On This Day | 20 July 1944: Stauffenberg and the plot to kill Hitler

20 July 1944: On this day in Berlin history, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg – along with the help of a number of other co-conspirators – attempted to assassinate the Nazi dictator and launch a coup d’état in “The 20th of July Plot”, a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie, a.k.a. The Plot to Kill Hitler.

At this time, Allied forces were stalled in Normandy and several members of the German Army General Staff and Army High Command feared that Hitler was leading Germany and its people into the abyss.

Claus von Stauffenberg was executed for his part in Operation Valkyrie: the plot to kill Hitler.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907-1944)

Over the course of WWII, senior staff officer Stauffenberg came to realize the criminal character of National Socialist policy. Following a severe injury that cost him an eye, his entire right hand, and two fingers on his left hand, Stauffenberg was transferred to the General Army Office of the Army High Command in September 1943. This is when he came in contact with a circle of opponents of the Nazi regime, including his new superior, General Friedrich Olbricht, who’d been a driving force behind the military efforts toward staging a coup against Hitler since 1938.

Olbricht informed Stauffenberg of his plans of a coup and put him in contact with Ludwig Beck and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler who, by July 1944, had created a circle of a range of senior German soldiers and officials committed to the idea that only the murdering of Hitler would create the conditions for a successful takeover of power.

So on this day – 74 years ago – Stauffenberg made his way to the so-called “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia (current day Poland) and was able to smuggle a time bomb in his briefcase. He succeeded in taking it into the meeting with Hitler, which had been transferred from a concrete bunker (where the effects of the blast would have been deadly) to a small wooden building on ground level. Stauffenberg primed the bomb to go off with his three remaining fingers, pushed his briefcase under the oak map table and left the meeting (and building) to answer a fictitious telephone call.

Unfortunately, someone else present around the table, possibly irritated at stubbing his foot on the case, pushed it further under the table where it stopped behind a thick oak support just before the bomb went off.
The explosion killed four people, destroyed the building, but left Hitler dazed, deaf, his clothes in shreds, and with an injured arm.

By this point, Stauffenberg was on his way to catch a flight back to Berlin, but had seen the explosion from a distance and assumed right away that the assassination had worked. He arrived at the War Ministry where he and his co-conspirators tried to take over the building; but as news began to filter through that Hitler was not dead, the situation was suddenly reversed. Stauffenberg was soon shot – but not killed – arrested and then taken with his co-conspirators to the War Ministry courtyard and executed by firing squad.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s power would now reach a new peak in Germany. The Nazis’ wrath of revenge for this attempt on his life was initially aimed at those directly involved in the attempted coup with more than 170 people – in at least 55 trials before the People’s Court – sentenced to death.

Upwards of another 150 people involved in the coup attempt, or merely “suspected”, were initially imprisoned without trial and eventually murdered as late as April 1945.

The destroyed Wolfsschanze after the plot to kill Hitler
The Wolfsschanze, after the explosion. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-12 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Moreover, in August 1944, this attempt on Hitler’s life prompted him and Heinrich Himmler to launch “Operation Thunderstorm” which called for the arrest of all politicians from the former Weimar Republic, in order to prevent a potential democratic reconstruction in Germany. This resulted in the imprisonment of more than 5,000 people – many of whom did not survive.

Stauffenberg, and all of those who helped him in the plot to kill Hitler, put their lives on the line to end the National Socialist dictatorship of Germany in July 1944. And if the war had stopped shortly thereafter (and it’s quite possible that it may not have – but if it had), millions of military casualties and innocent lives could possibly have been saved, as it’s very likely that it would’ve provoked the Allies to at least reconsider their Unconditional Surrender demand of Nazi Germany.

At any rate, Stauffenberg and those who assisted him, are heroes for trying to end the life of the most ruthless, blood-thirsty, evil men in history.

Today, in the courtyard where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were brutally murdered on July 20, 1944, is the entrance to the Memorial of the German Resistance Museum, which informs us about those individuals and the network of peoples who risked their lives standing up to National Socialism during the Third Reich.

James McDonough

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member, Jim McDonough

and originally appeared on our Facebook page.

On This Day | 19 July 1988 : Bruce Springsteen plays East Germany

19 July 1988: On this day in Berlin history, Bruce Springsteen played the largest ever concert in the history of East Germany.

