• Berlin
  • The surprising history of Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel


The surprising history of Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel

Right in the heart of the city, East Germany’s attempt to rebuild Berlin's historic centre, Nikolaiviertel, is a bizarre reconstruction of the past.

Restaurant zum Nussbaum, Propststrasse, Nikolaiviertel. Photo: Imago / Joko

How old is Nikolaiviertel exactly? In one sense, it’s close to 800 years old: around 1230, Berlin’s first houses went up around a church near the banks of the Spree. In another sense, it’s just 36: after World War II, only eight buildings remained standing in Berlin’s historic centre. After decades as a near-empty field, the city decided to rebuild the neighbourhood, which was formally reestablished on May 14, 1987.

In many ways, the results of the East German reconstruction seem bizarre. Though some of the half-timbered houses are traditionally constructed, there are also prefab concrete apartment buildings topped with gables that look as if someone had tried to recreate an old town and failed hilariously. Today, Nikolaiviertel is mostly an attraction for tourists, lined with an abundance of “traditional” and overpriced restaurants. Only the double tower of St. Nicholas Church seems worth a visit. Rather than a mediaeval relic, Nikolaiviertel merely offers a version of a past that never really existed – but its bizarre charm is strangely irresistible.

1237: Beginnings

Nikolaikirche. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

No one knows when Berlin was founded – the city charter was lost in a fire in the city centre in 1380. The first surviving document to name the town of Cölln, Berlin’s sister village on the other side of the Spree, is from 1237, while the first mention of Berlin is from 1244. Though few records remain from that time, there is at least one structure: the Nikolaikirche. The original basilica looked nothing like the red-bricked church that stands there today, yet some of the stonework dates back to around 1230, making this Berlin’s oldest pile of rocks. This church is where Berlin residents converted to Lutheranism in 1539. It’s where the city council first met in 1809 and where the Berlin parliament was constituted in 1991 after the reunification. The deconsecrated church now serves as a museum, though there’s little to see.

Museum Knoblauchhaus Photo: Stadtmuseum Berlin / Oliver Ziebe

The Knoblauchhaus next door was finished some 500 years later in 1761. After miraculously surviving the bombing during World War II, this became the oldest home in central Berlin. In contrast to what the name suggests, this is not a garlic museum; the Knoblauchs were a long line of merchants, architects, and intellectuals. Since 1989, the house has been a museum, set up to show how a wealthy Berlin family would have lived in the Biedermeier period of 1815-1848. These two museums, St. Nicholas Church and Knoblauchhaus, are pretty much all that is original in the Nikolaiviertel.

1937: Deconstruction

The neighbourhood next to Rotes Rathaus mostly kept its mediaeval vibe until the mid-1930s, when the Nazis razed a swath to make room for cars. The expanded Mühlendamm, Mitte’s main road, was supposed to help automobiles speed through their dreamt-up world capital “Germania”, yet the street was only finished by East Berlin in 1969.

The Nazis also disassembled the ornate Ephraim Palace with its gold-plated ironwork, a Rococo-style building whose construction had been commissioned by its namesake Veitel Heine Ephraim in 1766. Ephraim, the head of the Prussian mint, helped finance King Frederick the Great’s numerous wars by adulterating silver. As an added bonus, the people’s discontent about the king’s financial shenanigans could be directed against a Jewish Berliner. In the mid-1930s, the palace’s facade was dismantled and put into storage in Wedding for 50 years, before being reassembled in East Berlin in 1987, 12 metres back from its original location. Today, it houses a perfectly decent but small and uninspired museum of Berlin history. In 1943, Allied bombs destroyed what was left of Nikolaiviertel.

Famous East German Trabis parked across from the Ephraim Palais, 1987. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

1987: Resurrection

On the occasion of Berlin’s 750th birthday in 1987 – counting from the earliest document available – Nikolaiviertel reemerged. The new neighbourhood, designed by architect Günther Stahn – earning it the nickname Neu-Stahnsdorf – was not intended to be a living museum. Instead, the East Germans constructed an area that would house 33 shops, 22 restaurants, and almost 800 apartments. “This is not a recreation with every detail left unchanged,” Stahn wrote in a catalogue about his creation, “but rather an attempt at constructed memory.” The new district contains a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of Berlin’s old town.

