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  • Assassinations, socialism and conspirators’ dens: Inside Berlin’s Rote Insel

This Must Be The Place

Assassinations, socialism and conspirators’ dens: Inside Berlin’s Rote Insel

Take a trip to Schöneberg's Rote Insel (or Red Island), an unassuming neighbourhood with an astounding history.

Photo: IMAGO / Frank Sorge

As you pass Schöneberg on the Ring, the Gasometer towers above you. This round 78-metre-tall steel skeleton once held coal gas, and is currently being converted into an office building. The Gasometer marks the entrance to a sectioned-off neighbourhood known as the Rote Insel, or “Red Island” – just like the Argonath, the enormous twin statues at the gates of Gondor.

This triangular part of Schöneberg, marked by the S-Bahn stations Schöneberg, Südkreuz and Gleisdreieck, is called an “island” because it is completely cut off from the rest of the district by the train tracks enclosing it. All the way back in 1838, the Berlin-Potsdam rail line (today’s S1) was built through empty fields next to what was then the village of Schöneberg. In 1841, the Berlin-Anhalt line (today’s S2 and S25) opened a few hundred metres to the east, creating a wedge shape. When the first part of the Ringbahn was built in 1871, the triangle was enclosed. At the time, no one but a few farmers took notice, who must have cursed when they had to cross train tracks to reach their fields.

The only way in or out involved bridges or tunnels across the tracks

As Schöneberg grew explosively during the Gründerzeit era in the late 19th century – from less than 5,000 people in 1871 to over 60,000 before the end of the century – this cheap farmland on the wrong side of the tracks was snatched up to build cheap housing. The narrow blocks were filled with tenements, and by 1905, 30,000 people were crammed together on what became known as “the Island”. The only way in or out – then as now – involved bridges or tunnels across the tracks. To get a feeling for just how crowded it once was, today some 10,000 live in more or less the same buildings.

Seeing Red

Photo: IMAGO / Matthias Reichelt

But why is the Island “red”? That’s less obvious. One theory goes back to 1878: after the 81-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm I survived an attempt on his life during an open-carriage ride along Unter den Linden, a beer distributor on Sedanstraße (today’s Leberstraße) hung a red flag from his window, defying the new Anti-Socialist-Laws. This man was sent into exile, but he established the neighbourhood’s reputation for “redness”. The Island was indeed a socialist stronghold – not as red as proletarian districts like Moabit, Wedding or Neukölln, but red by the standards of otherwise bourgeois, liberal Schöneberg. In 1903, some 70% of the Island’s residents voted for the SPD.

But “red” might refer to something much more literal. At the end of the 19th century, the red-bricked barracks of General-Pape-Straße were built just across the tracks, east of the Island, where the military had enormous parade grounds. These buildings housed, among other things, the Prussian Railway Regiments who built tracks for transporting troops and weapons. Those railways proved their value in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, in World War I and in colonial expeditions in Namibia, then “Deutsch Südwest-Afrika”. This was also the site of early military experiments with airships. The Railway Regiments were dissolved in 1919, but many of their buildings still stand, and have been used for a mishmash of small businesses since.

After the soldiers left, the Island was rocked by new forms of fighting. In the early 1930s, Sedanstraße was full of red flags, while just one block over, Naumannstraße was dominated by swastikas: a contrast that would soon make the neighbourhood red in another way entirely.


On September 6, 1929, up to 100 uniformed Nazis burst into a bar on Sedanstraße, demolishing the furniture and injuring numerous customers. This was no isolated incident; Nazis often violently attacked Communists as part of a strategy of tension, creating tumult on the streets and then telling the ruling class that they’d help them quell the violence. Local bartender Emil Potratz’s Kneipe was the main Communist hangout on the Island. After the riot, a dozen or so Nazis were arrested, some with illegal firearms, but not one was convicted. Weimar Germany’s justice system was blind in its right eye, so workers felt compelled to make their own justice. In the 10 days after the attack, 14 Nazis were injured on the Red Island.

