The Waisenbrücke Bridge 1904, in the background (from the left) the Neu-Kölln department store, the Petrikirche church tower, the Berlin Palace, the Nikolaikirche Church and the Berlin cathedral
© Landesarchiv Berlin | Photo (image detail): Waldemar Titzenthaler

The old Waisenbrücke Bridge

In January 1960, the East Berlin city administration began the demolition of the Waisenbrücke Bridge, and by June 1961, the bridge’s foundations had been removed. The historic construction, which had been visible from Fischerinsel and Mühlendamm, a river crossing that had connected the opposite banks of the Spree for centuries, was gone. One of the city’s central lifelines has been severed ever since.


After the horrors of the Thirty Years War, people wanted to better protect their towns with high walls and deep trenches. Therefore, in the late 1650’s, they began to expand the twin city of Berlin-Cölln, which was still rather mediaeval in character at that time, into a fortress town. There, where the moat in the east of the town flowed into the River Spree, a so-called Oberbaum [upper river barrier, literally: “upper tree”] was constructed over the Spree as an extension of the fortification wall. The Oberbaum was a wooden barrier which would prevent ships from passing and which would only be opened once the toll had been paid. However, the expansion of the “Neukölln am Wasser” district south of the Spree, which was part of Luisenstadt and not to be confused with today’s Neukölln district, soon made it necessary to construct a bridge which would connect it to the Alt-Berlin district, seeing as the existing Spree crossings at the time required long detours.

The Waisenbrücke Bridge around 1780, copper engraving by Georg Rosenberg
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Instead of the Oberbaum, which was relocated upstream, where the Oberbaumbrücke Bridge stands today, a wooden bridge was constructed in the early 18th century. This so-called pile bridge, which stood on wooden piles, had moveable flaps to allow ships to pass and enable people on both sides of the river to cross to the other side using the shortest possible route.
It was given the name „Waisenbrücke“ [orphan bridge], which it is still known as to this day, due to the neighbouring Großen Friedrich-Hospital, which also housed orphaned children. Measuring eighty metres long and nearly seven metres high, the Waisenbrücke was one of the most important Spree crossings in Berlin.
View of the Waisenbrücke Bridge from the Jannowitzbrücke Bridge, around 1880, to the right, the orphanage tower, from which the bridge got its name
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: F. Albert Schwartz

Its size and significance even equalled that of the Jannowitzbrücke Bridge, which was built just a few dozen metres upstream in 1822. Yet, time had taken its toll: The old wooden bridge had rotted to such an extent, both above and beneath the water, that, in 1832, it had to be completely demolished and rebuilt, once again using wood.

View of the wooden Waisenbrücke Bridge and the residential district of “Krögel“ and Nikolaikirche (still without its characteristic twin towers, which were built between 1876 and 1878) which still maintained their mediaeval character, in the centre, the dome of the Berlin Palace, to the left, the Petrikirche church tower, 1855
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Leopold Ahrendts

A new construction made of stone

Until the late 19th century, most of the bridges in Berlin were the property of the Prussian State which did little to maintain them. It was not until 1876 that the Berlin Magistrate was handed over responsibility for the mostly dilapidated constructions, which, by then, were no longer able to cope with the increasing demands of road traffic.
This postcard from 1909 shows the vibrant city life on the Waisenbrücke Bridge
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
The Berlin graphic artist, painter and photographer Heinrich Zille chose to photograph the Berlin harbour in the winter of 1886/87 from the Waisenbrücke Bridge, in the background, the Petrikirche church tower (left) and the Mühlendamm building (right)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Heinrich Zille
Therefore, over the following twenty years, more than fifty bridges were either extensively or completely reconstructed at great expense. Furthermore, the Spree was confined by banks, its water level was lowered and the banks were reinforced. During this phase, the Waisenbrücke Bridge was completely rebuilt between 1892 and 1894. It was made into a magnificent sandstone-clad arched bridge with two abutments, and although it only spanned seventy-seven metres over the, now narrowed, river, it was an impressive twenty metres wide.

The wide footpaths on both sides of the generously proportioned roadway tempted people to take a walk along the Waisenbrücke Bridge over the Spree or linger for a while on the semi-circular balconies, under the artistically decorated street lamps. From here, one could enjoy sweeping views of the river and the hustle and bustle at the harbour, all the way to the Alt-Berlin district, with its rooftops, towers and domes.

Due to their looming defeat in the First World War, November 1918 sees the outbreak of the November Revolution in the German Empire. The Waisenbrücke Bridge became one of the epicentres of the monthlong disturbances which took place in the capital. During the Berlin March Battles of 1919, the revolutionary Volksmarinedivision [People’s Navy Division] moved their headquarters to the neighbouring Marinehaus on Märkisches Ufer.
A canon and a soldier standing in front of the Marinehaus after the March Battles of 1919. The building houses a restaurant of the same name to this day.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

In order to ward off the right-wing Freikorps and the government troops, whose soldiers were given the order by the Ministry of the Reichswehr to kill any armed person they came across, members of the Volksmarinedivision set up barricades on the Waisenbrücke Bridge. A postcard from the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s [German Historical Museum] collection documents a machine gun emplacement which was located on the bridge. After about two weeks of fierce fighting, the revolutionary forces were eventually defeated and the Marinehaus building was damaged by shelling. There is a plaque commemorates these dramatic events to this day.