In 1943, Allied bombs destroyed what was left of Nikolaiviertel.

One such “constructed memory” is the Gerichtslaube, the open-air court pavilion that once stood next to the old city hall. This is a remnant of the time when Berlin’s citizens had emancipated themselves from the rule of regional princes and could administer justice themselves. And they didn’t hold back; between 1391 and 1448, at least 114 executions were recorded here. People had to be taught to follow the rules of the free market – a 14-year-old was hanged for stealing a herring, a woman was buried alive for taking a coat. The Kaak, a bird with a human head and donkey ears, symbolised the humiliation of the people trapped in the pillory. A statue of the eerie creature still adorns the façade of the Gerichtslaube. The original court pavilion was moved to the royal park in Potsdam-Babelsberg in 1871, once the new city hall was completed. Like most structures in the Nikolaiviertel, today’s copy is from 1987, but it now includes walls and vaulted ceilings that provide space for a restaurant instead of brutal murders.

Nikolaiviertel, 1987. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

Berlin’s oldest restaurant was similarly recreated. Zum Nußbaum looked like a farmhouse that had been transplanted to central Berlin. Proletarian artists like Heinrich Zille and Otto Nagel would drink through the night here. Zille, who made a career documenting the lives of Berlin’s underclass with his melancholic yet joyful sketches, recalled: “Whoever got stuck in the ‘nut tree’ sank into bitterness, sickness, and misery.” A museum dedicated to Zille, the most popular of the ‘Berlin Originals’, opened in 2002 just around the corner. The original restaurant was destroyed in the war. It had actually stood one neighbourhood over, on the Fischerinsel, but that old proletarian district was bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for high-rise apartments. Because the old gabled roof wouldn’t have fit in there, it was recreated in Nikolaiviertel.

‘Berliner Original’, coined in the 19th century, is a colloquial term used to describe individuals or professional groups thought to be quintessentially Berlin. Originals stand out through the distinctive self-confidence, quick-wittedness and dry humour (“Berliner Schnauze”) now attributed to Berliners.

Nikolaiviertel, 1994. Photo: IMAGO / Stana

It’s ironic that the DDR, after several decades of demolishing historic city centres to make way for socialist modernism, was finally discovering historic preservation. Then again, there might be a simple explanation: the Palace of the Republic – today’s Humboldt Forum – was built on Berlin’s notoriously sandy ground. Stabilisation required a massive counterweight on the opposite bank, and if they had to pile a bunch of concrete there, why not create something to squeeze foreign currency out of tourists? Accordingly, the shops were filled with Meißner porcelain, Plauener lacework and all kinds of East German handicrafts available for Western prices – a fantasy old town dedicated to selling overpriced tchotchkes to tourists.

2024: Relics

After less than four decades, Nikolaiviertel has already accumulated some relics from a forgotten past. Under the dove declaring Berlin a “city of peace” on the wall facing the Spree river, two brass plaques above a travel agency feature scripted letters: PdR. This was once the logo of the Palace of the Republic across the river. This was where East Berliners would wait in line for cheap tickets for concerts, revues and balls. PdR is just about all that’s left of the once-grandiose people’s palace.

The most stunning thing about Nikolaiviertel is that people actually live there. The neighbourhood is still home to almost 2,000 people – right above the shops, cafés and restaurants, which seems incredible compared to more recent neighbourhood rebuilding projects like Potsdamer Platz, with malls, offices and hotels but not a single square metre for normal people to live. It’s all these apartments, with their slightly silly mediaeval Plattenbau look, that makes Nikolaiviertel seem like a fairy tale to today’s eyes.

Want to take a guided tour of Nikolaiviertel?

Photo: IMAGO / imagebroker

Join Exberliner’s history writer and author of Revolutionary Berlin Nathaniel Flakin on a walk through Nikolaiviertel to discover the somewhat bizarre story behind Berlin’s oldest neighbourhood. The tour is free, but donations are welcome! Reserve your spot now.