Until a few years ago, I could tell my stories about Eisenhüttenstadt and 99% of people wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then Tom Hanks went and ruined it. After the actor’s 2011 visit, and subsequent storytelling of it on the Letterman Show, “Iron Hut City” now occupies a tiny space in the popular consciousness and even the local tourism board has gotten into the action creating an unintentionally amusing video that uses Hanks’ visit as a jumping off point to lure visitors to eastern Brandenburg, an endeavour likely to bear little fruit.
Which is not to denigrate Eisenhüttenstadt. While it may have little to attract the average tourist, those with a passion for architecture, city planning and East German history will find much to explore. Over the years, I have the opportunity to visit “Hütte” four times and In this week’s post I’ll give a bit of background on the city history and share my experiences exploring the German Democratic Republic’s first “socialist city”.
Building the GDR’s “First Socialist City”
Founded in 1950, only one year after the creation of the German Democratic Republic, Eisenhüttenstadt initially bore the name Stalinstadt (“Stalin City”) a tribute to the then Soviet leader and in allusion to the town’s raison d’être, its steel mill and processing complex. Here on the sandy flats of the Oder River, GDR planners made their first large-scale attempt to realize the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) vision for a “socialist city”. This plan would bring together working and residential life together in a way that was to be both economically efficient while offering workers a high quality of life.
The pace of the construction was rapid and the first blast furnace was opened in August 1951. Five more would follow over the next four years. Initially workers, both those constructing the mill and the new town, were housed in barracks, but slowly they moved to several new residential districts. Built between 1951 and 1960, the four Wohnkomplexe (“Housing Complexes”) that make up the core of the town were within walking distance of the mill and featured apartment blocks that were comfortable, if initially quite spartan (see example from WK 1 below). Between them, these new neighbourhoods had more than 6,000 apartment units with generous interior courtyards and a full complement of social services nearby (schools, daycares, shops, a hospital as well as a number of cultural facilities including several restaurants).
In the early-1950s, the “Stalinist wedding cake” aesthetic of the Stalinallee project in East Berlin (“The first socialist street in Germany”; see my post on this subject here.) spilled over into the provinces and Eisenhüttenstadt was no exception. The SED decreed that hence forth apartments were to be “workers’ palaces” and so designs for WK II (1953-54) were revised to transcend the merely functional by incorporating neo-classically inspired decoration and design. This commitment to improved aesthetics continued with WKs III and IV, but with different architectural languages as the photos below illustrate. In the late 1950s, the city’s main thoroughfare, Leninallee, was in the style of the so-called “international modern” as part of WK IV. Highlighted by a series of high-rises on its eastern side, a number of single-story shops clad in attractive coloured porcelain tiles and grounded by a department store and hotel at its southern, the Magistrale was a well designed and nicely realized bit of city planning that has aged remarkably well. Indeed, the historical value of Eisenhüttenstadt’s core (WKs I-IV and the main street) has been recognized in reunified Germany and this entire area is now under historical protection.
Initially intended to house 30,000 residents, the town surpassed this target by 1961 and continued to grow along with the mill, reaching its peak population of more than 53,000 in 1988. To house these new workers and their families, the city’s original plan was revised and three further WKs were erected in the pre-fab block style that had emerged as the GDR’s preferred construction method. However, these new districts were relatively far flung and suffered from problems similar to other large-scale housing complexes built in the East during that time (e.g. lack of services, amenities and reliable transit).
Go East, Young Man!: Day Trip to Hütte in 1996
My interest in the former-East was awakened during my university studies in the early 1990s as I read my first East German literature, saw several films and started to follow the process of German unity from afar. In 1993, I received an edition of Granta magazine dedicated to the topic of German reunification and it was here that I first encountered Eisenhüttenstadt. This edition contained a memorable interview with a teenage neo-Nazi and his mother from the town. It was both horrifying and intriguing and left an impression on me. My first visit to Eisenhüttenstadt came one summer Saturday in 1996 while I was in Berlin for a German language summer school offered by Humboldt-Universität. Heading east from the city, I was struck by just how quickly you hit the Pampe, the outback. Trees lined the tracks for most of the trip eastwards until Frankfurt/Oder where the inhospitable soil of the river plain gave things a more prairie-like feel.
Disembarking at the town in the early afternoon, the sun shone down from a cloudless sky as I oriented myself. I had consulted a map prior to setting and knew that the train station was a short walk from the centre of town, at the edge of an industrial area and adjacent to one of the pre-fab housing complexes. To my left I saw several Plattenbauten and realized that I needed to leave these behind me, so turned right and began the walk into the core. I’d only been walking a few minutes when I heard a number of voices behind me and turned to see a group of 3 or 4 teenage skinheads about 100 metres back. They didn’t seem to be paying me any mind, but I was spooked. I picked up the pace, but that didn’t seem to put any distance between me and the group, so I crossed over to the other side of the street. They were still gaining, so I decided to take evasive action and turned off into a side street leading to the industrial park. I kept moving, not daring to look over my shoulder. As I glanced around, I realized that were these fellows in the mood to harass me, I’d played right into their hands: I’d come down what was essentially a cul-de-sac. There were roads leading off it, but each was a dead end itself. Panicked, I chose one and ran into it. Once around the corner, I poked my head out. There was no one there. I waited a minute for the skins to pass by, then a few more to let them get safely ahead of me. It was not a promising start to my visit.
Once my heart rate had returned to something approaching normal, I continued on. I quickly found the town and spent the afternoon wandering about aimlessly. I came upon the Soviet War Memorial, an obelisk topped by a Red Star sitting at one end of a large open square. These memorials are found in almost every eastern German town and city and their perpetual upkeep is part of the agreement signed by Germany and the Soviet Union regulating the withdrawal of the Red Army from German soil in the mid-1990s.
