The Swiss House

In the corner which Unter den Linden meets Friedrichstraße, there is a house with more than 75 years of history in Berlin. Today, this building stands as one of the original places of the city and a survivor of the Allied bombing campaign and the Luftangriffe of the Second World War. 

[Unter den Linden nr 22 with corner Friedrichstraße nr 155 in 1940, during the happy days of the Third Reich. At left corner, can be seen the “Haus der Schweiz”. At right, the famous Café Viktoria.]

[Photo by Sobotta. interaktiv.morgenpost.de historisches-berlin-in-farbe.]

The house was built during 1934-1936 by Swiss architect Ernst Meier-Appenzell with a clean façade, an arcade and rectangular windows, in a monumental building style. The client was the “Haus der Schweiz GmbH”, to which the Swiss bank Leu, the Swiss bank and the Swiss Federal Railways had joined forces. Like many Swiss companies, they had considerable sums of German Reichsmark.

Since these were classified by the Nazis as “Sperrmark”, however, a transfer of the money into Switzerland would have been associated with considerable price losses. Instead, the three companies bought a plot of land on the corner of Friedrichstraße/ Unter den Linden and had a six-storey business and office building built there - “at the first business location of the Reich capital”. The property was intended as a financial investment, but served at the same time also quite representative purposes.

The building had the lettering Haus der Schweiz, prominently displayed on both sides of the façade, as well as a Willem Tell figure. The bronze sculpture, however, is not William Tell, but his son Walther. Supposedly a trick of the builder: because the Nazis did not want to tolerate a representation of the freedom fighter and Swiss national hero himself, they trained just now his son with a crossbow and an apple. On the other hand, the Nazis could not say anything - and the Swiss national pride was still respected. In the spring of 1936, the builders themselves became the first tenants to enter the ”Haus der Schweiz”.

[Nazi and Italian flags along Unter den Linden avenue during state the visit of Italian Fascist leader Mussolini to Berlin in September 1937.]

Photo: Gettyimages.

[A view of the Unter den Linden building in 1939 just before the Second World War.]

Photo by Frankl A: Bundesarchiv (B145 Bild-P015390).

[View northwards in to Friedrichstraße. Right: Café Viktoria, left: Haus der Schweiz, circa 1940. Above the arcs can be read in capital lettering ‘Schweizer Verkehrsbüro’ (“Swiss Tourist Office”).]

[Photo: akg-images.]

In the shops on the ground floor, the Swiss Tourist Office opened a branch (Schweizer Verkehrsbüro), where citizens could book train journeys to Switzerland. 

During the war, this zone was severely damaged by Allied bombings, the building was hit on the evening of 9/10 April 1941 during the raid made by RAF British bombers which affected many areas in Mitte including the famous Staatsoper den Linden. Years later, the Soviet offensive in the city inflicted more damage, but thanks to the modern construction method, this building survived the bombing of Berlin at the end of war as the only one in the area relatively intact. 

[The famous corner Unter den Linden ecke Friedrichstraße in a colour picture taken in 1939.]

Photo by Sobotta. Getty Images.]

[This image shows that same corner after the war’s end. The Café Viktoria placed at the right corner was totally wiped out by bomb damage during the final two years of the conflict. The Swiss building has survived the bombing of Berlin relatively intact.]

[Photo by Abraham Pisarek. Deutsche Fotothek.]

[Another view of Berliners working on the debris after the war in front of the Haus der Schweiz at Friedrichstraße/corner Unter den Linden. Notice that the Tell bronze sculpture has survived intact.]

[Photo Berliner Verlag/ Alamy.]

[In this colour view the blackened burned-out façade of the Swiss House after the war is evident.]

[Photo: still from film. Framepool.]

[Berlin after World War II - 1946: cars and people move again over Unter den Linden, with the ruins of the Viktoria and the Haus der Schweiz as a mute reminder of the bombings and battles.]

[Photo: © Landesarchiv Berlin.]

The employees of the Swiss companies, which until 1945 had had their headquarters in the house, had largely fled in the turmoil of the last years of the war from Berlin, but the house remained the property of the “House of Switzerland GmbH”.

[The remains of the building just after the war’s end. Notice the splinter shells from the battle on the arcade and façade, and the Russian military police armed with rifle assigned to traffic control.]

[Photo: still from film. Framepool/RightSmith.]

Photo: Kunstbibliothek, SMB/ Photothek Willy Römer.

When Berlin was divided by two, while the DDR government expropriated the owners of many surrounding buildings, the “Swiss house (…) was administered by the Berlin state housing administration (…) as a foreign property”, as can be seen from a 1952 official note. Apparently, the DDR government did not want to mess with Swiss banks. Nevertheless, they used the house for their own purposes. Among others, the Ostberliner Sparkasse, the German Foreign Trade Bank and a HO food market moved into the shops. The upper floors were rebuilt in the early 1950s for the “Coordination and Control Center for Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management”.

[Reconstruction of the Swiss building, now sited in the new DDR - East Berlin, began in the 1950s. This image is dated on December 8th, 1950.]

[Photo by Rudolf. Bundesarchiv.]

[A picture of the nearly completed and refurbished building as seen in the 1950s.]

[Photo by Rudolph. Getty images.]

[Haus der Schweiz. Unter den Linden Ecke Friedrichstraße by Gustav Köhler in October 1951.]

[Photo by Gustav Köhler.Bundesarchiv. Bild 183-12162-0002.]]

In 1994, a Swiss jeweler opened a branch in the completely renovated Haus der Schweiz, which has since been listed as a historic monument, given it an entirely new interior design.

[Photo: Wikimapia.]

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Sources and Bibliography:

  • Donath, Matthias. (2006). Architecture in Berlin 1933–1945: A Guide Through Nazi Berlin. Lukas Verlag.
  • Landesarchiv Berlin. LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 698, Bl. 24 ff., s. a. Nr. 700, Bl. 171 ff.
  • Langbein, Lena (2011). Das “Haus der Schweiz” in Berlin wird 75 Jahre alt. <swissinfo.ch>. 
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