Marzahn: The Pros and (All The Mod) Cons

Anyone with an interest in the GDR quickly encounters mention of Marzahn, a massive housing estate located on the northeastern edge of the East German capital Berlin. Made up of approximately 60,000 prefabricated concrete apartment units housed largely in high rise tower blocks, Marzahn was built over approximately fifteen years beginning in the mid-1970s to provide modern housing options for tens of thousands of East Berliners. Supporters of the socialist system saw the district as concrete evidence (I couldn’t resist!) of the state’s commitments to its citizens’ welfare and a tangible example of what the socialism could achieve. For critics, however, Marzahn’s seemingly endless blocks of anonymous, monotonous apartment blocks recalled the sort of dystopian world conjured up George Orwell in his totalitarian critique 1984.

While I didn’t get to Marzahn during the GDR era, I’ve had the chance to visit a view times over the past twenty years or so and been able to see first hand some of the remarkable changes that it has undergone since reunification in 1990. Before turning to my impressions, however, allow me to present a brief history of the district.

Marzahn: Heaven or Hell?
Marzahn and “The Unity of Social and Economic Policy”

After ousting his mentor Walter Ulbricht from the position of General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in May 1971, Erich Honecker wasted little time in trying to make his mark on the East German state. At the 8th Party Congress that June, Honecker announced a major shift in the GDR’s economic priorities, away from industrial production and towards increasing the standard of living of average East Germans. The theory behind this policy held that  these improved living standards would spur a rise labour productivity that would in turn cover the costs associated with the new development.

At the centre of this plan was a housing construction program that promised to build 3 million modern apartments in the country by 1990, thereby providing comfortable accommodation for more than half of East Germany’s citizens. Within the SED, many functionaries saw the new policy as a way for the Party to achieve legitimacy with a populace which remained largely skeptical of, if not hostile towards, the socialist project. And for many average East Germans, a great number of whom lived in conditions which had more in common with lifestyles of the 19th c. than any socialist utopia, the thought of hot and cold running water, a private bathroom and central heating proved to be attractive indeed.

In order to realize these ambitious targets, the Party followed the model pioneered by the Soviet Union and turned to industrialized building techniques which used standardized building designs and prefabricated materials in order to realize as many efficiencies as possible. Using these plans, new housing estates, often virtually identical to one another, sprung up across the GDR from the mid-1970s onward. In East Berlin, an area on the northeastern edge of town was earmarked for the GDR’s largest such development. Taking its name from a small village adjacent to the building site, Marzahn was to be made up of 60,000 apartment units housed largely in high rise blocks of 11 stories or more in height.

Marzahn As Subject of Propaganda Activities

Party propagandists were ordered to place the housing program at the centre of their popular agitation and in the years that followed, projects such as Marzahn occupied a prominent place in East German media and culture. The GDR Postal Service got into the act issuing a stamp commemorating an initiative to support construction in Marzahn that was sponsored by the regime’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ). A ceramic tile produced for members of the “Fritz Heckert” Housing Construction Combine to acknowledge their work in creating Marzahn gives some sense of the way in which this program was given an air of historic importance.

Not surprisingly, East German newspapers and televisions were full of triumphant reports on the achievements of construction brigades and peppered with photos of happy families taking occupancy of their new flats. These reports, however, proved to be a double-edged sword as they also stoked demand and interest and spawned a second type of reportage, this one focusing on managing expectations. My collection includes one such artifact, an April 1982 issue of the popular magazine NBI (see below). It features a cover photo of a construction foreman working in Marzahn includes a short piece in which he is given an opportunity to assure citizens that he and his team were working as fast as they could to finish the new flats. However, interestingly he also goes on to allude to some of the hurdles builders often faced on the housing estate construction sites, making specific reference to a shortage of suitable accommodation for labourers and the irregular delivery of building materials, problems that would have sounded familiar to many East Germans working in industrial and manufacturing settings.

The housing program also found an echo in the arts. Perhaps the most notable example of this was Island of Swans, a film which tells the story of the challenges faced by a 13-year old boy when his family relocates from the countryside to a new flat in a Marzahn. Filmed in 1981 and 1982, Island of Swans offers a remarkable glimpse of the estate as it was then: a new home of thousands of residents and an active construction site (a stream of the entire film is available online at: http://www.veoh.com/watch/v19196794KCthWgPx; fast forward to the 40:00 mark for some amazing vistas of the estate). The film’s critical tone towards the housing program made it few friends in the propaganda hierarchy, and authorities forced the director to make changes, cutting several scenes and adding others in which characters praised the advantages of life in the new blocks. Despite these interventions, however, the work managed to capture many of the frictions and pressures present in the lives of East German youth at the time and remains worthy of one’s time and attention.

