If you follow Berlin’s fashionable Kurfurstendamm to its western end you will arrive at the elegant suburb of Grunewald that lies on the edge of the Grunewald, twelve square miles of woodland and lakes where, in 1542, the Brandenburg Elector Joachim II built a hunting lodge at the heart of the royal reserve he named Zum gruenen Wald – the Green Forest.
One day, during our visit to Berlin this month, we set off from the small museum dedicated to the Expressionists of Die Brucke to walk for an hour so through the forest to the Grunewald S-bahn station where we wanted to visit the Gleis 17 memorial to Berlin’s Jews deported to their deaths inn the east from the station’s platform 17.
The day was warm as we set off along the sun-dappled trail, leaving behind the quiet suburban lanes lined with small but elegant villas. There are many paths to follow in the forest and no signposts, so initially we kept asking people we met, ‘are we headed in the right direction for the lake?’
Our plan was to follow a path as far as the Grunewaldsee, a large lake in the middle of the forest, and then follow the shoreline until we reached the streets of Grunewald and the S-bahn station.
Unexpectedly, before we reached the lake we discovered the hunting lodge (which wasn’t mentioned in our guide book). Built in 1543, it’s the oldest preserved castle in Berlin, built in an early Renaissance style by order of Joachim II Hector, Elector of Brandenburg. Successive rulers of Brandenburg, Brandenburg Prussia, and then Prussia itself will have spent time here relaxing by pursuing and killing animals.
Since 1932 there has been an art gallery here, housing works of art from the 15th to 18th century, including oil paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. We didn’t have time to look around, but instead sat at the cafe in the sunny, cobbled courtyard, quenched our thirst and had a bite to eat.
In the 1880s the Grunewald was discovered by the upper class of Imperial Berlin as an attractive place to live. That was when Otto von Bismark, inspired by the having seen the Champs-Elysée in Paris, promoted the project to connect the city centre with the Grunewald by means of the prestigious avenue, the Kurfurstendamm (the name refers to the Kurfürsten, the prince-electors, of Brandenburg).
The city of Berlin acquired the forest in 1915, and designated it a protected nature reserve where no further urban construction could take place. When Christopher Isherwood was here in the 1920s he was not impressed with the Grunewald. There’s a passage in the opening chapter of Goodbye to Berlin in which he writes that the first pupil he teaches English lives in the Grunewald:
Most of the richest Berlin families inhabit the Grunewald. It is difficult to understand why. Their villas, in all known styles of expensive ugliness, ranging from the eccentric-rococo folly to the cubist flat-roofed steel-and-glass box, are crowded together in this dank, dreary pinewood. Few of them can afford large gardens, for the ground is fabulously dear: their only view is of their neighbour’s backyard, each one protected by a wire fence and a savage dog. Terror of burglary and revolution has reduced these miserable people to a state of siege. They have neither privacy nor sunshine. The district is really a millionaire’s slum.
We found the Grunewald today to be a pleasant, not to say idyllic, place. There are still plenty of dogs around, but all of them of the most benign sort. Indeed, the Grunewald seemed to be some kind of dog heaven. As we progressed through the forest, every few yards we met someone walking at least one dog. I’m sure a lot of these people were professional dog walkers, because in some cases they were accompanied by small packs of excited, companionable dogs of all shapes and sizes.
Gallery: Grunewald dog heaven
Walking on, we came to the Grunewaldsee, the largest of several lakes in the forest. It’s a lovely setting – I would imagine tranquil, too, when large numbers of dogs are not chasing each other along the sandy shore or diving into the peaceful waters.
Thinking back to Isherwood’s comment about the bourgeoisie’s fear of burglary and revolution, I’m reminded that his remark wasn’t far from the truth. On 24 June 1922, the Foreign Minister of Germany Walther Rathenau was assassinated by nationalists from the underground right-wing terror group, Organisation Consul, after negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. The Right saw this as a Jew making dubious deals with his fellow Jews, the Bolsheviks.
Rathenau was murdered outside his home on the Konigsallee, the main avenue through the Grunewald. Today, a memorial stone marks the scene of the crime.
A far, far worse crime took place at the far end of the Grunewald where we finished our walk. Between October 1941 and February 1945 more than 50,000 Jews were deported by the Nazis from the Grunewald railway station to to their deaths in the east at Auschwitz and other sites of mass murder. Today, two memorials – one placed by the district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and the other by Deutsche Bahn – commemorate the deportations.
On our brief walk we only dipped a toe into the expanse of the Grunewald. There is more to see when we return. For example, on the far side of the lake a man-made hill rises high above the forest. The Teufelsberg is, in the words of Alexandra Richie, writing in her matchless history of the city, Faust’s Metropolis, ‘the graveyard of old Berlin’. It’s composed of huge 18 million cubic metres of rubble from the devastated city dumped there after the war ended. They kept on dumping the rubble until an artificial hill 120 metres high had risen above the forest.
In a supreme irony, the hill composed of the rubble of Hitler’s rule arose on the site where the foundation stone of Germania, Hitler’s planned capital city of the Third Reich, was laid in 1937.
During the Cold War the Americans had a listening station on the Teufelsberg. Today, that too is a ruin. The city doesn’t know what to do with it.
In another overgrown corner of the Grunewald lies a cemetery with a strange story. The Friedhof Grunewald-Forst, known locally as the ‘suicides’ cemetery’ or ‘cemetery of the nameless’ was first established in the late 19th century to bury bodies washed up on the banks of the nearby river Havel.
Through the years in which suicide was regarded as a shameful act, people buried the bodies there of relatives from all over Berlin who had killed themselves. From the late 1920s the cemetery was used as a general graveyard, and then in 1945 as a mass grave for Berliners who died in the last days of the war. For several years there have been no new burials, and the plan is eventually to close the cemetery and disperse the remains elsewhere.
At least one famous person lies buried here: the singer Nico, associate of Andy Warhol, is buried in her mother’s plot. (The two cemetery photos are from mourning souls.)
- Hiking the Grunewald (Part I): Slow Travel Berlin blog
- Hiking the Grunewald (Part II): Slow Travel Berlin blog
- In the Grunewald Forest, Berlin: Under a Grey Sky blog
- Platform 17 at the Grunewald Station, Berlin: Under a Grey Sky blog
- Stumbling over the past in Berlin
- Expressionists in Berlin (Impressionists, too)