Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany, with a unique history. It is also the most species-rich in the world and the most-visited zoo in Europe. The 86-acre site next to the Tiergarten park has an abundance of trees and greenery; the animal houses are architectural gems and the enclosures are generous and well-kept. Famous inmates like Knut, the polar bear and Bao Bao the giant panda have contributed to the zoo’s international profile. In the 1980s, my children loved going to the Berlin Zoo and even had the opportunity to meet two baby tigers.
Cuddly baby tigers
The Antelope House
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten, to give it its full name, owes its existence to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who was a passionate animal-lover. Together with his first wife, Louise, he established an impressive menagerie on the romantic Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) on the Havel river and opened it to the public. After he died in 1840, his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was happy to gift this private zoo to the people of Berlin and in 1844, after three years of construction, the Berlin Zoo opened on its current site. Two great Berliners, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné were key players in the realisation of this project.
Zoo entrance in 1960
In 1869, Dr Heinrich Bodinus, director of the Cologne Zoological Garden, took on the management of the Berlin Zoo and until his death in 1884, he added many more species and built new exotic animal houses. Ludwig Heck, also from the Cologne Zoo, took over from 1881 when he was only 28 years old and was Director of the Berlin Zoo until 1931. These were golden years which saw the construction of the beautiful Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse and many more animal houses, including the stunning aquarium in 1913. In 1932 Heck passed the baton to his son, Dr Lutz Heck, and the zoo park was modernised again, with outdoor enclosures using natural stone. However, Heck Junior was a Nazi sympathiser who used forced labour as workers.
A memorial bust to Dr Lutz Heck and explanation of his political leanings
The fabulous Aquarium
By 1939, the Berlin Zoo boasted over 4,000 animals, belonging to 1,400 species. Only 91 animals survived the war, including the popular hippo, Knautschke, the elephant bull Siam and the chimpanzee, Suse. The bombing in 1943 and 1944 more or less destroyed the entire zoo and there are many apocryphal stories about what happened to the thousands of animals during the bombing. Elephants and Tigers were said be roaming the streets, with snakes and crocodiles hiding in dark corners. In fact, most of the animals died, but it is true that some of their meat was used to feed the starving Berliners. If you follow this link, you can read more about the zoo’s wartime story.
Elephant gate after bombing
Elephant Gate today
As the first female zoo director in Germany, Dr Katharina Heinroth took on the task of the rebuilding the destroyed zoo from the rubble and was able to build something better out of its tragedy. There was much reconstruction, but innovation was also born out of devastation. The zoo that emerged from the chaos was more progressive and mirrored the real habitats of the animals.
Berlin Zoo’s full name is the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – the same as the station opposite its ‘Lion’ entrance gates (Löwentor). During the city’s division from 1949 until 1989, the Zoo was stranded in West Berlin and its eponymous station served as the main transportation hub of West Berlin. At this point several U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines of city public transport intersected. The station also served as a starting point of long distance trains, and the city’s biggest bus terminal is still there. Its pop-culture prominence started in the 1970s when the area around the station became a sordid gathering place for teenage drug addicts and prostitutes. These days it is well-known for its Currywurst stand.
Curry 36 at Bahnhof Zoo
In 1955, the GDR opened its ‘own zoo’, the ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park), in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin, which at 400 acres is the largest landscaped zoo in Europe. This means that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a choice of two excellent zoos in the German capital. But there is something extra special about the Zoologischer Garten in the city centre. My recent visit was in glorious autumn weather. The zoo park couldn’t have looked better. There were no pacing animals in small spaces and Giant Pandas, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng looked very content exploring the undergrowth. The environment is as natural as possible with plenty of vegetation, rock, stone and water in evidence. We mainly stayed outside in the sunshine and a favourite enclosure was an aviary for sea birds where visitors can sit in a typical North German beach chair by the lapping water. The café facilities were excellent too, although they were not being tested to full capacity early on a Sunday morning.