The Waisenbrücke Bridge also made an appearance in literature. In the chapter “Duel outside the Märkisches Museum” of the book “Fabian. The Story of a Moralist”, which was published in 1931 and was the first adult novel written by Erich Kästner, the author describes a scene from the street battles that took place between the National Socialists and the Communists, in which the Waisenbrücke Bridge played a role, albeit a small one.
This aerial photograph of the eastern part of Berlin taken in 1914 is proof that the Waisenbrücke (in the centre) was a vital artery which connected the Klosterviertel (on the left) and Luisenstadt (on the right) districts. Behind the Waisenbrücke, you can see the Jannowitzbrücke Bridge, to the right, the Märkisches Museum, in the foreground, to the left, the city hall and the Parochialkirche church, and to the right, between the two branches of the Spree, the Fischerinsel and the Inselbrücke Bridge.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Aero Lloyd Luftbild GmbH

Almost spared, yet still destroyed

Unlike many other structures in Berlin, the Waisenbrücke Bridge came through the bombing raids of the Second World War unscathed. However, as was the fate of most German bridges, it fell victim to the German demolition squads, who were destroying transport routes all over the city in order to hinder the advancing Red Army. While the Jannowitzbrücke Bridge, which had been newly rebuilt as a modern steel construction between 1927 and 1934, had completely sunk into the river, “only” the southern arch of the Waisenbrücke Bridge was blown up, while the rest remained intact. Shortly after Germany surrendered, the Soviets constructed a temporary bridge to replace the destroyed arch.

From 1949, the Trümmerbahn [rubble train] would cross over the temporary structure. The rubble from the devastated districts of Mitte and Friedrichshain was transported on tipper wagons and dumped from the bridge onto barges which lay afloat on the Spree. The reconstruction of the Waisenbrücke didn’t begin until 1952 and was completed in 1954, once the tracks for the Trümmerbahn had been cleared away. Nevertheless, on 26th January 1960, the newspaper “Der Morgen”, which was the mouthpiece of the GDR’s Liberal Democratic Party, wrote: “The bridge has been closed to vehicle traffic since yesterday.” The traffic was being redirected over the Jannowitz­brücke Bridge, which was rebuilt to its original size between 1952 and 1954. The Waisenbrücke Bridge’s days were numbered.

Information notice about the demolition of the Waisenbrücke Bridge’s foundations on 9th June 1961
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
The press in East Berlin was making an argument from the point of view of shipping, after the Greater Berlin Magistrate – which is what the administration in the eastern part of the city was still called – had decreed on 22nd January 1960 to “tear down the damaged and antiquated Waisenbrücke Bridge.” It‘s not about road traffic, but rather about waterborne transport. “The Waisenbrücke Bridge poses a real danger to inland navigation. The arches are too low, which makes it nearly impossible for large barges to pass beneath it without causing damage”, reports a Berlin newspaper on 20th February 1960. “In addition, the river piers are too close together“, the article continues. The demolition works were completed in June 1961, ending with the demolition of bridge’s foundations. On 27th June 1962, the Deutsche Bundespost [German Federal Post Office] of (West) Berlin issued a commemorative stamp of the demolished structure. Then interest surrounding the Waisenbrücke died down.
View of the Waisenbrücke Bridge from the slide collection of an East Berlin engineer, around 1957 -1960. It’s clear to see from the picture that over two thirds of the bridge remained mostly intact after the war. Even the historic street lamps were still standing at the time.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Foto: Hans Weber

The Waisenbrücke Bridge today

At the location where the Waisenbrücke Bridge once stood, it’s only upon closer inspection that one can see any signs that the two sides of the Spree were once closely connected here: across from the Märkisches Museum, a sandstone-clad bridge stump surrounded by railings protrudes into the river – one of the two mighty abutments on which the Waisenbrücke stood on each bank. Overgrown with trees and furnished with benches, one can hardly make out that this outlying vantage point conceals the remains of what was once a much-used bridge.
View of the Spree towards the Marinehaus and the Märkisches Museum, 2013
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Jochen Wermann
The Waisenbrücke Bridge also took centre stage during the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’s summer academy and museum festival in 2016. During the museum festival, Paul Spies, the director of the Stadtmuseum Berlin and chief curator of the Federal State of Berlin at the Humboldt Forum, made a presentation on the structure and promoted the idea of reconstructing it.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Sandra Weller
In the meantime, the Klosterviertel and northern Luisenstadt districts, which were destroyed during the war and neglected by post-war planners, are beginning to come to life again. There are plans to build thousands of apartments along Heinrich-Heine-Straße over the next few years. The Klosterviertel district, which has almost entirely vanished, is also meant to be reconstructed. One clear sign that heralds the times of change to come is the restoration of the Parochialkirche church’s tower in June 2016. Urban living spaces, which were once thought to be lost forever, are now re-emerging once again and their connection through a new Waisenbrücke Bridge will soon take on a new meaning.

Appeal of the Allianz Neue Waisenbrücke

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