Berlin Long Reads | Different Shades of Red: The Weimar Republic and the Divided Left

In the latest edition of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member Campbell Bews explores the rift between the SPD and KPD – from ideological cracks to the conflicts, betrayal and violence of politics in the Weimar Republic.

A column of swastika-helmeted troops snakes into a dark Berlin. Their boots clap loudly on the cobblestones as they march in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate and close in on the Reichstag. They lower the flag of the Republic and replace it with their own, deposing the elected government. Workers who awake to see the takeover heckle the paramilitaries and are fired on in reply. The sun rises on a Berlin under occupation. The date is the 11th of March 1920, the ‘Kapp Putsch’ had just begun.

Their forceful occupation of Berlin allowed the Free Corps (returning WWI proto-fascist militias) to seize the capital but not to hold it. The forces on the left, united in opposition, mobilise against it. Social Democrats, Communists, and trade unionists cannot prevent the military takeover, but they can deny their labour. A general strike brings the usually bustling city to a standstill, as trains refuse to move, the electricity is turned off and the economy grinds to a halt. Wolfgang Kapp, the eponymous putsch leader threatens, begs and attempts to bribe them back to work, but to no avail. With declining prospects, Kapp negotiates a surrender. The united left has defeated the coup in less than 100 hours.

The Kapp Putsch was defeated by a united Left
Free Corps militia hand our leaflets during the ‘Kapp Putsch’
| Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R16976 / CC-BY-SA 3.0


The Kapp Putsch stands as a mirror opposite to the Hitler seizure of power 13 years later. Instead of fighting a united front, Hitler was faced with a fractured left-wing opposition, which he was easily able to overcome. The strength of the left was similarly powerful in both Kapp’s and Hitler’s seizure of power. In the 1920 election (held three months after the coup) the SPD, Independent SPD and Communists (KPD) won a total of just under 42% – a near high point for the Weimar Republic. In the 1933 election (held just after the Reichstag fire, under suppression by the Nazi led government), the SPD and KPD won just under 31% – a drop but still a broad coalition of the population. Added to the left’s strength were their own armed groups, returned WWI soldiers councils in the 20’s and party paramilitary groups Iron Front (SPD) and Alliance of Red Front-Fighters (KPD) in the 30’s. Undoubtedly Kapp and General Lüttwitz were not as tightly organised as the Nazis, but they may have succeeded had the left not so vigorously opposed them.

So why was there no coordinated opposition against Hitler? A simple answer would be that there was very little coordination. Even on the day that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, the majority of the SPD executive committee dismissed an alliance with communists, fearing they would co-opt the resistance and draw away their supporters. The KPD on the other hand, made little to no distinction between the Nazis and the ‘social fascists’ in the SPD. It is clear that between the two right-wing coups there emerged an unbreachable gap between the two left-wing parties. This piece will explore how this rift came about, beginning with ideological cracks within the SPD of the German Empire and pushed further apart by the conflicts, betrayal and violence of Weimar Politics.

1871 – 1914 Big tent of the SPD

Communists and social democrats were all contained within the broad church of the SPD during Bismarck’s German Empire (1871 – 1918). Due to the Party’s appeal to the urban proletariat, their support grew in lock step with the German Empire’s own rapid industrialisation. On the eve of the First World War in 1914, they had 1,085,905 members, 90 daily newspapers and were the largest political party in the Reichstag. However, the system created by Otto von Bismarck ensured that the reins of power remained in the hands of the conservative Prussian military aristocracy, so while the SPD were able to (often indirectly) influence policy, they could never truly govern.

Without the pressure of governing, they could focus on building a party bureaucracy and managing internal ideological disputes. Like many traditional labour movements, it was divided much between its ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ wings of the party. The ‘minimalists’ favored winning gradual improvements for working people within Germany by working within the system and winning voters at the ballot box. They occupied much of the bureaucracy of the party and therefore the leadership, such as union leader turned party chairman, Friedrich Ebert. On the other end of the spectrum were the ‘maximalists’ who favored global solidarity with the working class and Marxist revolution to overcome the system, which featured prominent leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But while the gap between their political outlooks was extreme, their collective commitment to the party’s ethos of debate settled by compromise and common cause meant the party’s frictions stayed within the party. That was until the earthquake of the First World War.

Friedrich Ebert was the head of the SPD and first president of the Weimar Republic
Friedrich Ebert

1914 – 1918 SPD at war: Nationalism or Socialism?

Whether to support or oppose the war was the most momentous decision in the SPD’s history and created an impossible split between the two factions. According to maximalist socialist doctrine, maintaining international solidarity among workers was a paramount, so therefore an imperialist war was unthinkable. However, the minimalists understood that in 1914 Germany, the war was seen as a righteous defence of the German fatherland. If they committed themselves to principled socialist opposition, they would jeopardise their gradual gains and doom themselves to electoral suicide and state repression. The high tide of war washed away almost all opposition. Voting to approve war credits, SPD co-Chairman Hugo Haase declared: “We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need.” The party leadership agreed to a suspension of regular politics out of national solidarity, effectively aligning with the militaristic state and neutering their opposition.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.
German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.


Many of the ‘maximalists’ were disgusted by their party’s capitulation. Their response was limited by state and SPD repression. When they called for strikes and an end to the war in 1914-15, the party imposed new editors for their papers and the police jailed their leaders. Karl Liebknecht, who voiced his opposition in the Reichstag to financing the war in December 1914, would have his parliamentary immunity revoked and he was later jailed. His incarceration did not stop his organising, as he and Rosa Luxemburg would found the group eventually known as ‘The Spartacists’. In the January 1916 charter, Luxemburg pushed against the SPD’s support of the war and called it a ‘betrayal’, but believed in taking over the party rather than beginning anew.

The War became the fulcrum point for relative popularity within the workers movement. While the war went well, the institutional minimalists held sway, but as it became a bloody quagmire, the maximalists began to predominate among workers. In this way, both factions were strapped to a horse of which they had little control. Each year the First World War dragged on, the circumstances tilted in the maximalists’ favor. Every winter brought new misery, as the turnips replaced potatoes and sawdust replaced flour. In 1916, Germany produced 23 million tonnes of potatoes (half of their pre-war crop), and by 1917 the general population was only receiving 1000 calories a day – 40% less than at the start of the war. Despite deteriorating conditions, the German Army was on the verge of victory on the Eastern front and Chairman Ebert clung to the hope that victory on the battlefield would solve the crisis.

The German defeat of the Tsarist regime, the Revolution and the subsequent treaty of Brest-Litovsk would instead have the opposite effect Ebert intended, helping the revolution spread into Germany. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the toppling of the Tsar shifted the centre of socialist politics from the institutional gradualism of Berlin to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninism of Moscow. This influence would be particularly important for the later KPD as their policy became almost entirely dictated by the Soviet Union. The focus on national politics within the SPD was viewed with disdain by Lenin, who saw an international revolution as inevitable.
Shortly after victory in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks set about spreading propaganda into the POW camps of the Imperial Germany Army. They released these 165,000 soldiers back into Germany to spread revolution. A wave of propaganda flooded west from Russia – even Soviet ambassador Adolf Joffe arrived in Berlin with a briefcase stuffed with revolutionary pamphlets. This agitation of the workers would bear fruit. When Germany erupted into revolution in 1918, the revolutionary slogan of ‘peace and bread’ and demands to form workers and soldiers collectives would be on many lips.

1918 – 19 Revolution and consolidation: Two views of Weimar

The 1918 German Revolution unleashed by mutinous sailors in November spread like a contagion infecting workers, soldiers and then the population at large. It was a movement united against the German Empire and the war, but not on which system would replace it. On the 9th of November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, which left the leaders of the SPD and the Spartacists attempting to get in front of events and direct them. From the balcony of the City Palace Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic; from a window of the Reichstag Philip Scheidemann (SPD) declared just a republic. In the throes of their own revolution, the Russian Revolution loomed large. Ebert was at pains to consolidate the toppling of the Kaiser into a liberal democratic republic, and prevent a further ‘social revolution’ which he professed to ‘hate like sin.’ Rosa Luxemburg saw the inclusion of the liberal parties as proof that the SPD had become ‘lackeys of the bourgeoisie.’ The Spartacists aimed for social revolution, which included the expropriation of property from major businesses and land from the major estates. They pledged to not do so by force ‘except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany.’ The fight over the Great War was over, but the SPD and Spartacists seamlessly shifted to another binary struggle, whether to support or overthrow the liberal republic.

While the two parties had competing aims, they had wildly different resources to achieve them. As the largest pre-war party, the SPD had an established press organisation, leadership among the unions, clear hierarchical power structures within the party and leaders within the union movement throughout Germany. They did not seek to find common cause with their former left wing allies and instead used this power to present the Spartacists as the worst excesses of the Russian revolution. One SPD leaflet claimed they would “incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands.” The Spartacists on the other hand were a new and diverse coalition; a far left faction first within the SPD then the Independent Social Democrats (USPD – a wing of pacifist SPD members who had broken from the party in 1916) and by December 1918 a faction of the newly established Communist Party (KPD). They drew their strength from the demobilised soldiers and young people who flocked to their rallies hungry for action. A number of hardliners within the SPD advocated provoking these supporters and took the provocative step of attempting to remove their leftist choice of Berlin police chief. Pushed by the SPD and their radical supporters, Karl Liebknecht felt that waiting until the majority of the proletariat was on their side was untenable. When Spartacists called for rebellion on the 7th of January they could command 500,000 protestors but their lack of organisation meant they could only command a few thousand armed supporters scattered throughout Berlin.

Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919
Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919


The Spartacist uprising and its subsiquent defeat and murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 (covered brilliantly by my colleague here) would make enemies of their rivals on the left. The SPD’s accommodation of big business, the army and liberal parties to establish the Weimar Republic left it with few friends to their left flank to support them politically against the Spartacists. Looking right, Ebert instead turned to the power of the army to crush the uprising. A combination of Free Corps (right wing militias) and regular army units were given the order and flooded into Berlin. Spartacist rebels occupying buildings were shelled into submission and then given no quarter as their leadership were sent scattering. Through likely torture of a confidant, the locations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were revealed. Once the Free Corps had seized their enemies, they were never going to be allowed to leave alive. They were brutally murdered on the 16th of January, less than two weeks after the rebellion had begun. Ebert had managed to save his republic, but only by sacrificing his former comrades to anti-republican right wing militarists. Their blood would always stand between cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats.

The Weimar Republic was stained with the blood of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
Soviet-zone stamp commemorating Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg


1919 – 1923 Early KPD: ‘Theory of the offensive’ and the ‘United Front’

The destruction of the Spartacists further motivated the KPD to overthrow the Weimar system, but their righteous fury was not entirely shared by their voters. Many workers did not support further revolution, as shown by the Berlin union workers from AEG, Schwartzkopff and other factories who met in Humboldthain to call for an end to the Spartacist uprising, in favor of inter-left solidarity. Even after the uprising’s bloody end, the SPD base within the unionised workforce remained steadily behind them. Workers remained loyal to the party they had always voted for and in the 1919 Federal Elections the SPD had their best ever showing of nearly 38%. Despite this, the KPD were encouraged by the Comintern (the communist international organisation dominated and funded by Moscow) to attempt to follow a ‘theory of the offensive’, and wait for an opportunity to overthrow the government. One such opportunity came after they had combined with the USPD and SPD to defeat the Kapp Putsch in 1920. A 50,000 strong ‘Ruhr Red Army’ of KPD workers, having participated in the general strike, refused to demobilise which led to Ebert again calling in the army. The Ruhr uprising was followed the next year by the ‘March Action’, which featured an attempted general strike and several uprisings throughout the country. These local movements lacked national support to bring about revolution and were again crushed by the army. Voters did not respond well to what many saw as attempted coups. The 1921 ‘March Action’ particularly damaged their reputation and cost the party nearly half of its supporters in a matter of months.

