One of the sites in east Berlin still able to evoke some of the atmosphere of the city’s past as “Capital of the German Democratic Republic” is the Karl-Marx-Allee. This boulevard was conceived of by East German leaders as “the first socialist street in Germany” and to carry the name of Joseph Stalin. As a result, the street was to be monumental, representative and serve as a site for the parades and demonstrations beloved of socialist leaders the world over. Running two-kilometers in length from the Warschauer Strasse/Frankfurter Tor at its eastern end to Alexanderplatz in the centre of eastern Berlin, the Allee was constructed in two phases from 1951 to 1969 and consists largely of apartment houses with street level retail and office space as well as a handful of restaurants, cafes and cinemas.
Interestingly, the plan to erect the street was not a long held wish of the East German leadership, but rather an idea that emerged in flush of excitement following the GDR’s successful hosting of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1951. The project was intended both to serve as an example of the standard of living that citizens of the Workers and Peasants State could expect from their leaders and as a shot across the bow of the capitalist West at time when the outcome of the clash of systems remained open.
The Party leadership’s enthusiasm for the project had one significant hurdle: no resources had been set aside for it in The Plan, the economic blueprint for the country. To address this the Party got creative: workers were asked to contribute three percent of their annual salary to the project at a rate of 3% interest and a lottery ticket for one of one thousand apartments on the new street. This offer was taken up enthusiastically, as was the call for volunteers to help clear the mountains of war rubble that still littered the site some 6 years after the war’s end. Individuals who took part in this exercise collected stickers (similar to the one below from a later campaign in mid- to late 1950s) which could be redeemed for a chance to win one of one thousand further apartments.
Initially, the plan for the eastern most section of the Allee foresaw a Bauhaus-inspired variation on the “Garden City” and would have seen the area become home to low-density apartment construction opened up with considerable green space. Indeed, after the street was cleared of war rubble, the first new apartment block to go up (see photo below) corresponded to this plan. However, during its construction, the plans for the area were changed to reflect the Soviet Union’s, move towards a monumental architectural language that came to be know as the “Wedding Cake” style.
A Change in Course – Phase 1 (1950s)
After a trip to the Soviet Union by a group of GDR architects in 1950, plans for the Allee were reworked to reflect the representative approach favoured by the Soviets and, in turn, the GDR leadership. The scale of the street was increased significantly with the buildings to reach up to 13 stories in height with the aim of leaving a profound impression on those who encountered it. A further influence on the plans for the Allee were the plans crystallizing in the western part of the city to develop the Hansa Viertel, an area adjacent to the Tiergarten, as a residential district using a modernist architectural language and a street plan in keeping with the principles of the “Garden City” that had been rejected by GDR leaders. In fact, the call for proposals for Stalinallee issued in 1951 directly referenced plans for West Berlin: “In capitalist Berlin, the construction of new tenement blocks for workers have become a stain on the urban fabric of the capital of Germany.”
The plan that won the day for the Stalinallee was inspired largely by the “Seven Sisters” in Moscow and the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw huge, dominant structures with highly ornate facades and neo-classical references in their design. GDR planners relabelled this style the “National Construction Tradition” and argued that it continued the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, an architect and city planner whose neo-classical and neo-gothic inspired buildings were largely responsible for the physical transformation of Berlin from a backwater into the Prussian capital in early part of the 19th c. After some initial difficulties translating their principles into concrete designs for the Stalinallee, it was Hermann Henselmann’s “Highrise on the Weavers Meadow” that established the template for the Allee’s apartment houses which would be built during the project’s first phase. (Henselmann’s fingerprints were all over the Allee; in addition to the Weavers’ Meadow building, he also received the nod to design both “entryways” to the Allee’s first phase. At the Frankfurter Tor (see photo above) he designed a pair of distinctive towers and at Strausberger Platz he placed an ensemble of imposing apartment blocks in a ring around a traffic circle punctuated by a set of large fountains at its centre.