The Nazis needed extreme measures to pacify the Red Island

The NSDAP could never establish much of a stronghold on the Island; the train tracks made it into something of a fortress. Even after the Nazis had seized power in 1933, a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Nazi paramilitary force, was shot and killed on Torgauer Straße, right past a bridge to enter the neighbourhood. For a dozen years, the “red” Sedanstraße was officially named after that Nazi, before it was renamed Leberstraße.

The most famous daughter of the Red Island, honoured by two different historical plaques, is Marlene Dietrich, who was born in the building that is today’s Leberstraße 65 and later left Nazi Germany, becoming a US citizen in 1939 and renouncing her German citizenship. Asked whether she would return to her Heimat after 1945, the actress famously answered, “Germany? Never again!”

Red Resistance

The Nazis needed extreme measures to pacify the Red Island. The SA set up a concentration camp in one of the red-brick buildings of the Papestraße barracks, just across the tracks. Hundreds of people were imprisoned and tortured there in early 1933. After the war, many people claimed they had no idea about the Nazis’ crimes, but the prison was and is surrounded by apartments. Since 2011, the basement has been a public memorial, the SA-Gefängnis Papestraße.

Just across the tracks, at Naumannstraße 78, the expressionist poet Paul Zech was trying to write down what he was experiencing in the first months of the Nazi dictatorship. Zech wrote what he called a “factual novel”, looking at how different social layers on the Red Island adapted to fascism, or tried to resist. He wrote the first part of his novel at home but soon fled to Argentina, where he finished his tome, for which he never found a publisher. Rediscovered in an archive, Zech’s Deutschland, dein Tänzer ist der Tod (“Germany, your dancer is death”) was finally published in 1981 in East Germany. 

After many of the old Communists had been imprisoned or killed, a new resident of the Island took up the antifascist struggle. Julius Leber, once a Social Democratic leader in Lübeck, had spent several years in prison. After he was released in 1937, he took over a coal depot on Torgauer Straße, next to the train tracks. While delivering coal all over Berlin, Leber also held secret meetings with leaders of different resistance groups. His shack was a real “conspirators’ den”, in the words of Theodor Heuss, later the Federal President.

Leber, now the namesake of one of the bridges leading out of the Red Island, coordinated with both Communists and the aristocratic officers who tried to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. A Nazi judge denounced him as the “Lenin of the German workers’ movement”, and Leber was executed in early 1945. Leber’s wife, Annelore, kept the coal business running after the war while publishing books about the resistance. A version of the shack is still standing and is supposed to become a memorial soon.

Red Remnants

Photo: IMAGO / Schöning

The Red Island was almost destroyed twice. The first attempt was made by architect Albert Speer, Hitler’s general building inspector tasked with creating the World Capital Germania. Speer envisioned a massive road, the so-called ‘North-South Axis’, for military parades, lined with monumental government buildings. The southern end would be marked by the world’s largest triumphal arch.

To test if it was possible to build such a colossus on Berlin’s sandy ground, the Nazis put up a concrete cylinder: the Schwerbelastungskörper, or Heavy Load-Bearing Body. Speer’s engineers began the work of demolishing the neighbourhood, starting by moving graves at the Old St. Matthew Cemetery at the north end of the Red Island. Fortunately, they didn’t get very far. Today, the cemetery is the resting place of the Brothers Grimm, the punk rocker Rio Reiser and the Afro-German poet May Ayim.

The Red Island was almost destroyed twice

After the war, post-fascist city planners continued with some of Speer’s ideas, hoping to build a six-lane highway from Schöneberg to Moabit. The “Südtangente” (“Southern Tangential Road”) would have cut right through the Island. But in 1974, young socialists started organising to save the Cheruskerpark, and after several decades, the plans for an inner-city Autobahn were abandoned. A freeway crossing to nowhere, the Autobahnkreuz Schöneberg, is all that remains.

The most famous monument to the Red Island today is actually outside the neighbourhood. Go through the tunnel at S-Bahnhof Yorckstraße to Mansteinstraße, and you’ll see a graffiti-coloured apartment building also known as Rote Insel. This was occupied in early 1981 – the first squat in Schöneberg – and has been used by leftists ever since. Standing next to fancy new apartment buildings, it’s a reminder that the Red Island, Berlin’s only fortified Kiez, has always been very different from its surroundings.