Walter Rathenau was the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic
Demonstrators in front of the Reichstag following Walter Rathenau’s murder. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00099 / CC-BY-SA 3.0


Fearing a further erosion of support, the KPD shifted away from the ‘theory of the offensive’ towards a ‘united front’ policy seeking inter-left solidarity. The two years between 1921-23 and a brief moment in 1926 saw the golden period of cooperation between the members of the communists and social democrats. This realignment was in part to increase their support but also a response to the increasing threat of right-wing terror, as paramilitary groups like the Organisation Consul assassinated over 350 opponents in the early Weimar period. Their 1922 murder of foreign minister Walter Rathenau prompted seething outrage and mobilisation of millions of republicans and leftists who rallied throughout Germany to condemn the violence. The KPD led a push to unite with the SPD and USPD to protect the republic against rightist terror, which was labeled the ‘Berlin Agreement’. Furthermore, the KPD was able to influence many SPD members to support the 1926 referendum to expropriate the nobilities’ land without compensation (reminiscent of the contemporary Deutsche Wohnung enteignen campaign). The SPD leadership were sceptical, but were pushed to support the movement by the popularity of the idea with their supporters. The referendum gathered 14.5 million votes but fell a few million votes short of succeeding. This initiative and the Berlin Agreement demonstrated that even after the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, a policy of inter-left cooperation was effective at mobilising for common goals and against shared enemies. Unfortunately, this was a brief phase and changes within the Communist Party would undermine further coalitions.

1924 -25 The rise of ‘Social Facism’

The Communist Party of Germany was born in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and as such, was always heavily influenced and funded by the Soviet Union. With Lenin’s death in 1924, however, it increasingly came under the iron grip of Joseph Stalin. The Comintern had always encouraged world revolution, but was transformed into a tool for Soviet Union foreign policy goals. From 1925, Stalin was concerned with the Weimar Republic’s financial reliance and closer ties with the capitalist West. He purged intellectuals from the ‘right’ faction of the KPD who proposed solidarity with the SPD in favor of leaders who would shift course with Stalin’s whims. The former dock worker turned firebrand communist organiser, Ernst Thälmann was such a man.

Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.
Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. | CC BY-SA 3.0


Thälmann became party secretary in 1925, and hardened the rhetoric against the SPD who he labeled ‘social fascists’ at every opportunity. He took his cues from the Comintern’s 1924 assertion that: ‘fascism and social democracy are two sides of the same instrument of big capitalist dictatorship’. This was more than a rhetorical shift. In the 1925 second Presidential Election (following the death of Friedrich Ebert), the pro-Weimar Parties decided to unite behind the Christian Centre candidate Wilhelm Marx against the rightist monarchist, general Paul von Hindenburg. The right faction within the KPD counseled that they should not run a candidate in order to not split the left wing vote. However Thälmann overruled them and decided to stand for election, winning 2 million votes. Wilhelm Marx was therefore denied the KPD support, and lost to Hindenburg by a margin of 750,000 votes. Thälmann’s equivalence between social democracy and fascism meant that he did not see the danger in handing the Weimar Presidency to a militarist who would eventually give the keys of power to Adolf Hitler.

1929 – 1933 NSDAP Rising: The approaching storm

As the storm of Great Depression would begin to sink the Weimar Republic, and the monster of National Socialists (NSDAP) would emerge, and the divisions within the left would deepen. The NSDAP made a sudden re-entry into politics in the 1930 elections when they took 18% of the vote and from then on they would (almost) always increase this share. Their popularity led to thousands joining their SA militia as they sought battle with their enemies on the left. Ernst Thälmann was energised by the street battles against the Nazis on one hand, whilst on the other sharing their aims of bringing down the Weimar Republic. They formed a voting block with the NSDAP to bring down the SPD Prussian state government and a motion of no confidence against Heinrich Brüning, two decisions that greatly favored the Nazis. Thälmann assumed that the Nazi toppling of the republic would usher his party to power. As he said in 1932: “Hitler must come to power first, then the requirements for a revolutionary crisis [will] arrive more quickly.” It was comments like this that led some in the SPD to treat communists and Nazis with equivalence. Leader Otto Wels declared in 1931 “Bolshevism and fascism are brothers. They are based upon violence, upon dictatorship, even if they may still appear socialist and radical.” The SPD attempted to thwart the Nazis by working with any democratic parties in the Reichstag, but as more anti-republicans were elected, their choice of potential allies declined. This led to the strange proposition of supporting the candidacy of Hindenburg (the lesser evil) against Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. Intransigence on both sides meant concentrating on the wrong foe, all while the right grew in strength.

Weimar Republic Presidential Elections of 1932
Presidential Elections of 1932 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13355 / CC-BY-SA 3.0


With the depression worsening in 1932 and the system fraying under an endless round of elections, the left had one last chance to resist before their destruction. An ‘Urgent Call for Unity’ was demanded in a letter by public intellectuals including prominent artist Käthe Kollwitz, and writer Heinrich Mann calling for a ‘united front’ within the KPD and SPD. Communists from outside the Comintern supported this view, such as exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who called for ‘a comprehensive and systematic general offensive’, asserting that Thälmann’s ‘united front from below’ (grassroots action with SPD voters but not the party) was not enough to resist fascism. Within the SPD, there was growing panic with the situation. Friedrich Stampfer, a member of the executive committee and previous anti-communist, began to advocate for a common front. He attempted to go straight to the source of political power and carry out negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Chintschuk, aiming to normalize relations with the KPD. However they came to nought. There was one massive roadblock preventing a final, last ditch defense against Fascism; the intransigence of Joseph Stalin. According to historian Robert C. Tucker, Stalin viewed the SPD’s foreign policy preference for Britain and France as a larger threat to the Soviet Union than a potential fascist Germany. He was the architect of the KPD’s aloofness to an alliance. This decision would be a massive blunder in the short term, with the complete annihilation of the KPD, and in the medium term, when Hiter’s armies came close to doing the same to the Soviet Union. When Thälmann finally opened his eyes to the threat of fascism it was too late. KPD leadership penned an open letter to mobilise with the SPD on the 27th of February 1933. The next day the Reichstag would burn and within a week the majority of these men would be in concentration camps or exile.

The strength of the Fascist movement in the 1930s was such that their eventual victory even at the time seemed inevitable. Inter-left solidarity was a slim hope but it was all they had. The leadership of the SPD can be held mostly responsible for turning a factional rivalry into a heated feud, when they provoked and then violently ended the Spartacist uprising. It was the influence of the Comintern on the KPD, however, which made any practical healing of this rift impossible. Stalin made a calculated trade-off; destroy the Capitalist Weimar Republic in exchange for sacrificing the KPD to the nascent Nazi state. There are contemporary parallels that can be drawn from this sorry history. We live in an age of growing authoritarianism and unprecedented economic and ecological challenges and yet building political coalitions has rarely been more elusive. An intensive focus on personal and ideological differences often means we are unable to see common goals and combat mutual threats. The communist and social democrat rivalry is one of the many examples of just how ruinous this can be.


Campbell Bews

This Berlin Long Read was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.

Visit his profile using the link about to learn more about him and the tours he offers.



Bois, Marcel ‘March separately, but strike together!’ the communist party’s united-front policy in the Weimar Republic

Boes, Tobias.Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

Broue, Piere The German Revolution 1917 -23

Hett, Benjamin Carter The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

Lemmons, Russel Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory Hardcover – Illustrated, March 1, 2013

Smaldone, William Confronting Hitler: German Social Democrats in Defense of the Weimar Republic

Tucker, Robert C, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941

Berlin Long Reads | Cancelling Hitler: The Importance of Myths & Symbolism in Historical Change

In the first of our 2021 Berlin Long Reads, tour guide, archaeologist and Berlin Guides Association member Nick Jackson examines the role of myth and symbols in the context of Germany after denazification and reunification. 

Watch ‘Rediscovering Berlin’s Nazi Eagles’ – a 7-minute film by Nick Jackson, made to accompany this article.

Words have consequences.

One chronicler of darkest German history was Victor Klemperer. He starts his diaries, covering his life as a German Jew during the Third Reich, with the simple yet powerful idea of ‘bearing witness’.

At the time of Klemperer’s writing, this phrase captured the fear of the direction his world was taking, fear that his commentary was too dangerous to be shared with others. Half-way through he begins to write ‘Third Reich’ in Latin, perhaps to smudge any casual visibility. One can sense he fears that no-one will hear, fears that no-one would remember, and he fears for his life.

Klemperer also collated the new vocabulary seeping into everyday language during the Nazi period: grim phrases like ‘racial defiler’ or ‘sub-human’ as well as such new constructions as ‘fanatical will’, used to exhort belief without understanding. He also noted a new and constant use of superlatives. Klemperer called these ‘American’.

To him these were signals of a world that, if only as a linguist, he found new. He even pondered writing a separate work on these new words. They described a world he became mortally afraid of.

Language is a living thing, it does nothing but change as the world changes, sloughing the use of old words and adopting new ones on the whims of fashion. This is why the people of the UK now go to a ‘store’ or ‘pharmacy’ rather than a ‘shop’ or a ‘chemist’ or why, on the day after the UK voted for Brexit, a mainstream German TV news channel report had a studio background bearing a single word: ‘Fuck!’.

This change can be beneficial, but not always. There can come moments when we fail to understand a new world. For example, today’s newspapers carry a picture of renowned Fox News host Tucker Carlson captioned, ‘Profound change is taking place in our society’. Tucker thinks these changes are bad.

Another author, Christopher Isherwood, writing of his life and experiences in 1920s Berlin, claimed he acted as ‘a camera’. For the purposes of this article, I suggest we affix a powerful lens to our ‘camera’. This will give us an ability to observe space-time well beyond Isherwood’s mere cluster of years, and allow us to zoom out and scope decades, centuries, and beyond.

This will enable us to examine the main points of this piece. What is ‘history’, how is it created, and how does it change? Additionally, we will examine our work as guides, and the importance of what we do.

I also want to focus on some reminders of the history of the Third Reich still in Berlin, specifically Nazi-period eagle symbols, and to ponder if deliberate ‘cancellation’, i.e. ‘denazification’; the removal of reminders of history as an attempt to control and create a new future in post-war Germany, was a success or a good idea.

Like Klemperer, perhaps we too have the sense that today our world is changing, and raise an eyebrow at ‘newspeak’. No doubt future online ‘listicles’ (unquestionably approved by Word grammar & spell check) will give us a rundown. The following will surely be shortlisted and characterise the recent past:

  • Fake news
  • Brexit
  • Woke
  • Doom-scrolling
  • Cancel culture
  • QAnon
  • Smooth transition of power

Let’s bring that last phrase back to today’s Berlin as an example.


Merkel be with you, and also with you…

Angela Merkel will step down as chancellor in autumn 2021. A new chairperson of her party has already been chosen. Other figures will challenge to become the candidate to take the most powerful position in the land. Political elites, other estates, and voters will lumber into a future and change the make-up of the government. They will do this without violence, and the result will become the established norm.

This is called democracy. But also, history.

On the leafy shores of Berlin’s urban lake oases, possibly still socially-distanced middle-aged German adults will discuss these developments, the recent past, the present, and the future. There is now a new, finite chunk of history – the Merkel years. They can discuss to and fro, depending on how much they remember of it. But they will all silently acknowledge that it happened. They were there, it’s part of their lives.

