Paul Sullivan takes a stroll through the history of one of Berlin’s oldest streets…
“Never since it has been here has life stopped in this street. Here is the heart, the ceaselessly breathing breast of metropolitan life. Here it breathes high up and low down, as if life itself were uncomfortably constricted above its step. Here is the source, the stream, the river, the current and the sea of movement. The movements and excitements never completely die out here, and when life almost wants to stop at the upper end of the street, it begins anew at the lower end.”
So enthused Swiss author Robert Walser about Berlin’s Friedrichstraße, in 1907. Little was he to know that just a couple of decades later, life—as many knew it at the time, anyway—along this “ceaselessly breathing breast” would come to an abrupt halt, thanks to the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler and his brown-shirted thugs, who transformed its lively cafes, cinemas and theatres into temporary prisons and “beating centres” for their political enemies.
And yet, from the perspective of Friedrichstraße itself, which boasts more history prior to the twentieth century than after it, the Nazis were a blip. Created at the end of the seventeenth century as one of the main axes for the Friedrichstadt—the fourth major expansion from the city centre and the first with an orderly geometric layout—the street was named after Friedrich I, the first Prussian King, making it one of Berlin’s oldest.
Friedrichstadt was built just outside the mediaeval city walls, and the swampy nature of the ground meant that the first houses needed to be constructed on stilts and supports. Nonetheless, the new area counted 300 homes within a year, many of them settled by Huguenots seeking refuge from the French government. Friedrichstadt was eventually incorporated, along with the rest of the central city, into the Royal Residence and Capital City of Berlin Act in 1710.
By 1725 it had more than doubled its original number of houses to 700 and Friedrichstraße was soon afterwards extended south down to the Rondell (Mehringplatz) and north to the city gate at Oranienburger Tor, creating the three-kilometre stretch it has today. For a long old while, Friedrichstadt remained a low-key, even sleepy area, characterised by its rows of austere two-storey residential houses and a smattering of stables and military barracks: the only activity would have been Prussian soldiers marching down to the Rondell (which was used as a parade ground, as was the Tempelholfer Feld farther south), or the occasional funeral procession heading to the local cemetery.
That changed in the nineteenth century, as many of the houses were replaced by four- and five-storey commercial buildings in keeping with the city’s fast-paced industrialisation, catalysed by German unification in 1871. Along the way, Friedrichstraße was transformed into a primary business artery, teeming with insurance companies, banks, government offices, publishers and newspaper offices, as well as abundant theatres, cinemas and cafes. By the turn of the twentieth century, the street’s famously dense crowds, heavy traffic and mix of hard commerce and hedonistic culture became a metaphor for the modern European metropolis.
A century on, the street has managed to survive not only the wanton destruction of the Nazis but the indecency of being chopped in half and separated by a checkpoint that almost sparked World War Three. While its post-reunification rehabilitation may leave a great deal to be desired, aesthetically speaking, traces of the street’s long and event-filled history still rewards those with a penchant for slow strolls and close urban readings.
Oranienburger Tor & Around
At its northern tip, Friedrichstraße intersects with Torstraße to the east and Hannoverschen Straße to the west, which is where the former Customs and Excise wall ran until it was pulled down in 1860; the only existing remnant can be found nearby at Hannoverschen Straße No. 9. The arched Custom Gate (Oranienburger Tor), also long-gone, stood a block or so south, where Friedrichstraße meets Oranienburger Straße, now a bustling connective hub for trams, buses, cars and U Bahn passengers.
Up until a decade or so ago, this intersection was dominated by the mighty Tacheles, a 9,000 square-metre, world-famous dilapidated artist commune that was the pride of Berlin’s alternative scene. The building it inhabited was originally constructed between 1907–1908 and known as the Friedrichstraßenpassage, a department store that stretched between Friedrichstraße and Oranienburger Straße. Bombed during World War Two and partly demolished by the GDR, the empty wreck was taken over in the early nineties by artists and squatters, who transformed it into a sprawling labyrinth of studios, galleries and workshops; it also had a nightclub, cinema, and outdoor exhibition area dotted with scrap-metal sculptures.