Panda at play
Sitting at the seaside
‘Forest Hut’ café
Berlin Zoo’s website has all the details of opening times, ticket prices. feeding times and special events. There are opportunities to see into the zoo from outside as well. The path from Zoo Station into the Tiergarten runs alongside the camel and bison enclosure and the Bikini Berlin shopping centre has a terrace with great views of the monkey enclosures. To get a panoramic view of the whole site, take the lift to the Monkey Bar on the tenth floor of the Bikini Berlin Hotel or book a penthouse room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with its ‘Zoofenster’ (zoo window) tower.
Elephants and Zoofenster tower
The story of Jewish Berlin will be forever tragically linked to the Holocaust. Nothing can change this statement, but today’s Berliners are still making efforts to ensure that the fate of their persecuted predecessors will never be forgotten. Recently, I discovered another neighbourhood initiative to keep alive the memory of their Jewish community in Berlin before the war: Café Haberland above the U-Bahn Station Bayerischer Platz in the borough of Schöneberg.
Café Haberland above the U-Bahn station
This café-museum opened in 2014 and is named after father and son, Salomon and Georg Haberland, founders of the local district called ‘Das Bayerische Viertel’ (The Bavarian Quarter), where many of the streets are named after towns in Bayern (Bavaria). A central point for Jewish intellectual life in pre-Nazi Berlin, it is also referred to as ‘Jewish Switzerland’ because of the many influential Jews who came to live there, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin.
Einstein at home in Berlin
The well-known Berlin coffee-house chain ‘Café Einstein’ now runs the gastronomic side of Café Haberland and local volunteers man the museum side of things. I enjoyed a good breakfast there, then read through some of the documentation about the history of the Bayerisches Viertel and what happened to its Jewish inhabitants during the Nazi period. I watched film material and listened to interviews at the video and audio stations. The literature and reports are available in English as well as German and make an emotional impact with their very personal stories. The stated aim of the exhibition, to build a bridge between the past and the present, succeeds perfectly.
Volunteers with the Mayor of Schöneberg
Inside the café-museum
You can also get a feel for the neighbourhood by looking around the wall displays in the entrance hall of the Bayerischer Platz U-Bahn station. They feature large photographs and information boards tracing the origins of the Bayerisches Viertel and give brief details of some of the illustrious Germans who lived there. Carl Zuckmayer, author of ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ is pictured below.
Pictures at the underground exhibition
Outside the station, the main square of Bayerischer Platz was originally landscaped in 1908, comprising a green area, benches, a fountain and promenades. It soon became the central meeting place for the area, surrounded by prestigious shops, cafés, medical practices and banks. It is still a pleasant open space, reflecting the calm atmosphere of this residential district where the buildings are set back from the street with pretty gardens and wide pavements.
Bayersicher Platz – then and now
Having remained a village since the 13th century, Schöneberg boomed at the end of the 19th century when Berlin’s population exploded and villagers sold off their agricultural land to developers. The most prominent developer was Georg Haberland, son of textile manufacturer Salomon Haberland. The Bayerisches Viertel, which he built between 1900 and 1914, was an area of quiet residential streets, lined with grand buildings containing large apartments decorated with stucco work and marble. One is called Haberlandstraße, where Albert Einstein lived at number 5 from 1917 until 1932. The Nazis, who hated wealthy Jews like Haberland, changed the street’s name in 1938, although it was eventually restored in 1996.
Information board outside the site of Einstein’s home
Before the war, Schöneberg attracted the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as lawyers, doctors, businessmen and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, there were over 16,000 Jews in the Bayerisches Viertel. The Nazis soon began their persecution of the Jews and their rights were cruelly eroded. At the end of February 1943, the roundups, arrests and deportations started and by June that year, the whole borough of Schöneberg was declared “free of Jews’. In the allied bombing that followed, 75% of the buildings in the Bayerisches Viertel were destroyed.
Haberland Strasse in 1925
The ‘Orte des Erinnerns’ (Places of Remembrance), a memorial concept in the Bayersiches Viertel, makes a powerful statement. It’s a network of eighty signs hanging from street lamps inscribed with the laws introduced by the Nazis to discriminate against the Jewish population; some strategically located to link them to present-day reality. For example, a sign in front of a playground states, “Aryan and non-Aryan children are forbidden to play together”. The eighty scattered signs are gathered together on three large billboards at Rathaus Schöneberg Town Hall, Bayerischer Platz and in front of the Münchener Straβe Gymnasium (Grammar School). Each billboard shows pre- and post-war maps of the area, one from1933 and the other from 1993. For an English translation of the signs follow this link. They defy belief. The sign below, depicting a loaf of bread on one side, states that “Jews are only allowed to buy food between 4pm and 5pm”.
