21 April to 26 May, 2015: Everyday life between war and peace

Brandenburg Gate, Lustgarten, Joachimsthaler Platz, Wittenbergplatz, Alexanderplatz and Wittenbergplatz

A different topic will be covered at each of six locations around the city: “The End of War/ Beginning of Peace” at the Brandenburg Gate, “Victors and Vanquished” at the Lustgarten, “Refugees and Shelter” at Joachimsthaler Platz, “Supplying and Feeding the City” at Alexanderplatz, “Art and Culture” at Wittenbergplatz, “Infrastructure and Reconstruction” at Potsdamer Platz. Each topic is approached from the perspectives of the different population groups that experienced “Spring in Berlin” in 1945.

Brandenburg Gate: The war ends and peace begins

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Alexander Rentsch

I survived – and now?
In Berlin the war was already over before the “Third Reich” finally collapsed. Berlin was a city in ruins. Nowhere was this more evident than at the devastated site of the Brandenburg Gate. The Nazi regime and the war had left deep scars within the urban landscape and society as a whole. Thousands of soldiers were killed in the final days of the war in vicious house-to-house fighting and at the hands of marauding field courts, which ordered the execution of an unknown number of “traitors.” Tens of thousands of residents had been deported, murdered, evacuated or otherwise forced to flee. Recent arrivals to Berlin included refugees from eastern Europe and individuals transported there as part of the regime’s forced labour programme. They were followed finally by the soldiers of the Red Army. Life in Berlin had changed during wartime. Many people had grown accustomed to the lack of food, the sleepless nights in air raid shelters, the clean-up and repairs that followed the numerous air raids and the acute shortage of accommodation. Peacetime did not immediately remedy these circumstances, but it saw the trans- formation of society in Berlin as thousands of German soldiers departed from the city as prisoners of war, while the survivors of Nazi tyranny celebrated their liberation. Life under the new city’s rulers also brought with it new ways of doing things and new rules for a “new era” in which society’s various groups would have to learn to survive alongside one another – at least for a time. It was springtime in Berlin and the story of this period is perhaps best told from the perspective of the city’s populace.

Lustgarten: Katyushas and soup kitchens

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Alexander Rentsch

Is this peace?
Rarely have the effects of global politics been so tangible as they were in the spring of 1945. While the seemingly endless days and nights in which Berliners huddled in their air raid shelters were now over, day-to-day life in Berlin was now controlled by the orders and directives of the city’s occupiers. The occupiers were quick to demonstrate their power and might at such prominent locations as Berlin’s famous boulevard Unter den Linden, at the Lustgarten park and the grounds outside the City Palace – once the seat of power in Prussia – with parades of victorious Red Army soldiers. The arrival of the Soviet occupation force brought to the people of Berlin both change and more of the same. In the months following the capitulation it was the young girls and women of the city who suffered worst under the continuing violence as they were raped by Soviet soldiers on a massive scale. Only the threat of harsh punishments, including execution by firing squad, caused levels of sexual violence to subside significantly in early in the autumn of 1945. Elsewhere, the victors soon restored a semblance of order to the chaos of post-war Berlin: German police forces had begun to patrol the streets again by late May. Steps were also taken to rebuild the justice system and by July most former members of the Nazi Party had been dismissed from their posts. What mattered now was not military prowess, but the ability of the victors to provide the basic necessities of day-to-day life: the benchmark for their success would be their ability to secure the supply of food and drinking water to a population which expected no less from those who held the reigns of power. There was no such thing as political disenchantment in May 1945.

Joachimsthaler Platz: Homeless in Berlin

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Antje Schröder

What is left of our lives?
“Berlin is the biggest pile of ruins in the world”, declared the future commandant of the American Sector, Frank Howley, in July 1945. Approximately 50,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Berlin in more than 300 air raids. Half a million apartments – equivalent to roughly the entire available housing stock in pre-war Hamburg – were destroyed in the earlier air raids and house-to-house combat during the final days of the war. Some of the intact buildings were commandeered by the four Allied powers. Meanwhile, many Berliners were left without a roof over their heads. Some lived in cellars and attics, others amid the ruins, still others in garden sheds or with neighbours. Many took refuge in emergency shelters. One such shelter was established within the so-called “Zoobunker” located at the Zoologischer Garten train station until its demolition in 1947 (the site is now part of the zoo grounds). The bunker provided refuge to Berliners bombed out of their homes as well as former concentration camps inmates and displaced persons. They were joined by thousands of refugees flooding into the city each day from the territories in Eastern Europe, who were forbidden from staying in the city for longer than 24 hours. Finding one’s bearings in this chaos was near impossible. Messages scrawled on the walls of buildings and left on bulletin boards were the primary form of communication and were used to locate missing relatives, identify the surviving members of families and neighbourhoods, and to provide information on who could be found where. The field trains used to transport rubble were also used for this purpose. The bulletin boards were a crucial source of information and rumours, where directives issued by the authorities hung alongside news articles, trading offers and private messages.

