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The hidden treasures of Berlin’s Courthouses

Berlin is full of amazing architecture and sights, some well-known and some, as the tour guides would have you believe, “off the beaten path”. Most of the latter are anything but, although as long as people buy it, that’s ok. But the city has another treasure hidden in plain sight: Berlin’s Courthouses.

Berlin Courthouses
Amtsgericht Wedding. Photo by Sascha Möllering.

Berliners can be a bit blasé about their city. They might walk past these fortresses of justice every day without ever realising what lies behind their closed doors. If you ask them as a tourist or just someone with a little bit of curiosity they’ll probably say something along the lines of “This? Nothing important, just a courthouse”.  And if you finally find yourself in a situation where it’s unavoidable to go inside, there is usually something more sinister going on than an architectural tour of the city, like divorce or imperfect waste separation.

Which is a shame really. So I went out to explore this overlooked architectural genre. In a way, Berlin’s courthouses are all pretty alike. They’re all big and menacing with huge columned porticos and an entrance hall that’s supposed to make you feel small and insignificant in the face of justice. It really drives home the point, that the law is omniscient. Even if everyone concerned agrees that a law is bullshit, the law will stand as long as these halls stand. You might rage and scream but in the end, you bow to its rule.

Berlin Courthouses
Amtsgericht Mitte. Photo by Sascha Möllering.

Experts might call this style “intimidation architecture” while others might just think it is vaguely imperial. Most of them feature a very prominent staircase in the central lobby that is just waiting for a well-groomed Hollywood lawyer to traipse down, robe flying, in the pursuit of saving some poor sod from police brutality. Of course, German courtroom reality is way less glamorous than that. Most of the cases are minor, such as everyday fights among relatives, neighbours and motorists. An exception to this general rule is Kriminalgericht Tiergarten (Criminal Court), where I sometimes play the guessing game called ‘what’s on inside’ by looking at the crowd in front. Lots of motor bikes and leather-clad big guys? Probably a member of the Bandidos MC being tried for something violent. White Mercedes 350? One of the organized crime clans that control most of the drug trade and protection rackets in town. 20 TV cameras? A terror trial. The room where those trials are held is the only one we were not allowed to publish photos of.

berlin courthouses
Kriminalgericht Turmstrasse. Photo by Sascha Möllering.

The buildings were mostly constructed around 1900, sometimes as a replacement for another earlier building. There’s no question that they all share a deep reservoir of strange and exciting stories. None more so than Kammergericht Berlin, the last iteration of Germany’s oldest court of law dating back 550 years. Sitting inside a small park that used to be Berlins botanical garden, the building and the institution are a mirror of Germany’s convoluted history and filled with symbolism. There is the Prussian coat of arms all the way up, above the portico – higher than all references to the law or the court. Even though the law was valid for king and Kaiser as well, it seems that the Hohenzollern dynasty wanted to make clear they were above the law. Corroberating that theory is a balcony in the main hall, overlooking the bench and the audience from which the Kaiser was supposed to look down on ‘his’ judges and control their work.  Something he never did, but you always had to be prepared to be evaluated by your sovereign.

Berlin Courthouses
Sozialgericht Berlin. Photo by Sascha Möllering.

During the Nazi regime, the institution was rebranded as the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) that mainly gained notoriety during the show trials under Roland Freisler that tried and convicted the military resistance surrounding Stauffenberg after their failed attempt to assassinate Hitler and take over the government on July 20th 1944.

After the war, the Allied Control Council moved in, making it the de-facto government seat of the whole country and the International Military tribunal started its work here before they relocated to Nürnberg for the trials.

Berlin Courthouses
Sozialgericht Berlin. Photo by Sascha Möllering.

For completely other reasons, Sozialgericht Berlin is a bit different compared to the other buildings. First of all it’s smaller overall, and the entrances and stairways are more modest. Than, if you care to look up in their breathtaking main hall, you might notice that instead of allegories of power and justice you find the names of Newton & Leipzig (They would have hated being placed so close together). The reason for that is simple, it used to be the seat of Berlin-Hamburger Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft (Berlin-Hamburg-Railway-Company) and it shows. The idea that some poor sod has to fight for his Hartz IV (social security) in this lavish surrounding is absurd, the annual cleaning bill is probably higher that a whole year’s worth of Stütze. Asked about that, their PR person tells us, they are trying to use other rooms for that.

I could go on like this for page after page, but why don’t you go out and check out these gems yourself – all houses are open to the public, and you’re even allowed to take photos, if you circumvent any security installations and don’t publish them.

Beyond the Courthouses described above, make sure to also check out (landing pages are in German, but you should be able to reference opening hours/days):

Article written by Sascha Möllering and edited by Tulio Edreira. For more great articles and pictures from Sascha, check his own blog 60seconds.

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