After walking around the Bayerisches Viertel, you might want to return to Café Haberland for a restorative cup of tea or coffee. Finding and reading the signs is a sobering experience. In warmer weather you can sit outside on the balcony and once a month there are ‘Jazz on the Roof’ evenings. It’s a great meeting place with an eclectic modern feel combined with echoes of a past era. Follow this link to the Café’s website to find full details of opening times and events.
Breakfast at Café Haberland
The long, grand boulevard of the Kurfürstendamm, referred to by Berliners as the Ku’damm, dates back to 1542 and takes its name from the Kurfürsten (Prince Electors) of Brandenburg when it was a bridle-path to their Grunewald hunting lodge. Since the days of the Kaiser this avenue has been lined with shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and street cafés. Tall, black wrought-iron street lamps bow elegantly above bold pavement display cases introduced by the Nazis and the buildings are set well back from the road to allow plenty of room for promenading. The street corners have quaint kiosks and the old-style ‘Litfaβsäule’, columns plastered with advertisements of all the current shows and concerts. In summer the four rows of magnificent plane trees hide the parked traffic in the central reservation and in winter their branches sparkle with white lights.
Pavement display cases
After the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, Bismarck wanted the Ku’damm to become Berlin’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was widened to about 53 metres and construction started on some of the city’s most prestigious addresses. These buildings had ornate façades with columns, gables, towers, huge bay windows and grand entrances with equally impressive interiors. Over half these magnificent structures were destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War, but many have been lavishly restored.
Commerzbank at 59, Ku’damm
A good way to admire the Ku’damm architecture is to take a ride on the top deck of one of the buses that run up and down the boulevard. Haus Cumberland at 193-194, Ku’damm is among the finest buildings along the route. This listed building was originally constructed in 1911-12 and named after Ernst August of Hanover, Third Duke of Cumberland, who was stripped of his English title when he sided with the Germans in the First World War. Haus Cumberland has a colourful history. It covers 10,000 square metres and was conceived as a ‘Boarding Palast’ or apartment hotel, with three elaborate courtyards forming the heart of the complex. Unfortunately, the owner was declared bankrupt before the final opening. After this venture failed, the building was briefly used by the Imperial Arms and Ammunition Procurement Office and then converted into a grand hotel.
The original ‘Boarding Palace’ in 1912
One of the courtyards and the reading and writing room
In the years that followed the First World War, Haus Cumberland contained the main post office building and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as theatres and cinemas. In the Nazi era it housed government finance offices that played a part in the expropriation and plundering of Jewish property. From 1966 to 2003, the Berlin Regional Tax Office was the new landlord and from 2003 it stood empty, apart from the shops on the ground floor, and the interior was sometimes rented out as a backdrop for Hollywood films.
Haus Cumberland in 1968
After new plans for a luxury hotel failed, the property was sold to a business consortium in 2010.The building was meticulously renovated for heritage status and the Ku’damm façade was returned to its original state. There are now 185 apartments at the rear of the complex and a number of shops at the front.
New apartments and courtyards
Behind the grand entrance to Haus Cumberland is the much-vaunted café-restaurant ‘Grosz’, named after Berlin artist George Grosz (1893-1959), best known for his socially critical paintings from the 1920s, who lived in nearby Savigny Platz during the Golden Twenties.
Entrance to ‘Grosz’
Berlin street scene by Georg Grosz
‘Grosz’ opened its doors to the public in 2012 – a century after Haus Cumberland was originally completed. At the time, the Berlin press proclaimed it as a great example of how the Ku’damm and West Berlin are on the road to being cool and hip again, although the truth of this statement is debatable. But ‘Grosz’ is definitely worth a visit, both for its atmosphere and for its food and drink. Run by the owner of ‘Borchardt’, the famous celebrity dining establishment in Berlin-Mitte, ‘Grosz’ exudes the same sophistication. The interior décor looks genuinely historic and expensive and the waiting staff are crisply-dressed in white and black.
