Berlin TV-tower

Berliner Fernsehturm

 The history of the tower  

Berlin is a city with history in several layers; the Weimar republic, the Nazi period, the Second World War and then the GDR period has all left its mark on the city. Berlin has a history of terror, death, division and prosecution, Berlin is a palette of its history, as all cities, but few cities have such a dark history as Berlin.

As a contrast to Berlin’s dark history stands the white TV-tower. It is visible from all over Berlin and is used as a symbol the re-united Berlin and the reunited Germany[1]. When it was decided that Berlin was to become the capital of the united Germany things were moving fast, decisions about rebuilding, renovating and deconstruction were made in a hurry and with little public input.[2] Two different Bundestag commissions were responsible for the decisions, Conceptual Commission and the Building Commission; the later had existed since 1949.[3] The TV-tower was renovated in 1990 and therefore preserved for the future.

But why has the TV-tower become a symbol for the united Berlin? I haven’t found a single, good answer to why the tower has been given that role. My theory is that the TV-tower is the closest to an unhistorical monument that Berlin has. The TV-tower is not connected with the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the persecutions of Jews and other groups nor with the Soviet occupation or the GDR time. The TV-tower was built as a symbol of the strength of GDR, a socialistic dictatorship, today it is a symbol that is apolitical and a symbol for the post-war, post-wall Berlin.[4] Here the history is ignored or overlooked. Other buildings connected with the GDR, like the Palast der Republik, have been destroyed but the TV-tower has been redefined instead. One possible answer to why the TV-tower was redifiend, is that the TV-tower had been visible from whole Berlin and also, the whole Berlin is visible from the tower. So after the unification, the West Berliners could visit the tower that they had seen but never entered and the East Berliners could visit the parts that had been West Berlin, that they had seen but been forbidden to visit. Also TV’s role as a unifying media should not be underestimated.

The exterior of the tower 

The tower stands at Alexanders platz, a big square in central Berlin. Alexander platz, was the centrum of East Berlin, the region of the city is called Mitte. Mitte is the oldest parts of Berlin and was the centre of East Berlin. The tower was 365 meter high, according to the legend so that everybody should remember the height off the tower.[5] The tower reflects the time it was built in. It’s shape reminds of Sputnik and is very futuristic. It is sleek, white, and shiny and looks like something from outer space. The shape reminds of a space rocket. It is a spear towards the sky with a sphere on about 200 meters up with a restaurant and viewers platform in it. The restaurant is slowing turning so you can dine and see the entire city at the same time. Before the renovation in 1990 the lap took one hour, no the lap is done in half an hour. Inside the tower is it paintings of Milky Way which emphasis the space theme.[6]  On Alexanders platz is also a world time clock and some other space related, or at least futuristic, items. At the towers base is an entrance that looks like something made out of origami, the base of the tower has some similarities with the opera house in Sydney, but smaller and in white concrete. The buildings at the base were completed first in 1973.

Building the tower

TV-tower is not a memorial and an unusual monument. It is built as a marker of prosperity and progress for GDR and have later on became a symbol for the re-united Germany. It is a monument over the glorious ways into the future that was planned for East Germany and also by the sixties fascination with space. You could say that it works as a memorial over GDR, over the space program and over the sixties.[7] The monument the GDR has left behind is also over the men of socialism or, as in in the case of the TV-tower, monuments over the present and the future, not the past. They did not build any memorials over the Holocaust for example and the architecture is modern with no or few influences from earlier epochs architecture. GDR was by its own definition anti-fascistic and had broken with both commercialism and the Nazi regime. GDR did not acknowledge any responsibility for the Holocaust or other crimes committed by the Nazi regime. They had restarted history, and did not look back at the past.[8] Walter Ulrich was the leader of GDR who sign the building of the TV-tower and of the Berlin wall, to different symbols with two very different meanings. The wall was built to shut out the outside world and also to enclose the West Berliners. The TV-tower was build to bee seen, both for the West Berliners but also for the rest of the world.

The TV-tower was supposed to be an image of the talented GDR architects, the GDR’s engineering’s skills and a monument over what the GDR state could accomplish. Even so they had to import material from West Germany and Sweden to finish it.[9] The elevators were Swedish, and steel was imported from West Germany.[10]

It was built between the years 1965-1969; it was opened on GDR’s National Day the 7th of October. The men behind the shape of the tower were East German architects Fritz Dieter, Günter Franke and Werner Ahrendt.[11] The architect did not work together, they took part in different parts of the project and they have also quarrelled over who of them is the real “father” of the TV-tower.[12] The TV-tower served several purposes, besides the necessity of broadcasting radio and TV from GDR to its citizens. The direction of the GDR wanted to sets its mark on Berlin, especially after blowing up the palace, Berliner Stadtschloss. The quarters around Alexander platz was destroyed in the Second World War so the leaders of GDR saw it as a good place to demonstrate their rule. Around Alexander plaz are more high “show–off” buildings and also statues of Marx, Engels and other symbols of socialism and GDR. Several architectural plans for the quarters never came realised but the TV-tower was built.[13]  The TV- broadcasts from GDR could then bee seen by the West Berliners and also they could see the tower itself, as a reminder of what was on the other side of the Berlin wall. The East Berlins could also from the restaurant and the platforms in the sphere see over to West Berlin, they could see over the Berlin wall, and almost the entire wall was visible from the viewer’s platform. But the East Berliners were not shout out from the western television and radio. Despite the TV-tower they could watch TV and listen to radio from the west, radio stations like Radio Luxemburg could be received in almost all of East Germany. [14]