Just one block from the memorial stood Lindenallee, formerly Leninallee, Eisenhüttenstadt’s main drag. I remember being pleasantly surprised by how remarkably similar the whole scene was to the pictures I’d seen. I immediately recognized several of the shops I knew from photos and quickly found Walter Womacka’s colourful mural “Cooperative Work Between Socialist Countries”. A poster on a lamp post caught my eye: “Summer Open Air ’96” featuring Uriah Heep (!) and Genesis tribute band Feel Collins. What I didn’t see, however, were any people. I initially attributed this to the fact that I’d come on a Saturday afternoon in mid-summer, but as I strolled through the residential streets the place was eerily quiet. From time to time I’d see someone in an apartment window or the occasional car would pass by, but there was nothing that one might mistake for street life. It was bizarre.
Back for More: Return to Eisenhüttenstadt in 2004
I’d not had enough on my first visit and when back in Germany researching my M.A. thesis in 2004, I convinced my friend Martin and long-suffering partner Bridget to join me on another excursion to the city. On this visit, I wanted to include a visit to the City Museum, which was located in Fürstenberg, an historical town that had been amalgamated into Eisenhüttenstadt in 1961. The collection of socialist public art on display in the building’s courtyard proved to be a good omen.
We popped into the museum on a weekday afternoon and found the place, not surprisingly, empty. Indeed, the flustered reaction of the museum’s staffer, a middle-aged woman in a baggy sweater and track pants, to our appearance suggested that visitors were not something this institution had much experience with. While collecting our entrance fees, she gave us the brief orientation: on the main floor was an exhibit on the history of the town and area while upstairs was an art gallery. We thanked her and moved into the exhibition space where I was amazed to discover the GDR-era exhibit to be largely intact. Information panels hung from the ceiling told the story, true no doubt, of the difficult living and working conditions area workers endured in the pre-GDR times while objects from this era were on display to underline certain key points. All fairly standard, but what I’m sure was missing from the original version of the exhibit was a final section lauding the achievements of “the workers and peasants state” in lifting its citizens out of misery, a standard element of any GDR history lesson. This editing was to be expected, but I was surprised to see there was no quibbling with the state socialist interpretation of the town’s “pre-history”. This underlined for me what I’d experienced elsewhere: many eastern-Germans still saw great validity in a Marxist interpretation of the causes of social ills. What had been rejected in 1989 was not the diagnosis, but rather the prescription for addressing these problems.
The upstairs gallery was a pleasant surprise as it featured artwork from the old era that had once belonged to local industries and which had been part of the regime’s attempts to edify its workers. There were the usual “socialist realist” industrial scenes, but also some still life scenes and grim landscapes from the 80s which captured the country’s sour mood at the time.
Once finished, we returned to the main floor where I asked whether there were any materials one might buy? An exhibition catalogue, postcard, something as a souvenir. Now the museum staffer was at a complete loss. After some humming and hawing, she disappeared only to return with the museum’s director, another middle-aged woman who was significantly better turned out than her employee. We introduced ourselves, and I explained my interest in GDR history at which point she gave me a peculiar look. “If it’s GDR stuff you want, then we can probably help you. Follow me.” And with that, she led the way to a narrow store room lined with shelves. Here there were a number of booklets, pamphlets and brochures from the recent past and she began to gather them up before passing them on to me. While none of the booklets had to do specifically with the museum, they all showcased various aspects of Eisenhüttenstadt such as its public art and architecture. I was over the moon!
A conversation ensued and we discovered that the museum staffer who had greeted us was there as part of a “job creation program” (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmassnahme – ABM), a very common situation in the former-East at that time. Like the director, both had lived in Hütte for most of their lives and were quite positive about the town’s past. Discussing the changes that had taken place, both pointed to the layoffs and restructuring that had gone on at the steel mill in recent years as the key development. Where 12,000 had once found employment there, that number dropped dramatically. (e.d. note: By 2001, the number of employees was barely 1/4 at 3,100) Those who’d lost their jobs were leaving and that was taking its toll. The staffer told us, “It’s hard to imagine, but this used to be a happening place.” She must sensed our skepticism and so insisted, “Really! Between shifts the town was hopping. It was a lively place.” The museum director nodded before adding, “But not anymore.”
We thanked the women for their generosity and, while putting on coats, asked if they could point us to a nearby restaurant. What followed was an unforgettable bit of conversation was both humorous and an insight into the precarious economic reality facing most Eisenhüttenstädters
“A restaurant?,” clarified the staffer.
“It doesn’t need to be a restaurant,” I clarified. “A snack bar or bakery. Somewhere we can get some lunch.”
“Oh. That’s tricky” The two women looked at each other, puzzled. “What about that Polish place in Vay-Kah 5 (WK 5)?”, asked the staffer.
The director shook her head. “It’s gone.”
“The snack bar in the train station?”, asked the director.
Now it was the staffer’s turn, “Nope, closed a while back . . .”
The two of them went through a short list of gastronomic options that had all evaporated in recent years. When they finished, the staffer turned to us and said, “We usually bring our lunch.” I was beginning to wish we’d done the same when her eyes lit up, “There’s that place in the Lunik!” The director looked skeptical but remained silent as her co-worker described where we could find this snack bar. If we were heading to the centre of town, she explained, there was no way we’d miss it. We didn’t, but let’s just say that it might have been better if we had.
Despite this literal bad taste in my mouth, this visit only underscored how interesting Eisenhüttenstadt was and how I’d only scratched its surface. I would need to return.
So I did. More next week.