Berlin History

After the Nazis, are the Wertheims Coming Home?

The commercialisation of the former Wall’s no-man’s land progresses as fast as the cranes can haul girders. Awful, says a friend, looking at a sign announcing a new mega-mall at Leipziger Platz No. 12, near Potsdamer Platz. But then she looks closer and reconsiders, and, as a German who lives in the shadow of history, feels just a little bit guilty.

There’s some historical justification for building a shopping arcade on this spot. In 1886, Georg Wertheim opened his eponymous department store here. It grew to more than 100 000 square metres of retail space, becoming Europe’s largest, the Berlin counterpart of Harrods or Galleries Lafayette.

Located just off the city’s busiest square in the 20s, Wertheim was a hub not only of mass consumption, but also of social change that did not please everyone. Wertheim was a ‘”safe” and “respectable” place’ for women, writes historian Eric D. Weitz. With elegant shopgirls and well-lit spaces, an atrium and dozens of elevators, it was where ‘bourgeois women breached the confines of the home to enter the spectacle world of consumption’. Wertheim represented a new era that not only changed women’s roles, but also, with many mass retailers, outpriced the traditional artisanal shoe, hat and clothes makers. This disgruntled class, increasingly irrelevant, eventually provided mass support for the Nazi rise to power (Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, pp. 56, 156).  Wertheim, a focus for resentment, was Jewish owned.

The Nazis attacked Jewish-owned department stores of Berlin almost immediately after they seized power. Told by the Minister of Economics they needed to ‘howl with the wolves’, Wertheim and his son did what they could to cooperate. Forbidden tomes from their bookshops were burnt. Georg even divorced his Aryan wife Ursula so that she could hang on to the company shares.

By 1938, the business had complied by installing Aryan owners, employees and a new name, the Allgemeine Warenhandelsgesellschaft. Jewish employees, many of them long-term, lost their jobs and more than a third of them were eventually deported and murdered. Georg Wertheim, blind and demoralised, refused to leave Germany, and died on New Year’s eve 1939.  His ex-wife, Ursula, married the Aryan who had the majority shares in the company. (see: ‘The Attack on Berlin Department Stores (Warenhaeuser) After 1933’, by Simone Ladwig-Winters). The store was laid to waste during the bombing raids of World War Two and its ruins pulled away in the 50s, only a few metres from where the Wall was built in 1961.

After reunification, the original, recently demolished, Tresor techno club occupied the address. The heirs of the Wertheim family meanwhile launched a legal battle with Karstadt, which had assumed their properties, and came to a settlement in 2007. High Gain Investments, the current developer of Leipzigerstr. 12, with no family connection to the Wertheims, is not shy in using the Wertheim legacy to promote the project.

Leipziger Platz is now full of cranes and billboards showing pictures of the old Wertheim’s palatial interior from the 20s. The advertising campaign for the new mall, harnessing the family’s achievement for advertising clout, skips the Nazi seizure of power entirely. According to its website, the only place left ‘waiting to be born’ after so many tumultuous changes (WW2 bombing, the building of the Wall), not only on this site, but in all of Berlin, is an ‘extraordinary shopping experience’ on Leipziger Platz. I would feel differently about the project if the original family were at its helm, instead of those implicitly posing as their inheritors. Yes, there’s been a settlement, but, really, is it appropriate to imply that this is the rebirth of Wertheim? ‘Shopping’ might be coming home, but the Wertheims certainly are not.

Nothing, nothing can bring them back.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.