The Magic Mill of Marzahn

Marzahn Mühle Kopie

This afternoon I experienced more than I expected. Actually, I didn’t expect to experience anything, as I wasn’t sure anymore if the windmill was just an illusion. I had already been there three times, and every time I was denied access because I hadn’t planned with the miller, also due to acts of God.[1]

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I assumed that the Marzahn post mill, insofar as it existed, would remain a mystery to me. But this time it was different. I had arranged to meet Jürgen Wolf, the miller, and it was simple: not only was the gate to the windmill garden open, the door to the mill, accessible via steep wooden stairs, was open too. It was almost eerily easy, but before I could think of Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill, the miller was standing in front of me, almost glowing. This was due to his flour aura, incidentally illuminated by a ray of light, but also because of the man’s unmistakable energy. Jürgen Wolf immediately began to show me and tell me about everything. He was generous with his information about the mill and about himself – two closely intertwined fates. This afternoon I learned a bit about mills, but more than anything I learned a new story about the turnaround generation, about Germany divided and rejoined, and especially this city, Berlin. And so I was able to bring a bit more light into a sense of life that so influenced the following, that is, my generation.

I came to know the story of a young miller who noticed that the Wall was facing the wrong direction. That the anti-fascist barricade had its death strip on the wrong side. This mill was both fake and real. A bit like the division of the country.

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Imagine the scenario: a historic windmill situated on a hill next to an equally historic village, Old Marzahn, and together both are surrounded by prefabricated slab buildings, giving one the mild impression of socialist ocean liners. It was this visual contrast that always drew me to the place and made me curious about its history and its now. It turned out the history is short. The mill is only 25 years old. The hill it sits atop is also new; it was pushed together in the east from the rubble of building ruins. “The ‘70s were a time of trashing things. In all of Berlin in the post-war era people blew up as much as the war annihilated. That seems unimaginable, but that’s how it was.” An older but more modern version of this mill was torn down in 1978 even though it had survived the war. “Mills are ever at peace. That’s an old saying and its lore is simple: everyone needs them.” Hence, they usually weren’t destroyed during the war – only afterwards in this case.

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The current post mill in Marzahn is the fourth mill on the third location and Mr. Wolf the eleventh miller. The first mill was built in 1815 in Marzahn and replaced twice with more modern versions. The current mill project had been submitted for planning as early as 1982, as an educational and prestige project in the GDR, which always sought to bear up against the Federal Republic of Germany. Along the lines of: “Who has the most beautiful Berlin in all the land?” The mill and the village were meant to serve as East Berlin’s agricultural and crafts museums; this came to a standstill due to various circumstances. Only in 1994, after reunification, was the original reproduction of the first mill from 1815 completed with funds from Aufschwung Ost. The museum project was entirely “devoured” by West Berlin’s agricultural and crafts museum, as was common during that time of “east-west cannibalism.” You can now marvel at historical finds from Marzahn at the Domäne Dahlem. But there is more to be found. Up on the old mill hill, on the other side of the village, Jürgen Wolf takes it upon himself to excavate old machine parts he then exhibits there.

Archeologist is but one of the miller’s identities. Another one is carpenter. A trained miller and a trained carpenter, Jürgen Wolf combines both in his present job. He built the entire grinding system inside the mill himself. He approached this creatively; multiple functions had to be ensured. The mill needed to be able to grind in order to produce flour, while acting as a show mill, affording school groups and other interested parties insight into the profession of a miller. It is now a “producing museum.” Small windows are embedded in the machinery, so the visitors can see how the grain is ground and sifted, and where the flour, the hull and the meal come out. “A practice special to the GDR was to remodel during production. That’s my specialization too. I can take advantage of that now.” Ten thousand visitors come to the mill annually. It used to be 30,000, but the sessions have since gotten longer. They’re always sold out. “Educational demand is enormous, and that’s how I design the mill. It’s a business that grows with its customers. I’m a service provider.” With heart and soul to boot!

There are two grinding systems in the mill. One is the large system still powered by the windmill sails, and the other is a somewhat smaller system powered by an electrical motor. Nowadays you can’t rely on wind power – the close proximity of the city stops the wind flow. Nonetheless, the sails spin 200 days a year. During strong winds and storms the miller has to steer in the opposite direction so the wind doesn’t blow the mill over. In fact, it’s just like on a ship! This is why a miller isn’t allowed to live farther than 200 meters away from the mill – in turn the reason why Mr. Wolf got an official residence in one of the surrounding buildings in the historic village.

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Mr. Wolf used to live in Prenzlauer Berg and worked at the Osthafenmühle, where along with his co-workers he made flour for 1.5 million people. It was the biggest mill in Berlin. The granary is all that remains of the Osthafenmühle; the rest was torn down. Instinctually, that is, not rationally, miller Wolf left the operation upon reunification – and rightly so. The Osthafenmühle was sold off silently. After all that was dubious and uncomfortable in the East, the harsh, privatizing winds of the Treuhand and the relentless competition of capitalism were blowing now. “The BSR[2]could strike and after two weeks of a stinking city got its western salary. With the millers it was different. In the West they had huge flour tankers. And as a young person you ask yourself: what is your job as a miller worth commercially? I knew too that our technology in the East was 20-30 years behind that of the West. We weren’t many, but we knew what was going on.” So Mr. Wolf made the decision many are so grateful to him for today: “I focused on the path of educational tourism, the museum side. I live it. I come from an old miller family that has worked in this sector for centuries.” He accepted a job in Saxony that allowed him to prepare for a new chapter in life as a mill building consultant. “Reunification was an adventure! It meant freedom, you could be an independent contractor! And for the westerners it was an adventure, too – there our spirits came together.”

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Mr. Wolf is currently a miller, carpenter, archeologist, teacher and – a vow master: you can get married at the mill now, too. It’s “the first windmill registry office in Germany.” In 2007, Mr. Wolf built the wedding staircase, entwined with white roses, on the northwest of the mill hill. The first couple got married there in 1997 and is still together.

A good sign!

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[1]My first visit was in the spring. I was in love and got on the M8 tram after a drunken night on the town and headed for the outskirts. The mill towered between the prefab buildings and my hormone-drenched fantasies. I took it in, but at that moment I would have taken anything. My second visit was in the dead of winter. I wanted to see if the mill really existed, but it was so cold that my breath froze and I saw only through white fog. All sounds, all life had been swallowed by the cold. Surreal. My third visit was this summer during one of the unbearable heat waves. My companion suffered a circulatory collapse, so we preferred to stay in the air-conditioned tram and make our way to the city limits.

[2]Berliner Stadtreinigungsbetriebe (Berlin Municipal Sanitation Authority)

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