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Potsdamer Platz: Photos of 120 years of Berlin history

From the heart of the imperial capital to ruins. Join us for a time travelling exploration of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz in photos.

Potsdamer Platz looking picturesque in 1935. Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

From the posh heart of the imperial city to a bustling traffic junction, from a sandy wasteland to Europe’s largest construction site, Potsdamer Platz embodies Berlin’s turbulent history over the last 120 years. It can be hard to discern its former glory from the slightly soulless space that stands today, so join us for a time travelling exploration of the iconic square through photos.

The heart of the imperial capital 

Photo: IMAGO / H. Tschanz-Hofmann

The very beginning of the story of Potsdamer Platz goes back to 1734, when its place was occupied by the Potsdamer Tor, one of the western gates of the Berlin Customs Wall. In the 18th century Potsdamer Chaussee was one of the most important connecting routes of the Prussian metropolis. The square was given the name Potsdamer Platz from 1831.

The square was initially on the outskirts of the city, but the city grew up around it as the 19th century wore on. With the construction of the train station it became one of Berlin’s central transport hubs.

A bustling junction

Traffic on Potsdamer Platz, 1920. Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

At the beginning of the 20th century more and more office and commercial buildings, as well as restaurants and hotels, took up residence on the square.

With the opening of a U-Bahn line station at Potsdamer Platz in 1902 you could travel quickly to Zoologischer Garten or Friedrichshain. With the advent of the U-Bahn the pace of life in the city accelerated, and the effects of this rapid progress were felt at Potsdamer Platz.

Erich Mendelsohn’s Columbushaus, 1935. Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

After the First World War, Potsdamer Platz turned into an urban juggernaut, with buses, trams, pedestrians and ever-increasing car traffic. It was a transit hub, but also a shopping and entertainment hot spot. It had a racy side too, with prostitution and crime rife in the area.

Artists met in Café Josty, the Aschinger restaurant had room for up to 4000 guests, and architect Erich Mendelsohn built the cutting edge Columbushaus on the square in 1932.

Wall to wall traffic

An aerial shot of Potsdamer Platz at the end of the 1930s. Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

Everyday life changed at Potsdamer Platz following the rise to power of the Nazi party. Many artists were forced into exile or no longer allowed to perform. The Nazis were keen to develop the city’s infrastructure, and continued with construction plans for an underground S-Bahn station which opened in 1939.

Until the end of the Second World War the square remained one of the busiest places in the city. Check out more historical aerial photos of Berlin here.

The aftermath of battle

Destroyed buildings on Potsdamer Platz after the Battle of Berlin, May 1, 1945. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

In the spring of 1945 after the air raids and the final Battle of Berlin, Potsdamer Platz lay in ruins. When the city was divided up between the Alied forces, the square was situated on the edge of the American, British and Soviet sectors. As a result the reconstruction was haphazard, and most of the buildings that had survived stood empty. No one was interested in investing in the once splendid location.

The city divided

West German police officers look across at their East German colleagues at the Berlin Wall on Potsdamer Platz, 1961. Photo: IMAGO / Sabine Gudath

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Potsdamer Platz was abandoned by the city administration. Most of the remaining buildings were demolished, even ones that were intact, because no tenants could be found for them. The Wall divided the square, and it became a dead-zone until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Urban wasteland

The M-Bahn over Potsdamer Platz in West Berlin, 1980s. Photo: IMAGO / Imagebroker

In West Berlin, Potsdamer Platz was a wasteland, filled with puddles and mud, where a flea market was held on the weekends in the 1980s.

Wim Wenders captured the unreal atmosphere of the historic location in his famous film ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ (The Sky Over Berlin). Although attempts were made on the west side to revive the square, with the reopening of the Martin-Gropius-Bau and the construction of the M-Bahn, new life only really came back after the fall of the Wall in 1989.

The Berlin Wall falls

Potsdamer Platz shortly after the Wall fell. Photo: IMAGO / Eventpress

The famous pictures from the day the Wall came down were taken not at Potsdamer Platz, but a few hundred meters away at the Brandenburg Gate. A few days later a border crossing was set up at Potsdamer Platz. The Wall was dismantled and the city began to grow together again, even on the wasteland of the old square.

Europe’s biggest building site

A new city centre being built at Potsdamer Platz, 1997. Photo: IMAGO / Gueffroy

It soon became clear that the abandoned land would not remain empty for long. Massive companies like Sony, Daimler and Deutsche Bahn planned for locations here. A casino, luxury hotels, cinemas, an enormous shopping centre, a film museum and restaurants were all on the cards for the construction project.

The most famous architects in the world were commission to “critically reconstruct” Potsdamer Platz. It only worked to a limited extent, and it never became the lively hub it used to be. The architecture seemed out of place, sterile and at the same time small-town and shrinking, which was partly due to the strict building regulations of the Berlin Senate.

The builder of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, once said: “Potsdamer Platz is an example of how you can hire the best architects in the world and still not automatically end up with something great”. Some people have named the Sony Center Berlin’s most disappointing building.

The Berlinale is the highlight of the year at Potsdamer Platz. Photo: Eibner-Pressefoto/EPeer

As much as Berliners might grumble about getting lost in Potsdamer Arkaden and the aesthetics of Potsdamer Platz nowadays, there is one time of year when the location gets to shine.

For two weeks in February Potsdamer Platz hosts the Berlinale Film Festival. After decades taking place on Ku’damm and the cinemas in the west of the city, the film festival has shifted its epicentre to the Theater am Potsdamer Platz. Here all the first screenings of the competition take place, as well as a host of other screening and events surrounding the festival. So it’s not all bad.

What does the future hold?

Potsdamer Platz in the summer of 2020. Photo: IMAGO / Westend61

Potsdamer Platz has become neither a breathtaking meeting of modern architecture, nor a Berlin Manhattan, bristling with skyscrapers and feeling like the city’s heart. Progress has been slower than expected.

True, it has become a traffic junction again, but with the Potsdam Arkaden increasingly empty of visitors and the CineStar multiplex cinema moving out of the Sony Centre, the future of the square seems once again uncertain.

This article was adapted from the german by Poppy Smallwood.