When we have conversations of this sort, we are discussing 16 years of ‘history’: Simply all the events, people, success, failures etc. of that period. When we debate any positive or negative elements, we do so in relation to our values systems.

Both of these, history and values (aka political beliefs), are elements of our shared ‘myths’.


Myth happens.

In his book ‘Sapiens’, author Yuval Noah Harari confirms that the cognitive capability of Homo sapiens to create myths is foundational to our global success, specifically complex imaginary social myth structures. We are, as far as we know, the only beast able to express this.

To psychology professor Merlin Donald these myths encompass all things to early modern humans. Everything. The earth, the heavens, the people, animals, plants, all events, and all past places visited. Faith in, and an understanding and common acceptance of, these myths permit folks to cooperate together, thrive and survive.

Myths become curated memory and create ‘culture’. As time moves on, the data of this culture is remembered as ‘history’, and that history changes.

Creating ‘Mythic culture’ was a world changer. Our ability to create it started some 100,000 years ago. Later, towards the middle of the pre-pottery Neolithic period (ca.10th millennium BCE), ‘myths’ embodied, for the first time, a unified, complex modelling of the universe, a ‘tangle’ of memories, cause and explanation, prediction and therefore control.

Developing and absorbing these myths placed every aspect of Neolithic group life in relation to and in connection with them. It was this ability that saw ‘mythic groups’ coalesce, cooperate, adapt, and survive as the world around them changed, and they relative to it. It is why humans dominate the globe.

These ‘myths’ are not narrative stories as such. Myth is a manifestation of complex neurological database capabilities (synthesising most importantly memory and language) creating a world by working together, always and instantly.

Many millennia before the slow evolution of the Mythic mind, hominids had initially developed an ‘episodic’ cognitive capability. This bestowed a conscious sense of moment, and a sense of self within that moment, before it melted into another. Much later came the second stage, what’s now termed a ‘mimetic’ cognitive capability. This Mimetic culture was an ability to impart types of information at will through enhanced memory capabilities and more complex language skills, mime, facial expressions, pointing etc.

Hominids could now remember it, think it and convey it, or even teach it – like a game of evolutionary charades. Through this they could create and express more complex and useful models and social relationships (for example co-ordinated hunting strategies or indications of danger).

Then came the third leap, a Mythic culture, something else entirely. It describes through language, it remembers, it pictures, it predicts, it ‘measures’, and creates place and time. It speaks of all things that were, are, and could be, instantly connected in the hominid brain to one endless moment.

Myth creates our social (and religious) norms and governs the collective mind.

The myth is that upon which we base our identity, scattered historical fact to be sure, but
it is ‘imagined’. Our past is a memory, the present and tomorrow entirely unpredictable. All we can do is adapt now, from what went before. This gives the appearance of structure, with a dangerous possibility of introducing ‘lies’.

Telling, drumming, singing, chanting, acting out, and believing and enforcing these myths was powerful. So was dropping out of and reforming the model, changing and developing the myth. This process might have contributed to the eventual 6th M BCE collapse of most complex Neolithic communities in the Near East for example.

Importantly, these three brain capabilities did not replace each other as time passed, they connected and co-operated in harmony and still make up our cognitive process today.


A clash of symbols.

A further evolutionary step for Mythic minded sapiens is new. It’s basically now. The fourth leap would be to produce symbols that encompass, simply, ever more complex ideas within our ever-developing myth. This has been part of our world for the last, say, 45,000 years.

For example; abstract figures carved into Neolithic stone stele are simple in design and meaningful to those who gathered there (but practically unknowable to us). These symbols have a lot in common with the words I type on this keyboard ‘just’ 12,000 years later.

They are both sets of external (exogenous) symbols, depicting myth data intelligible to the group sharing my cultural mythology. Those on the same team. This development is causing humankind problems today.


Telling Tales.

The idea of a myth & symbol creating our team-world is perhaps hard to digest. So, imagine this, it might be familiar:

What remains of symbols after denazification. Photo by Berlin tour guide Nick Jackson.
Berlin Nazi Eagle #17 | Watch the accompanying film ‘Rediscovering Berlin’s Nazi Eagles

Take this picture, add in the removed swastika symbol, and imagine trying to explain the full myth meaning of this, broadly known as ‘The Third Reich’, to someone who has little or no idea what it signifies. Perhaps an alien, or the average teenager. Many understand what it basically represents quickly and silently – but to explain it reinforces its depth, detail, and its true power as a symbol, and how much myth data one needs to grasp it fully, not just superficially.

Maybe you could conclude this lesson with a reference to the fact that the eagle is still the symbol of Germany, using pictures to reinforce a comparison between eagles – how they changed along with the history that connected them. Use the picture below from today’s Reichstag Parliament.

They eagle remains a symbol of Germany after denazification
The eagle at today’s Bundestag

This is why our job as guides is important. We can do this. There are few who can deconstruct and add meaning to a symbol like this. We can build the picture, connect it to the very ground where it happened, and link it to the present. No mean skill. We remember the details. We are ‘mobile myth merchants‘, and as we shall see, important at a time of historical change.


Past Myth Takes.

Our world today is still set in frameworks of our myth history.

Think of the number of World War II references made publicly today in the UK. Recently a government minister compared ignoring Covid social distancing rules to abuses of the ‘black-out’ during the Blitz bombing of the UK in 1940/41. This period is deeply infused in many a UK identity, elements were a just, fine, and memorable hour. It is a significant part of the founding myth of contemporary ‘England’.

But this myth is crumbling and has lost relevance. A recent survey of UK students showed that when asked who Winston Churchill was, many thought he was the first man on the moon. And that was those who knew the name.

So, a crunch might come when populations become ignorant of the basic details of their myths and, when put under pressure, they fail to understand the world. When presented with an alternative future version, they lack the context to navigate misinformation masquerading as knowledge wisely.

Myth without detail is easy to absorb – like Klemperer’s above reference to ‘fanatical will’- believing without understanding.

Imagine a certain segment of rural, uneducated, blue collar US voters and how they feel, and what they think now, today, as you are reading this. Or Brexiteers (interesting – MS Word doesn’t approve of this one), or indeed pensioners from former East Germany.

Let’s examine cultural myth re-forming as a process as one world dies and another begins. It could be argued we are in such a phase now.

A myth replacement process is how broad historical change takes place. Evidence of this process can be seen in the Brandenburg an der Havel museum.

Around the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, from the metal-bearing regions of southwest Europe – Portugal and Spain – spread a cultural package that covered nearly all of what is now the EU.

A set of artefacts – distinctive ceramic types, jewellery, stone axes – becomes prevalent over a vast area. Most significantly, cremation replaces burial of the dead, an enormous spiritual and ritual change. Groups have adopted a new myth and the package that goes with it. There is a new union, all over.

Until the 1960s, this cultural spread was thought to have been the result of migrations, of ‘peoples’ moving and spreading this culture, from Spain to Ukraine, from Italy to Ireland. Though some modern DNA evidence does support perhaps small groups of men (perhaps travelling groups of skilled metal workers) moving through the regions, it seems it was more likely a post-contact adoption of what must have been an attractive, powerful, new cultural and economic package. The ‘myth’ is responsible for the spread and adoption of these materials and beliefs.

If today you sport a fake Louis Vuitton man-bag, or even wears jeans, you are participating in a similar process.

History shows us that this process can lead to violence. Deviation today from accepted myth norms provokes anger and conflict in its attempt to ‘correct’ ((Berlin, where riding your bike the wrong way or crossing the road against the lights could often can lead to verbal abuse from grumpy strangers, is a prime spot to experience trivial examples of this first hand). A more serious example might be some EU populations’ reaction to the refugee crisis of recent years.

The driver for a violent myth shift is often economic based (sometimes a result of innovation, perhaps positive in the long term) and environmental stress.

The collapse of late 2nd millennium BCE cultures over the entire Mediterranean zone in a couple of centuries is a significant example.

In two centuries, from ca.1250 BCE, the long-established Bronze Age Mediterranean states disintegrated. This catastrophe seems to have been the result of a combination of drought and a series of earthquakes, leading to a famine that precipitated huge social strife and system breakdowns in the western Mediterranean, and unleashed mass movements of people eastwards, destroying the old and forming a profoundly new world.

And economics. Bronze, or combined copper and tin, was the ‘oil’ of the 2nd millennium BCE economy. Control of its sources, processing, and distribution had underpinned the sophisticated Bronze Age state’s trade, diplomacy, and stability. Now it was slowly replaced by Iron.

If you can make a product of value from material that’s found easily, everywhere, and it’s transportable and tradable by a few folks below the radar of the governing elite’s control – then it’s over: Goodbye forever Hittites, farewell new kingdom Egypt, ciao for now Canaanites.

And new forceful myth makers arrive: say hello to Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, Philistines and proto-democratic Greece.

And even ‘us’. Chunks of the Old Testament, the Iliad, and the golden age of Greece, Rome and the New Testament have their roots here, and are ultimately still in our myth world (especially our language and value system) today.

A terrifying contemporary version of this episode is/will be climate change-induced systems collapse, resource conflict and mass migration, green energy economies reducing demand for petroleum products, a healthcare improvement induced shift in the working/retirement age demographic balance, inflation, and unemployment caused by the spread of automation and AI (or as alternative myth makers might say today ‘foreigners taking our jobs’). This is already causing the collapse of our myth world.


Cancelling Hitler.

So, if we recognise all this, then what to do? Can one create a new successful myth out of necessity? How can we ensure the inevitable birth of a new myth is healthy, painless and benign?

Of essential importance is the integrity of the pushers of a new myth. Merkel’s replacements will assume powerful positions within cultural norms and probably do so without resorting to violence and ‘big’ lies.

Sometimes the new group is less scrupulous. Like the Nazis. This brings us to the example of the twelve years of the Third Reich.

In 27 years Germany experienced:

  • The collapse of one old, familiar world, revolution, and the beginning of another interim world (1919 – 33)
  • The perceived failure of the interim world, replaced by a seductive, simple and powerful myth, full of lies and presented violently (1923 – 33)
  • The purveyors of this myth using violence to reinforce it (1920 – 45)
  • Large scale popular adoption of its tenets (1932 – 45)
  • Myth failure and termination (1943 – 45)
  • Denazification

Denazification was an attempt to remove reminders of an old regime and construct a new and better world. In Berlin and Germany, the myth framework was deliberately overhauled and replaced, eventually creating a successful contemporary Germany. But is that really what happened?

Even today, this process is often still held up as a success. Take, for example, the second Gulf War. Regime change in Iraq can have a positive outlook, we were told, look at what was done in Germany after World War II.

Opponents of today’s modern ‘cancel culture’ movements advocating the removal of statues of slave owners etc. say it’s tantamount to ‘removing history’, and that’s bad. The response often refers to the denazification of Germany and how the removal of reminders of the Nazis leads to a peaceful myth re-launch creating today’s Germany.

So, is removal good or counter-productive? Can a new myth – in this case democracy and a law-based state structure be imposed for the greater good? Is this what happened during the denazification process?

Up to a point.

Broadly, the process of denazification was haphazard and badly organized from the start. Millions of Germans and their autobiographical interviews and paperwork had to be processed, in a language spoken by few of the disinterested folks in charge.

During the initial post-war years, with subsequent major policy shifts in 1951, the main thrust of the victors was to shun, shame, strip, and punish Germany. There was a ban on fraternization between occupiers and locals, for which hundreds of occupying troops were punished.

Those as yet unprocessed were refused employment. Factories were dismantled. Millions of Germans, basically indifferent to the Nazi regime, who could have helped in a relaunch of Germany (at least the western sectors), remained idle. There was a ban on the sharing of materials, from food to machinery. There was no money.

