Friedrichstraße – a street with a long tradition

A street with a lot of history

Friedrichstraße has represented trade, cosmopolitanism and culture for over 200 years. This is where the history of Café Kranzler began, this is where the first movie was shown, this is where world history took place.

However, it is neither the oldest nor – at 3.3 kilometres – the longest street in Berlin. It runs north-south through the centre of the city: straight as a die without any turnings, obstructions or deviations. It was the street of ordinary citizens, traders and prostitutes. It has always been a cultural hub, a favourite haunt of flâneurs and a thriving commercial centre. It used to be the location of most of the city’s brothels and variety shows, famous shopping arcades, restaurants and cafes. Artists, writers, academics and politicians felt at home on Friedrichstraße.

In the late 19th century, Friedrichstraße went from being a residential street to a shopping and entertainment district. The war and Berlin’s division reduced the former street of flâneurs to almost complete insignificance for decades. It earned a rather dubious fame for the two border crossings at Friedrichstraße station and Checkpoint Charlie.

Since the fall of the wall, Friedrichstraße has managed to regain its original status. Gradually, luxury and elegance have returned.

 

Built in the course of city expansion

Friedrichstraße was built in 1688 in the course of city expansion. Originally, it only ran from Dorotheenstraße to Zimmerstraße. It was extended northwards when the suburb of Spandau was expanded in the late 17th century, and was later extended southwards too. It ran right through the city in a straight line. The two city gates on the street, Oranienburger Tor to the north and Hallesches Tor to the south, marked the boundaries of the city.

Originally, the buildings were two storeys high; grander buildings were allowed to have three storeys. A lot of people settled along Friedrichstraße, many of them prosperous and highly experienced – doctors, goldsmiths, tailors, metalworkers. Royal officials, officers and soldiers also lived there.

In the mid-18th century during the reign of Frederick the Great, plain houses were replaced by palatial buildings designed by Gontard, Unger and Langhans. The section to the south of Unter den Linden was regarded as a prestigious district and a centre of intellectual life. The development of industry also left its mark on Friedrichstraße. Around 1820, an important centre of industry developed in Berlin following the construction of the new Berlin iron foundry next toOranienburger Tor. August Borsig built his first steam engine there.

In the late 19th century, Friedrichstraße went from being a residential street to a shopping and entertainment district. In the early 1900s, countless shops, pubs, bars, hotels and theatres – such as the Wintergarten and Admiralspalast – drew in huge crowds to the area between Weidendammer Bridge and LeipzigerStraße. Dance halls with a capacity of 1,000 nestled alongside luxurious restaurants and elegant bars. The glitz and glamour of the 1920s was palpable on Friedrichstraße. The war and the division of Berlin would close this chapter of the street’s history for a long time.

 

The legendary Checkpoint Charlie

On 13 August 1961, Friedrichstraße was unusually hectic. Trucks thundered through the darkness, and jeeps and police cars raced past. Some of the troops were bound for the station, while another group was rushing to Brandenburg Gate. The others continued to Zimmerstraße. At a feverish pace, initial temporary roadblocks were erected. 13 open checkpoints were set up on that date in August. One of them was located on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. Following American nomenclature, in the West it became known as Checkpoint Charlie.

In autumn 1961, political tensions were rising in the city, in Europe and across the world. In October 1961, war and peace hung in the balance along the dividing line on Friedrichstraße. On 25 October, several US tanks took up position at Checkpoint Charlie. The next day, ten Soviet tanks were deployed on the eastern part of Friedrichstraße. The forces of the former Allies now faced off at a distance of less than 200 metres, the barrels of the tanks’ guns pointed at each other. The tanks continued to point their guns threateningly for 48 hours. On the morning of 28 October, the Soviet soldiers withdrew on the personal orders of Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union. Earlier, the US President had telephoned to try to defuse the conflict. Shortly afterwards, the American tanks withdrew too.

Not least due to those few October days, the wall – erected for political reasons – became the backdrop for spectacular public appearances. Leading politicians came to Checkpoint Charlie again and again. In June 1963, US President John F. Kennedy saw it for himself. Together with German Chancellor Adenauer and Berlin’s Governing Mayor Willy Brandt, he ascended a wooden platform on the western side of Friedrichstraße and was shown the wall and border defences. On 22 June 1990, Checkpoint Charlie was finally dismantled in a festive ceremony attended by the foreign ministers of the four Allied victors of the Second World War and both German states.

 

Elegance – and big decisions

The fall of the wall left the path clear to restoring the street’s original status. Since the mid-1990s, a “new world” has gradually come into being – attractive stores, exclusive hotels and prestigious company branches have appeared on Friedrichstraße. They have brought back with them the luxury and elegance that the street of flâneurs was famed for a century ago. It’s not just the world of business that has put down roots on Friedrichstraße – the world of international fashion has established itself there too. In Quartier 206, top designers showcase haute couture from across the globe, while next door the French department store Lafayette offers a luxurious shopping experience.

But this isn’t just a place to stroll, shop and indulge – it’s also a place to make contacts, negotiate business and seal deals. This is where the threads of power are spun into policies and where decisions are made. This is where stories are researched. By day, tourists, businesspeople, journalists and politicians fill Friedrichstraße with life.

In the evening, the area is filled with theatre- and operagoers. Berlin Mitte is once again the place where important decisions are made. The Federal Press Office, Chancellery, ministries, embassies and Museum Island are all in the immediate vicinity of the IHZ. Numerous associations, representative offices, international media outlets and major TV studios are based around Friedrichstraße. You can feel the pulsing life of the big city there.

 

Back to history

The Wintergarten theatre at the Central Hotel, Friedrichstraße, 1881
The Wintergarten theatre at the Central Hotel, Friedrichstraße, 1881  
Historic Friedrichstraße, around 1900, many people and first cars are on the road
Friedrichstraße, around 1900  
Friedrichstraße in December 1909
Friedrichstraße in December 1909  
Friedrichstraße/corner of Leipziger Straße, 1935; many cars cause a lot of traffic
Friedrichstraße/corner of Leipziger Straße, 1935  
Grenzübergang Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie  © (c) WBM
Mauermuseum "Haus am Checkpoint Charlie"
Mauermuseum "Haus am Checkpoint Charlie"  © (c) WBM
Luxus & Shopping im Quartier 206
Luxus & Shopping im Quartier 206  © (c) WBM