On a dusty field next to a race track in the district of Weissensee, an estimated 300,000 people gathered from all corners of the republic to see “the Boss” play. Although only 160,000 tickets had been sold, the sheer mass of the crowds forced organisers to open the gates, a rare moment of disorder in the strict communist society.

Bruce Springsteen played the Largest concernt in the history of East Germany on 19 July 1988
Bruce Springsteen playing at Weissensee, East Berlin | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1988-0719-38 / Uhlemann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The concert was approved by East German officials as a way of appeasing a citizenry who were becoming ever more enticed by life beyond the iron curtain. Springsteen was deemed acceptable by the powers that be due to his working class background and his critical stance on US society. Instead of acting as a release valve however, Springsteen’s epic 4-hour performance offered East Germans an invigorating taste of the freedom which lay just out of reach.

Stasi officials, planted among the crowd that day, surely questioned their superiors’ decision to allow the concert when the ecstatic crowd engulfing them began hollering “Born in the U.S.A.” at the top of their lungs. Adding to their concern, the working class hero from New Jersey then pulled a paper from his pocket and began in somewhat wobbly German a short speech which his East German chauffeur had translated for him.

I am not for or against any government,” Springsteen began “I have come to play rock and roll for you in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” As the crowd roared he launched into Chimes of Freedom, a rousing anthem for the downtrodden written by Bob Dylan.

The speech didn’t make it onto the slightly delayed television coverage broadcast, nevertheless these words and the reaction of the crowd must have sent an ominous chill down the spine of the East German leadership.

Some believe Bruce Springsteen’s concert in Weissensee that day was the spark that started the fire which, 16 months later, would engulf the country in revolutionary fervour and bring down the Berlin Wall. More pragmatic observers point to wider political developments, such as growing pressure from West German politicians and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

In truth, the fateful events of November 9th, 1989 were a culmination of many things. For those who attended the concert that day though, there’s little doubt that Springsteen’s performance energised their desire for change and spurred them and their compatriots on to the revolution which would change the world.

However you look at it, the legendary concert of July 19th, 1988 is an integral and inspiring part of Berlin’s history.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 1 July 1989: The first Love Parade

Love Parade 1996
Love Parade 1996, am Großen Stern | Photo by Gerd Danigel CC BY-SA 4.0

1 July 1989: On this day in Berlin history, a crowd of around 150 people gathered on west Berlin’s Wittenbergplatz to take part in the very first Love Parade.

Unperturbed by the drizzle, the brightly dressed rabble set off down Kurfürstendamm. Among the writhing crowd rolled three flatbed trucks, their trays loaded with giant sound systems filling the surrounding streets with the rhythmic bleeps and beats of techno. The bemused onlookers, suddenly distracted from their coffee and cake, surely didn’t know what to make of this peculiar procession with its strange pounding music invading the city’s most expensive shopping district. For the police accompanying the demonstration, the peaceful demeanour of the attendees must have come as a relief. Far from the violent protests of Kreuzberg, these youngsters were marching in the name of “Friede, Freude und Eierkuchen” (“Peace, Happiness and Pancakes”). Clearly there would be no need for batons or tear gas today. What no-one could suspect, neither those watching nor those taking part, was that this ragtag procession would grow to become the largest techno party in the world.

The Love Parade was the brainchild of locals DJ Matthias Roeingh known as Dr Motte, and artist Danielle de Picciotto. The creative couple wanted to coax the magic which they had discovered in the underground clubs and parties of West Berlin into the open. Techno had arrived in the embattled city via England and had already begun to captivate its young citizens. It was an exciting new sound which seemed a perfect fit for the abandoned spaces of war ruined Berlin and one which de Picciotto and Roeingh felt could unite the disenchanted masses of their marooned city in a positive movement. According to all involved the first Love Parade was a resounding success. When, unexpectedly, the Berlin wall fell a few months later, it was the driving bass beat of Techno that would come to define the wild cultural revolution which followed.

Love Parade 2001
Love Parade 2001 | Photo by Arne Müseler | CC-BY-SA-3.0

Over the next decade, the Love Parade would boom, reaching a reported 1.5 million attendees in 1999. With this massive increase in scale, organisers sought out a new stomping ground in the four lane causeway of Straße des 17 Juni. Built during the nazi regime as part of Adolf Hitler’s planned transformation of the city, the boulevard, originally intended for Nazi military parades, now became the centre of an annual celebration of unity, acceptance and freedom.