But didn’t denazification fund, rebuild, and re-educate the West German population, thereby helping to form today’s Germany?


As the realisation dawned that policies of punishment were failing, and minds shifted to containment of Soviet expansion, there was the introduction of a new currency in 1947/8. The Marshall Plan meant the investment a huge amount of money, but there was a whole free world for it to support – perhaps we forget that France, Britain, and others received Marshall Plan funding too. West Germans got 24 bucks a head.

It helped, but perhaps what helped more was the abandonment of the policy of funding the occupation through property seizures, the requisition of raw material, and punitive industrial shutdowns.

So, did denazification at least produce a new, future myth foundation upon which today’s democratic Germany was built? The Nazi regime had ‘educated’ a generation of Germans. Did they fully absorb the myth, and carry it for the rest of their lives?

Surveys carried out in the initial post-war years did show some tricky results. In 1945, 42% of German youth thought a ‘strong leader’ would be the best option to organize the future beyond defeat. In 1946 over 30% of Germans thought Holocaust killing had been ‘necessary’ for the security of the country.

By the 1960/70s these opinions had changed for the better. So, the new education efforts, economic programs, and provision of material benefits worked?

Educational literature from the Nazi period was withdrawn and banned, publications pulped. Pre-war textbooks were reintroduced. But those rebuilding the ‘new’ post-war German myth weren’t at school. The new generations who benefitted from a balanced education did so under their own leadership. It was later myth makers, younger generations, that examined, questioned, disagreed with, condemned, and recast elements of the ‘German’ myth in the 1960s.

By 1951 denazification had been broadly abandoned as unproductive. West Germany had its own democratic government in place. The policy was recognised as being counterproductive on many levels, and produced a feeling of persecution. This would unfortunately cheapen the official position on those who had worked in an official capacity during the Nazi period.

Those responsible for Nazi crimes would be prosecuted, but ‘followers’ and ‘lesser offenders’, categories 4 and 3 on the denazification forms (the worst being 1), now had their rights restored, and played a post-war role in all capacities.

So, by what process did the new German myth emerge? Did denazification make Germany ‘ready for democracy’? No. Germany was already ready. They had a pre-WWII tradition of peaceful politics. They had retained the myth details.

Was it hard to convince adults that the twelve years of the Nazi period had been disastrous, that they had committed unspeakable crimes, had left millions dead and reduced their country to physical rubble and political insignificance?

No, one had just to look around Berlin, anywhere in Berlin. Of course, the post-war removal of swastikas and other symbols didn’t hurt, but it was the obvious evidence of disaster in Berlin after the war that would help convince folks of the failure and destructiveness of the Nazi regime, too.

The party with the longest hold on power in West Germany (CDU) was re-formed and had already produced a party program a couple of weeks before Allied troops had conquered Germany. What denazification did achieve was to focus on how far the Nazis had strayed from civilised behaviour and to help inform the main points of the German constitution, the Basic Law, still in force today. It also reinforced the study of the period as a mainstay of educational curricula, and the ongoing nationwide construction of memorials. This dialog was crucial.

The wholesale abandonment of elements of one, albeit short-lived myth and the adoption, or re-adoption, of a familiar other happened organically and domestically. They just remembered an earlier myth framework, and then struggled with the guilt and shame of having done what they knew to be wrong, under the pressure of the myth lords that took responsibility for them. Those that remembered the pre-Nazi period, and other untainted experts were consulted. This is important.


Legal Eagles.

This piece began with the premise that cognitive evolution produced first episodic, then mimetic, and finally mythic hominid minds, which combined and wove memory into ‘culture’ and that culture’s data into ‘history’. Our three main cognitive capabilities are still with us:

When we are just ‘daydreaming’ today we still experience an ‘episodic’ world – it just is, and we are in it, we know that, and when it is so, this mind type is dominant.
When we participate in a mass gathering, a demonstration, or a religious or political event, the mimetic mind is dominant, pulling together memories and connecting them with a pale comprehension, like an individual cheering in a crowd. This can be dangerous.
But a debate, a conversation, or discussion adds a complex language component and the mythic mind is dominant for that period, connecting all three minds together.

We saw how major ancient historical and cultural change was created by myth adoption, re-working, and abandonment, and how, during later period examples, the behaviour and integrity of those offering attractive new myths was crucial.


Because great change is often precipitated in times of economic and environmental stress, and that stress can unleash horror if the new myth makers use violence, including simply violent language.

There always comes a time when people start to doubt their myth or lack the knowledge necessary to plot a path forward. Today is not the first-time folks have seen the same events or data and doubted, or disagreed about, what they have just witnessed. But now, with new media to broadcast their ideas, perhaps the individual has never had as much power, or as loud a voice to change the world.

Is this good?

The answer is, again, not really.


Mythic East.

A modern take on the Germany's eagle symbol
Sheltered by the protective wings of the smiling eagle.

The new world today is increasingly generated and presented by external data and symbol stores (once a carved symbol on stone – now TVs, computers, your phone, books). This is a continuation of Neolithic period symbol development as an aid to myth expression. But it’s now utterly dominant. The pace of the presented world is dictated often by the machine. This means: If you are born into this world, and have this exposure all your life, it’s likely your ability to shift amongst and combine our three ‘worlds of consciousness’ might go unrecognised.

This is a problem.

Why?  Because the coherence of our myth world is challenged by today’s unlimited corpus of external symbol data.  This process provides new and unlimited imagined options. These might even spark inspiration for future real world developments of humankind – for example movie based realistic depictions of space travel – but it also provides each of us with boundless myth data alternatives to choose from.

Our ability to absorb myths binding us together and give our lives meaning is replaced by fragmented options for each individual, and their significance to bind the group and provide a structure of belonging and traditions that govern the collective is lost.   Today’s unlimited options might give an impression of greater choice but this also contributes to feelings of disorientation.

A good example of how to combat this is the experience of a tour.  The tour combines a narrative ( myth or ‘history’) with symbols to illustrate it – pointing out surviving Third Reich eagles or using photos for example.  Through this process the guide and the guest must harness together all 3 of our cognitive capabilities to participate and establish a narrative they understand and feel part of.

This is basically the process Germany went through post World War II. But that, as they say, was ‘a long time ago’.

So, another perhaps more relevant contributor to our feelings of a ‘new world’ in Berlin and Europe today was the seismic shift of fall of the Berlin Wall and Revolution ’89.

The experience of denazification and its perceived success was held up again as a forerunner of what was also considered to be a bumpy but achievable path to German unification in the 1990s.

But it didn’t work out like that. The resulting societal fractures in former East Germany, even now, contribute to a sceptical approach to the State with real world consequences.

Disengagement, conspiracy, anger & violence, the shifting of regional mass political support to young political movements with a ‘new’ message, reminiscent as echoes from some of the dark ‘myths’ of the recent German past, perhaps stem from a miscalculation in the process of ‘de-East Germanification’.

What was the difference between denazification and the mechanics of 1990s unification? Was the presentation of a rosy new future, the re-education process, the start-up money etc. not similar? Yes, but there was a crucial difference, and again, it revolved around the German eagle symbol.

During the 1989 demonstrations in east Germany the protesters chanted ‘we are the people’. They still shared a common myth. They were a team. Then the chant changed to ‘we are one people’, a reference to a future unification. This came to pass. Flags were waved, tears were shed, the national community – the two peoples – were one.

And that was the mistake.

One of those two teams – East Germans – dissolved. Unification was ultimately the goal and what they desired, but what didn’t survive the transition was their myth world. None of it was recognised, discussed and/or absorbed into the new German framework. As the new world dawned in the ‘90s, former east Germans found themselves adrift, members of the national community, but with no digestible myth to support and to give them a sense of place in their new country.

In their haste, West Germany had not wanted to dissect East German life and absorb the bits half the country liked or that might be still viable. They just waved the flag. Success! We are all under the protective wings of the eagle once more. They forgot the details and the debate that connect our 3 minds together. This was the opposite of the post-war West German experience, they had nothing but the details to work with. Generations of Easterners will feel the resulting void for the rest of their lives.

Again, this example reinforces the importance of our guiding job. We curate the past, we bring it into a world of language and discussion, activating memories to give it meaning.

A visit to any major city may take in an historical tour or visit a museum. The latter are mechanisms whereby a ‘state’ preserves memory, its culture and history. Seeing ‘things’ is a powerful cue for memory. The memories that fill museums are conceptual, bringing home the meaning of the collection, the myth.

Our tours in Berlin generally include memorials that attempt to function in roughly the same way. Our tours themselves are more personal and semantic in content, and play an important role, too. This is the detail behind the myth, exactly the process the individual needs to comprehend a world produced by external data and symbol generators.

For this we need surviving relics of the past. Our job cannot be done as easily if they are ‘cancelled’, or what will we mobile myth merchants do?

To conclude – the idea of myth world change is not new, nor is it inherently bad. German women no longer need their husband’s permission to work, we wear car seat belts, children with the flu are not dosed with Heroin. But the danger is there. The exploitation of the uninformed by the powerful using broad emotive symbols and myth without memory and detail, particularly in times of stress, can lead to a rhyming today with the dark poetry of the past, and the clock striking 13.

Acknowledging the workings of our ‘mythic minds’ and making use of the work we do as tour guides can help defend against this.

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Nick Jackson. A professional archaeologist 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. Visit Nick’s profile to get in touch with him, or visit for more information.

Read Nick’s other Berlin Long Read: Visions of Germania.

Berlin Long Reads | The Dual Traces of Cold War Berlin

The West Berlin Congress Hall
The West Berlin Congress Hall by Hugh Stubbins/Photo by Caroline Marburger

Only three decades in, the Cold War is not a historical time that the wider public or historians have been able to fully understand, at least not yet.

For me, the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and German reunification were the reasons why, ten years after the wall came down and fresh out of high school, I desperately wanted to study history right in this city’s heart. And twenty years in, I surely know a lot more about Berlin than I did back then, yet still remain transfixed on the era and its grand narratives.

A little reservation is without doubt warranted when approaching this period: acknowledging that our views of the Cold War era are still limited and still partially informed by the biases that ideological conflict imposed on the world is necessary. The historical analysis on this era has developed, since 1990, beyond the simple binary sense of good and evil. We are no longer entrenched in the Cold War perspective of the opponent as the enemy, fully demonizing either the United States or the Soviet Union, and the Capitalist or Communist worldview. Depicting either West Germany as little more than a capitalist, corporate, profit-oriented ‘firm’ or East Germany as a cold, grey, joyless prison is no longer acceptable.

Although neither of these extreme views simply crumbled along with the Soviet system. An informed, balanced, and deep knowledge of the other side did not simply drop into either opponent’s lap. Having been ‘othered’ for decades, and largely left as unchartered territory for unbiased research, a serious reassessment of popular understanding has been necessary. Perspectives have been hugely widened and multiplied. Archive access, while not complete on either side, has changed our understanding massively and now allows for more balanced views. Yet, as a rule of thumb, double checking ourselves and what effect our Western or Eastern background might have on our understanding is not a bad idea when approaching the legacies of this era.

Cold War Historiography and Entangled Perspectives

Cafe Moscow on Karl Marx Allee
Cafe Moscow on Karl Marx Allee/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The most commonly held view with regards to the Cold War is, understandably, that the West won and democracy, freedom and free market capitalism have triumphed over socialist dictatorship and planned state economies. The former, hence, has taken the place of the latter.

As a result, visitors to Berlin – from the West, and younger generations, particularly – will wish to go see the ruins of the system which has disappeared and the structures which have become irrelevant since: the Berlin Wall and any now defunct insignia which the socialist regime left behind. Sites once run by the East German secret police, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS or Stasi), such as the Hohenschönhausen prison and the Stasi headquarters, now memorial sites and a museum, are further proof of the socialist regime’s lack of humanity. And, yes, those are common sites of a Cold War tour. How the system of suppression in East Germany worked and eventually failed is a fascinating story to tell and hear.