Tacheles came to an end in 2012, along with the venues that had mushroomed along its Friedrichstraße flank—such as the punchy King Size club and the popular Oscar Wilde Irish pub—when the city decided to tear it down and replace it with the inevitable real estate wet dream: a banal blend of luxury apartments, office space and a token commercial gallery or two to offer some cultural credentials. Gallingly, the new development has somehow been allowed to call itself Am Tacheles, unashamedly trading off its predecessor’s name—which means “straight-talking” in Yiddish, a nod to the Jewish history of the Oranienburger Straße area—despite being in direct contradistinction to its dissident spirit.
The Theatre District
The blocks south of here that lead across the snaking Spree and towards S Bahn Friedrichstraße used to be the city’s main theatre district, and many remaining buildings are still connected with theatre or entertainment in some way. The Friedrichstadt-Palast at #107, whose kitsch bulk looms conspicuously on the eastern side of the road, was founded in the 1860s on nearby Schiffbauerdamm as Berlin’s first market hall. When the market hall failed the venue became a circus, then the Großes Schauspielhaus, a theatre run by Max Reinhardt. It was transformed into a striking expressionist palace by architect Hans Poelzig in 1919, complete with curvaceous columns and an immense domed ceiling with ‘stalactites’ and countless lightbulbs designed to emulate the night sky.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the Nazis who killed off this particular modernist vision: they simply renamed it the Theater des Volkes and used it for their dull bourgeois operettas. It was their GDR successors who declared the building unsafe and demolished it in the 1980s, having renamed it the Friedrichstadt-Palast after the war. It was reconstructed in 1984 where it now stands on Friedrichstraße, and although fairly upbeat for an East German construction, and hugely successful as a mainstream revue theatre, pales in comparison to Poelzig’s masterpiece.
Just past the Weidendammer Bridge, on the corner now dominated by the Melia hotel, once stood the glamorous Alte Komische Oper Berlin, built between 1904 and 1905 in a curious but comely blend of neo-baroque and art nouveau styles. It had a short, beleaguered life before being destroyed in World War Two. Across the street on the Schiffbauerdamm—close to where the Friedrichstadt-Palast once stood—the neo-baroque Berliner Ensemble had better luck. Originally built in 1892 as the Neues Theatre, it was renamed to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and opened with high-profile plays by Goethe (Iphigenie auf Tauris) and Die Weber (“The Weavers”) by Gerhart Hauptmann.
Run for a time by the ubiquitous Reinhardt (1903-1906), before he re-opened the Großes Schauspielhaus, it also hosted the world premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper (“The Threepenny Opera)” in 1928, inaugurating its relationship with Bertolt Brecht. Upon returning to Berlin after World War Two, Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble with his wife Helene Weigel in 1949 as a touring company and branch of the Deutsches Theater and took over the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1954, changing its name in the process. After Brecht’s death a couple of years later, Weigel carried on as company director until her own demise in 1971. Today, the theatre still regularly hosts Brecht’s plays alongside other productions.
Back on Friedrichstraße, at #101, is the last of the street’s existing historic theatres—the Admiralspalast. Having started life as a bathhouse built in 1873-4, due to the discovery of a saltwater spring in the ground, it was renamed the Admiralspalast in 1910 and expanded into a four-storey “pleasure palace”, its richly decorated baths open day and night and supplemented with an ice rink showcasing ice ballets, bowling alleys, a cinema, and restaurants.
After World War Two, the Admiralpalast’s auditorium was used for the conference that created the foundation of the SED. Renamed the Metropol-Theater in the Admiralspalast during its East German years, it presented operettas and non-risque Broadway musicals, though the smaller Distel theatre—founded within the Palast in 1954 and still going today—somehow managed to get away with regularly lampooning the authorities and everyday life in the GDR. Refurbished in 2006 with some of the original marble tiles, mosaics and stained glass from its bathhouse heyday (they had been stored in a Lichtenberg depot), it again serves as an entertainment venue.