As the Love Parade grew though, so too did its opposers. Many bemoaned the growing commercialisation of the event, pointing at floats like that provided by Lego and claiming it had merely become a PR vehicle for corporations. The state government of Berlin, tired of footing the growing bill for security, medical staff, and the clean up, revoked the parade’s status as a political demonstration. Now organisers would have to cover those expenses on their own. Disillusioned by these issues, Dr Motte decided to sell ownership of the Love Parade in 2006 to Rainer Schaller, owner of Germany’s largest fitness centre chain McFit.

Under new ownership, the Love Parade departed for the heavily industrialised Ruhr area of Western Germany. Over the next four years it would be held in Dortmund, Essen and Bochum before reaching a tragic conclusion in Duisburg in 2010. During the event, the first to be held in a fenced off area, overcrowding of a particularly confined space led to the deaths of 21 people with a further 600 injured and many more traumatised. Despite glaring oversights during the planning procedure, courts rejected the legal case against the organisers stating there was no evidence of negligence, a decision which remains fiercely controversial to this day. The Love Parade disaster of 2010 was a horrific end to an event which had begun with such optimism in the summer of ‘89.

What began with three trucks, homemade costumes and a smattering of free spirited Berliners, grew into one of the largest parties on the planet. For many, the grim fate of the Love Parade exemplifies the damaging effects of commercialisation and greed. In spite of this, plans are reportedly afoot to revive the iconic dance party in Berlin in the summer of 2022, with Dr Motte again at the helm. Although this may seem unimaginable in today’s society of social distancing and isolation bubbles, perhaps, under the right management, a Love Parade is exactly what the world needs now to recover from months of fear and isolation.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 22 June 1990: The Removal of Checkpoint Charlie

22 June 1990: On this day in Berlin history, the infamous control post at Checkpoint Charlie was hoisted off its foundations, placed on the back of a lorry and driven away. This simple act, executed to the sounds of a military brass band, was the closing stanza in a story which began in the messy aftermath of World War Two.

The Checkpoint Charlie control post was removed on 22 June 1990
Removal of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie control post marked a new era | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0622-028 / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Situated at the official crossing point between the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin, the unassuming steel hut – as well as its smaller wooden predecessor – had been a conspicuous outpost on the front line of the Cold War for generations. Its removal, watched by thousands around the world, represented the easing of East-West tensions in Europe and the beginning of a bright new age in Berlin.

Attending the ceremony that day were representatives of the four powers which had occupied their respective sectors of the city since 1945 (France, Great Britain, USA and the Soviet Union). Seven months after the peaceful revolution of November 9th 1989, they were in Berlin to coordinate the withdrawal of their military forces, as well as to iron out the process of German reunification. Among the guests of honour seated before them was former mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. In office when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Brandt was one of many looking on that day – whether leaning from the windows of surrounding buildings, standing to attention in uniform, crouching behind the lens of a camera or even peering from beyond the East German border – who had witnessed very different scenes at this volatile flashpoint between east and west.

Collectively they had held their breath as, 29 years earlier, US and Soviet tanks stared each other down, engines revving and arms at the ready, just one shot away from nuclear war. They had mourned the brutal death of Peter Fechter, the 18 year old East Berliner gunned down by East German border guards and left to bleed to death in the death strip, just metres from the freedom he sought. Most recently they had joined the celebrations just a few months prior when the traffic barriers were raised and thousands flowed freely through the checkpoint, embracing the stunned border guards and revelling in their new and unexpected freedom.

Checkpoint Charlie, 2008
Checkpoint Charlie, 2008 | Image by Hajotthu CC BY 3.0

It was these events and more which were running through the onlookers’ minds as they watched the diminutive beige Porta-cabin dangling on the end of a wire cable above them. For the citizens of that long divided city Checkpoint Charlie had been a beacon of hope and for some it’s departure was bitter sweet. But, with the iron curtain in tatters and the Soviet Union heading towards dissolution, the time had finally come – as British foreign minister Douglas Hurd so poignantly put it – “to bring Charlie in from the cold”.

Today, the only things blocking one’s path at the historic site of Checkpoint Charlie are selfie seekers and tour buses. The hut one finds on location, complete with sandbag bunker and American flag, is a replica of the original wooden building. The building which was removed with such ceremony 31 years ago can be found in the Allied Museum in Dahlem, a suburb in the west of the city.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 22 June 1941: Operation Barbarossa

22 June 1941: On this day in history, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. With a force of over 3 million, it is widely recognised as the largest invasion in military history.