There is nothing wrong with this story of how democracy and freedom prevailed. It is a beautiful story to tell and hear. It reminds visitors what kind of gift, inspiration, and challenge being free from suppression can be. Yet, at the same time, even when visiting these sites, it can become apparent that there are many flaws and limitations the perspective of a simple ‘victory of the West’ has. This simplistic narrative leaves us prone to overlook the importance and agency of East Germans or the states and people of Eastern Europe in eroding the socialist system from within – and that goes beyond just the popular dissidents. To limit their resistance to just embracing the ideals set forth by the West would be misleading and belittle their contributions.

This is just one indicator of how memories of the Cold War are often conflicted, simplistic, and tend to take the other side out of the equation. As culture and politics are heavily intertwined, we can see how perspectives on the Cold War have changed over time and where we might be now.

In the early years of the conflict, authors like John le Carré and Ian Fleming (responsible for the James Bond series) reinforced the ideological hostility. The other side was portrayed as a dangerous subversion which had to be stopped at all costs.

From the 1970s, the détente spread and the morality of either side was portrayed as less in doubt. The plots in television and movies became more complex and abandoned cliché-ridden oversimplifications. And while a more entangled view has surfaced in more recent popular fiction such as Bridge of Spies, Weissensee, or Deutschland ’83 – which all tell us that story in an entertaining and thoughtful way – some of that entanglement is far more visible than the popular focus on the intelligence community and espionage lets us think.

Without relativizing the difference between dictatorship and democracy, emerging research is redefining the conflict as an interaction promoted by both sides. The Cold War was a confrontation of two opposing systems in which neither moved without considering, observing and suspecting the other.

It is, for example, enshrined in both East and West Berlin’s cityscape and post-war architecture. It has taken more than 20 years since German reunification in 1990 to see East and West Berlin’s urban development in terms of each side’s particular historical logic and their reciprocal/confrontational ideological roots – now subsumed under the catchphrase “Dual Berlin”.

A Microcosm Of The Cold War : A Dual Architectural Legacy

The Oskar-Niemeye-Haus in the West Berlin Hansaviertel
The Interbau Contribution by Oscar Niemeyer in the Hansaviertel/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The formerly divided German capital is a microcosm of this past global conflict. As architectural historian Simone Hain has said: “Berlin presents the lines of 20th century history like the lifeline in an open palm”.

To follow and understand the subtle lines in this outstretched hand requires little esoteric knowledge, but can be accomplished with open eyes, good shoes, and interest. As Berlin was one city split in two by the Cold War, nowhere else can you better try to explore and do justice to the multidimensional and interactive nature of the East-West conflict – the duality of the era – than within the confines of this city’s present day limits. Although still out there, the remains and scars of the Cold War era are less visible than a lifeline in a palm; as preservation and maintenance of these traces has, in many instances, taken second place to intentional removal or neglect.

The Cold War era entities of West Berlin and East Berlin ceased to exist, at least politically, in October 1990. The Berlin Wall, which entirely surrounded West Berlin, was dismantled almost completely by November 1991. However, as the popular catchphrase “the wall in our heads” (Die Mauer im Kopf), signifying the persistence of a division where one no longer officially exists, illustrates, these two separate entities have not yet fully merged.

Profound East-West differences, mutual prejudices and different mentalities are still discussed widely, 30 years following reunification. Physically, neither part of town was fully erased. West Berlin’s cityscape remained basically unaffected by this momentous change in 1990 – while the Wall was being dismantled, life continued as per usual in the city’s western districts. Soon, however, West Berlin would take a back seat as the hip Eastern districts of the city, which would play a central role in turning the Berlin of the 1990s and 2000s into a fascinating, somewhat different European metropolis, were developed.

In the East, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the centre of East Berlin, was demolished in 1996, eventually deconstruction of the Palace of the Republic on Museum Island would begin in 2004. Both now largely forgotten and replaced by reconstructions of their historical predecessors. It has been asserted that the 1990s saw much public debate about the urban expression of Berlin’s histories but that the Cold War era and its architectural remains never registered as yet another significant layer in Berlin’s historical formation. Unofficial memory activists would publicly question that view, however, and due to them at least the Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), the Wall Path (Mauerweg), and few other sites are now firmly established in Berlin’s cityscape and memory culture.

With the popular gaze of the Cold War period firmly fixed on matters of espionage and repression – visitors may feel at a loss to grasp the everyday aspects of Berlin’s division beyond border controls and surveillance in the East. But the traces of everyday life and the ideological aspirations of the competing states remain, in both the East and West. Particularly in the form of architecture – its utility, purpose, and meaning.

The devastation the Second World War brought to Berlin meant that, in 1945 – beyond food – one of the most pressing needs on both sides of this growing ideological conflict was housing. At least 30% of the city stood in ruin, inner districts fared much worse than those on the outskirts, 75 million cubic metres of rubble needed to be cleared – and Berlin was struggling with the loss of more than a million of its pre-war inhabitants.

How both sides, East and West, would address this issue of housing would be judged an obvious sign of more than simple success or failure – but ideological supremacy.

Two noteworthy urban ensembles, East Berlin‘s Stalinallee (today’s Karl-Marx-Allee and its entrance from Alexanderplatz) and West Berlin’s International Building Exhibition (Interbau) of 1957, with its buildings particularly around the Hansaviertel, are a perfect example of what have been called “thinking and acting on lines of political as well as aesthetic confrontation”.

Shared Traditions And Post-War Beginnings

The Berliner Mietkaserne
The Berliner Mietkaserne

After 1945, first Soviet occupiers, then local authorities under joint-Allied administration called upon a collective of eight people, under the leadership of architect Hans Scharoun, to redefine the Cold War cityscape. The members of this ‘collective’ had all been either students of the Technical University Berlin, the Bauhaus in Weimar and/or involved in innovative Berlin housing projects such as Siemensstadt or Onkel Toms Hütte in the Berlin of the interwar years. These modern housing estates, Siemensstadt being in the UNESCO-heritage list today, had been attacked by the Nazis as “parrot housing” at best or “degenerate” at worst. Their colour schemes and modern forms were at odds with the historicist monumentalism favoured by the Nazis.

But with the Nazi regime crushed, Nazi aesthetics now morally obsolete, these architectural ideas of the interwar years, once connected to democracy, openness, and community, won ground again.

One wished to finally disentangle the densely built Berlin of the Wilhelminian era. And war destruction allowed for it in a more radical way than ever imagined.

Berlin’s dominant form of housing, until that time – Industrial Revolution apartment blocks – had been the result of the explosion in the city‘s population in the late 19th century. Back then, the city’s growth had led to an increase in real estate speculation and an incredible building frenzy on the long and narrow land plots the city had been divided into. Berlin’s huge industrial workforce would end up living in precarious circumstances in the backyards of these new buildings, with shops on the ground floor facing the street, and above them beletage apartments for middle class clientele. In the most overpopulated workers’ districts such as Wedding, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain these 5-storey buildings tightly packed against each other in perimeter blocks were referred to as ‘rental barracks’ (Mietskaserne), and Berlin the “biggest rental-barrack-city”.

Today, this mix of classes and functions is considered a rather healthy social make-up and guarantee of an active and pleasant urban environment. In their freshly renovated state these so-called ‘Berliner Altbau‘ apartments, with wooden floors and high ceilings, are considered among the most desirable and charming housing options in the inner city today – especially when located in a nice active Berliner Kiez (neighborhood). But back in the 19th and early 20th century, faced with overpopulation and lacking any of the modern amenities they are now graced with, these apartments presented severe social and hygienic shortcomings. And in the 1950s they were still considered the opposite of charming; and far from desirable.

Many architects saw the right angles of facades, and the lack of light and greenery as part of the social, cultural and political malaise of the past. New vision was necessary.

Looking at the discussions and plans of the immediate post-war years, it is hard not to be struck by the shared zeal and idealism of architects clearly eager to build a democratic society and a new open city on the ruins of the past. The collective’s six men and two women, whose personal relationships often reached back two decades, were committed to the same general ideas: brighten up and greenify the city, pacify residential areas therein from urban stresses, pollution, and overpopulation; and break up the mixture of all urban architectural functions – residence, work, transport, and leisure. A mixture believed to be detrimental to citizens’ quality of life and which Berlin – a “desert of stone” – had grown particularly infamous for.

Uniquely Socialist Architecture? : Stalinallee I

The Weberwiese High Rise by Herman Henselmann
The Weberwiese High Rise by Hermann Henselmann/Photo by Caroline Marburger

As ideas of disentanglement, asymmetry, and residential green areas, famously formulated by Le Corbusier before the war in the ‘Athens Charter’ (1933), were picked up as an obvious cornerstone of Berlin’s building plans – fashionable across Western countries and particularly favoured by the local Social Democrats – unease befell the leadership in the East. Just doing the same did not fit the authorities’ growing self-consciousness as a completely new, revolutionary socialist society.

Shared Allied administration of Berlin would fail spectacularly, and the final split into two irreconcilable German states – the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East – would take place in 1949.

East German party leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered architects to learn from Moscow instead. Soviet thought had labeled, in true ‘othering’ fashion, all the former ideas of a more decentralized, dispersed cityscape as downright ‘Anglo-American’ – which German Bauhaus architecture and Classic Modernism hardly was. Soviet thinkers, also based on experiences with housing estates built in Russian cities by German architects in the 1930s, denounced that style of architecture as being responsible for isolating people from political and public life. The public, its political activity and gathering, it said, had to be given much greater value not only in socialism vis-à-vis capitalism but also its respective architecture, which was particularly intent on using public space in the city differently.

The existing plans that had shown shared backgrounds and styles were rejected and labeled as too standardized and cosmopolitan (see: American). The architects would be accused of not showing appreciation or adaptation of local tradition or outstanding artistry. As a result, the GDR formulated its very own ‘16 Principles of City Development‘ which favoured hierarchical public spaces, wide straight streets, squares fit for mass assemblies, and monumental buildings to catch the eye.

Both states and respective occupation powers claimed their sectors of Berlin for themselves – and would state their Cold War ideological commitment through the style of architecture they would embrace. Not yet physically divided by the Berlin Wall for another decade, the city would become a boxing ring for both sides’ competing ideas, both championing different ways to create societies – and city spaces – most beneficial to the peoples’ well-being. Both set out to prove and show it, right under the nose of their opposing Berlin; the other state; the other political idea.

The former collective’s plans were dismissed. Three out of eight of the architects would become involved in projects in the West, the others remained in the East.

A slightly younger range of architects moved into the prominent positions for creating the new architecture for the socialist capital. While the Soviet demand for, and declaration of, architecture having to be “socialist in form yet national in style” hardly seemed a viable specification for creating palpable architecture, an example of what the Soviet Union intended be built was the new monumental Soviet Embassy which had been towering above the ruins around it on Unter den Linden since 1948.

A shining example of this new socialist style would be the Stalinallee boulevard, set to stretch from Frankfurter Tor towards Alexanderplatz.

Hermann Henselmann, the most prominent of the architects involved in the Stalinallee project in the coming fifteen years, an architect taught within the modernist Bauhaus tradition, built the first, highly acclaimed example of new, socialist architecture in 1951: the 11-level highrise at Weberwiese. His building was praised by former critics as showing the superiority of socialism vis-à-vis the soulless “American-style egg boxes” built in the West. As required, Henselmann said, his design paid tribute to the classicist style of Berlin’s early 19th century starchitect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a reference many of the architects responsible for the monumental architecture built on Stalinallee would pick up on. Greg Castillo, Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, judges the Hochhaus though as “ill-proportioned, poorly laid-out, expensive to build and banal in detailing”, its novelty only celebrated because of political needs at the time. Whatever judgement we cast, the political turmoil of the times definitely gave the building an identity boost, for better or worse.

