Ermeler House: Historical Preservation GDR-style

Berlin - Building in the middle is a reconstruction of Berlin's Ermeler House. It reopened on October 7, 1969 to mark the GDR's 20th anniversary and contained one of the city's few luxury category restaurants. (Bild und Heimat)

An East German postcard from 1971 of the reconstructed Ermeler House (pale yellow building at right) (Bild und Heimat)

Despite the destruction caused during World War II, post-war Berlin was dotted with notable structures that had miraculously survived the fighting. In East Berlin this architectural legacy posed a challenge that the rulers of the “first socialist state on German soil” would have been happy to have done without, keen as they were to put a “socialist” stamp on their new capital (e.g. see the Stalinallee project). In a few high profile cases, the decision was made to remove “ideologically unsuitable” buildings. The best known example of this approach was the destruction of the Hohenzollern City Palace in 1950 (the Palace of the Republic would later stand on this spot). In other instances, authorities took a more pragmatic approach, deciding to make use of facilities “tainted” by their previous associations. A good example here would be the House of Ministries, a massive complex in central Berlin that had been built for Hermann Göring’s Aviation Ministry. East German leaders turned into a major administrative centre and in fact it was in one of its ballrooms that the GDR was formally brought into existence during a ceremony on October 7, 1949.

Another interesting, albeit lower profile, illustration of how GDR authorities dealt with the architectural legacy they had been bequeathed is found in the case of Ermeler House, the subject of this post.


Ermeler House

Ermeler House is one of Berlin’s last remaining patrician houses and it stood at Breite Strasse 11 in the district of Mitte. Originally built in the mid-16th century, it later came to carry the name of one of its more prominent owners, Wilhelm Ermeler, a 19th century tobacco magnate. Ermeler House rose to public prominence in the 19th century as the home to a salon where Berlin’s social and artistic elites gathered. In 1914, Ermeler’s heirs sold the building to the city of Berlin and it was subsequently transformed into a museum including an art gallery and permanent exhibitions on the city’s social history. These exhibits and the building’s opulent interiors, including several rooms in the rococo style, proved popular with Berliners and tourists alike, and gave Ermeler House a relatively high public profile.

GDR-Era

After World War II, the building was used as a public library and the East Berlin City Archive while a number of its rococo rooms were restored to former glory and opened to the public. Despite these considerable investments, however, the future of Ermeler House was far from secure. Indeed, its relative proximity to Marx-Engels Square, the gigantic open space that had been created by the demolition of the City Palace, put it in a precarious position. Marx-Engels Square was the site for the regime’s mass rallies and military parades and the East German leadership wanted to improve access to it by widening a number of the surrounding streets, including Breite Strasse where Ermeler House sat. When in the late 1960s it became clear that Ermerler House played no role in plans for the redevelopment of central East Berlin, voices of protest were raised in all corners of the city, in both East and West. These views were heard by East German authorities and when the reconstruction of this neighbourhood moved into its active phase in late 1967, they announced that Ermeler House would be rebuilt on another nearby site in time for the 20th anniversary of the GDR in October 1969.

In just over one year, between the fall of 1968 and October 7, 1969, a new Ermeler House was built to the dimensions of the original structure on one of the canals of the River Spree at Märkisches Ufer 15. This new version incorporated a reproduction of the building’s trademark neoclassical facade and included much of the original building’s interior decor. When Ermeler House reopened on the 20th anniversary of the GDR’s founding, the building housed a luxury wine restaurant, a cafe and beer bar. Over the next 20 years, the wine restaurant at Ermeler House established itself as one of the East German capital’s most exclusive dining locales.

Class Conscious, Afforable Luxury

My collection includes a rather elaborate menu from this wine restaurant, a lovely item that gives a window onto what constituted luxury in the Capital of the German Democratic Republic. The menu is multilingual with text offered in German, Russian, Polish and Czech, an indication no doubt of whom the restaurant was intended to impress. It also contains a brief history of the building from a suitably Marxist perspective. Here Ermeler House is presented as “a lasting monument to the hard work, ability and genius of the artists, craftsmen and construction workers of Berlin’s past”, not as a product of the bourgeoise owners whose wealth made its existence possible. The Party line also pops up in a section on Ermeler House’s fate during World War II when the phrase “anglo-american bombing terror” makes a somewhat incongruous appearance. Encountering this now, one imagines that the effect would have been a bit like having a agit-prop officer sitting at the table with you, however, I can well imagine that your average East German was used to reading past this sort of thing.

