On the street where you live

By | Category: Travel destinations
white house in Potsdam

the white house in which Marlene Dietrich stayed whilst filming

When Lerner and Lowe wrote this song for My Fair Lady in the 1950’s, they had no idea that some of the lyrics could just as easily fit with another street, one called Karl-Marx-Straße (or strasse) in Potsdam.

There were a number of fair ladies that lived there – or at least they did when they were filming – Marlene Dietrich was one –  and when they wrote that “people stop and stare,” the same happens in this street today.  It isn’t because the houses are large, spacious and architecturally interesting although that’s all true. It’s because of the array of people who lived there and – albeit briefly – called it home. There were politicians, Nazis, Jews, bankers and industrialists who lived cheek by jowl even if it was for a short space of time. There were film stars and executives from the nearby Babelsberg Film Studios one of the most important studios in the history of film and which is still producing internationally watched movies today. My Fair Lady wasn’t filmed at the Babelsberg Studios nor was it made by UFA Films which was the largest film company in Germany making moves such as The Blue Angel, Dr Mabuse and Metropolis which were seminal in cinema development. No wonder that UFA had houses on Karl-Marx-Straße in which the most famous actors and directors stayed during their projects.

the house in which Churchill stayed

But if the street enticed film makers, it wasn’t alone. Industrialists occupied houses as well. Günther Quandt, a textile industrialist who had substantial stakes in BMW, Daimler-Benz and Varta lived in what was known as Villa Quandt. He married Magda Ritschel, the stepdaughter of a Jewish industrialist. Why mention this? Because she later remarried and became Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, committing suicide along with her husband after killing their six children. The street may have another link with Goebbels. He had a mistress for two years, an actress called Lída Baarová who was working at the UFA studios from 1934 and who, until her marriage in 1936, is believed to have stayed at one of the studio’s houses on Karl-Marx-Straße whilst shooting films there.

This is where Truman stayed…

Otto Liebkencht, a chemist with Jewish origins and brother of the head of Germany’s communist party lived in the street throughout WWII despite his origins being widely known. Some think that this was because of his importance to German industry but nonetheless, Jew lived near to Nazi in Karl-Marx-Straße. A near neighbour of his was the deputy to Goebbels.

Originally known as Kaiserstraße, it is obvious to anyone why its name was changed in 1945 when Postdam became part of the communist East Germany.  In the war years its name was the much more sinister, Straße der SA named after the Sturmabteilung. Initially they had been the brown shirts that protected Nazi meetings and attacked Jewish establishments. After the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 they had lost much of their power and, about this time, the street was renamed.

and this is where Stalin stayed

But if Karl-Marx-Straße between the wars was a mixture of actors, film makers and industrialists, it achieved even greater prominence as the war came to an end. At the Postdam Conference in 1945, Churchill, Stalin and Truman all stayed for some weeks in three of the houses on the street whilst the conference negotiations took place at the Cecilienhof Palace.  Coincidentally that palace was only built during the previous world war.

Today those houses still stand. In the confusion of April 1945, Potsdam was in the Russian sector of influence and that might be why houses in Karl-Marx-Straße were chosen for the government leaders. That and the fact that they were large and that the gardens provided some security. Both Truman and Stalin’s houses bear plaques. Churchill’s did not and as late as 2006, there was an appeal to the industrialist owner of the house to have a plaque on the house, Villa Urbig. A plaque was handed over but whether it was fixed I couldn’t see as the house is set back from the road. Originally the house was linked to directors at Deutsche bank. After the war it became a place that was used for training judges. Today, as I mentioned, it is once again a private home unlike Truman’s which houses a political institute.

and this is the kindergarten at the opposite end of the street to where Stalin’s house sits

The Potsdam Conference wasn’t the end of the street’s link with the war. At one end is a small garden square and this is in memory of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is in front of the house where Truman stayed because, whilst there, Truman signed the order authorising the atomic bombs to be dropped. For the last seven years a small block of stone has been in position here. It comes from Hiroshima and withstood the explosion on that day in August 1945.

Almost opposite the site is a house being used for purposes about as far from war and atomic bombs as it is possible to be. Today, that house is a kindergarten .

But given the history of the street, why are houses dating from before the first world war still standing? How is it that they weren’t destroyed during World War II, pulled down by the communists or converted by developers into smaller buildings with greater profit potential?  One reason is that the houses in the street were designed by the foremost architects of the day; people like Emanuel Heimann who followed a country house style in an urban setting and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who created a building here in his early career before he became a leading modernist.   Emilie Winkelmann, the first woman to operate her own architectural practice designed a number of houses in the area including Karl-Marx-Straße.

Another reason given for the houses still standing is that Stalin was looking for a place to house the art (trophies) that he planned to take back to Russia and those in this street suited his purposes. One of them, number 73, was used as a police station during Nazi times and a post office in the communist era. There aren’t many post offices of such grandeur or history!

But then, there aren’t many streets with a history like that of Potsdam’s Karl-Marx-Straße.


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