Berlin’s Mitte, historic heart of a city with no centre

There’s a fascinating photograph of Berlin taken at night by Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, while floating 200 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station. It shows a city unlike any other, one that still bears the scars of its turbulent history. Seen from above, the street lights of the city clearly show the path of the Berlin Wall. In the former communist GDR sodium light bulbs give off a distinctive orange glow, neatly defining East and West from Space.

Balanceakt (Balancing Act), Berlin, Germany

When the photo was taken a few years ago there were still 43,000 former East German street lights in the city. A programme of replacement has reduced that number, but the orange glow can still be seen today. The influence of the Iron Curtain is felt in more earthbound ways as well, and Berlin’s geography is still defined by the legacy bequeathed it by decades of communism. No more so than in Mitte, the historic heart of a city once sliced in half.

In Mitte, the absurdity of splitting a city in two is very apparent. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the walk from the Kulturforum, through Potsdamer Platz, along Leipziger Strasse, across Museum Island and into Alexanderplatz. This was the epicentre of Berlin until 1945. After the war, Leipziger Strasse was intended to be a ‘cultural ribbon’ between the Kulturforum and Museum Island, instead the Berlin Wall turned them into competing poles of cultural influence.

River Spree, Berlin, Germany
Gendarmenmarkt, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Alexanderplatz, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Stasi documentation building, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Berliner Philharmonie, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Nationalgalerie, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

The Berlin Wall meant the city developed duplicate cultural institutions. Near to the Kulturforum is the Neue Nationalgalerie, the original being located on the other side of the wall on Museum Island. Here is the Philharmonie Berlin, built to replace the original which was bombed during the war, and which went toe-to-toe with the East German Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester in the Konzerthaus in Gendarmenmarkt.

The streets between Leipziger Strasse, Unter den Linden and the River Spree, are filled with reminders of this history. It has left the modern city with no natural centre. As with cultural institutions, so too with entertainment and commerce. The wall cut through and killed off Potsdamer Platz, once the the busiest square in Europe, while the East Germans turned Alexanderplatz into a sterile communist showpiece belying it’s former life as a commercial and entertainment hub.

In the West, Kurfürstendamm became the shopping and business district and post-reunification attempts to relocate it back to the centre around Friedrichstrasse have utterly failed. My apartment lies only a short walk from the most famous Cold War crossing in the city, Checkpoint Charlie, itself on Friedrichstrasse. Instead of the anticipated upsurge in high end businesses, it’s become a fairly tacky tourist stop. Life in Berlin is not in the centre.

Not that the centre doesn’t have its attractions. The main historic sites are in this area, including plenty of reminders of that turbulent history. Along Leipziger Strasse you’ll pass the former Nazi Aviation Ministry. In communist times it housed the People’s Council and was the site of anti-communist protests in 1953. A memorial marks the spot where ordinary Berliner’s were killed by the Soviet military. Today it’s the Ministry of Finance, reflecting a typical history for buildings in this area.

Brandenburger Tor, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Checkpoint Charlie, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Potsdamer Platz, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Schlossbrücke, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
River Spree, Mitte, Berlin, Germany
Bebelplatz, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

One building embodies this more than most, the Berlin Schloss. A Prussian palace that, alongside the Berliner Dom, formed the centrepiece of 19th century Berlin. It was damaged during the Second World War and, in an act of cultural vandalism, the East Germans knocked it down and replaced it with the gigantic mirrored-glass Palace of the Republic. This in turn was demolished after reunification and is being rebuilt as a replica of the original Berlin Schloss. It’s a huge building, perhaps large enough to be seen from Space.

8 thoughts on “Berlin’s Mitte, historic heart of a city with no centre

  1. I must find that photo of Berlin from space. I’ve found it to be a fascinating place but still don’t know it well enough for my liking.

    1. This is the link to the pic:
      I thought I’d hyperlinked it, but maybe it didn’t work. It used to be possible to tell where you were by the pedestrian crossings, particularly the ampelmann, but it seems like they use the ampelmann in the former West as well these days. Very confusing.

  2. To me Berlin was a bit “heavy” on memory. But then form memory to history…
    Maybe living there helps… getting used to the signs of History and make peace with them.

  3. As always, your choice of things to show in your posts fascinates me. I’m intrigued by all the statuary — the Balancing Act is my favorite — as well as the buildings, architecture, etc. The city seems empty as I look at all of these. Was it a weekend? Thanks for sharing Berlin with me. I’ve been looking at some Viking river cruises, and a couple of them go through there.

    1. During the the first two or three months of coronavirus the city was amazingly quiet. No tourists, no commuters, very few cars and just a bunch of socially distant Berliners. It’s not normally so empty, but in those days a city of 4 million people felt like a ghost town. I guess the boats must come through Potsdam (very nice place) and then to Berlin along the Spree before heading south? There are hundreds of lakes around Berlin, many navigable and very pretty.

      1. The pandemic has made ghost towns of many of our favorite places to visit. I just hope we make it through this soon!

  4. This is certainly an insightful look at modern Berlin, with great photos — both yours and the one from space.

    1. Thank you. Berlin continues to baffle me two years on from our arrival, but it does have its moments.

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