Map showing Operation Barbarossa - the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union
Axis Invasion of the Soviet Union, 22 June to 25 August 1941 | Image courtesy of The Department of
History, United States Military Academy

After stunning successes in western Europe, Hitler was certain that victory over his ideological enemy to the east would be swift and decisive. Spurred on by this misguided belief, the German military was completely unprepared for what they would encounter on their advance. An unfathomably vast land, a tenacious and seemingly unlimited opposing force and brutal winters would ensure Stalin’s Red Army eventually gained the upper hand. Despite the failure of the German offensive, the invading forces would inflict untold misery on the Soviet population during a horrific wave of violence which, 80 years later, the world is still coming to terms with.

The invasion of the Soviet Union had long been central to Hitler’s vision. He had raved about the need for Lebensraum, or living space for the German “Volk” since his days as a rabble-rousing upstart in the beer halls of Munich. This desire was clear to any who had read his book Mein Kampf, published in 1924. For Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Operation Barbarossa should have come as no surprise. Nevertheless, despite continued warnings – not only from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill but also from Soviet diplomats and spies – it seems that the Soviet leader was caught off guard. Although many aside from Stalin saw the Nazi offensive coming, no one was prepared for what followed.

Operation Barbarossa saw German troops crossed the Soviet borde1r on 22 June 194
German troops crossing the Soviet border, 22 June 1941 | Photo by Johannes Hähle

The eastern European theatre of World War Two was not merely a war of expansion, this was a war of extermination. Following the German front line were SS Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, whose task it was to round up the civilian population and murder anybody deemed undesirable by Nazi ideology. These mass shootings, such as that of Babi Yar outside Kiev in which 30,000 people were shot in just two days, would claim the lives of around 2 million innocent people, including 1.3 million Jews. As the war progressed, new more efficient forms of mass murder would arise in the form of industrial killing centres like Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was here in the east where the depravity of Nazi ideology would reach its full and horrifying extent.

“Kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down” this sentiment was repeated like a mantra by Nazi leadership during the planning stages of their eastern offensive. In practise, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. The “Great Patriotic War” as it’s still known in the former Soviet states, galvanised a vast and fragmented population, arousing a fierce nationalism which would spur their soldiers on all the way to Berlin. The atrocities committed against their country folk, the evidence of which was clearly seen during the Red Army’s advance towards Europe, only heightened the soldiers’ lust for revenge.

Operation Barbarossa is recognised as the definitive turning point of World War Two, perhaps only matched by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour later that year, which would ultimately tip the balance against the Axis powers. By bringing the Soviet Union into the war, Adolf Hitler had unknowingly sealed his fate as well as that of his so-called Third Reich. Today, we remember the date not only in terms of a large-scale military offensive, but as a turning point in human history. The massacre of Jews, Sinti and Roma, Slavs, Homosexuals and many more in the gas chambers, ghettos and killing fields of eastern Europe, prove the importance of combating the vilification and dehumanisation of certain groups of people. A lesson which, 80 years on, is as relevant as ever.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 29 May 1917: John F. Kennedy is born

President John F. Kennedy was born 29 May 1917
President John F. Kennedy

29 May 1917: On this day in history John Fitzgerald Kennedy, descendant of Irish immigrants and son of an ambassador, would be born into one of the United States’ most formidable political families.

The future 36th President enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Massachusetts and spent a dilettante season as a ranch hand before enrolling at Harvard to study international affairs. He embarked upon a tour of Europe immediately before the outbreak of World War Two, and wrote a thesis on the Munich Agreement which would later be published under the title ‘Why England Slept.’

Despite the various health complaints which left him in lifelong pain, he served in the US Navy, and once had to swim to safety when his patrol boat came under fire from a Japanese destroyer. Following VE Day, Kennedy returned his attentions to politics, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the early days of the Cold War. A decade on, he announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination. Though many found him too green, he would defeat Richard Nixon to become, at 42 years old, the youngest elected president. His presidency would last for only half its term, before his assassination on November 22nd, 1963.