The Pope’s Revenge

The sphere is in metallic and when the sun hits it the reflections of the sun forms a cross. The cross was called “the pope’s revenge since the GDR was an atheist state by its constitution, and also religion was suppressed. The churches in GDR suffered under the regime, spires and crosses were taken down and crucifixes destroyed. Many churches was taken over by the government and used as museums or as governmental buildings. That fact that the TV-tower has a cross on its a coincidence that look like a thought. The same TV-tower that over shadows the medieval Nikolaikirche nearby has a reflection that forms a huge cross, visible from a far distant. The Pope’s revenge also shows how monuments seldom do what their builders intend them to do, or how monuments are reinterpreted in other ways then the first intended. It is said that the GDR’s engineers tried to prevent the sun’s reflection in a form of a cross but I have not found any real evidence for this claim.

The cross was used in Ronald Reagan’s speech Tear Down This Wall in 1987 “Years ago, before the East Germans began rebuilding their churches, they erected a secular structure: the television tower at Alexander platz. Virtually ever since, the authorities have been working to correct what they view as the tower’s one major flaw: treating the glass sphere at the top with paints and chemicals of every kind. Yet even today when the sun strikes that sphere, that sphere that towers over all Berlin, the light makes the sign of the cross. There in Berlin, like the city itself, symbols of love, symbols of worship, cannot be suppressed.”[15]

Reagan’s speech shows that the GDR had succeeded in making a symbol that was visible from West Berlin and also a bit of a challenge to them, the West side had no similar visible structure. It is also an example of how a monument lives its own life, apart from the original intension of the erectors.[16] The Pope’s revenge became a symbol on a symbol, for Christians it became a symbol of Gods power.

The tower as a souvenir

The tower is portrayed on many souvenirs. The TV-tower is probably the building that is uncontroversial to make souvenirs off in Berlin. There are a lot off GDR memorabilia sold, and pieces off concrete that the salesman claims are from the Berlin Wall but I did not see any building or item that was sold in so many “soft” circumstances. The tower is portrayed on kid’s clothing, as toys and small TV-towers in plastic. Here it is more the ever visible that the tower is seen as an uncontroversial object, the feelings connected to the tower are manly positive both among the Berliners and the visitors to Berlin.


Berlin is a city that moves you. When I walked the streets and visited the museums that portrayed all the horrors and death that Berlin had seen, I was really moved by all its history and all people who had live, loved and lost. So why did I choose a monument that is not connected to all of this? My husband’s grandfather was one of the Swedish engineers who constructed the TV-tower. He worked as an engineer on an elevator company that then was called Asea-Graham, now its own by Kone. Before we lost him to Alzheimer disease he told us stories of when he met his colleges in East Germany. How they went in to the bath room and discussed sensitive information whit the shower and the water taps running at their max and how their shared war memories. He went to East Berlin several times and also helped his colleges in East Berlin to smuggle letters, money and small desirable items like coffee and nylon stockings. He said that the best way to smuggle was to put a pornographic magazine on top of the packing. Since them was forbidden too the customs staff took them and then did not bother looking through the rest of the suitcase. When I was in Berlin I could not stop think of what a man he was when he was when he was there, before he aged and sickness took him. The TV-tower will stand also when he is gone as a symbol for the re-united Berlin.



Costabile-Heming Carol Anne (2011) Berlin’s history in context: the foreign ministry and the Speebogen complex in the architectural debates in After the Berlin wall Germany and beyond Katharina Gerstenberger and Jana Evans Braziel (ed.) Palgrave Macmillian, New York


Gerber Sofi (2004) Ett enat folk? Nationella diskurser i Tyskland före och efter återföreningen RIG – Kulturhistorisk tidskrift, vol. 87, nr. 1, 2004


Major Patric (2009) Behind the Berlin wall East Germany and the frontiers of power Oxford Scholarship Online

Young, James Edward (1993) The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven


Webpages (visited between the first and the fourteen of February 2013)

[2] Costabile-Heming Carol Anne (2011) Berlin’s history in context: the foreign ministry and the Speebogen complex in the architectural debates in After the Berlin wall Germany and beyond Katharina Gerstenberger and Jana Evans Braziel (ed.) Palgrave Macmillian, New York p 232

[3] Ibid p. 232

[5] This information is found on numerous websites but I have not find any real evidence for this claim.

[7] For a discussion on memorials and monuments, see Young, James Edward, The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993 p 3

[8] Gerber Sofi (2004) Ett enat folk? Nationella diskurser i Tyskland före och efter återföreningen RIG – Kulturhistorisk tidskrift, vol. 87, nr. 1, 2004 p.9

[14] Major Patric (2009) Behind the Berlin wall East Germany and the frontiers of power Oxford Scholarship Online p. 165

[16] For more discussion on the state and monuments see Young p 3