When the first stone was laid: Berlin TV tower

In August 1965, Berlin's iconic TV Tower wasn't yet part of the city skyline. But east of the Wall, plans were underway to create a spectacular monument for the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

When the first stone was laid: Berlin TV tower
Photo: DPA

50 years ago this week, the first foundation stone was laid for the Berliner TV Tower (Fernsehturm).

The tower would soon become the tallest building in Germany, and was intended to be a symbol of the city. Plans for its construction had actually begun some decade before – but things hadn't gone quite as expected.

Where to build the Tower?

“The TV Tower is one of the most visited attractions in the city, and draws more than one million visitors each year” said Christian Tänzler, spokesperson for tourism website Visit Berlin.

The 50th anniversary is a particularly good time to champion this “touristic heavyweight,” he told The Local – and to emphasise its huge importance within the city.

Berlin's Fernsehturm was originally a GDR construction.

In the early 1950s, Socialist Unity Party (SED) leaders in East Berlin wanted to build a tower to transmit GDR television signals.

Intended to represent the power and efficiency of socialism, the tower was to be built on the Müggelberge – a wooded area in Berlin's Treptow-Köpenick quarter.

However, after the first few outbuildings were built on this site, the Ministry of Internal Affairs realised something: the Fernsehturm would be directly in the flight path of Berlin's planned Schönefeld Airport.

After the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Volkspark Friedrichshain was also aired as a suggestion – but this time, it was the cost that halted plans.

A potential spend of 30 million Ostmarks just wasn't feasible in this time of economic crisis, the East German government decided.

Two plans brought together

Meanwhile – and completely unrelated to the tower's planning – GDR leaders had just demolished the Berlin Palace, former residence of the Kaisers of Germany, and needed something to replace it.

The plan was to build a kind of “Government skyscraper” in the city centre, but the plans were rejected.

However, something magnificent came about when these two rejected plans were merged.

On 4 August 1965, the first stone was laid for Berlin's iconic Fernsehturm – not at the Schlossplatz, where the government had dreamed of creating an architectural masterpiece, but just next to nearby Alexanderplatz.

“Well, Comrades, there one sees it exactly: it belongs there,” said SED leader Walter Ulbricht, according to a popular anecdote.

He stood before a model of Berlin.

It was 1964, and Ulbricht had apparently just determined where the Fernsehturm was going to stand.

In reality, it was more likely the sandy soil around Alexanderplatz – a much better foundation than the riverside marshy earth at the Schlossplatz – that sealed the deal for the Fernsehturm's final location.

A lasting icon

Construction finished in 1969 – and on October 3rd that year, Berlin's Fernsehturm opened its doors to the public.

Despite its original aim of highlighting the power of the GDR, the tower has come to symbolize a united Berlin since reunification in 1990.

With a height of 368m, the Fernsehturm is Germany's tallest building – and is also one of Berlin's most distinctive landmarks.

Jeremy Minsburg leads custom-made tours around the city for visitors to Berlin through the website The Berlin Expert.

A Jewish American, he has lived in the city for 14 years.

“My clients all love the TV tower,” he told The Local.

Minsburg said that visitors love hearing about how in the GDR era, the Fernsehturm's revolving restaurant took an hour to fully rotate, but after recent renovations now takes just 30 minutes.

“Communism vs. capitalism,” he jokes.

Visitors are impressed by the tower's “funky” design, he said – with many claiming that the Fernsehturm “looks like a piece of asparagus!”

Tänzler explained that while the Fernsehturm has been modernized since its construction to keep up with increasing demand, “its visual appearance has – thank goodness – not changed.”

“Both the exterior design and the tower's interior have become design icons for Berlin,” he said.

The Fernsehturm is now owned by Deutsche Telekom, and open seven days a week to tourists.

After a 40 seconds elevator ride – or a trip up the tower's 986 steps – visitors enter the sphere.

Here, the tower boasts a 203m high viewing platform and a restaurant 270m above the ground.

Offering what the tower's website advertises as “an incomparable view of the capital,” the sphere allows visitors to gaze upon Berlin in a way that, 50 years ago, planners could only dream of. 

Written by Hannah Butler

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.