Berlin fondly remembers the speech which JFK gave at the Rathaus (town hall) in the American-occupied borough of Schöneberg, to an audience of 120,000, less than six months before he would be murdered. Speaking in solidarity with the West Berliners and promising to protect them from Communist encroachment, Kennedy proclaimed:

“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words,

Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Since a ‘Berliner’ is also a certain foodstuff (as is a hamburger, frankfurter, and so on) people to this day leave doughnuts on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg each November 22nd.

 

This edition of On This Day in history was written by BBS member Dr Finn Ballard. It’s one of four events he chose to remember in May. See our blog to find out what else he picked.

On This Day | 26 May 1940: The Battle of Dunkirk begins

Have you heard of ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ or seen Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film on this remarkable mass evacuation?

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation | Image via the Australian War Memorial

26 May 1940: The ten-day Battle of Dunquerque which would culminate in the flight of Allied forces from France across the North Sea to the British mainland began on this day in history.

After the winter-long stalemate nicknamed the ‘Phoney War,’ the German Army had moved with astonishing speed – not least, new research concludes, due to the quantity of amphetamines they were consuming – and meticulous planning, occupy the Low Countries and bypass the Maginot Line on which France had relied.

The capitulation of France within weeks had marked for Germany one of the most spectacular military victories in world history. As the Germans ploughed on toward Southern France and the calamity worsened, both French troops and the British Expeditionary Force found their efforts at counter-attacks frustrated and, to evade total encirclement, were compelled to retreat.

British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk
British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation | Image via Imperial War Museums

After a visit to Paris left him dismayed by the despondent state of French high command, Churchill began planning ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the evacuation of 338,000 troops by sea. Civilian fishing vessels and lifeboats (the ‘little ships’) were pressed into action to assist the Royal Navy.

The soldiers, strafed by the Luftwaffe, abandoned their weaponry and leapt homewards. Thousands of French troops were captured, to become prisoners of war. Almost all the best troops Britain and France had to offer had been either evacuated to the United Kingdom or had been killed.

The Germans sliced their way south, toward Paris, like a knife through butter.

Yet the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands led the Battle of Dunkirk – described by Churchill as a ‘miracle’ – to be received as a success back at home. Following the German capitulation in 1945, Dunkirk become emblematic of an indomitable British fortitude – and pluckiness.

This edition of On This Day in History was written by BBS Member Finn Ballard.

It’s one of four events he chose to remember this month. Take a look at our blog to see what else is covered.

On This Day | 10 May 1933: The Nazi Book Burning on Opernplatz

Nazi book burning Berlin
Students gathered and burned 30,000 works | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

10 May 1933: On this day in Berlin history, right-wing students organised the Nazi book burning that destroyed 30,000 works of literature, ideology and science. Some texts remain forever lost.

Four days after the raid upon Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science – as Hirschfeld himself would soon thereafter watch on a cinematic newsreel in his Parisian exile – the Nazis would take the contents of the building’s library to Opernplatz, a square in Berlin’s city centre which is today dedicated to the Socialist politician August Bebel.

Flanked by the State Opera House, a Roman Catholic church in a profoundly Protestant country, and two buildings of what is now the Humboldt University, this square embodies the 18th-century values of what was called the ‘Enlightenment.’

But the Nazis used that term, too.

Under the gaze of the newly-appointed ‘Reich Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment,’ Dr. Josef Goebbels, and not long after the mysterious Reichstag fire and its associated ‘Decree,’ the Nazis manifested one of their most strikingly-choreographed expressions of outrage on May 10th, 1933.

To mark Hitler’s hundredth day as Chancellor, right-wing students burned 30,000 books on a specially-constructed pyre: copies of novels we know today, by Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, by Kafka, Wilde and Hemingway, by Nabokov and Dostoyevsky; works of leftist ideology, by Marx and Luxemburg; or indeed the ‘Jewish science’ of Einstein and his peers.

Magnus Hirschfeld's archives were destroyed in the book burning
Magnus Hirschfeld’s archives were destroyed in the book burning | The Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

What was gone forever was the library and archive of Dr. Hirschfeld, its thousands of case studies and photographs documenting LGBTIQ lives.

Near-catatonic with arousal, leaping flames reflected in their glassy eyes, the students cast a stolen bronze bust of Hirschfeld into the fire: his execution in absentia. Paper burns – you know! – at 451 degrees Fahrenheit; bronze begins to melt at temperatures four times as high.

