Telesparagus: The Berlin TV Tower

In the twenty five years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two German states, little of what might reasonably be labeled “East German” has survived to find its place as part of joint German culture. There’s the distinctive and almost-Disneyesque Ampelmännchen found on pedestrian signals in the former-East, a whimsical and certainly far less business-like figure than its striding western counterpart. Beyond that, however, I am able to think of only one other example of a GDR product that has managed to rise above its “socialist taint” to assume place in the collective culture and that would be the Berlin television tower.

Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Built in over four years beginning in 1965 and opened on October 3, 1969 as part of the GDR’s 20th anniversary celebrations, the tower was intended to demonstrate the socialist system’s technical abilities and serve as a symbol of a new era which pushed aside the legacies of ‘feudal’ and ‘bourgeoise’ power. Given this, that the tower became a standard part of East German iconography comes as no surprise. Indeed, the TV tower or its image was consistently referenced in GDR design as the gallery of objects from my collection below attests to:

A Brief History

The idea of including a TV tower in the reconstruction of the central part of East Berlin can be traced back to a 1958 architectural competition. Here a collective led by Hermann Henselmann, the country’s leading architect and a veteran of the Stalinallee project, proposed what he called a Turm der Signale or Signal Tower on a space adjacent to Berlin’s city hall, the Rotes Rathaus. At the time, however, the idea was soundly rejected with many Party leaders feeling that a more overtly ideological symbol (such as a large Lenin statue) should provide the focal point to the Republic’s central district. By the mid-1960s, however, “technological modernity had become the East’s accepted architectural language” and a TV tower was approved as part of the project. (Philip Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. University of Chicago Press (1997), pg. 188.)

During the years of the tower’s construction, East German media went to great lengths to report on the creation of this  ideologically-laden symbol. In this reporting, the writers made a clear effort to evince a fondness for the structure among the GDR populace by giving the structure the nickname “The Giant at Alex”, a reference to the structure’s location adjacent to the East German capital’s central square, Alexanderplatz. These transparent attempts were soundly mocked in the West Berlin media with tabloids there sometimes referring to the tower as “The One-legged Giant”.

1958 design for central East Berlin by collective led by Hermann Henselmann (photo: author).

1958 design for central East Berlin by collective led by Hermann Henselmann (photo from Thomas Topfstedt: Staedtebau in der DDR 1955-1971 (Seemann Verlag, Leipzig, 1988). 

Shortly after the building’s dedication, however, another more popular designation for the tower did emerge: Telespargel which translates as “Telesparagus”. Though often cited as a product of “the people’s voice” (“Volksmund”), the term appears to have been the work of the East Berlin daily the Berliner Zeitung, but regardless of its origins it quickly became popular in publications on both sides of the Wall. (see: Die Namen des Berliner Ferhsehturms by Ulrich Diblelius, accessed on Dec. 16, 2014 at Authorities’ rather transparent efforts to give the tower a patina of “folksiness” were even mocked by the GDR’s satire magazine, Eulenspiegel, shortly after the structure’s opening: “As has likely escaped no one’s attention, Berlin’s skyline is now dominated by a new structure, the Telespargel, also popularly known as the television tower.”

For those more inclined to a critical view, another, less cutesy, nickname was apparently also in circulation: Ulbricht’s Index Finger (Wolf Biermann, Warte nicht auf bessre Zeiten, Propyläen Verlag, 2016: pg. 280).

The Pope’s Revenge

A more serious challenge to authorities’ desires to use the tower in the “class struggle” came from an unexpected effect that is produced when direct sunlight hits the metal skin that covered the structure’s spherical working area. For when hit by sunlight at a certain angle, the skin’s individual stainless steel panels produced an unmistakeable cross that spanned an entire side of the tower. This phenomenon was not greeted by GDR authorities but provoked more than a few smirks from their opponents and an important part of the tower’s Cold War-era lore. In fact, when visiting Berlin in the 80s, I had more than one West Berliner enthusiastically try to explain to me what became known as “The Pope’s Revenge”.

View From the Top

Not surprisingly, the tower became a popular attraction for visitors to the East German capital, however, on my visits to the divided city I never ventured up. I would imagine that the unhindered view of the city that continued behind the Wall would’ve made a visit to the tower a poignant one for many East Germans. I finally made it up the tower in 1996 and remember being struck by how one could still, in spots, detect signs of where the Wall had run between the two halves of the city.

The TV Tower as the Symbol of the New Berlin

FSTurm - PekingWhile much of GDR-era East Berlin has been dramatically altered (e.g. Alexanderplatz) or even removed (e.g. Palace of the Republic), the TV tower’s has found a place not only in the Berlin cityscape but become a beloved icon of the “new Berlin”. This status was not inevitable and American historian Phillip Ladd notes that as “one of the best known symbols of East Berlin, there were inevitably demands to tear it down after reunification.” (Ladd, pg. 188.). Thankfully, these calls went unheeded. I would imagine that the tower owes its continued existence to a combination of factors including its economic viability as both a tourist site and broadcast/ telecommunications tower as well as the simple fact that the cost and logistics of removing the structure would be, to put it mildly, considerable. Whatever the reason(s), the tower appears to have established itself as the preeminent symbol of the new, hip Berlin. Who’d’ve thunk?

FSTurm - Cornell event

  1. Celeste Sansregret said:

    Great post, John Paul! Loved the photo of the tower-shaped cocktail skewers with, of course, pickles and cocktail sausages!

    • Thanks Celeste! Did you notice the plate? It should be familiar to you . . .

  2. Tim Dutcher-Walls said:

    I love the Fernsehturm, John Paul. Hanging around the environs–Hackesche Markt & Höfe (where is found nearby the headquarters of the German Communist Party from the 1910s, the house of Regina Jonas, the world’s first ordained woman rabbi before she was sent to a camp and killed, the current location of Berlin’s Goethe Institute, and nowadays, alas, some pretty trendy shops); also Alexanderplatz itself, die Neue Synagoge (beautifully restored), the Volksbühne, the 13th Century ff. Marienkirche with medieval Dance of Death fresco, Rotes Rathaus, the Dom, etc. etc. The central focal point for me that somehow ties it all together is Telespargel! (And I’m vegetarian too, so that works. 🙂 ) During one visit to Berlin, Pat and I stayed in a hotel right there on Dirksenstraße, and from our upper floor window had a view of–the tower! One can’t get away from it. Thanks for the post! (And all of them, man.)

    • So glad this post resonated for you, Tim! Just reading your list of favourite sites evoked the neighbourhood wonderfully. Thanks for the comment.

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