Scarred Concrete: Death and Rebirth of a City
We live in the ruins of history. But as we live, it is easy to forget how much blood had to flow for our European cities to grow. World War II and the destruction that followed in its wake only mark the latest, albeit most impactful, events in a long history of violence and war. As eye witnesses slowly die out, only steel and concrete remind us of the tragedies of old. Sometimes carefully preserved, sometimes forgotten or overgrown. Cities and their people continuously reclaim and transform spaces which were once reduced to bomb craters, bullet holes, and bunkers. As sudden and all-encompassing some destructions were, every set back was slowly reversed by the never ending human urge to transform and rebuild. In 1945, my hometown Berlin was essentially wiped off the map. Towards the end of World War II, the Soviet siege of the city killed more than 170.000 combatants on both sides, uprooted countless civilians, and essentially reduced a city already bearing the marks of bombing runs and supply shortages to a ghost town. It was an unnecessary battle which only stalled an outcome that was predetermined a long time before the last shot was fired. When it was over, two million survivors emerged from the ruins. The city had lost half of its inhabitants over the course of the war. 40 per cent of all buildings had been destroyed. Running water, electricity and heating were unheard of. To this day, Berlin is the only capital in Europe that has less inhabitants now than it had before the war.
Nevertheless, in 2021, Berlin is the biggest urban sprawl in the European Union. Before the pandemic, millions of tourists visited the city every year to see Germany's political heartland, with all its cultural and historical highlights. But also for its inhabitants, it had once again become a place to call home, with a vibrant art scene, a plethora of parks, and a demographic as diverse as in few other places in Germany. Between museums, parks, bars and clubs, I grew up without thinking too much about wars and sieges. All the while, time marches on mercilessly, distancing me further and further from a reality my grandparents only reluctantly talk about. Only as I became older I started wondering: Where are the signs of this Armageddon we see in movies? Have the scars been covered up by society? By the victors? By capitalism? Who (re)claimed the craters, the bunkers?
One thing is certain, they were all claimed. Ruins still existing today were claimed by society, to be cast in plaster, photographed, and catalogued, to then be embalmed. The most famous example of this, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church), was once the pride of Berlin, initially named after one of the illustrious German Emperors and prominently placed in the heart of the city. Its bombed and devastated appearance after the war must have hit the Berliners at their core. It was decided not to rebuild it, to preserve its post-war state instead.
The Gedächtniskirche in 1939 (Von Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P014310 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de) vs today
The surrounding plaza was re-modelled in the 1960s to better serve the contemporary vision of the future of cities. Unfortunately, this vision entailed mainly three things: Cars, shopping malls, and offices. The preferred material -concrete- made it look just as depressing as you would imagine it. In recent years, city planners acknowledged that one important aspect had been forgotten by their predecessors and decided to act immediately. Two massive four star hotels were erected swiftly, their white facades in stark contrast to the grey concrete surrounding them. In the middle of all this stands the ruin of the Gedächtniskirche, appearing almost fragile against the backdrop of concentrated stone and capitalism. A sign on its side advocates guided walking tours. The profit will be used to stop the spread of rust in the old bell tower. One of the overpriced Christmas markets is being set up around it. The surrounding buildings easily block the view. Modernity, in all his shapes, has outgrown and overtaken this burned out symbol of religion and nationalism. Only the attentive pedestrian is able to make out the bullet holes that still sprinkle the ruined facade.
On the small tower, you can still spot the bullet holes
The former Anhalter Bahnhof met a similar fate. This enormously pompous train station was once the royal train station in the times of the German Empire. Being built shortly after its inception, the train station’s enormous costs and palace-like exterior represented the arrogance and ambition of this new European imperial power. German emperors used it to receive other monarchs and important visitors. Naturally, the surrounding streets were populated by the Berlin upper-class and the finest hotels were to be found here.
