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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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During the first decades of the Cold War, space was one of the primary battle fields of the Cold War. When the Soviets managed to launch Sputnik 1, an artificial Earth satellite, on October 4, 1957, it caught the world, especially the United States (see CBS News Report below), by surprise and marked the opening salvo of the Space Race. In the years that followed, the two super powers worked feverishly to eclipse one another, but when the Soviets were able to successfully to send the first man into space three and a half years later (Juri Gagarin on April 12, 1961), one would have been excused for thinking that the race had been run with the Reds taking the gold.

During these years, the race to space captivated populaces of both super powers and their allies and the GDR was no exception. As was the case elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet space program was used to underscore the validity of Communism’s science-based ideology and paeans to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Soviet cosmonauts and space engineers were ubiquitous in the GDR press and arts.

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This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .

Christburger Strasse 28
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper

The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law. Read More

 

Recently a friend loaned me copy of German historian Karl Schlögel’s excellent book Moscow (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), the English-translation of Moscow lesen: Die Stadt als Buch (Reading Moscow: The City as Book), a work which originally appeared in 1984. In it, Schlögel used his explorations of the Soviet capital during a visit in the early 80s both as a jumping off point for a number of fascinating essays. Schlögel is a fine writer, and while this book includes excellent pieces on Russian architectural, political and social history, it is most satisfying when the author indulges his interest in the stuff of everyday life such as the signage on Soviet government buildings, second-hand bookshops, post offices and factories. Since I share his interest in such seemingly tangential matters, I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions, but it was a passage on his methodology that resonated most clearly with me. Because it is germane to what I am trying to do with this blog, I quote him here:

“I think that since every detail has a historical dimension, being a product of its own time and bound up with its own time, it is in principle a valid document, a readable letter or even a syllable in the great text that we call history. Every age has its own signature, its own bearing, its own manner, be it flamboyant or restrained. As we know, the reading of old texts enhances our ability to find our way into a period, to gain a degree of intimacy with it. The details are given, they are deposits of stone, marble or iron . . . The text is written. We can not change anything about it. All we can do is approach it with due respect.” (pg. 291)

Amen to that, Karl.

Feeling validated, I turn my attentions to this week’s items of East German ephemera, two “house books” which testify about the society of their origin in a most informative way.

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