There’s hardly a corner in Berlin that’s been left untouched by the legacy of the Nazis – be it through Hitlers and Speers architectural fantasy of building a new world capital called Germania, or the natural conclusion of the city being laid to waste at the end of the war. While Berlin has plenty of obvious architectural remnants of the Third Reich – such as the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (now the Finance Ministry), the Italian and Japanese Embassies, the Olympic Stadium, and the former Tempelhof Airport – one rarely notices the “civilian” structures that were designed and built under the fascist regime.
With all their grandeur and bombast, the Nazis actually only managed to complete very few large-scale housing projects in Berlin – one of them being the “Siedlung Grazer Damm” in Schöneberg – which from its name down to its design is steeped in fascist symbolism.
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The Nazis and their disdain for modern Architecture
Before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler had already lamented in his book Mein Kampf that “modern cities, unlike in the antiquity, no longer had landmarks, “monuments of pride”, and that the state should enforce its presence in the public with its buildings.”. From this statement alone one can gauge what Hitler would eventually dream up 8 years later.
Despite his lust for the grandeur, Hitler and the Nazis actually had zero policies concerning housing and architecture – it was such an unimportant topic that up until their rise to power in 1933 – the only thing that the fascists agreed on was their hatred for the “neues bauen” which had begun to leave its mark on cities all across Germany between the 1910s and 1930s.
The “Neues Bauen” – known in English more commonly as New Objectivity – took off in Germany (which would eventually flow into the Bauhaus movement) with the aim of developing a completely new type of building with new types of materials, simple yet functional interiors. The overarching goal was to have a living space where form followed function, as well as addressing the social responsibility of these structures by providing its residents with plenty of sun, air and light in contrast to the cramped and dark “rental barracks” that the workers normally resided in. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these projects were mainly driven by communities that had a social democratic majority.
As with every ying, there is a yang – and the counterpart of the “Neues Bauen” was the “Heimatschutzstil” an Architectural offshoot of the “Heimatschutzbewegung” (the Homeland Protection Movement). The Heimatschutzbewegung originated in the early 1900s in the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie – which feared that society was modernizing and evolving too fast and feared the loss of German culture. This movement was rooted in a deep believe of conservatism, nationalism and German paganism (amongst many other things) – which would prove to be a very fertile ground for the Nazis.
The aim of the Heimatschutzstil was the development of historicism with traditional, regional-typical designs, using local materials (i.e. Bricks in the north of Germany, Wood in the alpine areas). Newly built buildings should seamlessly integrate into the older city landscape, while renouncing ornamental attributes that faithfully imitate older architectural styles – i.e. the objective was to build houses and buildings that reflected the “good old times”. There are plenty of examples of Heimatschutzstil architecture in Berlin, one needs to look no further than Zehlendorf and Krumme Lanke. There are also plenty of examples further north of Berlin in Oranienburg, where the Heimatschutzstil architecture was used when constructing the SS Baracks of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
From Medieval to Monumental, from Modern to Antiquated
While the Nazis clearly favored the quaint and old school style of the Heimatschutzstil architecture, even they realized that implementing a building policy which focused on low rise, rural constructions wasn’t going to cut it for their new capital city – especially with housing demand skyrocketing. Generalbauinspektor Speer and Hitler decided that the “heroischer still” – the heroic style would fit the purpose quite nicely.
The heroischer style – often dubbed as the “nationalsolzialistischer still” -defined itself though its monumental, heavy, cubic buildings in a more reduced neoclassical style. Despite having been a well-known architectural style in the decades prior, its primarily association (and tainted) with the Nationalist Socialist movement – which preyed upon its central feature of making everything else look small and meaningless in comparison.
Berlin’s population was increasing at a rapid rate in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s it was the second largest city on earth (in terms of area), and the third largest by population. The rise of Weimar Republic brought with its monumental social policy changes aimed at correcting the social inequalities of the Kaiserreich. Article 155 of the new constitution stated:
“The distribution and use of the land is monitored by the state in a way that prevents abuse and strives to ensure that every German has a healthy home and that all German families, especially those with many children, have a place to live and work in accordance with their needs”
This meant that for the first time, the housing market would be regulated, and in theory the people had a right to adequate housing. Housing Associations sprung up in every community throughout the German Reich, and began implementing and enforcing the state requirements, which aimed at regulating how housing was allocated, rent prices, maintenance, tenant and landlord rights as well as whole host of other regulations.
