Abandoned Berlin: History and Decay

Abandoned Berlin: History and Decay

With over 175 museums, monuments, and memorials, Berlin has more than its fair share of historical sightseeing—though one might say that Berlin has experienced more than its fair share of history. Yet there are a hundred more historical sites quietly deteriorating on the edges of the city: abandoned, forgotten, or waiting to be torn down by investors hoping to replace them with luxury apartments. It is to these quietly vanishing testaments to Berlin history that Journalist Ciarán Fahey has turned his attention in his recent book "Verlassene Orte/Abandoned Berlin."
by Nicolette Stewart

After a visit to Berlin’s infamously abandoned amusement park Spreepark, Fahey started the blog Abandoned Berlin, which has received media attention from across Europe—in 2014 The Guardian named Abandoned Berlin one of the best city guides around the world.  Each post details a visit to an abandoned site, describing both the historical significance and the feeling of being there today.

That Fahey’s posts also include addresses and instructions for getting inside is something that has been controversial among other urban explorers—what the community of people who explore abandoned urban spaces call themselves—who would prefer to keep that information secret.  Fahey, however, sees public documentation as an important part of historical preservation and a fleeting opportunity to be taken before it is too late.

“I still think it’s worthwhile to publicize locations so others can find these places and enjoy them too before they’re gone," he explains on Abandoned Berlin. "For their days are numbered in any case. If they’re not earmarked for development (most of them are), they fall victim to weather and natural decay, as well as the vandals who had no problem finding these places before they were identified here. … None of these places stay the way they are. Some of them won’t last at all. They should be enjoyed while it’s still possible.”

The book Abandoned Berlin, which was published at the beginning of 2015 by Berlin publisher be.bra verlag and contains over 200 color photos, puts the stories and photographs from the Abandoned Berlin website in print with updates, additions, and German translations of the text.  Though several entries tell the story of Fahey’s visit—heart pounding at the sound of approaching footsteps, the claustrophobic fear of being trapped in an underground bunker—their main focus is the historical significance of each site, much of which centers around World War II and the Third Reich.

The sound of a slamming door at the end of an empty, echoing hall, broken glass, and ghostly curtains are uncanny; the historical stories behind many of these locations are terrifying.  The medically sanctioned atrocities that took place under the auspices of scientific research at the now-abandoned Waldhaus Buch, the SS-Bäckerei that employed concentration camp prisoners to bake bread for other concentration camps, or the bunkers created for government workers in the case of a Cold War gone hot are stories we remember because the buildings in which they took place still stand to bear witness.  Will their stories be forgotten once their walls have crumbled to dust or been covered by forest?

Other sites featured in Abandoned Berlin are more whimsical, like the abandoned amusement park pictured above or the Ballhaus Grünau whose elegant ballrooms have seen their last dance.

While Fahey argues for preservation, his introduction speaks to the futility of the effort.  “It’s just a snapshot, a snapshot across the past, present and future that will never be the same. Come back tomorrow and it will have changed. Not much, but perceptively. No place ever stays the same and all efforts are doomed to failure.

“Documentation, I feel, is the best we can hope for. Grasp what remains of the past through the present.  This is an attempt to remember someone else’s memories.”

At this, Fahey has been successful. The buildings in Abandoned Berlin have been over-looked by restoration projects, bought by disinterested investors, or simply forgotten with no museum or monument to help them tell visitors their stories.  As decay renders them silent, Abandoned Berlin amplifies their voices for another generation to hear.

by Nicolette Stewart