The Swiss Embassy in the bend of Berlin’s River Spree, showing the old and new buildings.
The Swiss Embassy in the bend of Berlin’s River Spree, showing the old and new buildings. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA)

The Swiss Embassy in Berlin – symbol of continuity

Right next door to the Federal Chancellery, the Swiss Embassy today has a prominent location in Berlin’s Spreebogen, the bend in the River Spree. The red flag with a white cross is hard to miss in Berlin’s government district. Thanks to good luck, the historic Stadtpalais bought by Switzerland in 1919 hasn’t burned down, been demolished or sold on in the last 100 years. An enduring symbol of Swiss continuity, the building has had a very eventful life.

Jacqueline Plum

Jacqueline Plum

Jacqueline Plum is a historian and author and advises non-profit organisations on fundraising and communication.

In October 1919, Switzerland bought the historic Stadtpalais, located in what was then the upscale Alsenviertel, from the distinguished industrialist and art collector Erich Kunheim. The neoclassic Stadtpalais, designed by Friedrich Hitzig and extended and redesigned according to plans by Paul Baumgarten, served from then on as the residence of the ambassador and as the Swiss mission’s office. If times were already turbulent in the Weimar Republic, they were even more so after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Paul Widmer, Swiss diplomat and former head of the Swiss representation (1992-1999), gives a truly gripping history of the mission in his book “Die Schweizer Gesandtschaft in Berlin”, as a historian and a witness.

Strokes of luck and staying power during the war years

In the pre-war years and throughout the war, from 1938 to 1945, Hans Frölicher represented the Confederation’s interests on the Spree. A highly controversial diplomat, Frölicher did have the task of representing Switzerland in extremely complicated times. Frölicher was well-connected in Berlin and was pro-German, but was not considered a Nazi sympathiser; the doors to the actual Nazi inner circles remained closed to him. Nevertheless, his recommendations to Bern were sometimes criticised as being too friendly to the Nazi regime. In the chaos of war of the 1940s he played a “masterful hand” with real estate.
Flag that flew on the Swiss Embassy in Berlin in 1945.
Flag that flew on the Swiss Embassy in Berlin in 1945. Swiss National Museum
According to the plans of Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer, the Stadtpalais was to be demolished to make way for a monumental building to be erected in the bend of the River Spree. An alternative building had already been earmarked for the Swiss Legation. However, Frölicher caused delays in the interior work on the new premises; he didn’t want the Legation to move out of the current building. When the alternative building was destroyed in British air raids in November 1943, a move was off the cards. Thanks to its solid construction, the Stadtpalais building withstood the heavy bombing raids in 1943 and 1945. Employees such as driver Richard Fritze, a Berliner who remained in the building on the nights of the bombings and put out small fires with a hand-held extinguisher, also helped. But good relations with the fire brigade also ensured that firefighters were quickly on the scene in the event of any impact. Several strokes of luck also helped: a bomb that blasted through an oil drum in the building’s inner courtyard failed to detonate. The building’s bunker also offered protection to scores of people, and saved their lives.
The partially damaged embassy building during the Battle of Berlin. The Soviet Army used the building as a launching point for their storming of the Reichstag on 30 April 1945.
The partially damaged embassy building during the Battle of Berlin. The Soviet Army used the building as a launching point for their storming of the Reichstag on 30 April 1945. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA)
There were dramatic scenes at the end of April 1945, when Red Army soldiers occupied the Stadtpalais. From there, they prepared for the final attack on the Reichstag. Just weeks before, in mid-April, the Political Department had asked the interim chargé d’affaires, Alfred Zehnder, to leave Berlin and return to Switzerland with the remaining staff; Frölicher had previously been instructed to follow the Foreign Office to southern Germany. However, Zehnder refused because he didn’t want to abandon the city’s Swiss community in such desperate times. He also felt himself to be responsible for duties associated with being a protecting power, which Switzerland had taken on for 25 countries in Berlin alone. His staff also stayed. They accepted that they would fall into Soviet hands, and were transported to Moscow on 20 May 1945. Zehnder and the rest of the staff had no diplomatic protection, because Bern and Moscow did not maintain diplomatic relations. The Swiss delegation was allowed to leave the Soviet Union at the beginning of June, via the Caucasus to Turkey, which had been designated as its protecting power, and travelled home to Switzerland from there. After the German armed forces’ surrender on May 8 1945, Frölicher was recalled and the Legation was closed. Germany was occupied by the Allies and was no longer a sovereign state.
Reporting to the Foreign Minister after returning from Berlin: Ministers Frölicher and Feldscher with Federal Councillor Petitpierre on 23 May 1945.
Reporting to the Foreign Minister after returning from Berlin: Ministers Frölicher and Feldscher with Federal Councillor Petitpierre on 23 May 1945. Dukas / RDB

Repatriation delegation assists Swiss citizens who wished to return home from the GDR