As ‘Grosz’ is a coffee house, bar and restaurant all in one location, you don’t have to order food with your drink. But if you are calling in for coffee it’s hard to resist the display of exquisite cakes by the entrance. Beyond it is a bar area serving fine cocktails which opens into the actual restaurant rooms with the highest ceilings imaginable, ornate pillars and walls covered with antique mirrors and paintings.
Sweet treats ……
….. and the bar
The ambience of ‘Grosz’ is best described as a mixture between a Vienna café of the Art Nouveau era and a French Brasserie. I went there for dinner soon after it opened and had a memorable meal. The menu focuses around classics like oysters served on a silver pedestal, various steak cuts and seasonal dishes with a French twist. At lunchtime there is always a plat du jour. Five years ago, the food and the service were both excellent, but the place was rather empty and I felt that things had yet to get into their stride. Recently, I have returned to ‘Grosz’ both for an evening drink and for a Berlin-style Sunday breakfast. It seems to have a more laid-back feel to it now, without losing its elegance and wow factor and almost succeeds in capturing the elusive Berlin feeling of bygone days.
A ‘Grosz’ breakfast
A cool dog at the next table
‘Grosz’ is only a few bus stops from Zoo Station or a 20-minute can stroll up the Ku’damm. All the location details and menus can be found on the Grosz website at http://grosz-berlin.de/?lang=en For an interesting read about the Ku’damm’s history and buildings, I can highly recommend ‘A Walk Along The Ku’damm: Playground and Battlefield of Weimar Berlin’ by Brendan Nash.
Surrounded by waterways, Moabit is a diverse neighbourhood to the north of the Tiergarten and the Reichstag. Barely off the main tourist track, it has managed to keep below the radar and is a great place to be among Berliners without having to go too far afield. There are already two blogs about Moabit on the Berlin Unwrapped website. ‘The History Garden’ (History and Politics, September 4th, 2015) features a fascinating park on the site of Moabit’s infamous former prison and ‘Putting Moabit on the Map’ (Small Worlds, September 25th, 2015) has a wealth of information about Moabit’s history and some of its attractions. You can find them both by scrolling down the blogs in the relevant categories. Now, a sunny day strolling down Turmstraβe, stopping for lunch in the covered market and then meandering along the north bank of the River Spree has inspired me to write more about Moabit.
Outside the market in Moabit
We started our walk at the Hauptbahnhof, crossed the road into the Geschichtspark hidden behind its high prison walls and walked through to Seydlitzstraβe at the eastern end of Moabit’s busy Turmstraβe. Passing the imposing building of the Amtsgericht Tiergarten (District Court) on our left, we soon reached the Kleiner Tiergarten. These pretty public gardens provide shaded paths through the tall trees; quintessential Berlin. Before the fall of the Wall, Moabit was part of the West Berlin district of Tiergarten but now it belongs to the central borough of Mitte.
The Arminius Markthalle is on the other side of Turmstraβe, opposite the U-Bahn station. It may not be as big and hip as the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, but it’s still a great place for street food. The historic building dating back to 1891, with its elaborate cast-iron archways. pillars and Gothic proportions has a cool and colourful interior.
Inside the market
As well as the market stalls, there are plenty of places to eat. We headed for the ‘Hofladen’ at the back of the hall and opted for the fish set lunch menu, a Friday favourite and great value. The Markthalle is open in the evenings until 10pm, so it’s a fun place to go for supper too. For more foodie tips follow this link.
Seating inside the Markthalle
The ‘mother of all tables’!
The mandatory coffee post-prandial coffee stop was at ‘Antjes Café natürlicher Lebensraum’ on Jonasstraβe just outside the market. Its long name suggests a homely parlour and with its home-made cakes, tea and coffee served on pretty china this is an apt description. There are a couple of intimate rooms at the back, as well as seating on the pavement outside and I have it on good authority that breakfast here is delicious too.
Sitting in the window at Antje’s
One of the back rooms
Now heading towards the River Spree, we crossed the square in front of the tall, red-brick Lutheran church of ‘Heilandskirche’ competing with the height of the trees in the parkland between Turmstraβe and Alt-Moabit.
