Anti-Semitism was a cornerstone of Nazi ideology. From its very inception, the NSDAP conducted a vicious campaign against Jews–in hate speeches, defamatory newspaper articles, and acts of violence such as the 1931 SA-riots on the Kurfürstendamm. Their hatred was directed especially against Berlin’s Tauentzien and the Kurfürstendamm avenues, which not only formed a popular entertainment and shopping precinct, but also a centre of Jewish economic activity.
Celebration and destruction, inclusion and exclusion, expectation and reality–such contrary tensions defined the rule of the National Socialists. The Tempelhof field is a site where these tensions took on an exceptionally vivid form. Here the Nazis staged the first-ever public May Day celebration in German history (“Day of German Labour”), offering leftist workers a high profile event with which they could identify. At the same time, the destruction of the free trade unions had already been decided and planned in detail. It started the next day.
Some 30,000 persons were deported from the Putlitzstraße train station between 1942 and 1943, most of them to Auschwitz. Today this station bears the name Westhafen. The track connecting to the Moabit freight station on which the deportee trains departed was built over with the Ellen-Epstein-Straße a few years ago. Only the tiny access-way still exists, stretching between Quitzowstraße to Berlin's largest deportation train station. The synagogue at Levetzowstraße 7/8, damaged during the 1938 November Pogroms, was used as a transit centre.
The immigration to Berlin of Jews from Eastern Europe had long passed its peak by the beginning of the 1930s, and many had only used Berlin as a transit station to the West. The prejudice-laden term ‘Eastern Jew’ (Ostjude) encompassed people fleeing war, revolution, hunger and murderous pogroms in Galicia, Poland, Romania and Russia. They came from the urban intelligentsia or from smaller Jewish communities.
From the very beginning, the Nazi regime portrayed the destruction of diversity as a triumph for its policy of assimilation and control, and a victory for the ‘national revolution’. The Lustgarten played a particularly important role in this process. This public space provided a historic backdrop for political demonstrations. It was here that Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the German Free Socialist Republic on 9 November 1918; while the boulevard Unter den Linden was once a parade route for the Kaiser’s armies.
Berlin’s newspaper district along Kochstrasse (known as Koch-/Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse since 2008) was home to the world’s largest concentration of press activity throughout the reign of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic. The Ullstein, Mosse and Scherl publishing empires all had their headquarters here, together with roughly one hundred editorial offices as well as illustration agencies and printing companies both large and small.
In 1936 spectators and media representatives from around the globe flocked to Berlin together with the world’s leading athletes for the Summer Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee had announced its decision to hold the Olympic Games in the German capital in 1931. By the summer of 1936, the anti-Semitic and racist character of Hitler’s regime was readily apparent. Thousands had fled Germany or been interned since 1933. With the adoption of the “Nuremberg Laws” in September 1935, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of Germany’s Jewish citizens had become a legal fact.
The centre of political power was just a few steps away in nearby Wilhelmstrasse. The appointment itself of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany was entirely legal and did not involve a ‘seizure of power’. However, following completion of the formal transfer of government, the National Socialists did indeed seize power in all areas of society–and very quickly.
Berlin, a thriving cultural metropolis of the 1920s–this is still the city’s image today. When people talk about Roaring Twenties Germany, they are usually referring to Berlin. The city was dominated by a wide variety of cultural institutions and events, artists, and an interested public. Even the smallest spaces provided all sorts of opportunities for artistic development. Already before 1933, attacks on this diversity were an important activity for the Nazis.
In the 1920s, Potsdamer Platz was the busiest public space in all Berlin and a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. The Wertheim department store on neighbouring Leipziger Platz was the largest of its kind in Europe at the time, while the nearby Haus Vaterland contained 13 restaurants and cafés with delicacies from Teltow to Japan and from Bavaria to Arizona. The cinema, dance hall and entertainment programmes for diners at the pleasure palace attracted around a million visitors annually.
Nowadays, ‘diversity and underground culture’ makes us think of subcultures operating on the fringes of mainstream commercial culture–a place of nonconformists, bohemians and free thinkers. Between 1933 and 1945, this was often an illegal and extremely dangerous lifestyle. As in any era, the Nazi period had its share of non-conformists and individualists. But those outside the mainstream now included groups who were excluded, discriminated against, and persecuted.