Visiting Marzahn

Over the past twenty years I have had the chance to visit a few times and witnessed a rather remarkable transition. My first visit came in 1996 when the bloom was off the rose that was German unification and Marzahn, like most places in the former-East, was facing the challenges that had come with the dramatic social and economic transition. Unemployment in the area was high as a number of the workshops housed in a neighbouring industrial park had shut down. Exacerbating things was the estate’s active neo-Nazi scene and reputation as a “no-go area”.

Marzahn's main post office

The square at the Marzahner Tor including the post office at left and a department store on the right (photo: author).

Given the depictions of Marzahn as a site of seething social unrest which I’d read in the German press, I headed out to estate on a summer afternoon with a bit of trepidation. Taking the S-Bahn to the area’s main stop, Marzahn Station, I was deposited into the estate’s public centre, a large, open square, the Marzahner Tor. On the far side of the square, a walking path led me to the Marzahner Promenade, a pedestrian zone that ran between two residential areas. A number of shops and restaurants, along with a swimming pool and library flanked the walkway and while the apartment blocks were rather unattractive, their grey facades still largely intact, I remember being struck by how green the surroundings were. The desolate, vegetation-free images of GDR housing estates that filled my head had nothing in common with the scene I found around me. Clearly a bit of a rethink was in order.

I recall several other initial observations. The first had to do with how friendly the place was for walkers. Most of the area was accessible primarily by foot, cars were left largely to the periphery. While this design feature made sense in the GDR-era where car ownership was not that widespread, I remember that the areas meant for parking were full to overflowing. Another aspect that jumped out was how similar Marzahn appeared to be to housing developments from the 60s and 70s which I knew from my time living in Canada or the United States. There were differences to be sure, but the similarities were more striking. Walking through Marzahn, I began to understand how hypocritical the Western, ideological motivated dismissals of socialist housing estates had been.

However, the lasting impression I made of the place on this first visit was its lack of people. Throughout my day on the estate, I encountered few people and the shops were practically empty. Stopping for a bite at a pub, I found a handful of committed drinkers propping up the bar, but out and about I passed only the occasional soul out on the sidewalks. Forget seething, this Marzahn was barely breathing!

Where was everybody?

The answer was fairly obvious: Marzahn had seen its population fall dramatically since 1989. From a peak of 170,000 residents in 1989, by 2000 that number would fall to 130,000. By 1996, it had probably already seen 25,000 residents relocate and leaving behind many who could fairly be included in the “losers of unification”. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of activity on the streets and in the shops since residents’ purchasing power would have been quite limited.

My guide on this first visit was a xeroxed copy of a walking tour that I’d found in an academic book on East German city building. It led me past a few area highlights (none of which I appear to have photographed!) through the Erholungspark Marzahn, a public park created as part of the Berlin 750 celebrations in 1987, before ending at the Kienberg, an elevation in a green space that runs between Marzahn and the neighbouring estate of Hellersdorf. Created out of war rubble, construction waste and garbage, the Kienberg functioned as a sort of adventure playground for the area’s children and has only been “tamed” in recent years with a number of carefully-laid out pathways and the like. My recollections of that afternoon were tramping through leafy, provisional paths alongside the huge heating pipes that provided the district’s blocks with warmth during cooler months. The whole experience was evocative of the scenes I’d seen and read about in GDR books depicting the life of youths in the Platte, and when I reached a clearing at the top of the “mountain” I was rewarded with a fine view of Marzahn.

View of Marzahn from atop the Kienberg (photo: author).

View of Marzahn from atop the Kienberg (photo: author).

Seven years later, in the fall of 2003 I returned to Marzahn with my friend Martin. It was a glorious day and the goal of our visit was to track down the district’s GDR-era cinema, which bore the name Sojus in honour of the Soviet spacecraft. The film showing that afternoon was, appropriately, that classic of Ostalgie Good Bye Lenin! Ticket price: EUR 1,50. Of all the looks back at the East German past committed to film, this remains a favourite of mine because its emotionally resonant core helps it transcend the kitsch label. That we took it in in such “authentic” surroundings only sweetened its impact.

Sign for the GDR-era Sojus cinema. Closed since 2008, the district council has plans to reopen the building as a community cultural centre (photo: author).

Sign for the GDR-era Sojus cinema. Closed since 2008, the district council has plans to reopen the building as a community cultural centre (photo: author).

