Then and Now: On the Potsdamer Platz

“The announcements of music halls, movies, the promotion of cigarettes, the fervor of business advertising – their nightly blaze above the roofs of Potsdamer Platz – drown, suffocate, and obliterate any of the political battle cries in an inferno of light and noise and color.” – Joseph Roth

In between the World Wars Potsdamer Platz was the busiest intersection in Europe. Berlin’s population had grown to 4.4 million – larger than it is today – and the neighbourhood immediately around the square was the ultimate symbol of this modernity, of the Metropolis on the Spree… a relentless intersection celebrating commerce, modernism and a glittering future. This was a place of crowds and noise, of lights and buildings that towered above the individual standing on the street. A hundred thousand such individuals passed through the Potsdamer PLatz each day, alongside 20,000 cars, as well as numerous bicycles and other vehicles such as horse drawn carts.

Here you would have found not only many of the major hotels in the city, but a neighbourhood of department stores, theatres, dancehalls and beerhalls, cafes and restaurants… neon lights and the electric tramway, the subway trains rumbling beneath the surface whilst above eight thousand hungry souls at a time could fill themselves at the Haus Vaterland, an indoor theme part of bars, restaurants and cinemas, with food from around the world.

And then came the war and a no-man’s land split by the division of the city. A place where rabbits roamed on wasteland in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and guard dogs patrolled what had been Europe’s busiest junction. Only the ghosts of the Potsdamer Platz, that gloriously illuminated and vibrant heart of a roaring city, were left to echo across the emptiness until, at last, that wall too came down, and it was time to start all over again. And although we can keep looking, that Potsdamer Platz of the imagination is nowhere to be found…

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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