The apartments were conceived of as “Workers’ Palaces” and so clad in Meissen porcelain tiles especially made for the project and decorated with reliefs and mosaic work which married GDR themes and symbolism with classical stylings. Most featured rooftop gardens with patio areas for relaxing. Inside, the apartments were generously laid out and featured the latest technology including elevators, telephone connections, bathrooms, garberators, and intercoms.
In addition to the apartment blocks, the Allee was well-served by schools, daycares, and the infrastructure of daily life (pharmacy, doctors offices, etc.) and became a destination for shoppers from across the city thanks to its its wide variety of retail stores as well as restaurants and cafes (a rarity in post-war East Berlin). One its more striking buildings was the Deutsche Sporthalle (see below), a structure built in record time for the World Festival of Youth and Students, a 1951 event which marked the GDR’s coming out internationally. The hasty construction of this structure came back to haunt as deficiencies in the materials forced it to be torn down in the late 1960s. A large statue of Stalin was placed directly across from the Sport Hall in honour of the Allee’s namesake
The style embodied by the Allee was intended to set the tone for construction throughout the GDR and was picked up in a number of district centres such as Leipzig (Ringbebauung), Dresden (Altmarkt), and Magdeburg (Stalinallee or, later, Wilhelm-Pieck-Allee). By the late-1950s, however, the high costs associated with this relatively opulent approach to building along a reorientation of Soviet planners towards prefabricated construction saw the GDR quietly abandon the “National Construction Tradition” after the first phase of the Stalinallee was completed in the late 1950s.
The residents of the Stalinallee came from all strata of East German society, but there was definitely a preponderance of state loyalists within their ranks, something that has had an impact on the Allee in the post-unification era (more on this below). In the post-unification era, there has been some turnover with some opponents of the regime using the opportunities opened up by the free market to move into building’s which really served as representations of a state they opposed. During my MA research, I had the opportunity to visit Lutz Ratenow, a writer and poet, in his attractive apartment on the Strausberger Platz, an address which was completely out of reach to him during East German times due to his vocal opposition to the regime. In making the move into this apartment, Rathenow was making a statement about the changes his that had taken place and confronting, often directly, those individuals who had rejected him and his views.
“Catching up with Modernism” – Phase II (1959-1965)
The second phase of construction on the Allee represented a reorientation in several respects. This phase is often characterized as an attempt to “catch up with the modernism” and featured a more internationalist architectural language evident the world over during this period. Not coincidentally, these changes in form and style occurred almost simultaneously with the renaming of the street to Karl-Marx-Allee. This occurred in a night time action in the late fall of 1961 which saw the Stalin statue removed and all the street names changed with no public acknowledgement by authorities.
Over ten years, the Allee was now completed to link the first phase at Strausberger Platz with the heart of east Berlin at Alexanderplatz. The construction for the apartment blocks was largely done using 8-10 story prefabricated structures. In addition to these, this section of the street also featured a series of distinctive two-story pavilions for services (e.g. florist, cosmetic salon, hairdresser) but also became home to the Kino International, Moskau Restaurant and Milch-Mocca-Eisbar.
Notable Events in the Allee’s History
Given its status as “the first socialist street in Germany”, it is not surprising that the Allee has seen its share of important historical moments. Perhaps the first of these was the mass march by Berlin residents to the statue of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 in the wake of his death. While the event was certainly orchestrated by the SED for its own purposes, this event saw a genuine outpouring of grief by many Berliners who still saw in Stalin the embodiment of a their hopes for future marked by socialism and peace.