Photo montage by Gruss aus Berlin)
Then we meandered our way through the network of streets south of Turmstraβe, named after cities in Westphalia, North-West Germany. In this part of Moabit, there are several interesting-looking shops and restaurants dotted amongst the patrician apartment blocks. On Krefelder Straβe there was ‘Berlin Edition’ wine in the window of the ‘Weinschmiede’ and in the ‘Buchkantine’ a contemporary bookshop and café on the corner of Bochumer and Dortmunder Straβe, we noticed bottles of ‘Moabit London Dry Gin’ with 14 botanicals.
Weinschmiede and Buchkantine
By now we had reached the Bundesratufer (Upper Parliament House Bank) which runs along the north bank of the River Spree. There were plenty of families about, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and the playpark on the green area between the path and the river. After Lessingbrücke (Lessing Bridge) we were confronted with the massive glass and steel towers of the Spree-Bogen business and residential complex.
The word ‘Spreebogen’ simply means any large bend in the River Spree. In Berlin it can denote the whole meander between Museum Island in the east and the junction with the Landwehrkanal in the west, or different sections of this meander. The Spree-Bogen in Moabit refers to the redevelopment of the huge site once owned by the famous Berlin dairy, opened in 1879 by Carl Bolle. From 1933 until 2011 there was a large chain of Bolle supermarkets in Berlin and today Bolle still runs a spectacular event venue in the former factory chapel and ballroom of the Bolle dairy.
The original Bolle Meierei
Bolle milk deliveries
The Bolle ballroom today
Today, between the massive glass and steel buildings of the Spree-Bogen complex and the River Spree, the Ernst Freiberger Foundation has created a memorial called the ‘Straβe der Erinnerung’ (Street of Remembrance). It consists of a wide path lined with ‘Helden ohne Degen’ (Heroes without daggers) – bronze busts of German heroes who “achieved extraordinary things and behaved in an exemplary way in the most difficult of times”. Among the most famous names are resistance fighter Georg Elser, Nobel prize-winning author Thomas Mann, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau, politician Ludwig Erhard, philosopher and nun Edith Stein, physicist Albert Einstein and artist Käthe Kollwitz.
Käthe Kollwitz on the Straβe der Erinnerung
At the end of the Straβe der Erinnerung is a sculpture depicting a figure breaking through the Berlin Wall. It’s called ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the people) and commemorates the citizens of East Germany whose peaceful revolution led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. They, too, are moral heroes and have a place in Berlin’s deep memory. In the photograph below you can see a section of the Berlin Wall – also part of the Straβe der Erinnerung.
‘Wir sind das Volk’
The river bank in Moabit now winds its way back to the Hauptbahnhof, with wonderful views of the Tiergarten across the Spree. But on this particular Friday afternoon, we stopped at the Moabiter Brücke, admired the restaurant ship ‘Patio’, and turned left up Kirchstrasse towards Alt-Moabit.
‘Patio’ restaurant ship
On the pavement outside 22 Kirchstraβe, we looked down at two Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) to mark the homes of Betty and Frieda Brasch who were deported by the Nazis in 1943. There are over 357 of these small brass commemorative plaques embedded in the streets of Moabit alone and we had already seen several on our walk. On 8th May this year they were cleaned and polished as part of an initiative started by the SPD in Berlin (Social Democrat Party of Germany) to mark the day the German capital was liberated from the grip of the Nazis in 1945.
Stolpersteine on Kirchstraβe
On our circular tour we had enjoyed Moabit in the spring sunshine, but we had been reminded of darker days. Despite its liberal and laid-back atmosphere, Berlin never lets us forget the fragility of our freedom.
Berlin has an incredible 175 museums to choose from.‘20 Berlin Museums That Will Blow Your Mind’, a list recently compiled by the website Hostelworld, is a great place to start . But you won’t find one of my own top favourites here – the Märkisches Museum. This museum about Berlin’s origins and history is just off the tourist trail and attracts less hype. Its impressive red-brick Gothic-style building rises like a cathedral in a secluded park by the River Spree, in an ancient corner of the city. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was locked away in East Berlin, far from the madding crowds and today it still retains an authentic air of ‘Old Berlin’. It’s a place where you can time out to steep yourself in Berlin’s past and appreciate a stunning historic collection in a unique setting. This museum is the real thing; it even has its own U-Bahn station on line U2.