Alexanderplatz: Daily bread

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Alexander Rentsch

Will I survive?
Alexanderplatz was a popular shopping precinct in pre-war Berlin and home to several major department stores as well as a vast market hall. In the spring of 1945 the square continued to attract crowds. They came now not to buy consumer or luxury goods, but to secure the necessities of life. Food was scarce and the meagre rations distributed to the population were barely enough to survive on. The black market on Alexanderplatz, where essentials could be purchased at often horrendous prices, grew to become the largest in Berlin. The humanitarian situation was catastrophic: water, electricity and gas mains had been heavily damaged across the city and outages were frequent even in districts less affected by the fighting. In the aftermath of the German surrender, the production and delivery of food ground to a complete halt. In an effort to alleviate the most severe suffering the Red Army initially distributed food from its own stockpiles. Vegetable gardens soon became a common site in parks and greenspaces, together with livestock and rabbit hutches. Those who were able to travel journeyed into the countryside to trade with farmers – many a family heirloom changed hands in this way. Securing the steady supply of fuel to the city was no less important: wood and coal were needed for the many thousands of ovens in the city’s bakeries and private households. The threat of disease made it imperative that health services be re-established as soon as possible. While the humanitarian situation did improve gradually as the relief effort gained traction, the provision of the city’s population with the essentials of daily life – from food and soap to medical supplies, clothing and fuel – would remain inadequate for years to come.

Wittenbergplatz: The show must go on – Making art among the ruins

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Alexander Rentsch

Art and culture – does it really matter?
“Berlin is back – who would have thought that we could do it?” Brigitte Mira first performed this variation on the hit song “Berlin will always be Berlin!” on 1 June, and her optimism was dearly needed in light of the city’s widespread devastation. Before WWII the area around Tauentzienstraße and Kurfürstendamm had been a bustling centre of high culture and light entertainment. Commandant Berzarin’s first order from 28 April 1945 reveals the importance afforded by the occupation forces to the restoration of Berlin’s cultural infrastructure: as the battle for the inner city raged, Berzarin authorised the re-opening of cinemas and theatres in the outlying districts and the staging of sporting events. The sense of normality instilled by the holding of cultural events and football games was a crucial step for the occupation forces. They offered the population both amusement and intellectual sustenance, but were also necessary to counteract years of vitriolic propaganda by the Nazi regime and enable the Soviets to exercise political power. Steps were taken to revive Berlin’s arts and cultural sectors as quickly as possible: within a fortnight of the German surrender, Berzarin had gathered together the artists who would organise the restoration of Berlin’s intellectual life amid the ruins. By this time the first chamber concert had already taken place and public radio broadcasts had been restored. Films from the Soviet Union were screened at hastily repaired cinemas, dance halls and night clubs re-opened, and the first cabaret and revue shows hit the stages. On 27 May, the Renaissance Theater hosted the first dramatic performance of the post-war era. And July brought the opening of the first art exhibition, the Berlin Zoo and the harness racing track in Karlshorst.

Potsdamer Platz: Berlin by foot and without power

© Kulturprojekte Berlin, Photo: Alexander Rentsch

Does anything still work here?
In the spring of 1945, an ordinary journey from A to B meant traversing a devastated landscape with mountains of rubble, collapsed buildings and craters everywhere. Most bridges had been blown up or were impassable. If you were lucky, an old barge would be offering a ferry service. The tram, once Berlin’s most important mode of transport, was out of action because the overhead wires had long been requisitioned as raw materials for a senseless war. Finding and getting on a bus was like winning the lottery, since only eighteen vehicles had survived the war. The metro system was crippled by bombed tracks and collapsed tunnels. On the final day of the war, the SS had blown up the North-South rail tunnel directly under Landwehr Canal. Getting from A to B usually meant walking, no matter how far, no matter the weather. But all the other important infrastructure of everyday life had also collapsed: power and gas supplies were largely non-existent, water was often only available after waiting in long queues at the public street pumps. Post and telecommunication services were down, not to mention refuse collection. This situation was not only due to wartime destruction, however: shortly after the taking of Berlin, the Soviet occupation forces began dismantling the remaining functioning industrial and public utility plants. They were being taken as reparations for the devastation caused in the Soviet Union by German soldiers. However, their transportation to the Soviet Union often fell afoul of the damaged transport infrastructure...