These new regulations heavily curbed the rights of private landlords which essentially had free reign in the previously unregulated market. By the early 1930s, this was all to change though.
Building Policies under the Nazis
Despite all their proclamation for the love of the German people and their pseudo-esoteric mumbo-jumbo, the Nazis actually cared very little when it came to the housing concerns of the citizens of Berlin.
On the 27th of July 1935, a decree concerning the Volkswohnung was issued which opened up a fund of 35 Million Marks to promote the construction of the so called “Volkswohnung”. What might sound like a strong invested in social infrastructure was actually just window dressing.
The Volkswohnungnen were by definition of the decree, low cost for-rent apartments, which were limited in terms of living space and furnishings. The government strongly encouraged the construction of multistory buildings, despite this contradicting their preference for the Heimatschutzstil. The decree also stipulated that the state would only provide a credit of 1000 Mark if the construction costs did not exceed 3500 Mark. Another stipulation was added in 1937 which set a fixed monthly rent of 50 Mark for these types of apartments – which essentially forced the construction companies to build cheap uncomfortable apartments.
These types of buildings usually never had any balconies as they would cost too much, Kitchen and Bathroom spaces were small and cramped, and they rarely ever had a central heating system. The Nazis even approved the construction of three apartments per floor – something which had been abolished in the Weimar republic as it made for truly awful living conditions. Not only were the newly constructed apartments more sparsely furnished than their Weimar era counterparts, they were smaller and more cheaply constructed as well.
The 4-year plan that was enacted in 1936 diverted large chucks of construction materials and qualified personnel away from proposed housing projects, essentially crippling or killing off most planned projects. With Berlins population continually rising, so did its need for new apartments – yet the Nazis decided in 1938 that they would need to demolish 50,000 apartments (forcing around 150,000 people to move) and move entire cemeteries to make space for their new Germania project – and in this case more specifically for the “Nord-Süd-Achse“.
A little statistic on the side: During the last 7 years of the Weimar Republic, the government built 170,000 apartments in Berlin. In contrast, during the 12 years of the Nazi reign, they only managed to construct 102,000 apartments.
Construction of the Siedlung Grazer Damm
As the Nazis pressed on with tearing down houses in Schöneberg to make space for their new Nord-Süd Achse, they did plan to rehouse those who were being displaced. For this, the Nazis tasked the architects Carl Cramer, Ernst Danneberg, Richard Pardon, Ludwig Spreitzer and Hugo Virchow to design and construct a new housing estate in Schöneberg.
Despite having five architects on board for the Grazer Damm, they had little real influence on the project. They were bound by the “Volkswohnung” decree, which essentially forced them to construct cheap and small apartments, all without central heating, warm water, or balconies (a standard far below the housing project standards of the Weimar Republic). Secondly, this project was tied to the Germania project, and thus they were directly subordinate to the instructions of Albert Speer, further restricting any potential innovations or alterations.
The entire project was steeped in Nazi propaganda and one needs to look no further than the name of the street that the housing project was built on: Grazer Damm. Upon the completion of the main road, it was christened with the name Grazer Damm on the 27th of March 1939 in honor of the Austrian Anschluss that had happened almost exactly one year prior.
The large square with the protestant Nathanael Church (built in 1903) which was also the namesake for said square – Nathanaelplatz – was also renamed to Grazer Platz in 1939. It’s also worth pointing out that when the Nathanaelplatz was renamed to Grazer Platz, the Nazis also installed a mosaic with the city name and the coat of arms. The mosaic still exists today and is in relatively good shape.
Quite a few new streets as well as existing ones in Berlin were renamed by, for, and after the Nazis – and another very prominent example is the “Spanische Allee”. Until 1939, this stretch of road was named “Wanseestraße” but was renamed to “Spanische Allee” in honor of the Legion Condor which had returned back to Germany from fighting in the Spanish civil war. Many streets like this were never renamed after the war – probably (this is my guess) because no one ever really cared and the names sounded too innocent to ever question or doubt their background.
By 1940 the Siedlung Grazer Damm was completed and it had the dubious honor of being the largest housing project completed by the Nazis. The entire complex (or series of buildings) was 1.3 kilometers long, consisted of nine, five story high building blocks, with over 2000 apartments. It wasn’t that Nazis didn’t plan any bigger projects – they did fantasize about building the “Oststadt” in Biesdorf, Marzahn and Hellersdorf which was supposed to accommodate over 445,000 people – but they simply didn’t have the materials due to the ongoing war effort.