S Bahn Friedrichstraße & Around
Across from the Admiralspalast sits the glass-and-steel bulk of S Bahn Friedrichstraße, a fairly nondescript station with a modern mall-like interior. As unexciting as it appears today, when it opened in 1882 the station was bedecked in attractive dark terracotta tiles (some of these have been reconstructed on the northern side) and significant enough to be regularly referred to as the city’s ‘central station’. Indeed, a few years later in 1888, the Central Hotel opened right next door. An imposing neo-Renaissance construction, it occupied an entire block (#143-149), boasted an interior awash with marble and mahogany, and offered 600 rooms, numerous salons, dining and reading rooms, a bar and library, and a vast winter garden.
The area around the hotel and station at the turn of the twentieth century was more or less constantly thronged by a cross-section of Berlin society: dapper men in top hats and elegantly dressed women, office clerks and policemen, newspaper-sellers and barrow-boys, pickpockets and prostitutes, all packed tightly as together on the pavement as the horse-drawn trams, open-topped motor vehicles, cyclists and hand-carts were along the main thoroughfare. The theatres, cinemas and upscale hotels and restaurants gave the street a reputation for glamour, but after dark, it also offered an atmosphere of eroticism with increasingly lascivious cabaret shows and the ubiquitous Kokotten (high-class prostitutes) plying their trade in cafes and bars, as well as the street’s dark alleyways and dimly-lit doorways.
Rober Walser wasn’t the only artist drawn to the street’s seething, neon-lit excess. Cultural critics such as Siegfried Krakauer penned essays linking the Tiller Girls—an English all-female troupe who performed at the Friedrich-Palast and other Berlin venues–with the increasing mechanisation of society (as well as imagining Friedrichstraße from the perspective of a locomotive driver gazing down from the S Bahn bridge), Paul Boldt wrote poems about the prostitutes, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner depicted them in vertiginous Expressionist style.
But not everyone was impressed. “I would not have thought such an air of artificially cultivated, meanest and most refined sexuality possible, but I understand Berlin better now – the character of Friedrichstraße has rubbed off on the whole city,” wrote German philosopher Martin Heidegger to his wife Elfride, during a visit in 1918, adding: “The people here have lost their soul […] In such an environment, true intellectual culture is impossible—a priori impossible.” No doubt, as an unrepentant Nazi, he was content to see his party put a stop to the Weimar era’s gleeful epicureanism.
Much has happened in and around the S Bahn station since its prewar heyday, and a quick stroll around reveals fragments of that darker history. On the southern side is the moving Trains to Life, Trains to Death bronze memorial, which reminds passersby and passengers of the 10,000 Jewish children evacuated from here to Britain between 1938-1939—but also of the 1.6 million who were deported and brutally murdered in concentration camps. On the street-facing wall of the nearby McDonalds, a small plaque pays homage to a couple of war deserters caught and hung at that spot by SS officers—a fairly common sight by 1945.
Following the war, the S Bahn station came to play a special role in the city’s subsequent division of the city. On its Spree side, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe almost built Berlin’s first American-style skyscraper in the 1920s, lies the Tränenpalast, or ‘Palace of Tears’, an access building constructed during the Cold War to control passengers passing through the station between east and west Berlin. The tears are a reference to the many sad farewells people were forced to say here as they parted ways, and the venue now serves as a museum and memorial tracing some of that history.
Due to its use as a checkpoint, the trains on the S Bahn station’s lower platforms could only be used by west Berliners, turning it into a so-called ‘ghost station’ for east Berliners—a bitter twist of fate given the area’s former intense activity. Inside the station were Intershops, where west Berliners could buy cigarettes, sweets, alcohol and perfume with their (to the GDR) valuable currency.
In her essay Homesick for Sadness, Berlin writer (and film director) Jenny Erpenbeck recounts her time living near the station as a teenager, when “Westerners who hadn’t managed to spend all the money they’d been forced to exchange sometimes handed me twenty-mark bills. These Westerners looked as though they were a little ashamed to be treating me like a beggar, and they also looked as if they didn’t have a clue how things actually worked here in the East, and they looked as if they were glad to be able to go back to where they knew their way around.”
It was also right below the station, in December 1961, that 21-year-old east German resident Ingo Krüger slipped into the water wearing diving gear. His aim was to be united with his girlfriend in the west, who was nervously waiting for him on the other side. Despite being a good diver, Ingo didn’t make it: his body was retrieved by border guards the same evening.
South of the S Bahn & Checkpoint Charlie
On the corner of Mittelstrasse is the striking Polnische Apotheke, which was originally founded in 1706, though no one seems quite sure if there was ever anything Polish about it. The current façade, restored in 1999, bears a ‘Polish eagle’ that could just as easily be Prussian and dates back to 1899. A plaque on the building informs that writer Theodor Fontane worked here between 1845-1846 as an assistant—an experience he recounted in Von Zwanzig bis Dreissig.
Traversing Unter den Linden, you’ll spot the Westin Grand hotel on the corner of Behrenstrasse: a revamp of one of the few GDR luxury hotels in the city (The Grand Hotel), it was inaugurated by GDR leader Erich Honecker himself and only accessible to foreigners. Though there are no traces of it now, this block was once occupied by one of the street’s most magnificent buildings, the Kaisergalerie. Opened in 1873 to coincide with the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm I, it was created by Walter Kyllmann and Adolf Heyden with elaborate facades of sandstone and terracotta, and covered by an elegant glass roof. As well as a concert hall, restaurants, a hotel, office space and a shopping arcade with over fifty shops and cafés, the Kaisergalerie was also home to the Panoptikum, a waxworks exhibition and major tourist attraction.
Further down (#176-179) stands another blocky Cold War throwback, the Russian House of Science and Culture. Formerly the House of Soviet Science and Culture, it was designed by Karl-Ernst Swora and opened in 1984. Allegedly the largest Russian cultural institute in the world, it continues to host conferences, film festivals, theatre shows and more.
Nearby, at the junction of Kronenstrasse, fixed to a column of the Dresdner Bank building, is a plaque memorialising the barricades erected here (and at nearby Jägerstrasse) during the March Revolution of 1848. Inspired by the February Revolution in France the same year, a mix of local workers, students, women and children overturned hackney carriages and barrels in protest at their autocratic leaders, demanding a united Germany, and freedom of the press and of assembly. Despite defending themselves against the military with rifles, axes, stones and bayonets, over 250 people were killed before the day was over, and most of their hard-won concessions were blithely retracted a year later.
Luckily only ideological battle was waged at Checkpoint Charlie just along the road—although it came perilously close on October 27th, 1961, when U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off across the border. Thankfully the barky faux ‘East German’ soldiers who harassed tourists for cash outside the replica checkpoint have finally been dismissed, and two experiences—the Asisi Panorama, a large-scale art installation that helps visitors imagine how it was to peek over the Wall onto the death strip and bleak grey factory chimneys of the East; and the BlackBox Cold War museum, which explores the wider context of global cold war politics—are more interesting than the overpriced and overrated Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum and the garish Trabant museum. The free outdoor photo gallery is worth a look too.
Southern Friedrichstraße (Kreuzberg)
While the transition from “east to west” after Checkpoint Charlie is nowhere near as dramatic as it used to be—you don’t need a passport any more—there are still some visible indicators that you’ve changed ‘zones’. As a matter of fact, this Kreuzberg part of the street, known today as “Southern Friedrichstadt”, has been officially separated from the Mitte section since the 1920 Greater Berlin Act.
