If you are really keen to learn about Wilhelmplatz in particular and Nazi Berlin in general, I can’t recommend this DVD series too highly:
This stuff is terrific. The DVDs are not particularly expensive and are highly detailed, accurate reconstructions of all the major buildings.
So now you’re at the Wilhelmplatz. If you stand with your back towards the Peking Ente restaurant, i.e. on the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse and look towards the Mohrenstrasse U Bahn station, you will see this:
Not much chop,eh? There are only two original, i.e. pre-war buildings remaining on the Wilhelmplatz. The gabled building in the distance (House of Soviet-German Friendship during the DDR years) is original but is not on the Wilhelmplatz. The Star Wars type building on the right is the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the building next to it is the Embassy of North Korea. The embassy of North Korea is on the site of the famous Hotel Kaiserhof, destroyed during the war and subsequently demolished. (The building with the Ullrich sign on it is a very handy little supermarket if you are staying in the area.) There are two interesting things about this view: with the exception of the gabled building in the distance, none of the buildings you can see existed in 1945 or earlier and the blue subway sign near the red and white van is the entrance to the Mohrenstrasse U Bahn station. Give or take a metre or two, you are standing where Mohnke and his breakout groups started their dash to freedom (you will have seen this dash in “Downfall”). They dashed across Wilhelmstrasse to that U Bahn station and slid down the artillery-smashed steps into the U Bahn tunnels below. The Peking Ente restaurant stands roughly where the Borsig Palais stood (but back around ten metres from the Wilhelmstrasse, so if you’re standing on the footpath, you’re roughly where the Borsig Palais was. Here it is in its heyday:
The red circle indicates where you should be standing on the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss and the blue line indicates my guess as to where the frontage of the Peking Ente now stands. And here is the Borsig Palais and the Reich Chancellery some time after the war. The red arrow indicates where you are standing and where the breakout started and the blue line indicates the Mohrenstrasse U Bahn entrance (called the Kaiserhof U Bahn at the time).
More information on the breakout itself can be found in O’Donnell’s book:
So, let’s re-enact the dash, avoiding the Wilhelmstrasse traffic. When you get down into the U Bahn station you will see this:
Take a close look at the walls: they are faced in unpolished marble (actually granite). Here’s a closer look:
For many years it was believed that this marble/granite came from the New Reich Chancellery which you will recall was demolished by the Soviets (and which was only a few hundred metres from the U Bahn station). However, it has since been determined by petrographic research that this marble/granite came from Thuringia, not Voss Strasse.
So you’re demolishing a large building and repairing a nearby U Bahn station? “Well we could use some of that lovely material from the Chancellery or we could – for no apparent reason – bring some from Thuringia which is roughly 250 kilometres away.” I’m inclined to believe the ‘petrographic research’ findings were published to deter neo- Nazis from making a shrine of the place although the thought of latterday stormtroopers travelling to Berlin to worship a railway station makes me smeck somewhat (although if you are a marble/granite -worshipping stormtrooper you should go to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park because that is dressed in marble/granite from the Chancellery.)
So from here the ten or so groups made their way to Stadtmitte and thence to Friedrichstrasse and the Weidendammer Bridge where the fun really started.
But back to Wilhelmplatz…
Here’s a map of Wilhelmplatz pre-war. Sorry about the quality but it’s the best I could find. The red line indicates the former Palais Marschall, subsequently the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and the blue line indicates the Ritterschaftsdirektion which Wikipedia informs me was a sort of loan office for run-down nobility. The green line indicates the frontage direction of the Kaiserhof Hotel and shows that the current Czech embassy is built on part of the Wilhelmplatz itself, not on the site of the Reich Finance Ministry as some Internet sites claim. More on that later …
These are the only two surviving pre-war buildings on Wilhelmplatz.
Let’s check them out. Walk back up the U Bahn steps and cross the road to the Ullrich store. Walk away from the Peking Ente/Borsig Palais direction:
and you will come to this building, seen second on the left above. It was the Ritterschaftsdirektion but I have no idea what it is now:
Big woop I hear you say? For me the interesting thing about this building is that it appears in so many period photos. Compare the one above with this Getty image from the Kapp Putsch:
A good way to differentiate this building from others on the Wilhelmplatz (especially the Finance Ministry) is the round window above the doorway entrance. And check out this carefree dude as he adds a new dimension to the word “louche”:
BTW, that building to the left of the Ritterschaftsdirektion was the US Embassy up until (I’m guessing) 1932 when it moved to its current location on Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate. And next to it you can just make out the three arches which yet survive of the Propaganda Ministry.
As I said, the Ritterschaft appears in so many period photos:
… and consider this one, taken pre-war by a Norwegian visitor:
…and this, taken at the turn of the century during an outbreak of head-eating giant hats:
This one might help you orient yourself better, given there are now hideous buildings between the Ritterschaft and Wilhelmstrasse:
Here she is being turned into a Guest House on Thalmannplatz (formerly Wilhelmplatz) while under new (DDR) management in 1949:
Freshly scrubbed and refurbished:
The next couple of shots show the demolition of the New Reich Chancellery in Voss Strasse, this one shows our old friend in the background, the Ehrenhof having been demolished:
Wilhelmstrasse crossing left to right, Vossstrasse following the wall under “The Berlin Mall lives here now”:
This is an interesting shot. It must have been taken fairly soon – I’d guess a few months – after the fall of Berlin. There’s an American army truck in the background and what appear to be a couple of British soldiers eyeing off the comely young maidens in left foreground. The low ‘walls’ on which they are sitting are actually water reservoirs for emergency supply during/after air raids:
Now the next time you see a shot of the Wilhelmplatz in a (shudder) documentary or book you’ll be able to impress your friends – if any – by pointing to this building and announcing that it’s one of only two original buildings on the square and was used pre-war as a charity office for nobles who had fallen on hard times. As if …
And finally – for a while at least – one particularly interesting photo. This last one shows the Ritterschaft at left, a big pile of rubble (possibly from the destroyed and no longer visible water reservoirs) and the Kaiserhof at right. Why is it interesting? Well, IMO at least, the photo was almost certainly taken from the balcony of Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery across the Wilhelmplatz: