While it’s more a commercial and entertainment district than a specific sight, Potsdamer Platz is the ultimate counterpoint to the Berlin Wall and everything it stood for. I wasn’t personally aware of this before I visited, assuming only that it must be of historical interest since I’d often come across it repeatedly in my college German history course. In fact, it more closely resembles a more modern, cleaner, and architecturally impressive version of London’s Picadilly or New York’s Times Square – that is a major traffic artery with a combination of entertainment complexes, chain restaurants, and corporate headquarters (most prominently for Deutsche Bahn – Germany’s national railway system). However, as is usually the case in Berlin, there’s far more than meets the eye here, and that’s even taking into account how many visual stimuli there are in contemporary Potsdamer Platz, since perhaps even more than the Reichstag or Brandenburg Gate, it encapsulates the triumphs and tragedies of the past two turbulent centuries of German history.
Potsdamer Platz was originally the site of a customs gate that restricted peasant access to Berlin during the 18th century (yes, feudalism was alive and well at that time.) It subsequent served as a military parade ground, and, as the city grew, a major traffic junction. The inevitable traffic jams engendered by the customs post led Huguenot refugees from France to begin to establish roadside stands to feed passing travelers which later grew into more sizable and permanent establishments. Its prosperity grew as first two railroad termini (appropriately enough, one was to Potsdam) were established nearby, followed by both of Berlin’s internal railway systems (the U-bahn and the S-bahn). With the city’s expansion (following the end of feudalism and direct taxation), Potsdamer Platz became its commercial center and music halls, hotels, and government ministries were all located in the vicinity.
Between the First and Second World Wars, Potsdamer Platz was the busiest traffic intersection in Europe, and the area had a vibrant nightlife to match. Fashionable hotels, theaters, and luxurious department stores opened up nearby. One of these, Wertheim, was the largest in the world when it opened in 1897 and was progressively expanded so that by 1937 it was twice the size of the Reichstag Building. Unfortunately, it was essentially expropriated from its Jewish owners by the Nazis as part of their "Aryanization" campaign (compensation claims are still being fought over in court today); the Nazis also renamed many of the surrounding streets to glorify party figures.
The area was essentially obliterated during the Second World War, having been a particular Allied target because it contained many Nazi government offices. It was the epicenter of the sometimes violent struggle for control between the various occupying forces in Berlin, and ultimately was divided almost equally between the Soviets and the other Allied zones of occupation. Although there was briefly a checkpoint between the zones on Potsdamer Platz itself, once the wall was built, passage possible only through nearby Checkpoint Charlie.
While it became a popular nostalgia stop for visiting dignitaries to West Berlin, the small stores that abutted the wall were a pale reflection of its past glories. Perhaps given its prior importance, it shouldn’t be surprising that the section of the Berlin Wall stretching across Potsdamer Platz was among the first breached in November 1989. After reunification in 1990, the Berlin Senate held a competition for a design to redevelop the area, which was won by the Bavarian Firm of Hilmer and Sattler in October 1991. So much construction took place that it became known as "Europe’s Largest Building Site." While the result isn’t to everyone’s taste, it appears to have served its purpose of redeveloping the area into a futuristic business district. In any case, as it’s a major transit hub, you’re likely to pass through it on the way to Checkpoint Charlie, Topography of Terrors, the Reichstag or the Brandenburg Gate, so it’s worth taking a minute to take a look at the area and to this about its history, which may be every bit as impressive as its future.