In addition to classicist references, the grand boulevard would find its stylistic role models across Europe, these ‘workers palaces’ were inspired by noble housing in London and Bath, yet intended to be revolutionary in their social makeup: Stalinallee would be an area intended to showcase magnificent buildings and an impressive boulevard yet at the same time reach new historical heights of providing for the working class. As such, the project bordered on the utopian, but stylistically some criticised it as traditionalist or anti-modernist.

Outer appearances aside, the interiors of the buildings were certainly revolutionary: the buildings under construction on Stalinallee would provide light, spacious apartments, varying in sizes from 1 bedroom studios to 4 bedroom family sized living spaces, all furnished with telephones, intercoms, electrical stoves, heating, parquet floors, and elevator access. So remarkable was all this at the time that Berliners from all over, West Berliners as well, came on Sunday pilgrimages just to see the street with their own eyes.

Another crucial aspect of the undertaking’s public success was that authorities had called on the population to support the reconstruction effort in times of limited funds. Volunteering to clear rubble on the site was, while of great propaganda value for the East German government, quite popular with the people. Eventually, 2,000 flats would be given to those who had volunteered for at least a hundred 3 hour shifts and had received lottery tickets for such involvement or a donation. The first residents to move in arrived in the winter of 1952/53.

As construction workers from all over the country were called to the prestigious building site, there were complaints that other sites having suffered war damage across the country were being neglected. But officially, any dissonant tone was downplayed and it was celebrated as a collective achievement and success, with a propaganda song “Baut auf!/Rebuild!” calling on the youth to build a new future. Based on eyewitness statements, it seems the sentiment resonated with the population at the time. Pupils came after school, workers after their usual work was done, and praised the atmosphere even more than the free theatre tickets or books they received for it.

Possibly an early example of what became known as the IKEA effect decades later: you value more what you have built and helped put together yourself.

A Rupture And Its Entangled Legacies

Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee Facade/Photo by Caroline Marburger
Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee Facade/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The honeymoon period would not last long, however, as this new architecture became the backdrop not for the kind of official mass assembly the East German government had envisaged. But the unofficial gathering of workers intent on expressing their dissatisfaction with state policy – as dissent on the biggest construction site in East Berlin became the spark for the people‘s uprising of June 17th, 1953.

Following Stalin‘s death earlier that year, East German authorities saw the need to strengthen their control, to favour heavy industries at the expense of other industries and further collectivise private property. Rebuilding efforts were to be increased at all costs, particularly at the cost of the people they allegedly served to benefit: 10% more work output was demanded while wages would remain the same.

A drop in living standards that would not win over the population.

These increased work quotas were but one point of contention. The joy and idealism many had felt and experienced on the construction site had dissipated. On June 16th workers constructing a hospital near Stalinallee went on strike, they would be joined by labourers from this showcase boulevard and set out to march on the government headquarters. The crowd grew. The next day, state-wide open protests would take place in over 700 cities and communities, as a million people marched against the state, up until June 21st. Moscow had actually disapproved of the East German government’s action and had strictly called upon it to show restraint and lessen the people’s burden. But faced with mass protests and with the East German government appearing helpless, Soviet tanks would assist in suppressing the uprising.

Six hundred tanks rolled into East Berlin to clear the streets, 15,000 people were imprisoned, 3,000 sentenced and some executed. Tens of thousands fled to the West.

The distance between the government and the people became painfully obvious.

The authorities’ reaction to what would arguably be the biggest threat the East German state faced, until 1989, set the tone for decades to come: fuelling a paranoid expansion of the security police. Officially, the extent of the uprising was downplayed, the event officially brushed under the rug and what could not be denied altogether was retold as a story of mischievous Western infiltration, not a story of people standing up for themselves.

West Berlin quickly responded with Cold War politicking. On June 22nd, the West Berlin Senate decided to rename West Berlin’s prestigious East-West-Axis, which connected Charlottenburg via the Tiergarten central park to Berlin’s historical center, to the ‘Street of June 17th’ (Strasse des 17. Juni). A name the street bears to this day. This central Berlin street fell completely under Western jurisdiction, once widened as part of Hitler and Speer’s Germania project it was not dissimilar in size to Stalinallee, just lacking in residential buildings. This 17th June Street would end at the Brandenburg Gate – and the border with East Germany. Eight years later it would come to a premature end in front of the Berlin Wall, but in 1953 that was not yet the case.

Renaming a central, representative street in West Berlin pointing towards East-Berlin in honour of a date and event the East was in denial about was quite the statement. The fact that before it reaches the Brandenburg Gate, this street passes by one of three huge Soviet War Memorials in the city, an official Soviet enclave in the West, made the name even more meaningful – and confrontational – within the framework of the Cold War.

Uniquely Western Architecture?: Interbau 57 And The Hansaviertel

The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson
The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson/Photo by Caroline Marburger

As life on the construction sites of Stalinallee shifted to a new normal, five kilometres (less than three miles) to the West and only a stone’s throw away from the Street of June 17th, the West Berlin government set in motion its own prestigious and architecturally ambitious construction project. With many of its own inhabitants having flocked to see what was taking form on Stalinallee, the West had to concede it had fallen behind the East in terms of developing the city.

Intent on not only development but also testing out new concepts in terms of social, cultural and ecological ideas, West Berlin decided to revive a peculiar tool of innovation in urban engineering and architecture – introduced in Germany in the early 20th century – a building exhibition. This was not an architectural trade show but an invitation to German and international architects; asking them to produce new forms of architecture to be lived in and to last.

While the East German project in distant Friedrichshain had caught public imagination and created a stir in the West, this project’s location was chosen to be even closer to the sector borders. Hence, it would be easy to reach for potentially curious East Berliners, yet also well-connected to the existent public transport, the S-Bahn, and a new subway line under construction. Yet, build what? Many were not happy with the ideas set forth in the early 1950s and art critic Will Grohmann wistfully recalled of the modernist housing estates which had been built in the 1920s, yet located in more outer districts: “We look almost with envy [at them today…] when we should actually have made progress”.

Stylistically, modernist architecture reminiscent of the architectural ideas of the 1920s would be the key ingredient in the Interbau 57 project. With a certain sense of irony, the Bauhaus architecture school, partially involved in the housing estates Grohmann reminisced about, had previously been sceptically regarded as European modernism with a socialist touch in the United States. But via the teachings and buildings of German emigrés Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and Walter Gropius in Harvard, further catalyzed by American discussions and input in the 1940s and 50s, it was reimported into Berlin now as American Modernism or International Style. An unexpected Cold War reboot. The Soviets too, not unlike Americans at the time, would claim that this architecture represented US culture to the T.

Altogether 53 architects, 19 of whom were from abroad, among them famous architects such as Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, Arne Jacobsen and Le Corbusier, would develop different housing options for the city.

Nearly all of it was built in a central area just north of the Tiergarten Park known as the Hansaviertel. The project would see the construction of highrise, multi-level housing estates and smaller pavillon houses, a library, a cinema and an Academy of Arts. The latter raised it to relevance for cultural activities but otherwise it remained in complete line with the Athens Charter’s plea for differentiating pure residential areas from business, industry, or leisure areas. Obvious reference to the East was made by the West’s Senator of Construction, Karl Mahler, who called for a sharp “contrast to the false pomp of Stalinallee” and Mayor Ernst Reuter (SPD) wished it “to show the population of a poor Eastern bloc that is constantly being bled dry that living in freedom also had its economic benefits”.

Streets lined with buildings were out of the question and the initial design featured structures in a green urban landscape freely scattered “like people having a conversation”. If in its completed form this is noticeable is questionable, at least. A green landscape, though, it is.

What was discussed at the time, welcomed by some, criticized as too cold and stark by others, today lives a niche life in the heart of Berlin.

In-fact mostly residential, neither visitors nor Berliners usually set foot in the area and even architecture aficionados need a second look to see the quarter’s beauty and innovative spirit. But for architecture historians, the Interbau project is constantly referred to as the breakthrough of modernism in West Germany. An important post-war achievement in Germany it was also a sign of the reintegration of German architects into international discourse.

The official American contribution was built about a mile east of the Hansaviertel and therefore much closer to what was the border at the time. Its initiators intended it to be a “beacon on the hill” in West Berlin, a city which became increasingly referred to as the “outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain”. And even if bulldozers could only pull up a tiny elevation; a terrace and considerable illumination would do the rest: the structure was visible from East Berlin, even at night. Architect Hugh Stubbins, former assistant to Walter Gropius in Harvard, was charged with the design of what was agreed to be representative of one of the most important liberties to protect: a Congress Hall for exercising the right of free speech.

In his first designs Stubbins played with flat roofs and half-opened domes. But the form he eventually decided on was a result of the input of his construction engineer, Fred Severud. Severud had been involved in the design of Dorton Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina. As with that structure, the roof of the West Berlin Congress Hall would be a hyperbolic paraboloid. It looks a bit like a saddle from above, from the ground more like a shell opening up on both sides. The roof’s entire weight rests on two spots on the sides. A wide open terrace on which the building stands, accessible for everyone via wide stairs; and the water basin in front of it made for an ingenious building combining expressive imagery, flair, and technical modernity at the same time. Hugh Stubbins readily admitted with regard to the building: “This was essentially a propaganda building aimed at the Soviets just half a mile away”.

The Congress Hall quickly became the recognisable highlight of the Interbau 1957 project. West Berlin had grimly registered the West Berliners flocking to the East in the early 50s to see Stalinallee, but their competitive project, with the Hall as one of its flagship buildings – soon lovingly nicknamed the ‘pregnant oyster’ by Berliners – earned them at least as much interest; and as many visitors.

Socialist Architecture Reloaded: Stalinallee II/Karl-Marx-Allee

The East Berlin House of Teacher
The House of the Teacher and East Berlin Congress Hall/Photo by Caroline Marburger

On the respective construction sites in East Berlin, work in the meantime continued. With the crisis of 1953 painfully averted, Stalin not only dead, but in 1956 furthermore fallen from grace as his crimes were openly disclosed, a course correction took place. Taking down Stalin’s gigantic statue from ‘his’ street in a cloak-and-dagger-operation in 1956 was just a step towards renaming it Karl-Marx-Allee, five years later.

In many respects, Krushchev who had eventually succeeded him, ventured a new course. The kind that would also affect the architectural expression of socialism. Krushchev painted Stalin’s ornate gigantomania as too extravagant, buildings such as those built in the early 1950s on Stalinallee as financial follies which in the end belied socialist ideals. The new Soviet leader argued that socialist architecture needed to be created by the convergence of cost calculation, on one hand, and the overriding principle of serving the people on the other. The new economy of construction, which soon was to be subsumed under the simple slogan “faster, better, cheaper” was not to be historicist – no more ‘palaces for the working class’ – but would find a more progressive way to achieve better housing for all: industrial building methods and a simplicity in design would prove paramount.

Confronted with the post-war consumerist boom in the West, particularly West Berlin, where among other things the abundance of consumer goods which the Marshall Plan had made possible was on immediate display, Krushchev confessed that Berlin had become a “bone in his throat”. At the 5th congress of the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) in Moscow in 1959, dealing with Post-war Construction and Reconstruction, the East German delegates, based on their ‘front experience’ had warned against any inspiration by ‘fashionable Western architecture’ and against any co-existence of the two allegedly dissimilar styles. A more modernist approach to architecture would be agreed upon in the East now as well.

