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1960 - Homeric JWK II

My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.

Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.

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One could argue that no one defined the face of “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic” more than visual artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010). A favourite of GDR leader Walter Ulbricht during the mid- to late-1960s during which East Berlin received much of its socialist makeover, Womacka was a key protagonist in the GDR’s “Kunst am Bau” (literally “art on building”) movement. This  sought to ideologically mark East German cityscapes through large-scale, agit-prop artworks and Womacka’s creations graced a number of prominent buildings in the East German capital.

Eastern side of Walter Womacka’s 1964 mosaic “Our Life” on Berlin’s House of Teachers building (photo: M. Bomke).

Interestingly, more 28 years after the fall of the Wall, many of Womacka’s works remain intact and have even found a place in the iconography of present day Berlin. Given the ideologically charged debates around the legacy of much GDR-commissioned public art in the years following German unification in 1990, this was by no means a certainty. I think the reason for this lies in the way Womacka combined the aesthetic language of socialist realism with elements of folk art, an approach which allows many viewers to overlook the overtly propagandistic of much of his public art. Read More

Roter Okt - Tuch

Souvenir scarf from “Festival of Red October”, ‘Capital of the GDR, October 1977’; note the signatures, a popular way for attendees to personalize their souvenir (photo: Jo Zarth).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “October Revolution” in Tsarist Russia, a date of particular importance on the East German calendar. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally, the GDR went to considerable lengths to demonstrate its fealty to the Communist cause and commemorating this event was a key part of that ritual.

On the 60th anniversary of “Red October” in 1977, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, the revolution’s self-proclaimed German heirs, were not going to let occasion pass without giving it its proper. So from October 19-22, 1977, the country’s official youth organizations, the Free German Youth and Young Pioneers, held “The Festival of Red October” in East Berlin. The festival brought together tens of thousands of East German young people with 4,000 representatives of the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s official youth organization, for for a full program of cultural events, showcases of their work and a review of past achievements.

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“East Germany and things happening there had been in the news all the time. We understood the seriousness of the political situation, but we didn’t let it affect our decision making. . . . There was always a feeling of tension, no one was really sure where things were going, but no one was in any panic about it as I recall.”

The words and tone are remarkably sanguine, even with the benefit of 55 odd years of temporal distance.They come from George Hynna, a retired lawyer living in Ottawa, reflecting on the mood among his fellow students as they boarded a boat to West Germany in September 1961. Only weeks before the group’s departure, East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, reigniting fears that the Cold War might heat up and that a confrontation over the divided city would yet serve as a trigger to armed conflict between East and West.

Hynna was part of that group of promising young Canadians who, having received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), were headed to spend a year studying at the University of Freiburg in the southwest corner of West Germany, just across from both the French and Swiss borders. Read More

Train type A I near Schönhauser Allee, October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons)

East Berlin subway running on elevated section of track on Prenzlauer Berg’s Schönhauser Allee in October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons).

The scene is Saturday afternoon in February 1989 and I am in East Berlin with a group of fellow German language students from around the world. Someone in our group has gotten word that Prenzlauer Berg is the place to be to experience “cool” in the “Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, so maps are consulted and before too long we are underground at Alexanderplatz looking for the train headed for Pankow. We find the platform but when the train pulls in several moments later I remember us looking at each other incredulously, as if to ask, “Are we supposed to get into that?” “That” being a wooden subway car that looked less like part of a modern rapid transit system and more like an exhibit I’d see at the Western Development Museum in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the locals scurry to get in, we do likewise and seconds later we’re rumbling our way in a rather quaint, wood-paneled subway car that Wikipedia tells me was at least 60 years old at the time. Apparently the East Berlin Transit Authority retired the last of these cars on November 5, 1989.

For a taste of what a ride on the East Berlin subway was like, check out the YouTube video below shot in June 1989. The train that pulls in at about the 2:15 mark is similar to the one I took in February 1989.

Did you know? – After unification, the Berlin Transit Authority offloaded a number of its Iconic orange subway cars, from both the eastern and western parts of the city, to North Korea for use in the Pyongyang subway Read More

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. Read More

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