The Anhalter Bahnhof before the war (Waldemar Titzenthaler - ISBN3875841956)
After Hitler rose to power, its use became more sinister: more than 9,600 Jews were deported from here and the station became primarily used by the Wehrmacht to transport fresh troops to the front and receive injured ones. During the battle of Berlin, the enormous hall and the entrance were almost completely destroyed due to the stubborn but senseless defence of German soldiers. What remains is a carefully embalmed piece of the entrance door in a quiet side street. Not many tourists come here, and the place surrounding it is mainly populated by homeless people and pigeons. No signs remain of the grandeur and horror this place saw. Only a small plaque tells the story of these ruins. To the uninformed pedestrian, this out-of-place portal to another time must seem rather strange. A large stretch of football courts stands right where the platforms used to be.
The remains of the old entrance
Close to my childhood home, in the heart of the South-western district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, stands the local town hall. In front of it is a small piazza named Herman-Ehlers Platz. When me and my friends were teenagers, we used this spot many times as a gathering point before taking the subway into the city center. On weekends we would hang out there, coughing on our first cigarettes and drinking cheap beer whilst waiting for our friends to arrive so we could go wherever we were going in those days. None of us had any clue we were standing next to a spot representing the carnage of the Battle of Berlin.
On the 24th of April 1945, an unknown Wehrmacht soldier was hung right here, on a lamp post, in the middle of the square my friends and me used as a gathering point for our weekend escapades. To this day, no one knows his name or the names of his murderers. He was executed on the spot for a crime no one recorded. He shared the fate of many disillusioned soldiers who tried to reach enemy lines to surrender. SS death squads roamed the streets hunting these “traitors”. They were hung or shot with no trial, no jury, and no paperwork. Two days after his execution, his enemy, the Red Army, took him down and buried him in an unmarked grave with many of his unlucky comrades. Four days later Berlin and his murderers surrendered. 8 days later the war in Europe was over.
76 years later the Herman-Ehlers-Platz is the same dirty and forgettable place it was when I was a teenager. No grand statue reminds one of the cold and heartless murder of the young soldier. Maybe it is too little of a story, maybe there were too many like him to erect a statue for each. Maybe this death was meant to be forgotten. Today, this is a place of local commerce, far away from the representative center of Berlin. Shops line the little square and people walk hastily around here. They don't want to be slowed down by history. As I am walking around taking photos of the spot where I assume the lamp post used to be, two bus drivers smoking cigarettes want to know what I am doing there. They seem unfazed by the story. “Well he is not hanging there anymore, is he? So why take photos?” one says.
West of the square where this young man hung lies one of Berlin’s highest mountains. The Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) reaches 120 meters into the sky, widely visible in the otherwise extremely flat lowlands of Berlin. What at first seems to be a geographic anomaly is however a monument to the landscape changing force of war: the entire mountain is compiled of rubbish from the destroyed city. From 1955 until 1972, up to 800 trucks per day drove up the ever-growing hill, dumping a grand total of 26 million cubic meters of debris. At the core of the mountain lie the remains of the Wehrtechnische Fakultät, an enormous officer school, part of Hitler's plan to transform Berlin into a neo-Greek super city called Germania. This, however, never came to fruition: Hitler died in his bunker, the Fakultät was blown up, millions of tons of debris were piled up on top of it, the pile was sealed with sand, and 1 million trees were planted.
The remains of the Wehrtechnische Fakultät shortly after the war
The Teufelsberg became a forest and a popular weekend destination for Berliners. The story could have ended here as a beautiful metaphor to the years of healing and rebuilding which followed the war. But there was still a war to be fought, even if it was a silent one. The CIA claimed the new mountain. From the debris grew shining white towers filled with radars, meant to warn against an attack that never came. But Berliners were eager to have their share. A lift and skiing slopes were built and later demolished. Too noisy, said the Americans.