If one looks at the entire project from an eagle’s perspective, you’ll notice the unusually spacious courtyards. Even by Weimar standards the amount of green space offered to the residents was unusually large, but this wasn’t because the Nazis suddenly had a change of heart concerning their “Volkswohnung” policies – it was actually a result of a 1938 building policy. The Nazis knew well in advance what the future would bring, and thus were already planning ahead.
From 1938 onwards, new constructions had to comply with a “Luftschutzbestimmung” – this meant that these types of buildings purposely left a large space in-between the buildings as to cancel out any potential “chimney effects” and fire storms during aerial bombardment (as seen in Hamburg and Dresden at the end of the war). And upon close inspection one can also notice that the less representative sides of the housing blocks had also been left open – again to give pressure waves room to escape.
A good 120 kilometers north of Berlin in Rechlin, the Nazis even began constructing a series of above-ground bunkers (which not so surprisingly were constructed to look like buildings) nicknamed “die Weißen Häuser” (the White Houses) as a test for the new capital city Germania to test new weapons technology, but also how to build structures more resilient to aerial bombardment.
Nazi Iconography along the Grazer Damm
The exteriors of the buildings along the Grazer Damm originally had grey plastered facades along with small tightly gridded uniform windows. There were virtually zero ornate decorations on the buildings aside from minimalist touches on and above the doorways. While some say that the look was due to the lack of materials, it also gave the entire project the typical look for the time – imposing and slightly menacing.
Some of the monotony was broken up with neoclassical details – each of the buildings on the 4 corners of the Grazer Platz have some neoclassical archways which do add a little bit of “lightness” to the buildings. Animal sculptures were also strategic placed at representative entrances along the buildings, though this seems to also open up a bit of a mystery. The representative entrances along the Grazer Platz have four and two animal sculptures. The first set consist of a bear, a puma, a donkey, and a pair of wild boars, while the second set further down the street consists of a young bull or cow and a pair of pigs.
It’s not quite clear who created these, or the other sculptures along the Grazer Damm, but a few of them are attributed to the sculptor Karl Wenke (1911 – 1971) – though it seems like no one ever asked him for confirmation while he was still alive. Karl Wenke led the stonemason workshop of the Berlin Senate after the war and contributed various sculptures to Berlins cityscape from the 1950’s onwards.
It’s also not quite clear what logic was used when placing specifically these animals along the Grazer Damm – Pumas are not really indigenous to Germany. Maybe it’s a convoluted joke or nod to Graz, as its coat of arms includes a “Panther” – though one of a mythological sort and not the actual animal. Almost all of the sculptures here seem to have sustained either heavy damage during the war or afterwards and seem to have been hastily repaired.
There are two portals further down the Grazer Damm which are far more easily identifiable as stemming from the National Socialist era – their rather bleak and imposing design (if somewhat scaled down in size) were a common feature during the Third Reich. The first of the entrance archways has a set of bears (carved from red sandstone) – which again are attributed to Wenke, and the second archway has a set of foals.
Unlike the other sculptures, these seem to differ somewhat in style, leading to the assumption that another artist might have created them. While one can only speculate as to why these animals were picked, it’s no surprise that these types of sculptures were installed as they gave the area a “friendly” facelift, but also tied nicely into the dogma of the “Heimatschutz” which propagated animal welfare as a German virtue.
Speaking of German virtues – it’s hard to miss the 18 reliefs on the two main building blocks to the south of the Grazer Platz which for the majority depict stories told by the Brothers Grimm. Heading south, the left block starts off with a depiction of St. Georg slaying the dragon, followed by the 1920-2000 crest of the Berlin district of Schöneberg.
The third relief depicts a mother and a rather beefy looking child. Being so far removed from the oral context of this relief – my best guess is that this relief probably depicts the story of “Der Starke Hans”. The fourth tile depicts the Berliner Bear, and the fifth one (quite possibly one of the easiest to recognise of the set) the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The Piper is followed by a depiction of the story “Brother and Sister”, and the 7th relief depicts a rather determined looking woman. It’s hard to tell who or what this is supposed to depict, but if we look at the other street side there’s a near identical – but slightly different version which very well could portray Goldmarie and Pechmarie from the fairytale “Frau Holle”. The eight tile is the 1920-2000 coat of arms of the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf, and the 9th (oddly enough the only one with a title) is from the story “The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack”.
Starting again from the other side going down south, the first relief seems to depict Saint Christopher – patron saint of athletes, mariners, ferrymen, and travelers. I have a feeling that this relief might be a post war addition as its style doesn’t quite match up with the others. The second relief is again a depiction of the coat of arms of Wilmersdorf, and the third relief is could possibly be Pechmarie from the story “Frau Holle” .
