A Walk Around Berlin’s Former Customs Wall

Kieran Drake explores the traces of the city’s former customs and excise wall…

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is featured in many iconic Cold War images as a symbol of the division of the city during those decades; the grandiose symbol of Prussian victory humbly transformed into a decorative marker, set right next to the physical Wall, between East and West.

But that was not the first time the famous structure had formed part of a wall: a century before the Berliner Mauer was built, the gate formed part of the Customs Wall, which encircled, rather than divided, the city. Constructed in 1737 by Frederick William I, the “Soldier King” of Prussia, the wall had no defensive function but was built instead to fund Frederick William’s military ambitions; by regulating entry into and out of the city, taxes could be collected on goods such as meat, flour, textiles, metals, leather and tobacco. It also helped prevent the desertion of Prussian conscripts from the Berlin garrison.

Brandenburg Gate in 1764, view to the west

Frederick William’s determination to transform Prussia into a great military power had a profound impact on Berlin. His need for men to serve in his armies led him to promote immigration, which saw the city’s population swell from 60,000 at the start of his reign in 1713 to almost 90,000 by the time the Customs Wall was constructed.

Of that population an unbelievable one in eight–over 12,000 men in total–were soldiers stationed in the city. The needs of these armed forces led the Prussian crown to subsidise arms manufacturers and textile producers, laying the foundations for the mechanics, engineers, technicians, and entrepreneurs who were to turn Berlin into an industrial powerhouse.

At the same time, Frederick William introduced universal primary education so that his soldiers could read and write. In 1720 he founded the city’s first major hospital and medical school, the Charité, to care for them. As Mirabeau wryly noted, Prussia at this point was not a “state with an army but an army with a state.”

The Customs Wall itself was originally constructed as a wooden palisade. Franz Hessel, writing in 1929, describing the wall based on things he had read and etchings he had seen, described it as a “low city wall, more of a garden fence than a defence”, designed in a way that meant it could be moved as Berlin expanded so as to continue surrounding the city.

Between 1786 and 1802, to strengthen the Customs Wall, the wooden sections were replaced by stone and brick structures and raised to about four metres high. This made it a more effective barrier against smuggling but also meant the Wall could no longer be moved to encompass the new settlements that sprang up beyond it; by 1840 there was more of Berlin outside the wall than within it. It was abolished by decree in 1860.

It was as one of eighteen entry and exit points through the Customs Wall that the Brandenburg Gate was originally built. In the beginning, the gate was a simple, rather plain structure flanked by customs houses, but within fifty years it had been rebuilt by Frederick II as we still see it today; a dramatic Neoclassical entry point for  Berlin, originally built as a symbol of peace but soon transformed into a symbol of Prussian victory over the French (albeit still with outbuildings for collecting customs taxes).

Berlin Customs Wall around 1855

Today the Brandenburg Gate is the only one of the Customs Wall gates that survives in more than name. The other seventeen were pulled down or destroyed at differing points between 1860 and 1961. The wall itself is all but gone too, with just a short section of brickwork inconspicuously integrated into a modern building in Hannoverische Straße near Charité, and some foundations and a reconstructed fragment to be found in Stresemannstraße not far from Anhalter Bahnhof.

Despite its ostensible absence, I decided to walk its former route to discover how its traces might still impact the city today, whether in place or street names, or in the physical layout of the city. Potsdamer Platz, for example, where I start my walk, takes its name from the former city gate (Potsdamer Tor) that stood here until the 1950s.

Leipzig Gate/Potsdam Gate around 1830

As with most of the Custom Wall gates, it was named after the city it connected with, and it was at several of these gates that the city’s new train stations, completed in 1845, were built; not least because they were considered too polluting to be built inside the city. After the gates and wall were torn down, the stations remained as access points to the city and some of them – Anhalter Bahnfof, Görlizer Bahnhof, Nordbahnhof, Hamburger Bahnhof, as well as Potsdamer Bahnhof – stand as a legacy to that forgotten boundary.

Not far away is Leipziger Platz, which was initially laid out like Pariser Platz or Mehringplatz as a parade ground for Frederick William’s soldiers and once stood just inside the course of the old Customs Wall. Further north, near the River Spree, the Customs Wall remains much more elusive than the traces of its successor, the Berlin Wall, as I stroll past the white cross memorials and a section of wall from the Gdansk shipyard, abutting the Bundestag itself, that Lech Walesa climbed in 1980 to organise the strike that marked the beginning of end of the communist regime in Eastern Europe.

Across the river, I pass Frederick William’s Charité where the Customs Wall lives on, at first in name at the Platz vor dem Neuen Tor, on the site of the “New Gate”, and then with the only original surviving section of the Customs Wall, built in brick in between 1834-1836 and now hiding in plain sight, incorporated into a modern building at 9 Hannoversche Strasse and commemorated with an information board.

