From Alexanderplatz to Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin’s street names pay homage to history. How did Alexanderplatz get its name? What ever happened to Stalinallee, the crown jewel of East German urban planning? And who was Rosa Luxemburg?
Writing in the interdisciplinary journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, geographic and cultural historian Maoz Azaryahu observed, “Street names are ostensibly visible, quintessentially mundane, and seemingly obvious. […but they are also] participants in the cultural production of shared past.” With a fallen Wall and 25 years of German reunification behind us thus far, Azaryahu’s words ring true for Berlin, the capital of a country that conceals or confronts the layers of its past on seemingly every corner. Politics of globalization have changed how we navigate urban space and how we think about identity and place – but Berlin’s squares and streets hold their own tales of past histories.
The city of Berlin began as two separate Slavic villages in the swampy marshlands of the river Spree, a settlement partially contained on an island that hunkered in the river. As the outpost expanded into a proper town in the Middle Ages, the area where Alexanderplatz is now located became one of the nerve centers of trade: the site of a cattle market, called an Ochsenmarkt or Ochsenplatz. In 1805, with Napoleon cutting a swath across Europe, Berlin’s upper class was delighted by a visit from the Russian Czar Alexander I, an open opponent of the French general. The former marketplace was duly renamed in his honor as “Alexanderplatz.”
The Hasenheide boulevard runs along one edge of the park of the same name, a large and popular public space in Berlin’s Neukölln district. Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg, the Great Elector who positioned the Hohenzollern family to eventually become Prussian kings, established the park in 1678 as a rabbit warren for hunting. In German, Hase (plural, Hasen) is the term for a large rabbit or hare, while Heide means “heath” or “moor.” Later, the Hasenheide came to fame as the site of the land’s first open-air gymnastic facilities.
As the 20th century dawned and tensions across Europe grew, revolutionary activist Rosa Luxemburg was often at the center of the fray. Long before co-founding the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), she was in attendance at international congresses all across Europe and spent many periods imprisoned in Poland and Germany. After the close of WWI, violence escalated in Germany in response to the perceived “stab in the back” of the Versailles Treaty and Luxemburg was arrested by police – eventually, shot and killed, her activism brought to a dramatic denouement.
Today, the naming of Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, which was effected in 1969 by the communist East German government in her memory, remains somewhat controversial. As a pioneering socialist radical, she is one of many polarizing figures who played central roles in Berlin’s fraught past. The square named after her is a hub of activity in the heart of Berlin-Mitte’s popular culinary scene and shopping districts, but many passersby don’t look down to notice the quotations from her written works that are embedded into the pavement there.
During the period of National Socialism, wealthy socialite Magda Quandt lived in an apartment at Reichskanzlerplatz #3. In 1929, she attended a meeting of the Nazi Party, which inspired her to begin volunteer work for the Party. Her involvement helped her gain the trust of those in power and she eventually began a romantic relationship with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s future propaganda minister. The couple married in 1931, with Adolf Hitler acting as witness. Thereafter, Magda Goebbels was entrenched in the dictator’s circle of friends of confidantes, and he often visited her apartment in Reichskanzlerplatz to visit the Goebbels and their six children. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the square where the Goebbels lived was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz and remained so until the war’s end. For nearly two decades after the close of World War II, the square was again named Reichskanzlerplatz. This ended in 1963 with the death of the first President of West Germany. Six days after his passing, the square was bequeathed his name and became Theodor-Heuss-Platz, as it is today.
Before the destruction of the Second World War, this roadway was simply named “Große Frankfurter Straße.” Then, in commemoration of the 70th birthday of Joseph Stalin in 1949, the Communist government of East Berlin rechristened the entire length of Große Frankfurter Straße and the extending branch of Frankfurter Allee as, collectively, Stalinallee. Shortly thereafter, they began to develop the boulevard as a model project of Soviet architecture: urban landscaping on an enormous scale.
By 1961, the German Democratic Republic of East Germany had begun to distance itself from Stalinist ideology and as part of this process, Stalinallee was stripped both of its name and of the towering statue of the dictator that was once located there.