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Socialist Cities

Check out part II of GDR Objectified’s Field Trip to Halle an der Saale. In this visit, we finish exploring the Neustadt, a socialist-era district on the city’s western edge which was once home to nearly 100,000 residents. We’re joined by Micha B., an eastern German who grew up there, so there’s some insider perspective on this fascinating place!

Join GDR Objectified for this Field Trip to Halle an der Saale where we look for remnants of East Germany in the cityscape. In this the first of two parts, we’ll explore the city centre before heading out to the town’s western end to begin exploring Neustadt, the GDR’s fourth “socialist city”.

 

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?
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In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

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East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

It must be the grip that winter has had on us here in Toronto, but I recently began to troll around for a seasonally appropriate theme to post on. I quickly decided to write on Oberhof, a small town in the upper reaches of the Thüringian Forest which has achieved a certain profile as a winter sport site. I’d encountered Oberhof in my reading in its role as the training headquarters for many of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes including its bobsledders, lugers, cross-country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers, but I had heard that it was a beloved holiday destination as well. However, when I started digging, I was amazed to find the extent to which the history of this small town distilled so many of the developments which characterized GDR-era.

Oberhof in 1980 - clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, ****, View from Rennsteig and "Fritz Heckert" Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof in 1980 – clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, Luisensitz Holiday House, View from Rennsteig and “Fritz Heckert” Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof found its way on to the radar of the East German leadership even before the state itself was founded. This was due in large part to the fact that one of the leader’s of Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had come to know Oberhof during the Weimar period when he had led the German Communist Party in the region. A dedicated exerciser, Ulbricht particularly enjoyed hiking and skiing the area’s trails. When authorities decided to host a Winter Sport Championships in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in January of 1949, Oberhof was selected to host the event, the success of which apparently demonstrated to Ulbricht how sport might be instrumentalized as a means of cementing his and the SED’s popularity. Read More

In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Marcus Funck, my friend and colleague from the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies to lead a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the former-East. The central theme of our trip was transformation and one of our aims was to expose the group to what this process had been like not only in the major cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, but in smaller centres as well. Given the way in which Eisenhüttenstadt had been connected to the old regime, we were confident that including it in the itinerary would be useful and I’m pleased to say that we were not disappointed.

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

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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”.

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt's main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city's steel mill (photo: Peukert).

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt’s main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city’s steel mill (photo: Peukert).

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"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

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We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.

Sun shining through the grey: a ceramic mosaic graces the wall of a block of flats in "socialist city" Hoyerswerda (photo: author).

A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).

When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.

The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.

My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”. Read More

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