Berlin’s ‘Firelands’

During the summer of 2018 I visited the excellent Schönheit der großen Stadt exhibition at the Ephraim Palace in Berlin. Nearly ten years had elapsed since I’d completed by thesis on Weimar-era artistic portraits of the city, and so walking about the exhibition was a little like being reacquainted with old friends, not least Rudolf Schlichter’s impassive and majestic Margot, and Wunderwald’s charming Hinterhäuser im Winter.

The painting I was most pleased to see, however, was Karl Eduard Biermann’s 1847 depiction of August Borsig’s first ironworks on Chausseestraße. I’d never seen the painting in the flesh previously, though I had pored over reproductions of it in books and catalogues over the years. And like all pictures seen in reproduction first, I was surprised at how small it was, but that only encouraged me to step closer and study its painted surface in detail.

Karl Biermann, Borsigs Maschinenbauanstalt, 1847. Stadtmuseum Berlin.
Karl Biermann, Borsigs Maschinenbauanstalt, 1847. Stadtmuseum Berlin. Source: Stadtmuseum Berlin Sammlung Online.

The painting shows Borsig’s factory as a sprawling complex of buildings, with smokestacks belching black smoke into the sky. At the time Biermann created this painting, Borsig’s factory employed nearly 3,000 workers on this site. In the bottom right corner of the picture, eight animated horses pull a completed locomotive out from the factory buildings.

The ground upon which the horses and locomotive move is sandy and dry. These are the geological foundations of the city. Berlin is built on sand, and I’m inclined to think that the iron filings and soot that factories like Borsig’s produced have, over the decades, commingled with the city’s sandy soil to produce that unique smell that gets into the nose of every visitor to the city, gifting them a means of remembering their visit that words cannot come close to achieving.

Corner of Chasseestraße and Friedrichstraße, Berlin
Corner of Chausseestraße, June 2018. Author’s own photograph.

There is still a great deal of noise where Borsig’s first factory once stood, but nowadays the noise is the result of the busy traffic intersection where Friedrichstraße, Chausseestraße and Torstraße meet. One of Berlin-Mitte’s busiest junctions, it lies on a key route north out of the city, and is criss-crossed by cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, buses and trams.

I regularly crossed this junction when I lived in Berlin during 2009 and 2010. Somewhere in the immediate vicinity there was a kindergarten, and every morning I saw a woman pulling a gaily painted wooden trolley carrying four toddlers across the junction’s pedestrian crossing. The image stuck with me not just because I’d never seen such a trolley back in England, but also because of the simplicity and artlessness it conveyed in the face of the smoke-belching hulks whose engines growled impatiently, yards away, behind the white line.

Oranienburger Tor, with Borsig’s factory on Chausseestraße in the background
Friedrich Schwartz, Oranienburger Tor, with Borsig’s factory on Chausseestraße in the background, 1867. Via Wikicommons.

As the site of Borsig’s first manufactory, which opened in 1836, this street intersection has known noise and dirt for nearly two centuries, and has as good a claim as any other street corner in Germany as the birthplace of the country’s industrial revolution. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century it yielded a vision that William Blake would have recognised: factory upon factory crammed with thousands of toiling labourers tending burning furnaces, all crowded under the shadows of a forest of smokestacks. The landscape acquired the sobriquet the ‘Firelands’ and become something of a feature in the earliest guidebooks to the city. An excursion for those bolder visitors who dared venture beyond the Oranienburg Tor, it promised an unparalleled assault on the senses. The writer Robert Springer wrote in 1861 of of the pharaohs of industry who, with their innumerable obelisks, impregnate the air with coal smoke. “Here one smells soot and iron everywhere,” reported Springer, “and hears the pounding of the machines and the crack of the blacksmith’s hammers.”1 Henry Vizetelly reported in 1879 that:

The din of hammers and the thunder of machinery in motion is heard throughout the day, chimneys belch forth incessant clouds of black smoke and the fire of huge furnaces renders the temperature quite torrid. In one direction molten iron is being cast into a multitude of forms, in another copper and zinc are being mixed to make brass, whilst elsewhere planing, drilling, and slotting machines are cutting and slicing metal as if it were wood. Burly fellows with bare arms and beards recalling those of Barbarossa, many of them wearing on their heads Landwehr caps, abound on every side, there being, on an average, no less than two thousand hands employed.2

Borsig’s iron foundry and locomotive factory at the Orangienburger Tor, Berlin
Borsig’s iron foundry and locomotive factory at the Orangienburger Tor, Berlin. Via Wikisource: Die Gartenlaube (1867), p.780.

