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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

One of the GDR’s most popular magazines was the weekly Neue Berliner Illustrierte (New Berlin Illustrated), a bright and colourful publication which, with its mixture of politics, portraits, social trends, sport and culture, resembled nothing so much as that iconic chronicler of American society and politics LIFE.

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969 with a cover story on the construction of the "New Berlin" (photo: R. Newson)

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969, the 20th anniversary of the GDR. The cover story focused on the construction of the “new, socialist Berlin” (photo: R. Newson).

NBI was older than the GDR itself, first appearing already in 1945 during the early months of the Soviet occupation. Over the years, the magazine enjoyed considerable popularity and by the end phase of the Workers and Peasants’ state, NBI had a weekly circulation of 800,000 issues. While such numbers are perhaps not the most reliable measure of popularity in a command economy (well, beyond a publication’s popularity with those in charge), the NBI “was sought after just like all other bright and glossy magazines in which there was less propaganda” (“Amboss oder Hammer sein” by Christoph Dieckmann, ZEIT, November 1, 1991). 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

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 the twenty five years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two German states, little of what might reasonably be labeled “East German” has survived to find its place as part of joint German culture. There’s the distinctive and almost-Disneyesque Ampelmännchen found on pedestrian signals in the former-East, a whimsical and certainly far less business-like figure than its striding western counterpart. Beyond that, however, I am able to think of only one other example of a GDR product that has managed to rise above its “socialist taint” to assume place in the collective culture and that would be the Berlin television tower.

Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

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