When the Red Army invaded East Prussia in early 1945, the Swiss citizens living there found themselves in dire straits. Thousands of Swiss had built livelihoods in the Eastern German territories as milkers, cheesemakers and dairy owners. As the letters of protection issued by the Swiss consulate in the East Prussian town of Elbing were in many cases not recognised by the Soviet Union, the Swiss citizens who lived there were frequently treated as Germans. They were subjected to violence and pillaging, and went in fear of their lives. When the Swiss community urgently asked the Federal Council for help in mid-July 1945, the Council sent a repatriation delegation to Berlin. So the Legation building was pressed back into use as early as 1945. Led by diplomat François de Diesbach, by 1948 the repatriation delegation had helped several thousand Swiss citizens from the eastern regions to return to Switzerland. In particular, the delegation also supported the 14,000 or so Swiss citizens who lived in Berlin and in the Soviet zone. In 1945-1946 alone, delegation staff organised transport for about 4,000 returning Swiss. With the division of Germany and the creation of a socialist state, the situation worsened even further for the Swiss farmers who remained in the GDR. When the GDR government collectivised agriculture, hundreds more farmers returned to Switzerland with the help of the delegation in 1952-53. Meanwhile, the delegation didn’t abandon those Swiss citizens who had opted to stay in the GDR despite the consequences of the war, occupation and the privations of life there. From its base in Berlin, the delegation supplied these groups with food, clothing and medicines.

Cold War on the doorstep: construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961

The Swiss mission, located directly on the border of the Soviet zone, was an eyewitness to the building of the wall. In those dramatic days of August 1961, the Embassy building had a front row seat. When East Berlin was not yet completely sealed off, the Swiss flag on the roof provided orientation. Since the building was the only occupied property near the Reichstag, it served as the first place of refuge for escapees who had swum across the Spree and for those injured while fleeing. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Legation lay in no man’s land, away from West Berlin’s commercial centre and close to the Berlin Wall. The federal administration in Bern considered selling it, but no one wanted to buy it, not even the Berlin Senate.
Construction and strengthening of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate in October 1961.
Construction and strengthening of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate in October 1961. National Archives

Policy of détente in the 1970s: the Swiss Embassy in East Berlin

Because of the Wall, it was no longer possible to move freely outside West Berlin. It was only in the 1970s that the situation started to improve. In the wake of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of détente and the opening of a Permanent Representation of the Federal Republic of Germany in East Berlin, Switzerland recognised the GDR as a state. The Confederation established diplomatic relations with the East German state, and in 1973 Switzerland opened an embassy at Esplanade 21 in the East Berlin district of Pankow. This embassy existed until the reunification of the two German states in 1990. In 1973 the repatriation delegation became the Swiss Consulate General in West Berlin, which was subordinate to the Swiss Embassy in Bonn, at that time the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The diplomatic representation of the Swiss Confederation in the GDR, at Esplanade 21 in East Berlin.
The diplomatic representation of the Swiss Confederation in the GDR, at Esplanade 21 in East Berlin. Bundesarchiv

An embassy chef in the clutches of the Stasi

However, the tensions resulting from the division of Germany remained palpable. Peter Gross from Switzerland, aged just 24 at the time, felt the full force of these tensions. He was working in the Residence of the Swiss Embassy in East Berlin as a chef for Hans Miesch, Switzerland’s first ambassador to the GDR. As an Embassy employee, Gross had a car with the diplomatic license plate “CY” for the technical personnel and was able to cross the border without being inspected. To give his East Berlin girlfriend a special evening, he hid her in the boot of his Mini and took her out in West Berlin. This went well a number of times. On 1 February 1975, however, staff of the Ministry for State Security stopped him at the border checkpoint. The couple was arrested for multiple illegal border crossings and alleged aiding and abetting in Republikflucht, desertion from the Republic. Gross had been betrayed to the secret police (Stasi) and received five years’ imprisonment, while his girlfriend was given four and a half, in the Stasi’s dreaded Bautzen II special detention centre. Both served more than three years before they were released. Usually, convicted Swiss escape agents were discreetly deported to Switzerland after the end of their trial. Gross and his girlfriend, however, became the plaything of the highest echelons of government. The GDR wanted to use the pair as a bargaining chip for the Wolfin agents. The Wolfins, a married couple, had spent several years spying for the Stasi in Switzerland, and had been exposed and arrested in 1973. After the Wolfins were convicted in June 1975, the GDR authorities offered to exchange the Swiss chef Gross for them, among others. However, Switzerland took the view that the cases were not comparable. Only when the spies had served part of their sentence did Switzerland consider it acceptable to exchange the prisoners. And so Gross and his girlfriend were freed early in 1978 and released into West Germany. They later married in Switzerland. The GDR rulings against them were set aside after German reunification.

Return to the bend in the Spree: the circle closes

Until the reunification of the two German states in 1990, dealing with the divided Germany and Berlin was a prominent aspect of the work of the Swiss representation. With the end of the Cold War, many things became possible again. After the decision of the German Bundestag in June 1991 to move the seat of government and parliament from Bonn to Berlin, the Bundesrat decided also to move the official seat of the Swiss Embassy back to the old Berlin Stadtpalais. Since the bend in the River Spree was now envisaged as the centre of Germany’s future government district, it was initially uncertain whether the embassy could be integrated into a new structural concept, or would have to give way. However, the winning design for the remodelling incorporated the historic embassy building and left it intact. With the return to the Stadtpalais, which now has a modern extension, things came full circle in 2000. The former legation, or today’s Embassy, moved back into its premises in the bend of the Spree, where it had flown the flag in turbulent times since the days of the Weimar Republic. Today, the historic Stadtpalais is in a unique location and stands as a symbol of Swiss stability in the middle of the redesigned government district.

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