That not all shared this vision in a socialist future or were happy with the state of their lives in the GDR was testified to on the Allee three short months after Stalin’s death when on June 17, 1953, construction workers here led what would turn into the first uprising against Soviet power in the eastern bloc. Sparked by anger over an increase with the norms required by construction workers (the amount these had to produce in order to receive their full pay) that had been announced by the Party, the protests by Allee construction workers spread throughout the GDR and forced its leaders to call in Soviets tanks to put down the revolt. Many scholars see this event as a key turning point in East German history (perhaps the key turning point) as it served to underline the Party leadership’s suspicions that its workers were not to be trusted and made them unwilling to ask anything substantial of them in regards to increases in efficiency in the years which followed (see Jeffery Kopstein’s excellent book The Politics of Decline in East Germany, 1945-1989 (Chapel HIll and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
As mentioned above, the Allee was renamed in the fall of 1961 with the Stalin statue removed at the same time. The bronze used in this was apparently repurposed for a series of animal statues found in the newly opened East Berlin Zoo.
As intended, the Allee became the parade route for all the major marches during the GDR period including the annual May Day march which featured a mass rally of workers and a military parade by the National People’s Army. In addition, the eastern end of the Allee was the starting point for an annual march every January which commemorated Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht with a mass rally that culminated with speeches and a wreath-laying at the Memorial Site of the Socialists (For readers of German, there’s a good piece on the history of this event from Spiegel Online here.). This event became a key one on the SED’s calendar and functioned largely as a PR exercise for the Party and its leadership. In 1988, the event was scandalized when it was infiltrated by opponents of the regime who managed to gain worldwide attention when they were brutally arrested by Stasi agents after raising banners featuring Luxemburg’s quote that “Freedom is always the freedom of the one who think differently.” Many have pointed to this event as one of first dominos to fall in the series of events that would lead to the GDR’s demise less than two years later. (For photos of the banners confiscated by the Stasi, visit this link and click on “Bilderrstrecke”.)
The Allee in the Post-Unification Era
By the time of the GDR’s collapse in 1990, the Allee was, like the state that birthed it, dilapidated and widely rejected. Over the years it had decayed considerably with the choice of porcelain tiles for cladding having proven to have been a poor one as the fluctuations in temperature caused these to separate from the walls (photo here). This, coupled with a reputation that largely saw it as the embodiment of the failures of the Soviet/East German system, left the Allee in a precarious position. In the late 90s, a western German investment bank bought the entire street and began a renovation project which is largely complete. This work coincided with the rehabilitation of the Allee in the eyes of many expert observers, a change shaped in part by prominent American architect Phliip Johnson who stated that the Allee represented “city planning on the grand scale”.
While the Allee has recaptured some of its initial grandeur with the restoration of Henselmann’s distinctive towers at Frankfurtuer Tor and the wonderful fountain in the middle of the traffic circle at Strausberger Platz, and a keen eye will find remnants of the GDR-era streetscape. The Karl Marx Bookstore, one of the landmarks on the strip, closed several years ago, but the Cafe Sibylle, a popular East Berlin stop for coffee and cake, remains and has become home to an inofficial exhibit on the street’s history. Wall mosaics mark the sites of former restaurants and several old neon signs remain at various spots while the detailing on the buildings’ facades remain largely intact as do some distinctive wrought iron railings.
Despite (or perhaps, because of) these elements, the Allee can only be characterized as lively when it is shut down to cars for several days each summer for the International Beer Festival. Otherwise, it is remarkably sleepy. This is the result of several factors. First, many of the residents here are retirement aged and were apparatchiks of the East German state. This has significant implications as many of these individuals have seen their pensions curtailed due to their roles in the GDR regime, something that has considerably curtailed the income they have to spend in local shops. Second, the area has very poor parking and features little pedestrian traffic meaning that retailers have a hard time surviving.
I have a few Allee-related items in my collection of GDR ephemera. These include:
- a Meissen ceramic tile used on the facade of one of the Allee’s buildings
- a clay replica of Joseph Stalin’s ear as included on the statue of the Soviet leader which stood on the Allee until November 1961
- several GDR postage stamps featuring the street
- two cardboard, scale replicas of buildings found on the Karl-Marx-Allee.
You’ll find pictures of these items and some more information about them here.