Other book-burnings would follow, in Germany and beyond. But the bust of Dr. Hirschfeld, salvaged the next morning from the chars and hidden in the street-sweeper’s canvas bag, is on display at Berlin’s Gay Museum, dented yet intact.

 

 

 

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History as contributed by BBS Member, Dr Finn Ballard. It is one of four events he has chosen to remember in May. Keep an eye on our blog to see which other events he picks.

On This Day | 6 May 1933: Dorchen Richter killed in Hirschfeld Institute attack

Nazi students parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin prior to pillaging it on May 6, 1933.
Nazi students parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin prior to pillaging it on May 6, 1933. | Image courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #01625

6 May 1933: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi storm troopers raided Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in a deadly attack that claimed the life of a woman whose name the world ought to know.

It is often said that the first trans woman who underwent gender reassignment surgery (or what was once called a ‘sex change’) was Lili Elbe, who was immortalised – not without controversy – by the actor Eddie Redmayne in the 2015 film The Danish Girl.

But we now know of a woman who embarked even earlier upon the journey – an experimental one in those days – which cost Elbe her life.

Dora Richter, known as ‘Dörchen,’ was born in 1891, under another name, in the farmhouse of her impoverished parents. She always identified as female, and would, at the age of six, attempt upon herself a rudimentary version of the surgery she would later undergo.

Dorchen Richter
Dorchen Richter | Image courtesy of magnus-hirschfeld.de

She moved to Berlin, then on the cusp of becoming the LGBTIQ capital of Europe, and would live as female when she wasn’t at work. Here and there, she was arrested for ‘cross-dressing’ – this before the remarkably-progressive Weimar Republic issued its special ‘Transvestite IDs’ – and was eventually released by a judicial order which sent her into the care of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld at Berlin’s new Institute for Sexual Science.

Though synthetic hormones were not yet available, Richter was able to obtain genital reconstruction surgery, including a vaginoplasty – the creation of a vagina – becoming the first known trans woman to do so. To pay her room and board she worked as a maid at Hirschfeld’s clinic, knitting, sewing, cleaning, humming to herself all the while; a quiet, content woman.

On the 6th of May 1933, a swarm of ‘Storm Troopers’ and fanatical right-wing students burst into the Institute for Sexual Science to raid and destroy its archives, the world’s first repository of LGBTIQ history.

And there, inside her home, did this mob beat gentle Dorchen Richter to death.


This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was contributed by Berlin Tour Guide and BBS Member, Dr Finn Ballard. It is one of four events he has chosen to remember this month. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else he chooses.

On This Day | 1 May 1890: Germany’s First May Day

1 May Demonstration 1987
Demonstration on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, 1987. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0501-019 | Zimmermann, Peter | CC-BY-SA 3.0

1 May 1890: On this day in Berlin history, an estimated 100,000 people took part in the first official May Day in Germany.

Along with many other European countries, Germany recognises the first day in May as our national labour day. The founding is believed to date back to a worker’s strike which began on May 1, 1886 across the United States. One city in the US where workers gathered in protest was Chicago. In the days following, protests there escalated into a deadly stand-off between police and protestors and resulted in the death of 8 people.

In 1889, at the 2nd International Labour Congress in Paris, it was decided that in memory of the victims of the Chicago workers’ protests, an international protest would be held to honour their memories on May 1st, 1889. The main goals of this international protest echoed those of the 1886 strikes: the implementation of an 8-hour workday, higher wages and better working conditions.

One year later, it was estimated that 100,000 people took part in the first worker’s protest in Germany on May 1st. From that day on, the 1st of May became an annual day of strikes and demonstrations for German workers and became a symbol of the class struggle of the Industrial Era.

! May in Kreuzberg 1987
Spontaneous Demonstration in Kreuzberg on 1 May 1987 | Source: Montagsdemo.net | CC BY-SA 2.0

Soon after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, they saw an opportunity to use May 1st to both gain support among the working class and reduce the influence of trade unions. Therefore, May 1st was quickly established as a recognized national holiday for marches and parades.

To this day, May 1st is a day of protests. In Berlin, the district of Kreuzberg is the epicentre of free-spirited, open-air parties with a touch of anarchy every year, in keeping with the May Day riots which came to a head around Görlitzer Bahnhof, Oranienstraße and Lausitzer Platz in 1987.

Lizzy Mason
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Elizabeth Mason. It’s one of four events she has chosen to remember this month. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.