The Gothic-style exterior
Sections of the Berlin Wall outside the museum
But I would encourage you to visit the Märkisches Museum soon; there are plans to close it down for renovation and a new permanent exhibition is being created. Whilst it needs updating, this museum has a nostalgic feel to it which may be lost in the process of modernisation. The museum’s distinctive building is very much in the style of architectural precursors from the north of Germany and the Brandenburg region. In the Köllnischer Park behind the museum, there is even a bear-pit which until 2015 was home to a pair of brown bears, as symbols of the city of Berlin.
The bear-pit (Bärenzwinger) in 1984
The word ‘märkisch’ refers to the area which surrounded Berlin – the ‘Mark of Brandenburg, (English: Margravate), now the Federal State of Brandenburg. ‘Margrave’ was originally the medieval title for the military commander who defended one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a kingdom. The interior of the museum definitely has a medieval feel, with the Gotische Kapelle (Gothic Chapel), the Zunftsaal (Guildhall) and the Waffenhalle (Weapon Hall) as particular highlights.
The Weapon Hall and the Gothic Chapel
The exhibits go back as far as the Bronze Age and there are some fascinating large-scale models of Berlin as it has developed since the 13th Century.
The original settlements of Berlin
The permanent exhibition, ‘Here is Berlin!’, invites you to stroll through the streets and districts of the city and experience how Berlin has changed since it was founded in 1237. The English information boards are really clear and helpful and the carefully-chosen exhibits include important sculptures and paintings.
The Humboldt brothers
The Borsig factory in 1842
The room with an original wooden ‘Kaiserpanorama’ is an absolute must. Here you can sit at one of 25 stations, each with a pair of viewing lenses and watch a series of 3D images of Berlin life in the early 20th Century. The animation in these historic scenes is gripping.
Sitting at the Kaiserpanorama
Another museum highlight is the wonderful collection of historic musical instruments and at 3pm on Sundays visitors can hear some of them in action. There is also an interesting exhibition illustrating the museum’s meticulous research and documentation methods and a creative area for children.
Historic barrel organs – and their players
If you manage to fit in a visit to the Märkisches Museum before 25th February, you can still catch their excellent Special Exhibition: ‘Berlin 1937. In the Shadow of Tomorrow’. By 1937, the National Socialist regime had permeated every aspect of everyday life and yet there was a false sense of calm in Berlin. The fascinating photographs and exhibits are clearly explained in English and as in the permanent collection, you can sense a meticulous sharing of expertise. No dumbing down here. At the end of your visit, there is a small bookshop and a café in the courtyard outside. Both are low-key, uncommercialised Berlin experiences.
A walk in the park 1937
Poster for a 1937 exhibition
Finally, it is important to explain that the Märkisches Museum is the main part of the ‘Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’. This foundation of Berlin city museums, governed by public law, was set up in 1995 following the reunification of the German capital in 1991. The aim was to bring together into one foundation the two major historic museums in the eastern and western parts of the city, as well as several smaller ones. The Märkisches Museum was originally founded in 1874, but its current building in Berlin-Mitte dates back to 1908. The Berlin Museum, founded in 1962 in West Berlin, was housed in the former Superior Court of Justice building on Lindenstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg. This building was handed over to the newly-founded Jewish Museum in 1999. There are now five museums belonging to the Stadtmuseum Berlin: the Märkisches Museum, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraim-Palais, the Knoblauchhaus and the Museumsdorf Düppel. For further information and opening times, visit the Stadtmuseum’s website at https://www.en.stadtmuseum.de/our-museums
The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .
Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.
Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.
Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.
Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’
From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!
Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.
Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.
Weidammer Brücke in 1881
Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache, once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.
Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden
Neue Wache around 1900
Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).
Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820
On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.
Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz
I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.
In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.
Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.
The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien
Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.
Aerial view of Neuruppin
And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Barge trip through the Spreewald
One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English: