The tortured geography of Berlin

I arrived back last week from a weeks holiday in Berlin during which I did a meeting on 'Organised Anarchism in Ireland' and an interview with Shane of (Berlin) Anarchist Media Group, you'll find the audio at the end of this blog post. I also spent a good bit of time walking around the city, which I last visited, shortly after the wall had come down, in 1990. The geography of Berlin reflects its difficult history; I'm mostly talking about that aspect in this blog post.

I was staying with friends in Neukölln so the vast soviet war memorial at Treptow park was just a short walk away. Twenty years ago it wasn't such a short walk as Neukölln was in West Berlin and Treptow was in East Berlin. Most of the wall has been pulled down including this section, today its route is made obvious by the almost continuous gap between the buildings interupted here and there by a modern structure (often a supermarket) which has filled part of that gap. More formally a double line of cobblestones marks the actual position of the wall as it divided the city. Generally the cobblestones mark the wall nearest the West, the ‘wall’ was normally two parallel walls with a 'kill zone' in between the two.

The Soviet Memorial at Treptow is the final resting place of 5,000 of the Red Army soldiers who fell in the battle of Berlin and was opened on May 8, 1949, four years after the war ended. It’s a colossal piece of work, as long I’d guess as three or four football pitches. The center is dominated by statues of two Red Army soldiers kneeling in front of vast red marble Russian flags. The marble itself was taken from Hitler’s demolished Reich Chancellery.

One end has a small statue of a grieving mother, the opposite end a colossal statue of a Red Army soldier carrying a German child he had rescued from the rubble of the city. Although several such incidents were recorded the conquest of Berlin also saw the rape of hundreds of thousands of women, the subject of the new film Woman in Berlin based on the anonymous Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin. Attitudes of Red Army soldiers to the civilian population had been inflamed by Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg who had written in January 31, 1945 that “the Germans have been punished in Oppeln, in Königsberg, and in Breslau. They have been punished, but yet not enough! Some have been punished, but not yet all of them.”

As the Red Army entered Germany the line from the top changed but the until then official thirst for revenge along with the lack of discipline of many Red Army units meant rape was very widespread with large number of associated civilian suicides. . As the Red Army was entering the city the SS were busy executing 13-year-old boys conscripted into the Hitler Youth who had fled their posts in the face of Soviet Tanks while Hitler played out his final fantasies in his bunker. Anthony Beevors ‘Berlin: The Downfall 1945.’ which I regret not re-reading before visiting the city is an excellent account of the military battles and atrocities that accompanied them

Between the huge flags and the colossal statue are 32 stone sarcophagi, 16 to each side that are decorated with reliefs of aspects of the war including a couple of civilians joyously welcoming the arrival of the Red Army. I walked down the left hand side which has identical relief’s with those on the right. There were blocks of Cyrillic script in Russian on the end of each sarcophagi which I couldn’t read but on coming up the German side on the right I realized with surprize that these were all quotations from Stalin!

If you follow the route of the wall from the Treptow / Neukölln boundary you pass into the section that divided Friedrichshain in the east from Kreuzberg in the west. Actually the river Spree did much of the dividing, the wall followed the edge of the Spree on the Friedrichshain side. When Berlin was divided Kreuzberg was in a pocket pushing into the east, and thus quite isolated, so it was a center of cheap rents and the squatting movement. Today in the united Berlin it is very central, the squats are almost all gone except for a few that were legalized and are under threat of eviction. Much of the counter culture associated with them has moved across the river to Friedrichshain. The interview I carried out was in one such legalized squat, Kopi in Kreuzberg, the meeting I spoke at was at the Zielona Gora in Friedrichshain.

A large section of the wall has been left intact on the banks of the Spree, the side facing the west is unadorned as it would have been pre-1991 as the river itself on this stretch was in East Berlin. The side facing the East is used for officially approved murals which are regularly repainted. As the city approaches the 20 anniversary of the wall being opened there is a huge official open air history of the movement of 1989 in Alexanderplatz in addition to the museum and associated kitsch around ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, the stretch of the wall at Friedrichshain, the memorial to those killed crossing the wall at the Brandenburg gate and the ‘Get an East German visa stamp on your passport’ stalls to be found at and near these locations. It’s a curious mixture of the creation of unifying myth, tourist kitsch, human tragedy and crass commercialism.

The area around the Brandenburg gate contains more of the cities tortured geography. The Reichstag was the site of Hitler’s seizure of power and the site now includes a small memorial to the 94 deputies the Nazi’s sent to the camps, most of whom died, in that seizure of power, ‘legalised’ through the enabling act. On the other side of the Brandenburg gate is the Holocaust memorial, a huge area of grey slabs, as you walk among them they rise above you until you are in darkness. You can see daylight in the distance between the rows and from time to time someone else exploring the structure will be briefly visible as they cross you line of sight between the slabs. Somewhat beyond this the site of Hitler’s bunker is now a scruffy car park, marked only by an interpretative board that includes a history of the site and a map. This in turn is not far from one of the few intact buildings built by the Nazi’s, the massive Air Ministry, now in use as a government building once more.

Just as the wall reflects something of the east so another trip I made reflected something of the west. After the war the clearing of the vast quantities of rubble saw it dumped in huge rubble mounds in the suburbs. The largest of these in West Berlin was the Devil’s Mountain, the rubble of some 400,000 buildings dumped on top of a Nazi military school. Its summit is the highest point in Berlin and it was ‘crowned’ with an American spy base, a large NSA complex with multiple golfball domes that listened in to the people of west Berlin as well as the militaries of East Germany.


It was abandoned in the 1990’s and in the years since the security fences around it have been repeatedly cut so the curious can get inside. We spent a few minutes walking the perimeter which fence now consists of patch upon patch before finding a fresh way inside. I shot some video while in there which you can view on youtube.

Before heading over I’d emailed Shane of the Anarchist Media Group (whom I’d met a few years beforehand at the London anarchist bookfair) offering to give a talk while I was in Berlin. We ended up putting this together at the last minute, with flyers only going out the night before, but 25 people came to the Zielona Gora to hear a talk on ‘Organised Anarchism in Ireland’. I mostly talked about the ongoing resistance to Shell in Rossport and the organizing anarchists have done in opposition to the crisis as well as talking about how the WSM works.


A couple of days later I went to Kopi to interview Shane about anarchism and political activity in Berlin. The conversation covers a number of areas including the economy of the city, gentrification resistance, strikes, tortured geography, the legacy of the 80's squatting movement, the collective housing movement today, Kopi and its many bars, the place of the collective houses in the Berlin left, the drawbacks of the 'scene', organised anarchism in Berlin, the nature of the autonom groups, post apartheid South Africa, economic re-structuring, struggles around service delivery, the role on 'internationals' in the Berlin scene, and anarchist publishing with the anarchist media group.

The interview is 25 minutes long and was recorded on August 20th, I first uploaded it to  It a 12mb mp3 file.

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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