The original section of the wall near Charite. Photo by Kieran Drake.

Farther east, Palisadenstrasse and Linienstrasse both derive their names from the original wooden Customs Wall that ran here, marking the boundary of the city in the 1730s; to the north of Linienstrasse, Tor Strasse marks the route of the stone wall built to succeed the wooden version. Along this road, almost all the major traffic intersections mark the site of the old gates: Oranienburger Tor, Hamburger Tor, Rosanthaler Tor, Schönhauser Tor and Prenzlauer Tor.

Oranienburg Gate in 1867

Reaching Rosenthaler Platz, site of the former Rosenthaler Tor, I’m reminded that the Customs Wall served not only to tax goods but to limit access into (and out of) the city. For it was here in 1743 that the 14-year-old Moses Mendelssohn entered Berlin – through one of only two gates in the city wall through which “Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass” at that time.

Rosenthal Gate around 1800

Access was controlled by guards hired from the Jewish community, with all new Jewish arrivals not only having to register but being taxed, like livestock. For though Frederick II (Frederick the Great) had by then succeeded his father and was regarded in many ways as an enlightened monarch who later patronised Jewish intellectuals like Mendelssohn, he also believed that the numbers of Jews in Berlin should be limited and that their rights – including to freedom of movement – should be less generous than those of gentile indigenous inhabitants.

I leave the busy road near Prenzlauer Allee where Prenzlauer Tor once stood and immediately it’s quieter, the streets more or less empty as my route is flanked by first a cemetery and then the Volkspark Friedrichshain. These parks and cemeteries, like the cemeteries at Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof on Chausseestraße or in front of Hallesches Tor, are another physical legacy of the Customs Wall, having been constructed in locations that back then were outside the city walls.

For the Customs Wall also served to define the edge of the city beyond which unwanted places and institutions were to be kept. Not only railway stations and cemeteries but also prisons, execution facilities, brothels and shelters for the poor. In 1827 the city’s largest cattle market with a slaughterhouse and stables for 1000 cattle, 4000 pigs and 6000 mutton was opened just beyond the Wall near the Landsberger Tor.  In this way, the Customs Wall did actually divide the city,  not between different political regimes but into a bourgeois core and a series of inferior suburbs – a differentiation that has continued to shape the character of Berlin well into the twentieth century.

I eventually come to the Oberbaumbrücke Bridge, that symbol of reunified Berlin whose name also stems from the Customs Wall. At that time the Spree was blocked at night with spiked tree trunks to discourage smugglers. It was this giant boom or “Oberbaum” that gave the later Oberbaumbrücke its name, just as earlier in my walk I had crossed the Spree at the “Unterbaum” (which served the same purpose) near the Reichstag.

Turning west, the next few kilometres run alongside the elevated U1 railway line, which was constructed at the turn of the nineteenth century along the route of the former customs wall. Once again the gates still live on in the names of the stations that survive them: Schlesisches Tor (Silesian Gate), Kottbusser Tor (Cottbus Gate), Hallesches Tor (Halle Gate). It strikes me that though these raised lines pose no physical barrier in the way the wall which preceded them once did, they nonetheless still act as visual barriers of sorts.

Halle Gate around 1900

At Wassertor Platz, the site of the old water gate, there is not only no gate but no trace of water either. In the 1850s the Luisenstadt Canal had been dug here to link the Landwehr Canal with the Spree, at which point Wasser Tor had been built to scrutinise goods passing along the canal. But the canal never achieved significant boat traffic, and due to low flow levels its water became stagnant and so between 1926 and 1932 it was partially filled in and transformed into a sunken garden.

Water Gate in 1865

At Hallesches Tor, I am reminded once more of Franz Hessel, who in 1929 reminisced about what he’d read of “the true old Tor… two pillars on either side of the gate were joined up above by an iron rod. Decorative stone vases. As long as it was light, the gates stood open.” After the U1 I head north, passing the ruined Anhalter Station, built originally at the site of a Customs Wall gate, and which today bears silent witness to more than 9,600 Jewish citizens who were transported from here to the ghettos and concentration camps of Eastern Europe and of whom only a few survived.

Now, nearing the end of my walk, on Stresemannstraße I finally reach the second visible section of the Customs Wall. Unlike the first, however, this is not what it seems at first. While the foundations are original, this section of wall is actually a reconstruction from 1987, built by West Berlin as part of the city’s 750th anniversary celebrations to commemorate this largely forgotten chapter of the city’s history. Now both the wall and the information board beside it stand covered in graffiti and – I suspect – little noticed: one more architectural ghost in this city of memories.

Reconstructed stretch of the customs wall at Stresemannstraße. Image by Kieran Drake.

Four hours later I’m back at Potsdamer Platz, exhausted and cold but with three hundred years of Berlin history under my belt.



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