The fourth relief shows the Town Musicians of Bremen and the firth depicts “Puss in Boots”. The sixth tile represents the story of “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn”, and the seventh shows again a relief of a mother and child (which I assumed to be the story or the Straker Hans). The eighth and ninth reliefs depict the crest of Schöneberg and the Berliner Bear.
If you swing around the corner to the less ornate side of the building into the Kauschstraße, you’ll quickly spot that three of the doors also have reliefs above them – though only one of them depicts a fairy tale “The Seven Ravens”. Interestingly, this is the only other tile that matches the design of the one of St. Christopher.
If you take a few steps down to door number five you’ll find what is quite clearly a depiction of a member of the Hitler Youth. Though the depiction might be lacking insignia, the uniform is very clearly identifiable as such.
Just next door above the number 7 is a depiction of a young girl – not too different from the woman on the relief along the Grazer Damm. But if you take a closer look you’ll realize she’s representing the “Bund Deutscher Mädel” – the female counterpart of the Hitler Youth. It wasnt uncommon for many of these housing units to be first allocated to members of the Nazi Party and other Nazi Organisations (such as the Waldsiedlung in Krumme Lanke), so there might be a logical connection with the intended occupants and the outer decoration.
The reliefs along the Grazer Damm pose some interesting questions. While it’s clear that there was a deliberate intention to portray fairy tale characters on the buildings (further strengthened by the presence of a fountain depicting snow white and seven children instead of dwarves further down the road), I do wonder how many reliefs there were originally. The tiles seems to be unevenly spaced along the doorways, and at least two of them seem to be post war creations.
This leads me to believe that some of the reliefs were either damaged during the war, or removed post war as they depicted symbols that were too obviously fascist. This might explain why the Hitler Jugend and BDM reliefs have managed to survive unchallenged to this day. To be quite frank, these depictions probably wouldn’t have survived in the Eastern Sector, as the Soviet Occupation Zone and the later GDR were slightly more rigorous in the (at least) architectural denazification process. If one has a look at how many eagles from the Nazi era survived, you can guess how many of them can be found in West Berlin.
I haven’t been able to dig up any photos from the time around or after the construction of the Siedlung Grazer Damm, and even photos post 1945 seem to be very rare, so it’s difficult to get an accurate view what kind of reliefs once decorated the buildings. There is an interesting photo though which depicts the 2nd US Tank Division marching past the bombed-out buildings down the Grazer Damm right past the Grazer Platz (you’ll have to click this link as I’m not paying €150 to embed it here). For the curious – if you click on this google maps link, you’ll essentially have a very similar view of what the location looks like today.
The Grazer Damm after the war
Three of the nine apartment blocks were completely flattened during the war, with others sustaining heavy damage. The buildings that could be saved were rebuilt and restored in their original style – at this point the people had bigger issues and couldn’t have cared less about the architectural style of the buildings.
The over 1500 apartments belonged to the city of Berlin until they were sold off to the GSW (Deutsche Wohnen) in 2004, which then sold it off Cerberus/Goldman Sachs, who then sold it off to the Vivacon AG – all in the same year I might add. The majority of the residents were either low income households who feared they would be priced out of homes – a not unfounded fear.
The Vivacon AG immediately began renovation works and started adding balconies to some of. the apartments, a common tactic to cheaply increase the value and rent potential to properties. Oddly enough, several modernizations were rejected when the state still owned the property citing strict monument protection laws. The buildings had been placed under monument protection a few years prior, but this apparently hasn’t stopped the real estate companies from making structural changes.
Since then, the Siedlung Grazer Damm has changed hands a few more times, and the resident’s financial woes have only increased. So all in all a rather typical outcome for Berlin.
With the buildings being under Denkmalschutz, one can assume that the reliefs, fairy tales and Hitler Youth will remain visible as an uncomfortable yet important historical reminder.
Visting the Grazer Damm
The Grazer Damm is an interesting subject for those interested in the architecture of the Third Reich, as it is the largest completed civilian housing project that the Nazis constructed. Even from a layman’s perspective there are interesting details to be found and comparisons to be made with larger and more prominent architectural works of the era. If one is in the area its worth combining the trip with a visit to the (not so near, but not terribly far away Friedhof Steglitz with its magnificent brick water tower. For those interested – I’ve linked a short twitter thread with some details below: