Relics of the Former City

The Author’s Guide to Berlin

/ by Sharmila Cohen

On the Alexanderplatz they are tearing up the roadbed for the underground. People walk on planks. The tram-cars pass over the square up Alexanderstrasse through Münzstrasse to the Rosenthaler Tor … The streets are lined with one house after the other. They are full of men and women, from cellar to garret. On the ground floor are shops: distilleries, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stores, grocers and fine foods, a carriage company, decorative paintings, manufacturing lady's wear, flour and milling products, car garages, an insurance company.

(An excerpt from Alfred Döblin's: Berlin, Alexanderplatz)



One of Banksy's graffiti in Berlin.
This text comes from Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz and was part of a longer quote that was once written along the façade of the former Haus der Elektroindustrie (the GDR Ministry of Electro-technology and Electronics) on Alexanderplatz. Very little of the writing remains, but you may be able to spot a few of the faded letters on the building, once you know to look for them. This seems like an apt depiction of the state of rapid change that Berlin has undergone, not only as it was in the late 20s of Döblin’s novel, but also for many years to come. It’s impossible to go anywhere in or around Berlin without being surrounded by remnants of its history. Here are a few unusual places that represent those lingering elements of the past.


Tropical Islands

Situated just south of Berlin, the Tropical Islands Resort is located on a sight that was originally developed as training grounds for pilots of the Nazi Luftwaffe, and then later converted into an East German military base, by the Soviet Union. Following the reunification, the base was returned to the German government in 1992, and then purchased, in 1998, by the German company, Cargolifter. The company spent millions constructing the Aerium, an indoor space large enough for the production and storage of the CL160 Airship (think enormous zeppelin or blimp for cargo transport), but went bankrupt in 2002, never producing even the first aircraft of its kind. Finally, it was purchased, in 2003, by a Malaysian consortium, and converted into the Tropical Islands Resort that it is today.


According to the website, Tropical Islands is “Europe’s largest tropical holiday world.” Essentially, it attempts to replicate the environment of an actual tropical island, inside of a massive aircraft hangar. The souped-up indoor water park includes a tropical sea and lagoon (elaborate swimming pools), water slides, a children’s area, a rainforest, mini golf, balloon rides, a spa, places to shop and eat, overnight accommodations and soon a new outdoor area. If this isn’t enough to betray the sheer magnitude of the space, the building itself is considered one of the world’s largest by volume, covering an area the size of eight football fields, and tall enough to house the Statue of Liberty.


You can sit on a lounge chair, drink a brightly-colored cocktail, and stare across the water at the colored lights that are meant to look like sunset on the beach. And then it will almost seem absurd to reflect upon the fact that this place is an architectural marvel, the home of failed grandiose plans for air transport, and rests on a former airfield that was previously occupied by not one, but two different militaries.



Werkbund Archiv – Museum der Dinge / The Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things

The Deutscher Werkbund, or German Association of Craftsmen, was founded in 1907 with the intention of promoting German crafts, products, and design, in order to remain competitive in international markets. Comprising artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, the association’s motto was Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau, that is: from sofa cushions to city planning, reflecting the extent of their focus. The Deutcher Werkbund was disbanded in 1933 under the Nazi regime, and then revived after WWII.


The Werkbund Archive, literally called the Museum of Things, is a publically-funded institution that “has been documenting modern material culture and product culture by collecting design-historically significant objects and archival materials since the 1970s … with the aim of creating new experiences with, and making observable, the history of objects in the 20th century, as it emanates from contemporary product culture.” In addition to changing exhibits, the museum has rows and rows of shelves full of “things,” spanning decades of cultural history. When I visited, I sometimes got the feeling that they had cleared out all of their old relatives’ basements and put their favorite family relics on display. There are, of course, some very refined objects to look at, but what I found much more interesting were the more mundane things, like saltshakers and toothbrushes. This museum is a great opportunity to see into the everyday life of the past, and offers you a sense of why practically anything is worthy of being put in a museum.


Abandoned sites

Throughout the city’s various iterations, a lot of buildings and sites have gotten lost in the mix – some were abandoned by Nazis, some by the Soviets and some from the American occupation. As the population grows and tourism increases, it’s becoming more and more popular to visit these sites, as can be evidenced in part by the ubiquitous graffiti and vandalism, but also the numerous blogs and websites dedicated to the subject. The appeal is obvious: most of these places have long and interesting histories and then, of course, there’s the excitement of sneaking around. There are too many to describe them all to you here, but more popular locations include:


Spreepark – an abandoned East German amusement park with rollercoasters, fallen dinosaur statues, and a giant Ferris wheel. It was originally run by the GDR, and later purchased by the Witte family, whose dodgy dealings were among the multiple reasons for its eventual demise. Beware, rumor has it that security has been increased and guards patrol the site.


Teufelsberg – a man-made hill of rubble, piled atop an indestructible Nazi military college building, with a former NSA listening station on top of that. There were paid guided tours of the buildings available, but ownership seems to have recently changed hands.


Beelitz-Heilstätten – a former TB clinic and sanitarium that was used as a military hospital during the First and Second World Wars, and then maintained by the Russians until 1995. Famous patients include Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker.


These are just a few of the better-known spots – there are so many more to visit, with stories of their own. I find the website particularly helpful, as it lists the various sites with their back stories, the author’s experiences, where they are located, how to get in, difficulty of access, when to go, what to bring, and particular dangers. I can’t make any promises about the legality of sneaking into any of these places or how safe it will be if you do, but it certainly makes for an interesting adventure into otherwise forgotten spaces.

Sharmila Cohen

lives in Berlin, where she initially moved on a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate poetry in translation and now works as a freelance writer, translator, and editor. She is a co-founding editor of the translation press Telephone Books. Her work can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Circumference,and Epiphany, among other places.