Although something had to be found missing and inherently wrong with the existing Modernism: now it was the ‘organic’, asymmetrical forms and the free composition of the Western set-up which were rejected. Particularly the high rises of the Hansaviertel, which were said to be representative of Western competitiveness and individualism. Such characteristics were to be strictly avoided – even if the East German’s own flagship highrise at Weberwiese clearly contradicted this argument. The architects’ collective moved forward to create a more open and green setting instead, in many ways consistent with older and once shared ideas. But a clear stance had to be made: in order to set their own building and spaces apart, right angles and a clear formation of buildings was maintained. Additionally, the building ensemble was created to be more representative and never focused on housing alone. Hence, among the residential buildings and prominently facing the street – still wide enough for parades – the second phase of construction would involve introducing one of the major premiere cinemas of Berlin, ice cream pavillons, cafés and cultural venues for more than just local residents.

Marking the entrance to this ensemble from Alexanderplatz, East Berlin would also build its answer to Stubbins’ Congress Hall.

East Berlin’s Congress Hall was completed to accompany what became known as the ‘House of the Teacher’. This name and purpose is reminiscent of a building formerly located here which had served as home to a self-organised teachers’ association since before World War I.

Completed in 1964, the House of the Teacher was the East’s first reinforced concrete frame construction with a glass and aluminium facade, designed by Hermann Henselmann. The adjacent congress hall, a two-level building with an elegant, low dome, has an impressive open foyer with wide winding stairs providing access to the central hall on the top floor. The foyer and stairs are designed to easily catch your eye, demonstrating a certain sense for flair, openness, and transparency.

With Walter Womacka’s 2-level mural, reminiscent of Mexican wall murals such as the ones by Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera, laid around the third and fourth level of the House of the Teacher, an Indonesian restaurant inside, the Kino International down the road and nearby Café Moskau, the architecture of Phase II did not involve international architects like the Interbau 57  project but sure made use of international references.

Just like West Berlin’s collaboration with 19 non-German architects was a strategy to demonstrate inclusion in a transnational framework, adding legitimacy and appeal; Henselmann’s two-piece construction (the Congress Hall and House of the Teacher) actually made reference to Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture in Brasilia – an architect who had, in-fact, participated in the Interbau 1957 project.

As a building, the East Berlin Congress Hall stands in the shadow of the spectacular Congress Hall of West Berlin and today, squeezed between the buildings of the 2000s which tower around it, it fits so easily with examples of International Style that this one hardly registers as ‘socialist’. In-fact, recent publications simply depict it as being an example of ‘International Style’.

Berlin’s Dual Post-War Legacies

The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson & Hansabücherei/Photo by Caroline Marburger
The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson & Hansabücherei/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The lesson in Berlin is clear: that the Cold War trickled down into these architectural designs, on either side. But also, like in the case of the Congress Halls, that there is more to their mutual relationship than just simplistic opposition.

There are many more examples of this phenomenon across the city. West Berlin had been lacking most crucial institutions of a ‘proper’ city after the 1945 division because many were located in the Soviet sector, and historical centre. This meant that, eventually, every major institution in Berlin had at least one sibling on the other side of the Wall. These relatives grew up apart and had issues: as the new building often came into the world in order to be the better, timelier, more adequate version of its older sibling living with the other parent, it is easy to understand why.

To give some examples of architectural sibling rivalry:

  • The Berlin State Opera on Unter den Linden (1753, East) and the German Opera (1961, West)
  • the Humboldt University (1810, East) and the Free University (1948, West)
  • the State Library on Unter den Linden (1785/1914, East) and the State Library on Potsdamer Straße (1960, West)
  • the Philharmonic (1963, West) and the former Royal Theater (1821) refurbished as the Concert House in 1985 (East)
  • Museum Island (1830 -1930, East) and the Kulturforum (1963-1998, West)

In all these cases, the post-war buildings in West Berlin are now Cold War remnants. They do not just make up for lacking such institutions due to the division. A substantial amount of time and effort went into making them stand out against their older counterparts in the East, often with the same intentions as the post-war housing projects: overcome their historical predecessors,  distinguish the West from the East, and set this new democratic society apart from the megalomaniacal visions of the Nazis and their respective architecture – which meant monumental and imposing architecture was not the language of the time.

These buildings can therefore seem comparatively modest and their political zeal is less obvious, too. Yet, we mostly look at such buildings in West Berlin as examples of postwar architecture and praise them for their aesthetic qualities or lack thereof. Instead, acknowledging the conflicts’ interactive nature clearly shows and helps us to appreciate West Berlin – and East Berlin – differently. Postwar buildings and structures, unless built for mere necessity, always sent a message, in East and West alike.

The Cold War narratives might not have defined these structures in their entirety, they were always more than just propaganda stunts, yet the Cold War surely helped shape and bring them about.


Caroline Marburger

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Caroline Marburger



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Castillo, Greg: The Nylon Curtain: Architectural Unification in Divided Berlin, in: Philip, and Sabine Hake, eds. Berlin: Divided City, 1945-1989, New York 2010, pp. 46-55.

Castillo, Greg: Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design, Minneapolis/London 2010.

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Schätzke, Andreas: Zwischen Bauhaus und Stalinallee. Architekturdiskussion im östlichen Deutschland 1945-1955, Gütersloh/Berlin 1991.

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Berlin Long Reads | Dark Tourism And Why We Visit Atrocity Sites

View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz
View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz

In the fourth installment of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member, Asaf Leshem, discusses the phenomenon of ‘Dark Tourism’ and why atrocity sites remain popular destinations for tourists. 

Over the past decade, the Sachsenhausen memorial site and museum became one of the most visited sites for tourists travelling to Berlin. Although, this former Nazi concentration camp is actually located some 35km away from Berlin’s city centre, in the Brandenburg town of Oranienburg – which means the trip usually requires people to make a decision to take a suburban train out of the city or join a tour that includes a visit to the former camp as part of its itinerary.

It is by no means a typical holiday activity. It is unlikely that anyone would describe visiting Sachsenhausen as a fun tourist ‘thing to do’, or a temporary relaxing escape from one’s ordinary life – such as time spent in a nice hotel spa or an exciting evening at the opera. Naturally, most tour guides refrain from concluding their Sachsenhausen tours with remarks such as ‘I hope you enjoyed the tour today’. Yet, the site continues to draw visitors.

Why does Sachsenhausen attract nearly one million visitors each year?

In this article I will discuss the motivation behind visiting sites of death and atrocity, such as Sachsenhausen, acknowledging their ‘darkest’ position on what Dark Tourism expert Philip Stone’s ‘light to dark spectrum’. In addition, I will explore the expectations tourists may have of visiting sites such as Sachsenhausen.


The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence
The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence

What is Dark Tourism?

The act of visiting a site like Sachsenhausen is nowadays referred to in academic circles as Dark Tourism: “the travel and visitation to sites associated with death, acts of violence, tragedy, scenes of death and crimes against humanity” (adapted from Tanaya Preece and Gary Price’s 2005 definition). Although the term has gained some mainstream popularity, the phenomenon of visiting sites of death and atrocity is as old as travel itself.

One notable form of the movement of people during Roman times was travel to attend activities and attractions that can be considered an early manifestation of dark tourism entertainment – think of the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, the gladiator fights and public executions. Another example of an early form of dark tourism came centuries later when Edward Stanley, the Bishop of Norwich, testified as to the popularity of tourists walking through the Catacombs in Paris, where bodies of guillotined prisoners were stored.

In terms of scale and degree of tourism infrastructure, however, these early form of tourism cannot be compared to the way we perceive travel, accommodation and services today. Modern tourism – and with it modern dark tourism – may have changed but as we shall see several of the motivations to visit sites presenting death as a tourist commodity have not changed that much.

The term dark tourism itself is relatively new.

Researchers John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley coined the term in 1996 in a special issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies. In the same edition, Tony Seaton referred to this emerging unique form of tourism as Thanatourism. For Seaton, the word Thanatopsis – meaning contemplation of death – played a major role in the need to name a social behaviour, which had grown in scale to the extent that it required its own tourism category, and consequently, more research.

Perhaps as it is easier to pronounce, it was ‘Dark Tourism’ rather than ‘Thanatourism’ that became the more popular term to refer to any tourist visitation to sites presenting death, human tragedy, or atrocity. Nevertheless, to many in the general public the term remains somewhat confusing, and occasionally I still get people asking me if by ‘dark tourism’ I mean guiding a tour at night or a sinister form of tourism.

Despite the ambiguity of the term, the growth in popularity of dark tourism as a segment or a category of travel on its own has attracted researchers to further expand the body of theory on the subject. From the late 1990s, researchers engaged in various avenues of enquiry on the various aspects of dark tourism.

These included:

  • the morality and ethics of visiting dark tourism sites,
  • the management of dark tourism sites,
  • the ethics of marketing of such sites,
  • the interpretation of these sites,
  • tourist behaviour,
  • the shades of dark tourism,
  • and the motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites.

The infamous camp lettering 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets One Free)
The infamous camp lettering ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets One Free)

Why do we visit Dark Tourism sites?

Like many similar sites, Sachsenhausen’s first aim as a memorial site was to be a place of mourning and remembrance. Along with education these are worthy of mention as motivations for people to visit the former concentration camp during its incarnation as a memorial site of the German Democractic Republic (GDR). Mourning and remembrance, and education, are still known to us as common motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites (before the 1990s, such sites would often be called heritage or even difficult heritage sites). During the GDR times, many schools from all over the north-east of the country visited Sachsenhausen (similarly, GDR students from the south of the country visited Buchenwald, near the city of Weimar).

Although German reunification brought a temporary decline in the number of school groups visiting, the number soon climbed back up to include today not only groups from north-east Germany, but also from other parts of the country and from neighbouring countries.

The next motivations we can identify are from those people who have a general interest in history or in learning about history and culture. Very often, interest in history is accompanied by family heritage, or the desire to learn about the exact location where known events took place. For many, the latter is closely related with the need to “see it to believe it”. Even today, despite ample amount of research and proof that exists, many find it hard to believe that humans would commit such heinous crimes against each other. Sadly, the shocking, almost unbelievable nature of these crimes makes the life of Holocaust deniers easier. For that reason, visits to Sachsenhausen by school groups or individual adult tourists carry a special weight of responsibility.

Certainly, as many different scholars have suggested visiting a dark tourism site is closely related to various naturally occuring human attributes, such as fascination with death and/or violence of war, morbid curiosity, and voyeurism. In a way, these, especially the latter, are argued to be akin to the act of ‘rubber necking’ – slowing down your car to get a better look at an accident.

There are many sites around the world that fall under the rubrik of Dark Tourism, from the ‘lighter’ London Dungeon to various sites where famous battles took place. In the case of such sites, it is not uncommon for people to be motivated to visit by the feeling of affiliation with one side or the other.

The feeling or even showing empathy to the Nazi side when visiting Sachsenhausen – beyond the possible ideological motivations – could also be classified as Schadenfreude, in itself a motivation identified in the dark tourism literature. In the case of Sachsenhausen, Schadenfreudea pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune – could, of course, also be an additional motivation for neo-Nazis, people with anti-Semitic ideologies, or people with other racist ideologies to visit the site. It may be the case that they would try to visit in order to take pride in the crimes committed by the SS, intentionally to spite and/or to draw political attention. It is important to note here that although a person can visit the memorial site without having any identifiable clothing or behaviour, if a visitor were to show such behaviour they would be asked by management to leave to premises.

