What is the Oberbaumbrücke?
The Oberbaumbrücke, or the Oberbaum Bridge in English, is a double-decker bridge in Berlin that was built in the late 19th century and whose name refers to the large tree trunk that was covered in spilled that used to block the river to prevent smugglers from crossing.
For most of its history, Berlin has been surrounded or divided by walls. The most well-known of these, the notorious Berlin Wall, was a concrete manifestation of the ideological Iron Curtain that divided the city, and Europe, for 28 years. Medieval Berlin was fortified by a stone wall which was eventually demolished in the 18th century, when the city had outgrown its old parameter. A new customs wall was erected in its place, which the authorities used to monitor and tax goods being brought in and out of the city. Two wooden drawbridges formed part of this new boundary at the points where it crossed the River Spree. They were called Oberbaumbrücke and Unterbaumbrücke. Oberbaumbrücke translates as ‘upper tree bridge’, and this referred to a large trunk that was spiked with nails, and lowered each night to prevent smugglers from sneaking goods along the river.
Though it was dismantled and rebuilt in 1896, Oberbaum Bridge kept its historic name. Its Gothic design echoes the traditional castle architecture of the Brandenburg region. The pedestrian passage, for example, resembles a medieval cloister, while the two central towers were modelled after the medieval town gate in the regional town of Prenzlau. The towers are also a reference to the old bridge’s function as a city gate. The bridge was designed by the architect Otto Stahn, who worked as a Building Officer. He was responsible for numerous civic projects, including the Obere Friearchen canal bridge in the nearby Kreuzberg neighbourhood.
Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are linked by the Oberbaum Bridge, but the two neighbourhoods were divided in the second half of the 20th century by the Berlin Wall. During the Cold War it became a fraught crossing point between East and West Berlin: only ‘Wessies’ were free to cross the bridge by foot, but the East German authorities had control of the river. Over 100,000 East Germans attempted to escape to West Berlin between 1961 and 1989, at least 5,000 were successful, but 138 died trying. On the night of the 5th of October 1961, a young man named Udo Düllick attempted to cross the border by swimming past the Oberbaum Bridge; he was ‘fed up with the political pressure that permeated the communist state’ and wanted to join his brother in West Berlin. He never reached the western bank, because he drowned after being shot by East German guards who were stationed on the bridge. West Berliners couldn’t help Düllick, for fear of being shot themselves. It wasn’t until 1975 that the East German authorities permitted aid workers to intervene in such emergency situations.
Since the collapse of Communism in 1989 and reunification in 1990, the bridge has become a symbol of unity. Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are now incorporated into one borough, but until 2013 the neighbouring areas held a parodic annual vegetable battle on the Oberbaum Bridge. The crowd would pelt one another with rotten vegetables, flour bombs and eggs, making light of – but also commemorating – their former division and historic rivalry.
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