Scanning the menu, it quickly becomes clear that Ermeler House offerings set it far, far apart from the bockwurst and potato salad typically on offer in the standard GDR eatery. Over the fourteen (!) pages of menu items, one encounters many ingredients rarely seen on East German plates including the highly coveted Südfrüchte, tropical fruits and a wide variety of meats, not just pork. The selection is really quite impressive and while I’m not able to date the menu with any certainty, the inclusion of cheese fondue and a number of dishes prepared at diners’ tables in the flambé style (including a shiskebab of beef and pork intriguingly titled “Flaming Sabre ‘Hauptmann of Köpenick'”) suggests to me that my menu probably comes from some point after the mid-1970s when such offerings were considered the height of fine dining. Going through the items, I was intrigued to see several dishes that still regularly pop up on menus in the former-East including Letscho, a ragout featuring red and green peppers, and a sandwich melt featuring ham and pineapple which here goes by the name “Toast Havana”, but which today tends to go by the name “Toast Hawaii”.

Looking at the prices, it’s clear that a night out at Ermeler House would have been within reach for the vast majority of East Germans. With the most expensive starter topping out at just over 10 Marks and all the mains coming in under 13 Marks, dinner here would have been an affordable luxury in a state where by 1985 the average worker took home over 1100 Marks a month. One question I have is to what extent this menu reflected reality of what was on offer at the restaurant on a regular basis. In many East German restaurants the phrase “Ha’m wir nicht.” (We’re all out.) was a frequent response to patrons’ orders to the extent that many guests simply asked waiters at the outset of their visit what the kitchen did in fact have in order to save time. I’d assume that a showcase facility such as Ermeler House would have stood high up on the supply chain priority list, but I can’t say for certain whether that was the case.

Conclusion
Set of souvenir beer glasses from my collection featuring historic Berlin buildings that were restored during the GDR-era (photo: Jo Zarth).

Set of souvenir beer glasses from my collection featuring historic Berlin buildings that were restored during the GDR-era (photo: Jo Zarth).

The reconstructed Ermeler House would’ve fit nicely into the evolving self-image that GDR authorities advanced for their state beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In early years after the establishment of the GDR, its leaders typically represented it as something entirely new; “the first socialist state on German soil” was a clear break with the German past and a manifestation of the only legitimate and just response to the lessons of recent German history. Such arguments struck a chord with many Germans eager to distance themselves from the disastrous Nazi years.

By the late 1960s, however, the GDR had clearly transitioned into a new phase. The Party had reasserted its control after the uprising of June 1953, something accomplished in large part by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Feeling more confident and established, Party ideologues began to reassess the GDR’s place vis-a-vis German history. Now a more nuanced, if awkward, narrative emerged. In it the “workers and peasants state” was portrayed simultaneously as a new beginning and as a logical product of German history. In this context, sites such as Ermeler House offered the state a chance to both acknowledge their citizens’ interest in certain aspects of German history and to demonstrate the GDR’s link to this past. My set of souvenir beer glasses featuring historic Berlin buildings restored by the GDR can be seen as a concrete example of how the East German state sought to insert the GDR into the continuum of German history in a way that was meant to buttress the state’s legitimacy.

 

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2 comments
  1. Jim Jordan said:

    I was never really convinced by the GDR’s attempts at restoration. The Nikolaiviertel looks very amateurish in comparison to the Old Town in Warsaw for example

    • I think the main issue with the Nikolaiviertel was the fact that most of the building materials were prefab or variations thereof. Given that, I think they managed a decent result, but you’re right that it doesn’t compare to what was accomplished in Warsaw’s Old Town.

      I’d be interested to know if the East Germans had any Polish craftspeople involved in the Ermerler House project as I know they were (are?) highly valued for their ability to reproduce historical building techniques that have disappeared elsewhere.

      I believe a couple other issues came into play regarding historical preservation in the first phase of the GDR. First, many authorities didn’t feel any responsibility for these older structures as they weren’t “their” Germany, but rather manifestations of a social and economic order that they wanted to sweep away. The second point, closely related to the first, is that the stated aim of this first phase was to put a socialist stamp on the cities and towns and this was best done by creating something entirely new and distinct. Finally, there was the economic cost involved in renovation of such structures, often quite considerable and difficult to justify in the face of such pressing needs elsewhere. In a situation where these were the guiding principles, it is little wonder that historical preservation drew the short straw time and again.

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