The maritime Berlin
by Dagmar Thorau and Ralitsa Domuschieva / translation by Rachel Marks
As the Westhafen (West Harbor) was opened in 1923, a reporter for the Deutsche Tageszeitung was verily astonished: "You free yourself from the illusion of being in Berlin – the overwhelming impression you get is one taking part in the port life of a seaside town!" It had all the makings of a modern port: two basins of 1,470 feet and 2,083 feet in length, which were soon augmented by a third, gigantic storage halls and loading spaces for tens of thousands of tons of freight, Europe's largest storage building located on the peninsula in the middle of the harbor, outbuildings, workshops, cranes, and electric loading devices. Even today, the vast grounds spread some one hundred acres around the imposing administrative buildings of the BEHALA operating company (Berliner Hafen- und Lagerhaus AG) with its prominent tower, making it Germany's second largest inland port.
Admittedly, it took a while for the city to build a port commensurate to its importance as an industrial post and its tradition as a waterside city. Berlin's businessmen had already called for port facilities to meet the needs of the booming metropolis in 1890: first the "Reichsbahn" (German State Railroad) blocked the endeavor, the outbreak of World War I stalled the plans, and the ensuing economic woes of 1918 all but halted the project – until the municipal authorities, in light of the financial hardship, decided to lease the capital's port to a public company. The Berliner Börsen-Courir touted the ships colorfully bedecked with streamers and the notables' opening festivities in 1923 as a glimmer of hope "amidst of the desolation of our financial and political situation".
The Berliners took the news in stride. Every school kid knew that half of the city had been built "from a boat"; Berlin wouldn't be Berlin without its turn-of-the-century homes ("Gründerzeithäuser") – or its inland water. After the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had seen to helping out nature with barrages, locks, and canals in order to supply the then small town on the Spree with goods, the numerous waterways became a decisive factor in the metropolis's growth. During the "Gründerzeit", the sheer and insatiable need for stone, gravel, wood, and coal could be met only by the barges' tireless shuttling.
When the city finally received its large port decades later, it had to be constantly expanded to accommodate not only the booming inland water transport but also the increasing number of users from overseas. Ford had his Model T (the "Tin Lizzy") assembled in a storage hall here to circumvent customs.
During World War II bombs destroyed a major portion of the port, which was transformed into a stockyard during the years of reconstruction. On orders from the Western Allies foodstuff reserves were stockpiled here so as to guarantee provisions to the walled-in city in the case of a Soviet blockade. But irony had the last laugh: after the fall of the Wall, this so-called "senate's reserve" went as humanitarian aid to the Soviet Union.
Today the major port survives primarily on handling and storage of building materials and scrap. Wholesale merchants now use many of the halls as workshops and sales floors. But in addition to trade, culture has also made itself at home: the landmarked grain silo has since 1997 housed the State Library's newspaper archives and profits, as an employee boasts, from an ideal public transportation connection. "Both the Ringbahn and the U-Bahn stop here, and we have the city Autobahn ... And if you want, you can even come by ship!"
The long unfinished transportation project "German Unity 17" still hopes to open Westhafen to major freight ships in the future. Planners and environmentalists continue to wrestle with one another over the accompanying plans to expand the waterways as well as the growth forecasts for European inland water transport. One imagines the skippers praying for help in the small harbor church so that they may soon be granted "Godspeed!"