Telefunkenwerk Zehlendorf

From a former industrial site to a work-concentration camp, US military barracks and finally to a contemporary residential area

Luminita Ratiu

When I moved into Berlin, a new city and a new country for me, nobody told me how hard it would be to find an apartment to rent. I rolled out my eyes when I first saw at least 200 persons queuing to visit and apply for an apartment! After one month of intensive search, nothing seemed to offer any hope. Yet, when I was almost ready to leave the Berlin dream aside, a co-national helped me to found a very comfortable, open and light loft at the outskirts of Berlin. At that time nobody told me I was going to spend a significant part of my life enjoying life in a former concentration camp, about which Germans are still very reluctant to talk.

1927: Phase 1. Telefunkenwerk Zehlendorf

In 1903, two leading German electrical companies, AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft) and Siemens & Halske founded the Gesellschaft für wireless Telegraphie (System Telefunken) company. The aim was to cooperate in the fields of military and intercontinental telecommunications.

In 1938, Telefunken purchased a large area (about 240,000 sq m area) in Goerzallee, Berlin, and commissioned plans for a factory. Hans Christoph Hertlein (1881-1963), who worked as a chief architect for Siemens and established himself with designing more than 30 pioneering large factory complexes between the 1920s and the 1960s, had submitted the plans.

The Telefunken workshops were housed in four-storey, plastered, flat-roofed steel-framed buildings grouped around open courtyards. The large-scale architecture buildings with tall façades incorporated the standardised shapes and clean lines of square-type, large, industrial-style window openings. Here and there the divided walls were sparsely decorated with reliefs in a stripped neoclassicism style, characteristic of the Nazi architecture.

A nine-story clock tower on the northeast corner of the former main administrative building provides for the visibility of the complex from afar. It is decorated with figurative elements, an allegory of the use of electricity. With its 200 m height, it was one of the tallest building in the world at the time of its construction. A former green courtyard emphasises the central axis.

Its architectural style was used by the Nazis to deliver and enforce their ideology: monumentality, solidity, simplicity. Formal elements like flat roofs, horizontal extension, uniformity, and the lack or scarcity of decorative elements, are the pillars of constructions during that period.

The first production workshops were opened in 1939. In 1940 the complex was completed and started to operate.

AEG Aktiengesellschaft  was one of the world’s largest electrical groups. The company, founded in Berlin in 1883 as the German Edison Society for Applied Electricity, provided products for electrical power engineering, household domestic products and devices for electrical building heating, trams, and other electrical equipment, such as steam locomotives and motor vehicles. Before and during the First World War, AEG was the second-largest armaments manufacturer in the German Empire after Krupp and produced, among others, aircraft machines for the German air force.

A later documentary research by theatre director Hans-Werner Kroesinger shows that the company had a long history of using low-paid and compulsory workforce even before the Second World War, as the case of the special 1911 governmental contract in Togo colonies for the employment of the so-called ”compulsory workers” demonstrates.

From 1939 to 1945, the Telefunken complex was turned into a forced-labour concentration camp, using mainly French and Polish prisoners. Working and living conditions were harsh. In rooms of regular size, bunk beds accommodated up to 8 persons who were required to work in ten hours working shifts.It is estimated that a total of about 20 million forced labourers have been employed during the whole of the Third Reich. In 1944, only in Berlin there were 400.000 forced labourers. The primary production at Telefunken covered radars, transmitters and other military electronic devices. Several barracks accommodated estimated 1.200 prisoners. While the French were put to work in workshops, the Polish prisoners were mainly active in the kitchen area. A gender segregation of workshop workers was obvious, placing the women at the front of assembly process due to their “smaller fingers” and thus supposedly better assembly skills. In the controversial theatre play “Telefunken Wave Artillery” (Wellenartillerie, 2012) it has been suggested that the same managers in charge of forced labourers were later used to manage the Guest Work (Gastarbeit) program designed for Germany’s post-war economical revival, where similar principles of segregation and racial profiling were demonstrated.

Due to the bombardment, by 1944 almost half of the area became useless. In 1960, following the court judgment, 4 million DM (German marks) were paid to the forced labourers, but without the admission of guilt or damage to the health of the forced labourers.

1945: Phase 2. McNair Barracks of the US Army

Beginning in1945, the extensive industrial complex of the former Telefunken industrial group had been occupied, used and expanded by the US Army, in a military setting known as McNair Barracks. The entire area was covered with military and supply facilities based on the “city within a city” principle. It included education centre, school, club rooms and casinos, gyms, snack bar, bakery, bookshop, library, military clothing store and the Coliseum Theatre (cinema), housing and providing for up to 2300 soldiers and civilian employees of the US Army. The McNair Barracks were the third large American barracks in Berlin (after Andrew Barracks and Roosevelt Barracks). The base was named after the well-known US General Lesley J. McNair.

1994: Phase 3. Residential area: Lesley-Lofts, Loftland-Arkaden and Monroe-Park

During the Cold War, West Germany became home to between 15-20 million American soldiers, civilian employees and their families. In 1994, after German reunification and the withdrawal of the US armed forces, the site was handed over to the city of Berlin. Since then, individual buildings have been privatised and converted into residential condominium area which includes a bilingual school, a Christian church, a gym, several businesses, offices and shops, rounded by a generous children playground area and a car park at the 4 July Platz. A McNair Museum, documenting the history of civilian employees of the Allies, is also present on site.

In 1995, the building was classified as a historical monument: the second largest monument of Berlin after the Tempelhof Airport.

The reconstruction included modernisation works of the multi-storey steel building, insulation and redesigning of the roof into terraces for the upper storey penthouses, balancing the demands of artistic production with functional pragmatism. The three main stories of each building were transformed into lofts and maisonettes. The residential lofts have individual apartment sized between 50 and 400 sq m. The old facades of the building were carefully reproduced and conserved.

The Lesley Lofts condominium is named after Lesley J. McNair, the former United States Army officer in charge of the barracks. Monroe Park, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the American actress Marilyn Monroe and thus alludes to the middle promenade of the former barracks, which is named after the renowned director Billy Wilder. The Monroe Park was planned by architect Sergei Tchoban but could only be realised four years later than planned because the investor Lehman Brothers had to file for bankruptcy in the 2008 financial crisis.

2012 Phase 4. Documentation

One of the most important representatives of the German documentary theatre, the theatre director Hans-Werner Kroesinger have had the premiere of a new piece called “Telefunken Wave Artillery” (Wellenartillerie) in Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer in January 2012, covering the dark chapter of forced labour at Telefunken company. ”Every seventh inhabitant of Berlin was a foreign worker in the 1940s. They were clearly visible to the Berlin population. They had to put labels on their clothes – a P for Poland, an O for Eastern workers, an R for Russians,” starts its show the producer.

Living here made me aware of subtleties of German social life nowadays. I witnessed the nearby regular Sunday flea market encounters between locals, eager to make social acquaintance with each other, but still reserved to their private space. I witnessed the real-estate extension in the neighboring green park, starting with the man in his 40s taking photos of the place where I was walking my dog, without asking for permission. I came to terms about the neighbour who never greets me. I witnessed people hastily moving out when the first person of colour moved in as my neighbour. I heard the church bells ring for every major Christian holiday, but have rarely seen people gathering at its doors. I have seen the public outcry of my neighbors when the local government decided to build an immigrant camp in the vicinity of the condominium, calling instead for the extension of the already very accommodating school campus. I met the now-famous Berlin urban fox walking around by night, eager to meet my dog. And I never made any friends in my historical neighborhood, a gem of a hidden, unspoken of Berlin.

Drawing by Alex Bodea


Text: Luminita Ratiu

Drawing and photographs: Alex Bodea

Luminita Ratiu and Alex Bodea created the art initiative The Fact Finder  which sits at the crossroads of visual art, journalism and storytelling. Nourished by the desire to testify and archive, The Fact Finder is keen to document (fact-finding) aspects of urbanity such as daily life on the street, the typology of passers-by, social dynamics and interactions. They are the founders of the Fact Finder, an art space in Berlin dedicated to artists whose work is based on field research, archiving, investigation and storytelling. Since 2020, the group has started a small micropublishing company specializing in graphic novels: The Fact Finder® Verlag.