The Nikolaiviertel. A charming little haven in the center of Berlin. So quiet and yet seemingly out of place – surrounded by the iconic TV Tower, the socialist high rises on the Leipziger Straße and the drabness of Alexanderplatz. Despite its relatively small size, the oldest corner of Berlin has quite a few surprising secrets waiting to be unearthed.
Berlin used to actually consist of two villages, Berlin and Cölln. Both emerged around the same time, but Cölln had the honor of being mentioned on a document first, namely on the 28th of October 1237. Berlin was only mentioned for the first time on the 26th of January 1244. The city of Berlin chooses to use the year 1237 as its date of establishment as both Berlin and Cölln merged together into one city anyway. The Nikolaiviertel was where the original Berlin first emerged, while Cölln was established across the river on the spreeinsel.
The Nikolaiviertel is often touted as the historic center of Berlin, and while that might be true to a certain extent, the buildings and layout are far cry from the original. As with almost every larger architectural decision in Berlin – the Nazis were the first to get the ball rolling concerning the Nikolaiviertel. Berlin celebrated its 700th Anniversary in 1937, and the Nazis used this occasion to discuss removing the Nikolaikirche and replacing it with an “Altstadtforum” – a museum of sorts which would showcase historic housing facades from around Berlin which had to make way for the newly constructed Germania. The plan never came to fruition – but the bombing raids and street fights of 1945 did their part.
The Nikolaiviertel was virtually gutted and multiple buildings had to be torn down after the war – but the East German administration showed little interest in rebuilding the area. The city planners had more pressing issues and concentrated on the mass construction of affordable living space and working on prestige projects such as the Stalinallee (known today as the Karl-Marx-Allee). The historic center of Berlin ranked so low in value for the East Berlin administration, plans were drawn up in 1959 to remove the Nikolaiviertel entirely and replace it with a harbor for excursion boats.
This only changed when Berlins 750th Anniversary was looming in 1987. The City’s administrations seemingly found a new appreciation for Berlins historic center (and history) and planned to rebuild the area and turn it back into a (touristically) attractive area.
An open call for plans was held in 1979, which the Architect Günter Stahn and his collective won A colleague of his – Roland Korn designed the nearby Staatsratsgebäude der DDR). His concept leaned on the traditional layout of the old town center and provided for a mixture of old buildings and newly designed residential buildings in prefabricated construction with historicizing architectural elements. Stahn once said that it wasn’t his intention to rebuild the historic center, but to reconstruct an urban space which brings the old Berlin back to life.
One of the few original buildings to survive the bombing raids and subsequent raising of the Nikolaiviertel was the so called “Schmale Haus” (slender house). Built in 1906 by the architects Gustav Hart and Alfred Lesser (who designed quite a few iconic buildings for such illustrious clients such as Ullstein Verlag, M. Kempinski & Co., and the Preußischen Staatseisenbahnen), the ground floor of the Schmale House stands out with its construction of roughly carved stone blocks.
The Architect Stahn chose to integrate the Schmale House into a newly constructed building in the 1980s, adding a portico (a colonnade) of sorts on the side. As the reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel was for a grand occasion, the portico couldn’t be left undecorated. And now we finally get to the part where we highlight one of the Nikolaiviertel’s secrets.
Gerhard Thieme was the man that was tasked with the creation of a suitable decoration. Thieme was already a well-known artist in East Germany, and many have seen at least one of his artworks – the famous “Goldfinger” statue (officially known as Bauarbeiter).
Gerhard Thieme created a frieze that worked its way around the portico. He created a visual story of the Socialist History of Berlin, starting from the founding of the Communist Party in Berlin in 1919 up to the 750 Year Anniversary celebration of the foundation of Berlin in 1987. While it seems like the frieze has no official name – its known as the Fries der sozialistischen Geschichte Berlins | the Frieze of the Socialist history of Berlin.
If you do take the time and walk around the portico, you’ll see 6 large concrete panels – each broken up into multiple time segments. Starting from right to left
Berlins Socialist history from 1919 to 1929
Broken up into segments, the first section depicts the foundation of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1919 with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in the front.
Hungry workers on the streets of Berlin
A speech by Ernst Thälmann – Leader of Communist party of Germany (who has massive memorial dedicated to him in Berlin). In the background you can see the “Revolutionsdenkmal” by Mies van der Rohe which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1935.
It seems like one of the men in this panel bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein – or am I just seeing things? I have yet to determine who the other people are.
And the the last section in of the first panel depicts the Blutmai (Bloody May) – a series of illegal protests organized by the KDP between the 1st and 3rd of May 1929, which the Berlin police violently broke up resulting in the death of 33 people.
Berlins Socialist history from 1933 to 1945
The first panel depicts the Reichstagsbrand of 1933.
The second section depicts the book burnings of 1933 and then jumps forward in time to the Liberation of aconcentration camp and the resistance shouting “Death to the Nazis”. This is probably the only instance of a piece of state sponsored public art in Berlin calling death to Nazis, that I’m aware of.
Another depiction of the resistance. The Rote Kapelle was the name given by the Gestapo to an anti-Nazi resistance movement in Berlin.
The last segment of depicts the “liberation” of Berlin on the 8th of May 1945.
Berlins Socialist history from 1945 to 1949
The first panel depicts Soviet soldiers handing out bread to the starving population in 1945.
A survivor is united with his family
The (forced) unison of the KPD and SPD into the SED (Socialist Unity Party) on the 21st of April 1946
A “Trümmerfrau” rebuilding the city
And finally, the foundation of German Democratic Republic in 1949. It’s worth noting that this segment contains one of the last depictions of the emblem of the GDR in Berlin. A full list of the remaining GDR emblems in Berlin can be found here.
Berlins Socialist history from 1950 to 1968
The construction of Schönefeld Airport in 1950
Life returning to normal
The reconstruction of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1961 -1964. And look who we can spot – Thiemes “Goldfinger”!
The opening of East Berlins Tierpark in 1955
The last segment depicts East Germanys first participation as an individual country at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. If you take a closer look you can spot 3 more GDR emblems.
Berlins Socialist history from 1970 to 1986
The 10th World Festival of Youth and Students (While the panel says 1970 – the festival took place in East Berlin in 1974)
The construction of Marzahn in 1977 – the largest planned “settlement” in East Germany
The 25th anniversary (in 1986) of the first space flight. Slightly puzzling that they didn’t depict Sigmund Jähn – the first German in space in 1978.
The 750th Anniversary of Berlin in 1987
Thiemes creation of a socialist mural took inspiration from the terracotta frieze which hangs on a slightly more famous building: The Rotes Rathaus a few meters down the road. The frieze on the town hall – also known as the stone chronicles, depicts the early history of Berlin and Brandenburg up to the foundation of the Reich in 1871.
While the thousands of tourists who pass by the Rotes Rathaus look up to gaze at the building invariably see the frieze, not so many people end up noticing the socialist mural in Berlins Nikolaiviertel. The reasons for this are varied, but the most common one being that there’s simply no reason to look up at the building that houses the mural. While select areas of Nikolaiviertel are picturesque – especially around the Nikolaikirche (which is right next to the Eiergasse – Berlins shortest street), the Rathause straße is as drab as it gets.
But looking up when you’re walking around the Nikolaiviertel is worth it – especially when you can discover a socialist mural depicting 68 years of Berlins history. If you’re in the area, make sure to stroll down a few meters to see the last remnant of the Palast der Republik, the former parliament and cultural house of East Germany.
The socialist history of Berlin
Rathausstraße 21, 10178 Berlin