This disunity was exacerbated somewhat during the Cold War years, not least architecturally, as is immediately clear from the building that hosts the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum, which has ditched the prefabricated slabs preferred by the GDR in favour of a more adventurous and ‘western’ postmodern style. This building was part of the International Building Exhibition Berlin (IBA), an urban renewal project commissioned throughout parts of West Berlin, including this stretch of Friedrichstraße, in 1984 and completed in 1987 for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin.
East Germany also undertook restoration projects for the same anniversary, but where they indulged in mostly historicist reconstructions, the West Berlin authorities drafted in a slew of notable international architects to design buildings that were alternative and progressive, including gardens, memorials, and an array of urban housing typologies. Although many of these pomo styles seem dated by now, and even easy to miss, several still catch the eye, including John Hejduk’s distinctive Gate House and Clock Tower at #234
Closer by, at #32-33, is an equally arresting residential block by Raimund Abraham, which employs radical façade and balcony constructions—though it’s likely the building to its right (#34) has caught your eye more. This imposing slice of Nazi architecture was built in the 1930s to house offices and was repurposed soon after as the snappily titled Reich Ministry of Armaments and War Production. It now serves as an unemployment office, but look up to see a rare Reichsadler (heraldic Adler) perched at the top.
On the other side of the street are a couple of examples of Southern Friedrichstraße’s attempts at gentrification: the hip westberlin cafe (#215) and the discreet Michelin-star concept restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig at #218. Despite these efforts, it’s hard to shake the impression—as you walk past a KiK budget clothing store, a one-euro shop, and some simple local cafes—that this section of the street has been somewhat neglected compared to the Mitte side, which despite its general sterility was given a huge cash injection in the nineties.
This impression is only bolstered by the appearance of the slick 2008 building that houses the Taz newspaper, the city’s primary left-wing publication, and the neighbouring Bauhütte project, a cheerful community space that calls itself Frieda Süd (get it?) and comes with a Basic Income Café, a self-help bicycle workshop, and hosts numerous NGOs, initiatives and associations. Notwithstanding the upbeat look of these places, they underline the Sozialstaat nature of the area in a way that would have made the GDR proud.
There are traces of older Berlin too. At #221 is the Hotel Angleterre, constructed in 1891 and largely destroyed in the war, its attractive neo-renaissance façade, complete with gables, turrets, bay windows and a stone gargoyle, remains, though A. Gutschow’s merchant house (#17), built in 1895-1896, steals the show with its richly detailed exterior. From 1910, this building housed the Academy for Magic Art, and later housed famous magician Friedrich Wilhelm Conradi Horster, becoming known as the “Mecca of magic art”.
Hermann and Paul Gutschow also owned the building across the street at #234, where a memorial testifies how they allowed its warehouse and cellar to be used by the Nazis as early as 1932. They became one of the first concentration camps in Berlin, nicknamed “Blood Castle” by prisoners, – where hundreds of trade unionists, communists, social democrats and Jews were interrogated and tortured.
Somewhat paradoxically, feminist, author and publicist Hedwig Dohm—famous for her “Human rights have no gender” quote—was born right next door at #235 in 1831, the same place that Adelbert von Chamisso died in 1838 (the house they both lived in is long gone). And nearby Theodor Wolff Park, created as part of the IBA and refurbished in recent years, is named in honour of the Jewish journalist and writer, whose work was of such a high standard that Goebbels made his staff study it; arrested following self-imposed exile in France, Wolff was sent to Sachsenhausen but was released due to chronic illness and died shortly afterwards in hospital.
Then comes the pedestrianised zone that leads to Mehringplatz. Looking at the low-key postwar residential blocks that surround the circular plaza now, which even the various urban art pieces (including a famous one by international artist Shepard Fairey) can’t quite elevate, it’s almost impossible to imagine it as “the Rondell” in the early eighteenth century. Modelled on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, its stately column—commemorating the battle of Waterloo—was the first of its kind in the city.
How the plaza, and the history-filled street leading up to it for that matter, will look in three hundred years from now is, well, anyone’s guess. Especially considering how it looked in 1730…