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.
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 by surprise (see CBS news report below). My mother-in-law, then in teacher’s training school in Quebec, Canada, tells me that the news was deeply unsettling and that it had an almost immediate impact on her studies: “We went from very little emphasis on science and math to much, much more almost immediately. If you couldn’t teach English or Social Studies, that wasn’t a huge problem, but from that point on, the instructors made sure that we were all up to snuff in Science and Math!” (Conversation with author, July 2018)
In the years that followed, the two super powers worked feverishly to eclipse one another in what become known as the “Space Race”. However 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 the attention of people around the world 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.
I am a sucker for architect’s drawings and grand notions of urban design and these weaknesses go some ways to explaining my interest in the GDR. Here the Party leadership’s desire to create “socialist cities” for their subjects and the tabula rasa created by war-time destruction combined to ensure that the country saw more than its fair share of broad, sweeping plans intended to transform both its cityscapes and with them the social order of the Workers and Peasants State. I have several books of blueprints, models and artists renditions of new East German housing settlements with their symmetrical, pre-fab apartment slabs and smiling “socialist personalities” and I have to admit that I find the ordered rationality and modernist aesthetic of these designs very appealing.
But as was the case elsewhere in East Germany, the chasm between the Schein und Sein (the image and the reality) was particularly wide in relation to GDR city planning. Where the sketches of new districts often showed streetcar lines whizzing residents from their outskirt locations into the thick of things and featured a main square containing shops, services, a library, theatre or restaurant and featuring an attractive fountain or some other piece of public art, the reality was rarely so nice. With the Party committed to solving the housing question by 1990, construction crews were under pressure to deliver living space, not the amenities that would have made these neighbourhoods more liveable. While residents were usually pleased to move into the relative comfort offered by their new flats, they often expressed real dissatisfaction with their lengthy commutes into town (most new districts were built on the outskirts of cities), and the lack of green space (landscaping often fell into the category of “luxury”) and shopping options in these areas.
Whenever I’m in Germany, I try to spend some time in places which evoke the former-East. With the passage of time, this has become increasingly difficult, but there’s one destination which has never failed to engage my powers of imagination: Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. I think part of the reason is that the Allee today is quite dead, the relative calm allowing one to project one’s thoughts onto the scene without much competition from a contradictory present.
The Allee was in two phases between the early 1950s and mid-1960s and as a result the street manages to embody a significant chunk of the GDR’s architectural history and since it also served as the stage for some of the country’s most important events, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to observe and consider. (I’ve written a lengthy piece on the Allee’s history which includes a number of, if I do say so myself, fine pictures, so if you have have any interest in that angle on things, I’d encourage you to click here.)
Meissen Porcelain Tile
First up is an original Meissen porcelain tile removed from one of the Allee’s apartment blocks during the renovations which took place in the 1990s/early 2000s. The choice of Meissen porcelain for the facades of the Allee’s buildings was intended to underscore their status as “Workers’ Palaces”, however, the material proved ill-suited for the task at hand and by late-period GDR, falling tiles were a real hazard on the Allee. During renovations in the late 90s/early 00s, all the exterior tiles were removed a number of these were saved to be sold as a fundraiser (how I got mine) for a social service agency which operates the Cafe Sibylle, one of the few GDR-era businesses to have survived unification. Even if you’re not keen to acquire a porcelain tile from the Karl-Marx-Allee as a souvenir, it’s worth seeking out the cafe if you visit Berlin as they have lovely homemade cakes and a very good exhibit on the history of the Allee.
The completion of the Palace of the Republic in April 1976 marked the end of the largest prestige project in GDR history. The building costs were officially 485 million East Marks, though internal figures presented to the Minister of Construction increased the sum to 800 million. Other sources have put the total price tag closer to 1 billion Marks. Regardless of this, the money spent was considerable for a country the size of the GDR and the project had significant impact on the country’s finances. Its prioritization also created significant resentment in the “provinces” as many resources (incl. materials and construction crews) were redirected to the capital to ensure this job was completed on time.
For the Party, however, there was a feeling of a job well done. To mark the opening of the Palace, the GDR Post issued a stamp featuring the image of the finished Palace and a construction worker. This stamp also incorporated mention of the 9th Party Congress of the SED which took place there in May 1976.