The 1986 ski race under the domes of the newly build Radar Station (B.Z. Copyright: Peters)
Apartments were planned, advertised, and never built. Millions were spent and lost. Wine was grown and ripped out again. More shining white towers were built until their builders vanished into the night. Today, they are slowly withering away, gently aided by the destructive creativity of some local teenagers. And whilst citizens, environmentalists and investors still fight over what to do with the mountain, the forest grow, and now it is silent on top of the Devils Mountain.
The Teufelsberg with the remains of the Allied Radar station (Copyright: DPA)
Berlin has more than 10 of these debris mega hills. Another famous one lies in the north of the city, partially covering up the remains of the Flakbunker III. In the early days of the war, the Nazi regime promised that not one enemy bomber would reach German air space. The reality was of course very different, which is why the year of 1940 saw the hasty construction of six enormous bunkers in various German cities, one of them being the Flakbunker III: Humboldthain in North Berlin. During air raids, these bunkers offered protection for thousands of civilians, whilst their canons fought a futile battle against the endless streams of Allied bombers. Being built to withstand even direct hits, blowing them up proved to be challenging for the Allies. So the Flakturm III was covered with 1.6 million cubic meters of debris instead.
The partially covered Bunker shortly after the war (Archiv Berliner Unterwelten e.V.)
The view from the Flakbunker. Next to the chimneys, behind the smoke, you can make out the Teufelsberg with its radar station
The Flakbunker from the Northern side
What remains of this enormous colossus today is the northern wall, two of its former gun platforms sticking out of the side of a debris mountain that has swallowed most of the bunker. A private collective of citizens has worked endlessly to restore what is still accessible, in order to reopen the bunker to the public. Whoever climbs up the steep stairs to the top will not only be rewarded with one of the best views over Berlin. They will also experience one of the few places in Berlin where history and present have combined in a seamless and natural way. Climbers scale the side of the towers. Walking tours explore the depth of the bunker. In the summer, legal and illegal concerts and raves happen at the viewing platforms. During winter, families use the hill for sledding. It is a popular and lively place, reclaimed by the inhabitants of Berlin, despite its dark past which will forever be visible in the distinct style of the building.
When rebuilding something, it is no use to get stuck in the past. Life goes on and no one can live in a city of memorials and statues. Through the process of rebuilding, a city is reborn. It becomes something new, its material reality is altered. But, of course, on paper it retains the same name and symbolism. The modern Berlin cannot afford to turn a blind eye on its history, so it preserved some destruction of the war, like the Gedächtniskirche, or the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof . They show that we have not, and will not, forget. Others, like the Teufelsberg, carry a great symbolism, being literally erected from ruins, but merely existing in the background. Yet other scars have become a natural part of the city, like the Flakbunker III. However, the majority of the physical manifestations of Berlin's past are not to be found, having been forgotten and repurposed without memory, just like the lamppost from which the young soldier was hung.
This walk through my city, however, showed me one thing: The scars of the past are still there to be found. The city changes around these relics, incorporating some and overgrowing others. Certain elements might be maintained, others forgotten, and some demolished on purpose. The problem with the traces of our past is that people become used to them. They are more or less acknowledged depending on how visible they are, but their impact mostly depends on their societal perception, the observer’s willingness to interact with them. It is therefore important that we, as a society, make an active effort to remind us of the history of our surroundings, of the history behind the buildings and squares we grew up in. Not just in Berlin, but in cities in general. The German writer and activist Sascha Lobo once wrote a short but powerful text that embodies this perfectly. It reads:
Kind: Papa, was sind das für Löcher? /
Child: Father, what are these holes?
Vater: Die Fassade ist einfach kaputt. /
Father: It’s just a broken facade, is what it is.
Alte Frau aus dem Hintergrund: Das sind Schüsse. Hier war Krieg! /
Old woman in the background: These are bullet holes. People fought a war here!
Vater: Jetzt erschrecken Sie doch das Kind nicht mit sowas! /
Father: Would you mind not scaring my child like that?
Alte Frau: Gerade! Grade das Kind. /
Old woman: Especially! Especially the child.