Miryam Harrat explores the cultural and architectural legacy of the French sector in former West Berlin…
After the Second World War, Berlin was separated into four sectors: American, British, Soviet and French. More than 70 years later—and almost 32 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—the French presence can still be felt throughout the city, especially in Wedding and Reinickendorf, the two main districts that made up the postwar French sector of the city.
One of the major French infrastructural contributions to these districts is Tegel airport, which was built in less than three months by the French forces to the south of the Tegeler See in Reinickendorf, and opened in 1948 to support the Berlin Blockade. It became a civilian airport in 1974—its first commercial flight was operated by Air France from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Berlin-Tegel. Over subsequent decades it became something of a popular icon for many people, but was forced to finally close in 2020: the last flight to leave was also an Air France flight from Berlin-Tegel to Paris Charles de Gaulle, six decades after the debut.
Not far from Tegel is the so-called “Quartier Napoléon“, also in Reinickendorf. Located along the bustling Kurt-Schumacher-Damm, it was the headquarters of the largest garrison of French Forces in Germany stationed in Berlin during the Cold War, between 1947 and 1990.
The history of the barracks begins in April 1945 when it was taken by the Red Army during the liberation of Berlin. Heavily damaged, it was later taken over by the French occupation forces who rebuilt it between 1945 and 1952, gave it its Francophone nickname (it’s officially called the Julius Leber Barracks) and made the headquarters of the French command in Berlin.
As the barracks were located in the French sector, a Catholic church for the soldiers and their families was built between 1952 and 1953. Between 1955 and 1956, the French military government decided to build a cultural centre with a cinema called “L’Aiglon” and a four-star hotel with a restaurant; these have been closed since 1994. Many people would like to see the cinema open, but at the time of writing there is nothing planned.
These cites, built from the 1950s onwards at the request of the French military government, were used to house air force personnel, notably in the cités Pasteur, Guynemer and Joffre near the Tegel airport. Another French housing estate was located in Wittenau on the Avenue Charles de Gaulle: the Cité Foch. It was the largest French cité in Berlin, with several schools, sports facilities, a shopping centre, cinema, church, even a festival hall—but was not accessible to everyone because of the presence of military installations.
In 1991, there were 2,900 inhabitants in these French cités; since the departure of the French in 1994, the German federal government has taken possession of them, and only the houses are used—today 1,500 flats have been renovated and are occupied, and the terraced garages of the French housing estates have been classified as protected monuments as they represent the architecture of the 1950s.
A little further on, in Wedding, is the Centre Français de Berlin, which with its miniature Eiffel Tower is probably one of the most conspicuously French areas in the city. Managed by the French Forces until 1992, the premises were transferred to the Federal Republic of Germany when the 2+4 Treaty was signed.
Since then, the cultural centre has been managed jointly by France, through the Paris-based CEI (Centre d’Echanges Internationaux) and the SPI (Stiftung Sozialpädagogisches Institut Berlin). The centre also houses a three-star hotel and a restaurant, “Chez Gustave”, where visitors can enjoy tasty Provencal cuisine at lunchtime or an apéro at the bar before watching a film at the in-house City Kino Wedding.
Further north lies the ‘La gare Française de Berlin-Tegel’, the original railway station of Berlin-Tegel airport, which opened in 1947 and today houses the Tegel S-Bahn station. At the time, the station was used to transport military equipment and soldiers of the French forces in Berlin, but later on it enabled travellers—especially French exchange students and French soldiers and their families who were stationed in Berlin—to travel from France to Berlin with the French military train (TMFB – Train militaire français de Berlin) right until September 1994. The TMFB ran three times a week from Berlin-Tegel to Strasbourg; from there, passengers had to take an SNCF train to continue their journey to their final destination. At its peak the train could carry up to 100,000 passengers per year.
During the Berlin Blockade, the French military government in Berlin decided to build the cultural centre Maison de France between 1948 and 1950, in the former British sector along Kurfürstendamm (the French sector was deemed too far away from the centre). Originally constructed in 1897 for commercial and residential use, the building underwent various changes, the last one in 1948 by the architect Hans Semrau—since this renovation took place during the Berlin Blockade, Herr Semrau had to scale down his plans due to the difficulty of obtaining building materials.
The Maison de France was finally inaugurated in the presence of the French commander, General Ganeval, the French High Commissioner, François-Poncet, and the Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter on 21 April 1950. The French Cultural Centre was intended as a meeting place to promote Franco-German relations and to spread French culture and language in Germany, and today it still houses a cinema (“Le Cinéma Paris“, run by Yorck kinos), a library with a reading room, and the restaurant “Le Paris”.
It also houses the French consulate, which in 1983 was targeted by a terrorist attack that killed one person and injured 23. The attack was claimed by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and orchestrated by Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. The explosion caused extensive damage: the roof of the building was torn off, the fourth floor was destroyed and a large part of the building collapsed. The damage was estimated at 2.5 million marks. After this attack, the French Consulate moved to the premises of the French Embassy on the Pariser Platz.
After two years of works the Maison de France was reopened in 1985 in the presence of French President François Mitterand and the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After German reunification, the German government transferred ownership of the building to the French state. Today, the building is the headquarters of the Institut Français de Berlin, whose main mission is to promote the French language and culture in Berlin and the region.