Everybody loves a wintery walk through the city, wrapped up in a coat and scarf with maybe even a sneaky thermos of tea. As Berlin goes through its second Covid lockdown, there might be little else to do than go for a walk, and as you wander, you might wonder how the some of the streets of Berlin got their names.
Every tourist’s favourite Berlin street is Unter den Linden, which connects the Berlin Palace to the royal entrance to the city, the Brandenburg Gate. It is a beautiful, tree-lined boulevard and it is these trees (Lindens) that give the street its name. Unter den Linden simply means Under the Lindens. Simple!
The heart of high-class shopping in West Berlin is the Kurfürstendamm. Named after the “Kurfürsten” or “prince-electors” of Brandenburg, it began as a small path connecting the Royal Palace to the Grunewald hunting lodge well outside the old city, close to the Havel in the west. Today it is lined with shops and cafes, but the highlight is definitely the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.
For over forty years Berlin was two cities, so it stands to reason there might be some double up on street names. That political theorist Karl Marx is honoured with a street in former East Berlin will surprise nobody, however, he has got one in the west too. Karl-Marx-Allee was the major post-war development of East Germany and was named Stalinallee until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953 when even Kruschev accepted Stalin was a…. divisive character and the name was changed to honour Karl Marx.
Karl-Marx-Strasse in west Berlin’s Neukolln district was named in 1947 and is the third-largest shopping street in Berlin.
Continuing our theme of honouring people involved with the idea of Communism, we come to Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, which is basically the continuation of Unter den Linden on the eastern side of Museums Island. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg are credited with starting the Communist party in Germany. Both were murdered in early 1919 and had no part in the East German Communist state that would emerge after World War Two. This last part is important as it gives us some understanding of why a modern, capitalist nation like Germany still has streets, parks and plazas named after communist figures. To put it into simple terms, it comes down to whether the person was ever part of a Communist regime. Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Marx and more were theorists and were never in a position of national power. In Luxemburg and Liebkecht’s case they were murdered by the fascist precursors of the Nazis, so are seen as heroes in the fight against Nazism and did not have their memory tainted like those who would survive the war to become part of a different totalitarian regime in East Germany.
Torstrasse, running east-west on the northern edge of trendy Mitte has a pretty easy history to guess if you know some basic German. Tor means ‘gate’. (Or ‘goal’ if you are watching football) Therefore, Torstrasse is simply ‘Gate Street’ and is named so because this street followed the path of the old city wall, which would have had many gates into and out of the city. While the Brandenburg Gate is the only one of these to remain, it’s still very easy to pick where the gates used to be, as they have now given their name to many subway stations. Hallesches Tor and Oranienburger Tor, for example, mark the former Halle and Oranienburg gates into Berlin.
Ebertstrasse running south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz is named after the first president of the Weimar Republic, Friedrich Ebert. It gains a place on this list not because this name is interesting or surprising, but because like many streets in Berlin, the changes of its name mirror the upheaval of the city over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ebertstrasse follows the path of the old city wall, which was taken down in the early 19th century and replaced with a street. After Prussia’s victory over Austria in the battle of Königgrätz in 1866, this street was named Königgrätzerstrasse. After World War One this was considered too militaristic, so would be changed to Budapester Strasse, then after Friedrich Ebert’s death in 1925, was named Ebertstrasse in 1930. It would have its name changed again under the Nazi regime, becoming Herman-Göring-Strasse after the Reichsmarschall and Nazi number two, Herman Göring. After the war, it reverted back to Ebertstrasse and would be a normal street for a little over a decade until in 1961, with the erection of the Berlin Wall, Ebertstrasse’s position just on the edge of East Berlin meant that it was only used by border guards until the fall of the wall and subsequent German reunification in 1990.
Schlesische Strasse gets its name from being the street that connects to the former location of the Schlesisches Tor, or Silesia Gate in the old city wall. We’ve already talked about the old gates, but Schlesiche Strasse is on the list for a different reason. I find it so, so difficult to pronounce! Every time I have to say it, I feel like I have a fat tongue and too much saliva!
If you’re brave enough, it's at the edge of the super-cool Kreuzberg district on the river Spree and in non-lockdown times is a fantastic spot for bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes. Just pray you don’t have to give anyone verbal directions!