How things have changed. For this brief return to Berlin I treated myself to a couple of nights in a well-appointed hotel, with a lobby resembling a modern art gallery, generous buffet breakfast, and a luxurious swimming pool in its basement—right on Chaussestraße, where the Firelands once stood. The dissonance between the city’s past and the present intrigues me—it’s what Berlin does so well, this tension between its historical layers. I spent a lot of time in this part of the city while studying for my PhD, searching out the spaces and buildings where artists like Gustav Wunderwald, Hans Baluschek and Heinrich Zille drew their inspiration. This area, in just ten years, has changed dramatically. A decade ago it was a fairly flat and open post-industrial landscape, and considered a bit out-of-the-way. A profusion of new hotels, offices and restaurants have since sprouted up, and now it feels like a natural extension of Mitte.

On my first full day in the city I had breakfast in my hotel. I was up early, before 7am, as there was a lot of exploring to be done. As I munched on cheese and bread, I looked down onto Chausseestraße, which was empty and quiet. As I ate, I remembered a magazine article and accompanying illustration that I’d found years back, that recounted a procession down Chausseestraße that took place on 21 August 1858, in celebration of the completion of Borsig’s one-thousandth locomotive at the Chausseestraße works.

The procession celebrating Borsig’s 1000th locomotive.
The procession celebrating Borsig’s 1000th locomotive. Source: Via Wikisource: Die Gartenlaube (1858), p.541.

The German writer Max Ring witnessed the day-long celebrations firsthand. In Die Gartenlaube he wrote of the thousands of inhabitants of the industrial neighbourhood of Moabit (most of whom were dependent on Borsig for their livelihood) that attended the celebrations in a large hall, specially decorated for the occasion, and in which lowly workers rubbed shoulders with government ministers and invited dignitaries. At the rear of the hall stood portraits of Borsig and the Prussian minister Christian Peter Wilhelm Beuth – an early supporter of Borsig’s career. Workers suspended colourful bunting and flags between the trees along Chausseestraße,  and then, as the sun began to set, they lit paper lanterns and hung them from the branches. In the fading daylight, the dim incandescence of the street’s gaslights combined with the glow of the paper lanterns, illuminating the carnival procession that now proceeded down the street. At the head of the parade sat Neptune the water god, trident in his hand, closely followed by Vulcan, god of fire, sat on a rock and surrounded by workers mining ore from the earth.3

August Borsig glowers over Chausseestraße, June 2019. Author’s own photograph.
August Borsig glowers over Chausseestraße, June 2018. Author’s own photograph.

Borsig’s factory in Chausseestraße closed down in the 1890s, and relocated to Tegel, north of the city centre. The firm did retain a presence here though, in the form of administrative offices housed behind a sandstone neo-Renaissance façade, at Chausseestraße 13. This building survives, just a few doors down from my hotel. Nowadays it houses an upmarket office furniture store. Above the store’s main entrance stands a bronze figure of August Borsig. Hammer in hand and with a heavy brow, he glares down upon the heads of passersby. How many of them, I wonder, as I gaze up to meet the engineer’s glare, know of this man’s profound contribution to Berlin?

Mark Hobbs, April 2020.

Footnotes

  1. Robert Springer, Ein Führer durch die Stadt Berlin und ihre Umgebungen (Leipzig: J. J. Weber, 1861), 323.
  2. Henry Vizetelly, Berlin under the New Empire, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 224.
  3. Max Ring. “Das Fest Der Tausendsten Lokomotiv.” Die Gartenlaube (1858): 541–43.

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