Afterwards, we made our way over to the Marzahner Promenade where we discovered that the street’s west end was undergoing some rather dramatic redevelopment. The shops bordering the square at Marzahner Tor and the S-Bahn station there (see above) had been vacated, apparently in preparation for demolition. Most had relocated to a new shopping centre up the road and another new shopping centre was going to be built on the site. Only a couple businesses remained, an art gallery and a second hand store with a defiant sign in its window: “We’re not moving!” Inside I found a treasure trove of items, the detritus of transition! I grabbed a couple of beer glasses and a “German-Soviet Friendship Society” waterglass, but the real find was an issue of Sputnik, a Soviet-produced magazine which featured translations of articles that had appeared in the Soviet press. For years, the German version of Sputnik had served as a means of delivering Soviet orthodoxies to its allies, however, when the publication began to reprint glasnost-inspired texts covering topics still taboo in the GDR (e.g. Stalin-era crimes and the failure of German communists in their struggle against Hitler), the GDR leadership began to see Sputnik as a Trojan horse, proliferating unwelcome ideas among their citizens. That these were coming from the “Friends” in the Soviet Union only made matters worse. So in November 1988, the GDR added the magazine to the list of banned publications, a status that persisted until after the Wende in the fall of 1989. This means my July issue belonged to someone with a bit of pull . . .

After carefully storing these finds, Martin and I proceeded across the S-Bahn tracks to the local cemetery where I hoped to find the resting place of Günter Guillaume, the GDR spy responsible for forcing the resignation of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (for more on this, see part one of my GDR Objectified Field Trip to Bonn). No luck, but we did come across the Soviet War Memorial (see below). With its red granite obelisk topped by a Soviet star, I found the memorial to be remarkably understated, at least compared with the others I’d seen in Berlin (Treptow, Niederschoenhausen). The most distinguishing aspect of the site was a section which contained the graves of between 30 and 40 Red Army officers who’d died between 1945 and 1953. Why hadn’t their bodies been returned home? Why were there none dated after 1953? I imagine that it was simply a matter of logistics, but I can’t be sure.

Obelisk at Soviet War Memorial in Marzahn cemetery (photo: author).

Obelisk at Soviet War Memorial in Marzahn cemetery (photo: author).

Martin then suggested we head out to the Erholungspark Marzahn to see the Chinese garden there, but the entrance fee put us off, so we decided to head towards a hill on the northern horizon. The cashier at the park claimed it had no name, but a dog walker set us straight: Ahrensfelder Berg. Another pile of war and construction rubble, it took a bit of an effort to get up it with our bikes, but we did and were rewarded with a wonderful sunset behind the Berlin skyline.

View from Ahrensfelder Mountain, the highest elevation in Marzahn (note TV Tower in the distance on horizon at left) (photo: author).

View from Ahrensfelder Mountain, the highest elevation in Marzahn (note TV Tower in the distance on horizon at left) (photo: author).

By the time I made it back to Marzahn in 2006 it had seen considerable changes. On the spot at Marzahner Tor where a collection of shops and services once stood was now EASTGATE, a massive mall in what I suppose one would have to call “post-modern” style. I may have cried a tear for the loss of East German architectural heritage, but I had a feeling that this was an opinion I ought to best keep to myself.

Another big change was the overall impression that the estate made in the wake of the completion of many building renovations. Gone were the dour grey, brown or mustard yellow facades in favour of the whole palette of pastels. The other major impact on the area’s appearance came from the decision by politicians to react to high levels of vacancy in many GDR-era housing estates by tearing down apartment blocks with chronically high vacancy rates. In Marzahn planners used this opportunity to remove a total of 3,500 flats from the housing stock, something that lowered the vacancy rates and “loosened up” the layout of remaining tower blocks, giving more open space in some areas that had seen residents living cheek-to-jowl. Travelling through the centre of the district by tram, Marzahn came off as almost cheery. So much for the concrete desert!

Conclusion – Traces of the Past

The GDR-era face of Marzahn has been significantly altered in the intervening years since unification, to the extent that the casual observer could be hard pressed to identify its “socialist” roots. If you know where to look, however, relics of its the estate’s origins remain, for example in much of its public art.

However, perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of the past evident in Marzahn can’t be readily seen in the cityscape. In the GDR-era, living in Marzahn was a privilege dolled out by the Party, typically to those loyal to it. As a result, the estate was home to a significantly higher percentage of regime supporters and Party members than was the case elsewhere. On election nights, these old allegiances are often still in evidence as Marzahn remains a stronghold of the SED-successor party, The Left. It will be interesting to see how long this continues as the party’s numbers in Marzahn have been trending downwards in recent years, a development that is widely understood to reflect the increasing age of its core support group.

Gregor Gysi, integrating figure and most prominent leader of the Communist-successor party, The Left, seen here in the campaign trail (photo: EtNu1988, Wikicommons).

Gregor Gysi, integrating figure and most prominent leader of the Communist-successor party, The Left, seen here in the campaign trail (photo: EtNu1988, Wikicommons).

Further Reading

A great article on Marzahn and its fate since German reunification just appeared in German language daily, Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Read it here.

The Dutch-language blog on the GDR, “Es war einmal . . .” (“Once upon a time . . .”), has a nice photo gallery of recent shots from Marzahn at: https://ddrinberlin.wordpress.com/bau-auf-bau-auf/sporen-van-de-ddr-in-berlijn/marzahn/

Special thanks to Richard Harrison for providing several of the photos found in this post!

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