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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Alexanderplatz in Berlin

What is the Alexanderplatz?

The Alexanderplatz is a bustling public square that was once the centre of East Berlin and was named after Tsar Alexander I of Russia, following his 1805 visit to Berlin.

Alexanderplatz sign

Alexanderplatz History

Although this busy public square dates back 800 years, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the surrounding area was developed, when it served as the city’s cattle and wool market. Around 1900, Alexanderplatz was dominated by two institutions. The first, the Rote Burg (or Red Castle), loomed large as one of the biggest buildings in Berlin and the headquarters of the Berlin police – Germany’s answer to Scotland Yard. It owed its nickname to its sheer size, and the fortress-like appearance of its red-brick façade. The second dominant presence was the enormous Aschinger restaurant. The company was a Berlin institution and at that time perhaps the largest catering company in all of Europe, which, by the beginning of the 1930s, operated more than 60 beer halls, restaurants, patisseries, and food stalls across Berlin. The company co-operated and collaborated closely with the Nazi regime and benefited from the ‘Aryanisation’ of the hotel and restaurant group M. Kempinski & Co. ‘Aryanisation’ describes the Nazi government policy of barring Jews from public life and stealing their commercial property. Even Jews who survived the Holocaust often faced lengthy legal battles before they were compensated for the theft which had occurred in this way.

Neither the Rote Burg nor the building in which the Aschinger restaurant was housed exists today. The Rote Burg was destroyed during the Second World War. Today, in its stead, stands the Alexa shopping mall, its red colour tacitly acknowledging the brick of the long-gone police headquarters. Aschinger was demolished in the late 1920s as part of an extensive redesign of the square, which saw the construction of the Alexanderhaus and the Berolinahaus which still stand today on the south-west side of Alexanderplatz.

View of Alexanderplatz from TV tower

The second major redevelopment of the square, in the 1960s, reflected the East German (or GDR) government’s desire to shape the architectural complexion of East Berlin and give it the imprint of the new socialist state. 34 houses were demolished and more than 550 families displaced as a result of this re-design, which freed the square from traffic in order to enable large protests and demonstrations to take place. Every year, on the anniversary of East Germany’s founding, the Nationale Volksarmee (the armed forces of the GDR), paraded down Karl-Marx-Allee from Alexanderplatz. The most famous symbol of Alexanderplatz, the radio and television tower, is equally a product of this period. Opened in October 1969 to mark the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR, the tower was designed to project the power and reach of socialist broadcasting. Around the same time, the Weltzeituhr was officially unveiled. The idea for the World Clock was based on a so-called Wettersäule, which displayed meteorological information publicly, which was discovered in the ruins on Alexanderplatz during reconstruction. It displays the names of 148 cities plus their current times. Although once a symbol of socialist internationalism, the iconic clock now serves as an emblem of reunified Berlin.

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