My Street before Karl Marx

So I’ve decided I’m going to do something wild and uncanny for this new blog post: I’m going to write about something that happened before the GDR existed. The U-Bahn station Schillingstraße (between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz) has a permanent photo exhibition showing not only the ‘new’ Karl-Marx-Allee, but also what it looked like before the war. I started searching for the disappeared history of my street – and it was harder than I thought.

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One of the pictures in the Schillingstraße station.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Karl-Marx-Allee is beautiful and impressive and without a doubt one of the most amazing streets in all of Berlin. But it’s kind of strange to think that there were already houses, streets and neighbourhoods in this part of the city before the war and before the GDR started what was probably its most ambitious housing project ever. Walking around Strausberger Platz, Karl-Marx-Allee and the streets surrounding them, you may well think that there was nothing here until the middle of the 20th century. I was tempted to think so myself.

Strausberger Platz: Gallows square

It’s not hard to find some basic information about the (bloody) history of Strausberger Platz: Wikipedia tells us that it was close to Berlin’s central place of execution during the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until 1730s, when a new city wall was built, that Strausberger Platz (part of the ‘Stralauer Vorstadt’) came inside the city’s boundaries. But apparently there still wasn’t much to see here until 1863, when the square was designed. Interestingly enough, the original Strausberger Platz was 50 metres east of the current square. That explains why the U-Bahn station isn’t underneath the square, but actually just next to it.

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One of the last remaining original houses, just behind the Strausberger Platz.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

The Strausberger Platz kept its original name throughout the centuries, but Karl-Marx-Allee has undergone quite a few name changes. It used to be called Stalinallee and before that Große Frankfurter Straße. Why Frankfurt, you might ask? Because there’s a second Frankfurt east of Berlin, directly on the Polish border. Frankfurter Tor (‘gate to Frankfurt’) and Frankfurter Allee, east of Karl-Marx-Allee, are also named after this small town. Sources show that the street was called Frankfurter Straße as early as 1701 and in a city map of 1786 the name had been changed into Große Frankfurter Straße. Originally, it ended a few hundred metres short of Alexanderplatz. Between 1926/1927 and 1930, the U-Bahn line E (now U5) was constructed and the street was extended.

Like it never existed

Those are the basic facts, not too hard to find on Wikipedia. But I still didn’t know anything about what Strausberger Platz and Große Frankfurter Straße looked like (apart from a few pictures in the U-Bahn station) and what kind of neighbourhood it was. Were there any shops, what was it famous for, who lived here? Searching Google for pictures and stories turned out be really hard: people – me included – love writing about the current Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee and how that came to be, but its earlier history seems to have been forgotten. Große Frankfurter Straße doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page, whereas Karl-Marx-Allee has one in 18 different languages. It was like the street hadn’t even existed before the 1940s.

But there had to be more to tell about the early days of ‘my’ neighbourhood. As it appears, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. While walking to the supermarket one day, I suddenly noticed a sign on one of the buildings in the Karl-Marx-Allee, mentioning a ‘Rose-Theater’. That was a starting point! Apparently, between 1906 and 1945, this was the location of a famous theatre owned by Bernhard Rose. Curiously enough, it was a hobby photographer’s website that told me more – not only about this theatre, but also the entire the pre-war period. It mentioned that Große Frankfurter Straße was a popular street for shopping and strolling, with the typical ‘Mietkasernen’ (tenements) that can still be found in other parts of the city.

The March Battles of Berlin

That sounded good: I could imagine what the street had looked like and what its position in Berlin’s city life was, close to the beloved Alexanderplatz. But then I found these pictures of people behind barricades on Große Frankfurter Straße, underneath a street sign that reads ‘Andreasstraße’. The street looked unrecognisably different, of course, but it wasn’t hard to imagine where this photo was taken: only a few 100 metres from where I live now. Googling ahead, I started reading about the ‘Berliner Märzkämpfe’, the March Battles of Berlin. After World War I, workers started to radicalize. They asked for the introduction of a political system similar to that of the Soviet Union and for the socialization of the most important industries.

In March 1919 events came to a bloody climax in the eastern districts of Berlin, including Frankfurter Straße, typically socialist strongholds. The battles started in Berlin on the 3rd of March and a day later, government troops marched into the city. They were under orders to shoot on the spot everyone carrying a weapon, after the rumour had spread that revolutionaries had shot 60 police men in the district of Lichtenberg. The rumours turned out to be false, but it didn’t stop the troops from shooting 1,200 people in a period of less than 2 weeks.

History keeps on happening

Pictures show damaged buildings, barricades, streets ripped open and heavily armed soldiers – it was nothing less than a civil war. The famous writer Alfred Döblin (‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’) later wrote about ‘grenades and mortars destroying complete buildings’. His colleague Karl Retzlaw called it ‘a mass murder’ and mentions that the number of victims was probably more than 2,000. People who are familiar with the history of the GDR will be reminded of June 1953, when workers went on strike and eventually caused an uprising. This time Soviet troops put a violent end to the riots. One of the main locations was once again Karl-Marx-Allee and Strausberger Platz.

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What Karl-Marx-Allee could have looked like, if history hadn’t happened.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

So what do I know now that I’ve jumped further back into time? That my street is a location where history keeps happening. At the same time it’s intriguing how history can just overshadow other history, make it seem like nothing ever happened. And I also know that the street could have looked entirely different, with old Mietkasernen and possibly a lot of shops and a theatre. It probably wouldn’t have been one of the most famous streets in Berlin, like Karl-Marx-Allee is now. It’s one of the things that keeps fascinating me about Berlin and makes me love the city even more: there are always so many layers of time hidden in this city – and you can find them all, as long as you know where to dig.