In contrast to the latter, a sense of social duty/’the thing to do’ and the need for social belonging are also strong motivations for visiting a site such as Sachsenhausen. Tourists often tell their guides that part of the reason they wanted to come on the Sachsenhausen tour is the need to understand an event (i.e. the Holocaust) that was so instrumental in shaping the value system of our contemporary society. In addition to that, some scholars (see for example Philip Stone) have argued that in secular societies there is a modern need to contemplate death, fulfilling a void that has been left by the absence of religious ceremonies, which as western society becomes more secularised are no longer part of everyday life for many people.

One of the most pedestrian reasons for visiting a dark tourism site, such as Sachsenhausen, is due to the combination of global population growth and the recent rapid advances in online communication technologies, as many people are motivated to visited Sachsenhausen simply because ‘it is the place to go while in Berlin’; perhaps following a recommendations they have read on one of the big travel websites. Another related motivation, similarly influenced by technological and social changes, is when people may wish to visit Sachsenhausen to try a new or different experience. In the process paradoxically reducing the dark tourism site to its most meta form, that the appeal is not just in that Sachsenhausen as a location presents aspects that attract the visitor and qualify it as a dark tourism site but as a dark tourism site it is worthy of visiting because of its Dark Tourism label. That the claim to dark tourism itself has become enough of a motivation.

A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison
A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison

Individual motivations vs the group dynamic

Most visitors to Sachsenhausen (as scholars such as Richard Sharpley have argued in relations to other dark tourism sites) have more than one motivation to visit. Often, people visit as part of a student group, an incentive tour with itinerary set by the company, or a family day tour to the memorial site. For example, a person may wish to learn more about this part of the Holocaust or the war, but is also motivated to go because there is an opportunity to go with friends or colleagues. Thus, although there is little research on the social circles of expectations, tour guides have made interesting observations on the subject of motivations to visit dark tourism sites within the context of group dynamics.

More generally, as sociologist Erving Goffman famously suggested: social performance may hinder truthful behaviour. It can be argued then, that social performance can alter behaviour during the visit to the former camp, and may influence the motivations of the individual to visit a former concentration camp such as Sachsenhausen.

Most commonly observed are the expectation circles in student groups, and they are indeed an interesting example. In such groups a student’s motivation to visit Sachsenhausen may involve:

  • going because everyone in their class is going and/or because it’s common in their country,
  • going because their close friends are going,
  • going because someone they like (or or attracted to) is going,
  • going because their teachers and/or parents expect them to go,
  • going because they are interested in history,
  • going because they have just recently learned that chapter of history for their exams, or are about to have exams on, for example, the Second World War,
  • and going because they want to understand their family’s or ethnic heritage,

As explained above, the student may also harbour different expected outcomes. In this case, what they think is expected of them to gain from such a visit, in terms of learning outcomes, social behaviour and etiquette, cultural and social belonging, understanding of moral values, etc. Noticeably, young students may or may not have interest in history as their motivation to visit Sachsenhausen.

However, I would argue that even those who do not initially show interest will in most cases become curious during their visit, with the added educational value of the content they learn.


The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum
The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum

What do visitors expect when visiting a Dark Tourism site?

Expectations when visiting Sachsenhausen or similar sites are indeed a distinctive topic within the context of tourism research.

There is a tendency among researchers to argue that most of tourism is motivated by hedonistic and individualistic needs. Intuitively, we may agree with that assumption, with the understanding that people often travel on a holiday with family and/or friends and are therefore required to have their own expectations or hedonistic wishes somewhat limited by the needs and wishes of others in the group.

Nevertheless, the social aspect is amplified in a visit to a dark tourism site such as Sachsenhausen where, as I explained in the student example, social norms play a much bigger role. Reactions of the individual are to some extent determined by the pressures of their social environment or at the very least by the expectations they believe come from their immediate or larger social circle.

Continuing on the same vein as the students’ case, a great example can be seen in the groundbreaking documentary “Uploading Holocaust”, produced by film-makers Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein in 2016. In the film one of the protagonists believes he was suppose to cry after visiting one of the former extermination camps (on a group trip to Poland), and as a result feels shame that he didn’t. The outcome of the visit, being different than what the young man had initially expected, was the feeling that took him by surprise. In my years of joining such groups and meeting with them several weeks after I observed that it is that feeling of sadness, feelings of cultural belonging, or further contemplation of death may take weeks, or even months to sink in.

To extend this observation to the matter of education, a family may visit Sachsenhausen, motivated by the parents’ wish for a learning experience and their expectations that their children will learn about this part of history, but their wishes may only be fulfilled in the following years to come.

No one person can know all that there is to know about any dark tourism site. And inevitably, people visiting Sachsenhausen will have varying degrees of knowledge on the Holocaust and specifically on the SS concentration camp system. Naturally, many will not be very familiar with, for example, the lives of the prisoners in the camp, or all of the SS objectives regarding the camp. It can be argued that lack of knowledge is a perfectly acceptable justification for visiting the camp.

For some people, walking around in solemn contemplation, or maybe just taking pictures and reading information boards in some of the exhibitions is the way to go. For others, an audio guide proves the most useful and informative structure. Others still, may choose to book a private tour or join a tour organised by a public tour company.

For all, whatever their motivations may be, I would argue that the outcome of the visit is largely a positive one.

Asaf Leshem

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Asaf Leshem

Sources and further reading:

Biran, A., Poria, Y. and Oren, G. 2011) Sought experiences at (dark) heritage sites. Annals of Tourism Research38(3), 820-841.

Bookheimer, B.J. (2015). The layers of memory at Sachsenhausen. From the GDR to contemporary Germany (thesis). University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

Cohen, E., (2011). Educational Dark Tourism at an IN POPULO SITE. The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, 38, (1), 193-209.

DW, 2018. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: Anniversary of Liberation.

Feldman, J. (2002). Marking the boundaries of the enclave: defining the Israeli collective through the Poland ‘experience’. Israel Studies, 7 (2), 84-114.

Foley, M. and Lennon, J. (1996) JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198-211.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London, Anchor Books.

Lennon, J.J. and Foley, M. (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. London: Continuum.

Nir, U. and Bornstein, S. (2016). Uploading Holocaust. Available at: Accessed on: 20.4.2017.

Preece, T. and Price, G.G. (2005). Motivations of participants in dark tourism: A case  study of Port Arthur, Tasmania. In Ryan C., Page S., & Aitken M. (Eds.), Taking tourism to the limits: Issues, concepts and managerial perspectives (191-197).

Seaton, A.V. (1996). Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 234-244.

Sharpley, R. and Stone, P. (2009). The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Eds.). Bristol: Channel View Publications.

Sharpley, R. (2014) Tourist experiences of genocide sites: The Case of Rwanda.

Keynote Paper, Belgrade International Tourism Conference, College of Tourism, Belgrade, 27-29 March.

Soen, D. and Davidovich, N. (2011). Israeli youth pilgrimages to Poland: rationale and polemics. Images, 11, 17-18.

Stone, P. and Sharpley, R. (2008). Consuming dark tourism: a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35 (2), 574–595.

Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions, Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 54(2), 145-160.

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

In the third installment of our Berlin Long Reads series, guide and member Ronen Altman Kaydar examines the role Berlin’s Jewish minority played in establishing the city as an intellectual centre.

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 Ashkenazi 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 than most major European cities (as Berlin only started to make its mark as a settlement of any real significance back in the mid-13th 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 opened the doors of German Jewish society to general learning and knowledge – Moses Mendelssohn. But Mendelssohn could not have made the transition from his traditional upbringing in rural Dessau to his more universal philosophical views without the opportunities afforded to him in the city of Berlin.

When Mendelssohn entered Berlin in the autumn of 1743, it was already on its way to becoming a political and economic powerhouse as the capital of the emerging power of Prussia, ruled by King Frederick the Second – soon to be known as “Frederick 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 as 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 the current community Rabbi. At the age of 14, when he was invited to the city, Mendelssohn was already considered an Iluy (a Talmudic Prodigy) with a great future in the Rabbinical world – but the young man had other things in mind. Despite the strong 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 sovereignty of rational thought as the primary source of knowledge – was gaining traction in Prussia, spurred by Frederick the Great’s adoption of its key ideas and the invitation of Voltaire, a proponent of the movement, to the royal court. And while Frederick’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 publisher Friedrich Nikolai – met Mendelssohn in Berlin and reveled at the achievement of this self-taught Jewish thinker. They would assist him in him in his transition from young prodigy to published philosopher. Mendelssohn’s brilliant works quickly gained notoriety with literate elites, winning him accolades and attracting attention to this never-seen-before phenomenon – the 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 brethren to follow him into the Age of Enlightenment – to seek secular education, to replace outdated Rabbinical authority with 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 the 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 these new educational goals: following the 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. Faced with this squandering of their intellectual talents, a handful of these 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 to 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 welcome respite from the emptiness of the social world of Prussia, dominated at that time (under the rule of King Frederick William II) by lavish hunting parties and ceremonies. No less important were the vivacious personalities of these hostesses, who imbued the gatherings with a dynamic, lighthearted atmosphere, sometimes even bordering on the flirtatious. The salons of Dorothea Mendelssohn (the philosopher’s daughter, known for her bright mind and sharp tongue) and Henriette Herz (a stunning beauty married to a medical doctor 17 years her senior) attracted the likes of poet Friedrich Schlegel, sculptor J.G. Schadow (creator of the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate), the Humboldt brothers, and many more. Their rise put Berlin firmly on the intellectual map of Europe, prompting visitors from Amsterdam and Paris to similarly support the 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 on prevalent literary matters of the time which were published in periodicals to great renown.

Alas, the liberal and intellectual haven of the Berlin salons could not last forever, and by the early 1800s they slowly wound down, their demise precipitated 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 march 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 military defeat in 1806 led to much-needed reforms; inspired by the rational ideals of the Enlightenment and the egalitarian ethos of the French Revolution (incidentally, spread 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. 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 of a career in academia, civil service or the legal system. Finding no place in the established order, 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 seized 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 much improved 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 Frederick William 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.

In 1848, Jewish students and intellectuals would be strongly represented among the protestors leading the waves of revolts known 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. The failure of the revolt, however, 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 Wilhelmine period (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 seize 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 presented them with a new complication: how could they prove themselves worthy Germans, enthusiastically participating 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 to set 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 kindergarten teachers, an international conference on women’s work, and a chain of soup kitchens. First for war veterans and then for the general population, these kitchens in particular earned her popular respect and the nickname Suppenlina. Morgenstern’s activism in welfare, education and women’s rights opened the door to other female Jewish thinkers in similar fields, including Alice Salomon, who pioneered the idea of social work as an academic 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 culminated 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 away 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 revolutionary 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 Luxemburg, who led the left-wing opposition to WWI in Berlin and co-founded the Communist Party of Germany. Their hopes for radical change led, unfortunately, to a bitter end: Both Landauer and Luxemburg 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 collector, 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 equivalent 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 devastation 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 turbulent 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 animalistic 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 at 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 have 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 Jewish scientists propagated in Berlin’s labs and universities, Jewish writers congregated in the 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 cafes 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 cafes, which he termed “the headquarters of Bohemia”, while also publishing innovative articles on philosophy, literature and art. In line with the iconoclastic attitude of 1920s Berlin, his eclectic worldview combined the Marxist concept of historical materialism with newfangled forms of Jewish mysticism7. In fewer 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 scholars and writers from Berlin who lost their lives to Nazi persecution – most of them eventually took advantage 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.

Ronen Kaydar

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 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1986-029-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-V00555-3 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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) – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0309-502 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

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 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M1205-333 / Donath, Otto / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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:

Read Nick’s latest Berlin Long Read: Cancelling Hitler: The Importance of Myths and Symbols in Historical Change.

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.