Ernst Thälmann Park Was a Gas Plant

At the corner of Danziger Straße and Greifswalder Straße in Prenzlauer Berg stands an interesting mix of enormous apartment blocks, oversized communist-era memorials, green space, and repurposed industrial facilities. In other words: a perfectly Berlin mix.

The most prominent feature today is probably the oversized memorial to Ernst Thälmann, but we'll get to that in a minute. First, a little bit of backstory.

The Gas Facility

The largest portion of the complex was originally occupied by the enormous Berlin City Gas Facility. Built in 1872, it was the fifth such facility in Berlin.  At the time, gas was used for a variety of functions in Berlin: among other things, as fuel for street lamps, to heat buildings and homes, and for cooking.

The Berlin City Gas Facility in 1926. Danziger Straße runs bottom-to-top at the bottom left of the photo. Greifswalder Straße runs left-to-right at the bottom of the photo. Photo from: https://thaelmannpark.wordpress.com/geschichte/

In addition to gas, the facility produced coke (the coal product, not cocaine, obviously), tar, sulfur, and ammonia from industrial purposes. Beginning in 1915, the facility also produced petroleum products, including gasoline. To store the gasoline, a series of huge oval containers were constructed across the site.

The dilapidated facility in a photo from 1982. The petroleum storage containers dominate the area. Photo Credit: Gerd Danigel

The facility in the 1970s. The fuel storage containers are in the background Source: Berlin Senate for City Development

Moving Beyond the Second World War

The facility was heavily damaged during the second world war, and never again achieved the production capabilities of the pre-war years. Over the decades, required improvements weren’t made and the facility, like so many others across East Germany at this time, settled into a gentle technical obsolescence.

It was also rather uncomfortable for those living in the neighborhood. The smell of gas and petroleum was a constant presence, and residents rarely let their clothes hang outside to dry because they always ended up smelling like oil.

The facility’s story might have ended like so many other industrial sites in the DDR, with a gradual slide into obsolescence. Except in the early 1980s, the DDR leadership decided to demolish the old facility to make way for a huge building project in memory of Ernst Thälmann, a communist hero.

Thälmann was the leader of the German Communist Party during the period of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and murdered on Hitler’s orders in 1944.

Ernst Thälmann in 1932, not long before his arrest by the Gestapo. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Creating the Ernst Thälmann Memorial

Despite concerns on the part of local citizens, the facility was demolished beginning in 1981. You can check out a really cool gallery of the site's demolition here.

The memorial and new apartment blocks were officially dedicated in 1986, the 100th anniversary of Thälmann’s birth. In addition to the memorial and apartments, a few buildings were repurposed into a culture forum, and a small park was tucked into the southeastern corner.

The Ernst Thälmann Memorial, with the apartment blocks behind.

The cultural forum, housed in the remaining buildings of the Berlin City Gas Facility.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Unfortunately for the residents of the new area, even though the smelly gas production facilities were out of sight, the lingering effects of more than a century’s worth of industrial production outlasted the facilities themselves.

 

Contaminated area underneath the former Berlin City Gas Facility. Danziger Str. runs left-right through the image, Greifswalder Str. runs top-to-bottom on the right side.

During extensive studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was discovered that there had been extensive ground contamination of the entire area, but particularly in the areas underneath the former gasoline storage containers.

A small wooded park on the site of the former Berlin City Gas Facility. Two large gas storage containers were located here.

Demolished gas facilities are highlighted in blue. The two circles are gas storage containers. The area is now a park (at left).

The government undertook cleanup measures, and installed a groundwater purification system in 2004. By 2013, Berlin’s government declared that “There is no danger for drinking water” in the area. Although contamination still remains, any further clean-up efforts have been postponed. The entire site, including the apartment blocks, were designated city landmarks in 2013.