On the Heerstrasse

Marcel Krueger discovers an abundance of history along West Berlin’s Heerstrasse…

Theodor-Heuss-Platz

West Berlin’s Heerstrasse isn’t much to look at. A mundane, five-lane expressway connecting the trade fair with the district of Spandau in the west, it eventually morphs into federal highway No. 5, transporting its human cargo towards the northern city of Hamburg. But to stroll alongside this Ballardian mesh of concrete and speeding metal is to cut a cross-section through 150 years of Berlin history – to follow in the footsteps of emperors, no less.

Heerstraße (literally Army Road) begins in the German Empire at Theodor-Heuss-Platz in Charlottenburg, close to the expo halls, the Funkturm and the International Congress Centre (ICC). Until March 1950, this part of Heerstraße was still known as Kaiserdamm, or Emperor’s Embankment. Heerstrasse was planned and built as a military road, connecting the Prussian military training ground at Döberitzer Heide with the Berlin City Palace.

Roadworks started in 1874, and the road was officially opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II here in Charlottenburg in 1911. There were no houses then, only an empty roundabout and a few roads.

The street skips the Weimar Berlin, heading straight into Nazi Germany in the shape of the long, grey, nondescript building at No. 12, a.k.a. the former headquarter of the Reichsjugendführung, erected in 1938. The Reichsjugendführung was an organisation set up to control all the German youth organisations of the time, including the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) and the BDM, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, its female counterpart.

Its director Artur Axmann, whose office was located in Heerstrasse 12, stayed in the Führerbunker during Hitler’s last days and escaped from Berlin to the front lines of the Western Allies during the final outbreak from the lair a few hours before Hitler’s suicide.

More Nazi buildings follow: besides the colossal Olympic stadium and the surrounding park, erected for the games in 1936 and still used for a variety of activities such as the final of the 2006 Soccer World Cup and Hertha Berlin football matches, there’s another relic from these times still utilised today.

Behind the Pichelsberg S-Bahn-station, you will find the Waldbühne, or forest stage, built as part of the Olympic development and one of the main open-air-stages in Berlin today. When attending Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen shows here, few concert goers are aware that this was Albert Speer‘s Ting, built in the style of ancient Nordic tribal assemblies.

Commonwealth War Cemetery by M. Krueger

At Scholzplatz, Heerstrasse makes a slight bend to the north-west and towards World War II. On the southern side of the road lies the Commonwealth War Cemetery, also known as the Berlin War Cemetery. Modern armies tend to bring their dead home today, but this is in fact a rather modern tradition.

Up until the end of the Cold War, fallen soldiers tended to be buried were they died, which is why Berlin has French, Russian, and Commonwealth cemeteries. The cemetery on Heerstrasse, constructed between 1955 and 1957, looks similar to British WWI war graves in the north of France: rows and rows of uniform white headstones and a large white cross standing on precisely cut green lawns

The entrance is formed by three limestone arches with wrought iron gates. There are 3,594 people laid to rest here; including 260 burials from the post-war British Occupation Authorities staff, or their relatives, even the graves of small children who died from sickness. Of the wartime burials, about 80% were aircrew, killed in action over Germany: the remainder was made up by prisoners of war.

Further west, Heerstraße becomes the Stößensee bridge, a green steel crossing of the Havelchaussee, a promenade along the Havel, and Stößensee Lake itself. There’s a small memorial to two Soviet pilots attached to the railing of the bridge, a reminder that Heerstrasse plunges into the Cold War here.

Stößensee was the site of a spectacular plane crash in April 1966, when a Soviet Yak-28 jet bomber crashed into the lake. The plane with a crew of two had taken off from Finow airport in the GDR, but developed technical problems shortly after take-off. Captain Boris Kapustin and Lieutenant Yuri Yanov decided to land their stricken jet in the lake, thus avoiding the nearby residential areas, both dying upon impact.

As this crash happened in the British occupation zone, and due to the fact that the Yak-28 model was also used as a spy-plane, a stand-off ensued between British soldiers from nearby Gatow RAF base and Soviet soldiers rushed here from the Russian war memorial in Tiergarten (where the Russians were not actually officially allowed to station troops); the plane was subsequently raised and searched by the British authorities before being handed over to the Russians.

Heerstrasse has many more sights and relics from all stages of Berlin’s history, including an apartment building designed by Le Corbusier, the Jordanian embassy, a former border crossing, derelict Soviet barracks and the Olympic Village at its end.

But maybe it’s best if we end our stroll on a positive note, away from wartime dead and Nazi megalomania, returning to the Weimar Berlin we skipped by way of a detour: in Staaken, shortly before the former West Berlin/GDR border crossing, there is a small housing estate composed of strange-looking, almost cubic semi-detached houses.

New Jerusalem by Erwin Gutkind

This is Neu-Jerusalem (or New Jerusalem), built by Erwin Gutkind between 1923 and 1925 in the style of neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) for employees of the nearby zeppelin airfield. New Objectivity followed the new democratic Weimar constitution from 1919, which promised ‘a healthy dwelling’ for every single German.

This phrase from the constitution became the leitmotif for the architectural movement which used square forms, glass and wide open spaces to guarantee fresh air and access to green space, transport, and other residential amenities to residents.

Once a place where soldiers marched back and forth on a road built through nowhere, Heerstrasse now provides a compelling, if unofficial, route through Berlin history.