s church and corresponding cemetery. We also found the foundations of a medieval school that have been conserved, and upon which a new archaeological visitors’ centre is currently being constructed. When finished, this will become the primary location for the public presentation of Berlin’s medieval archaeology.

There is a high level of awareness among tourists who visit Europe’s great cities that many of them are very old. Probably because of the dramatic and high profile historical events of the twentieth century associated with Berlin, its medieval roots are not so well known. But if you take the time, you don’t need to stray far from the well beaten tourist route to find surviving medieval architecture that serves as a reminder of the city’s fascinating early history.

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Jamie Sewell. A professional archaelogist with experience supervising university-run excavations in Britain, Romania, Germany and Italy, Jamie has spent many years in Berlin shedding new light on the city’s Medieval and Early Modern history from its buried material culture. For more information on Berlin’s medieval history, visit Jamie’s profile to book him as a guide.

The German “Day of Fate”

When it comes to German history, November 9 is a date like no other.

It’s a day packed with four colossal events from the twentieth century that have gotten people to refer to today as Germany’s “day of fate.”

In with the new and out with old: Saturday, November 9, 1918

Kaiser Wilhelm II

With the German Imperial Army on the brink of defeat at the end of WWI – and with political and social revolutionary forces sweeping through the country, Prussian King and German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, was advised and urged to abdicate from his throne. In part, this was largely a symbolic gesture of compliance to show the Allied nations that Germany was fully committed to setting up a democratic system – as outlined in US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points – in the hope that the country would receive a fair treatment at the forthcoming peace conference at Versailles.

With the German Empire shaking apart and monarchies crumbling by the day, word got out that communist leader Karl Liebknecht was going to pronounce a communist republic. To prevent this, the Social Democratic leader, Phillip Scheidemann, made his way to the west windows of the Reichstag in Berlin and announced the birth of a democratic republic by shouting, “Long live the German republic!”

The seeds of what would become known as the Weimar Republic – Germany’s first attempt at a democracy – had just been planted, and centuries of history of numerous German monarchies had come to an end.

Arguably human history’s most evil villain steps onto the world stage: Friday, November 9, 1923

With economic instability and political chaos riddling Germany’s young democracy, Adolf Hitler and his cronies from the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazis) – along with the respected WWI General Erich Ludendorff – staged a putsch in Munich on the night of November 8, 1923. Inspired by Benito Mussolini’s successful march on Rome in 1922, the idea was to seize control of the Bavarian government and make a march on Berlin to establish an authoritarian dictatorship under Hitler and the Nazis.

Hitler and Ludendorff before their trial begins

Unfortunately for Hitler, the putsch was haphazardly planned as he’d failed to guarantee the support of the police and the army before it began; and to add insult to injury, the stubborn old Ludendorff was late in turning up for the putsch, which allowed the Bavarian Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr to eventually make a quick phone call to Bavaria’s reserve army to confront the Nazis.

As soon as Hitler’s forces finally began marching through the streets in the early morning hours of November 9, 1923, Bavaria’s reserve army squashed the uprising in a matter of minutes. Hitler was quickly arrested two days later and charged with high treason against the German government.

At his trial a few months later, Hitler took advantage of exploiting this opportunity as a propaganda platform – and was astonishingly allowed by a group of sympathetic conservative judges – to use his inexplicably gifted oratory skills to turn his trial into a political showcase. Among his rambling, he would ultimately highlight his desire to take back what had been taken from Germany after WWI and make it clear that his ultimate (racial) goal was to protect and defend the purity of the German people.

Despite the fact that the judges found him guilty – issuing a 5 year prison sentence – they also awarded him the possibility of parole after 9 months, which he was easily granted just before Christmas of 1924.

This so-called “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 8/9 1923 did two things for Hitler. First, it taught him an important lesson: One cannot take control of government by force; rather, he needs to democratically come into power and then he can destroy through politics. Second, the political circus and eloquent ranting at his trial got his name in newspapers outside the borders of Munich which permeated from the Bavarian capital all the way up to the shores of the Baltic and North seas.

Alas, within a decade of the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

The National Socialist ideology radicalizes: Wednesday, November 9, 1938

Ever since the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jews throughout Germany had been made to feel like second class citizens.

First it began with an increasing amount of verbal harassment and physical violence.

This culminated into a boycott of Jewish goods and businesses, as the harassment and violence continued.

Pretty soon, Jews were stripped of their German citizenship and their assets were seized.

In short, the Nazis were hoping that Germany’s Jews would just simply ‘take a hint’ and leave Germany.

Finally, the bottom fell out on November 9, 1938 when Nazi thugs torched over 4,500 synagogues throughout Germany, and destructively vandalized Jewish owned shops and businesses in what became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass” or “November Pogrom in Germany.”

Moreover, around an estimated 30,000 Jews were viciously rounded up and sent off to concentration camps, with around a 100 alone being murdered on that infamous night.

On this tragic day – 80 years ago today – Nazi anti-Semitism transitions from ‘legal’ persecution to a continual wave of violent attacks and deportations; and it would only be a matter of time before it resulted in a murderous conclusion on a scale of unprecedented proportions.

An innocuous blunder: Thursday, November 9, 1989

The times were changing in East Germany in the fall of 1989.

The East German people themselves had been courageously putting an enormous amount of pressure on the East German government to relax its travel restrictions and the leaders of the regime knew that some sort of change was quickly needed.

At a live press conference that included the attendance of journalists from around the world, on the evening of Thursday, November 9, 1989 an East German bureaucrat and spokesman named Guenter Schabowski read the minutes of a high profile meeting that took place earlier in the day.

Towards the end of his minutes in hand, Schabowski read out loud that there had been extensive discussion in that morning’s meeting that would allow East Germans to leave East Germany on visa.

Suddenly he was asked when this would take effect.

Given the fact that he wasn’t at that morning’s meeting – thus having no idea when exactly it would – he just hastily paged through his notes and quickly said, “Ab sofort” (immediately).
Through the help of the West Berlin media playing this blunder over and over on the radio waves shortly thereafter, word spread like a wild fire and it ultimately resulted in sending thousands of East Germans towards the East Berlin and West Berlin crossing points, where baffled guards eventually let them through and thus culminating into the “Fall of the Berlin Wall.” Yet, celebrations on November 9 have long been shunned due to the troublesome events that are mentioned above.

The “day of fate” or “Schicksalstag” as it’s said here in Germany is indeed a tumultuous date in the country’s history with events that have directly or indirectly affected the lives of millions of people throughout the world.