Berlin History Caught On Film

Marcel Krüger selects some seminal Berlin moments from British Pathe’s recently uploaded archive…

Earlier this year, British Pathé – the successor organisation to British Pathé and Berlin Pathé News, creators of newsreels, cinema magazines and documentaries between 1910 and 1970 – uploaded their entire collection of 85,000 historic films to its YouTube channel as part of a drive to make the archive more accessible to viewers all over the world.

Given the German capital was at the centre of much European and International news during these decades, it’s no surprise to find there are thousands of snippets featuring Berlin in the archive. Below is a small selection of seminal moments…

The German Revolution: 1918

The German Revolution (Novemberrevolution) was the politically-driven civil conflict that occurred in Germany at the end of World War I, and resulted in the dissolution of Germany’s imperial government and the birth of a republic.

The revolutionary period lasted from November 1918 until the formal establishment of the Weimar Republic in August 1919. This Pathé film of 1918 features a strange and contradictory mixture of images. On the one hand there are scenes of  jubilance at the end of the War and the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm (cue happy crowds waving at camera and people cheering returning troops and army wagons).

On the other hand, there are contrasting scenes of civil and military upheaval: soldiers carrying and setting up a machine gun in the street, groups of soldiers and sailors walking past the camera and visible machine gun damage to the Imperial Palace.

Hindenburg Election: 1932

The 1932 German presidential elections were held on 13 March (first round) and 10 April (second round run-off). They were the second and final direct elections to the office of President of the Reich (Reichspräsident), Germany’s head of state under the Weimar Republic.

The incumbent Paul von Hindenburg, first elected in 1925, was re-elected to a second seven-year term of office. His major opponent in the election was Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).

Under the Weimar system, the presidency was a powerful office and, following his re-election, Hindenburg was a key figure in the Nazi seizure of power, reluctantly appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.

This film comes with sound and French-language captions: you can see and hear Hindenburg, who was 84 at the time, being welcomed by a trombone choir.

Berlin’s Heat Dodgers: 1930s

From the same era, here’s a carefree look at Christopher Isherwood‘s 1930s Berlin – escaping the summer heat to the many beaches at the lakes surrounding the city. There are various shots of holiday-makers at the railway station with their suitcases, and aerial shots of crowded beaches and Berliners in bathing suits frolicking around.

With the lack of Nazi flags and uniforms – soon to become ubiquitous – this sunny, happy material has something of a prelapsarian atmosphere…

After The War: 1945

A more gloomy sound film portrays the last days of Berlin at War in 1945 and the immediate aftermath, showing the slow return of civil life to the destroyed city. The film opens with scenes of large buildings blazing during an R.A.F. raid on Berlin and then switches to Berlin after the fall of the city: endless bus queues and Berlin’s Trümmerfrauen forming chains to clear away rubble

But there are strange and vivid glimpses of ‘normal’ life too, on the “first warm sunny day since the city surrendered”: German children using smashed anti-aircraft guns as makeshift merry-go-rounds and platforms to watch victory parades; large groups of people seated at tables in a cafe in Charlottenburg to drink “thin beer and fruit flavoured water” as if little had happened in the preceding months and years.

Even more bizarre, perhaps, are the crowds mingling with Russian soldiers at the races and in front of the ruined tower of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche – people who, according to both countries’ propaganda, had been mortal enemies just days before.

There’s also a political aspect to the film as it shows the Potsdam conference, with the flags of UK, USA and the USSR flying from a conference hall where the Big Three meeting is taking place. It ends with several shots of Churchill chatting with Joseph Stalin, the two men who would create and name the Iron Curtain.

“Millions look to Berlin,” states the narrator. “There, of all places, the world’s future is being shaped.”

Peter Fechter dies at the Wall

Peter Fechter (14 January 1944 – 17 August 1962) was a German bricklayer from Berlin. He was 18 when he became one of the first victims of the Berlin Wall’s border guards while trying to cross over to what was then West Berlin. Fechter attempted to flee from East Germany together with his friend Helmut Kulbeik.

The plan was to hide in a carpenter’s workshop near the wall in Zimmerstrasse and, after observing the border guards from there, jump out of a window and run across the “death-strip” (a strip running between the main wall and a parallel fence on which construction had recently begun), then climb over wall into Kreuzberg, near Checkpoint Charlie.

When both reached the wall, guards fired at them. Although Kulbeik succeeded in crossing the wall, Fechter, still on the wall, was shot in the pelvis in plain view of hundreds of witnesses. He fell back into the death-strip on the Eastern side, where he remained in view of Western onlookers. He received no medical assistance from the East side and bled to death after approximately one hour.

As a result of his death, hundreds in West Berlin formed a spontaneous demonstration, shouting “Murderers!” at the border guards. The film has various shots of protesters gathering as West German patrols advance on section of wall where the shooting took place; East German soldiers carry Fechter’s body away.

There are various shots of impromptu protests at the section of the wall where the killing took place, and some haunting images of Western security personnel looking helplessly to the East.

You can browse more clips from the archive here.