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The Cold War-era ideological conflict between East and West, as played out in the divided German capital, was largely a matter of guns, tanks and missiles. But more subtle forms of confrontation – clandestine espionage operations, symbolic public diplomacy, and various soft power techniques.
The proximity of these conflicting systems – the free-market-capitalist West and state-controlled-socialist East – existing, as they did, cheek-by-jowl in Berlin, presented the opportunity for both to impress upon the world the values and ideas that each side held so dearly. But also supersede each other; through the undertaking of bold flagship projects and use of propaganda to express the supposed superiority of those values.
Nowhere more evident is the extent of this conflict now visible than in the architectural traces of this era still scattered across the city.
At the end of the Second World War, with the German capital in a terrible state of ruin, both East and West would seek to address one of the chief issues of post-war society – that of the lack of housing. And in their own ways, channel their values into the types of accommodation introduced.
In East Berlin, this would mean the construction of a monumental boulevard – named after Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
On May 19th, 1945, just over two weeks after the surrender of the city and nearly two months before the arrival of the British and American occupation forces, the Soviet Administration in Berlin established a magistrate to oversee the whole area of Greater Berlin. This body would deal with questions of reconstruction and infrastructure; tasked with bringing life back to the ruined city.
In his capacity as head of the building and housing department, architect Hans Scharoun (later responsible for construction of the West Berlin Philharmonic) would present his plans for the collective urban redevelopment of Berlin one year later, in the ruins of the Berlin City Palace. The concept was utopian, with social harmonisation through improved living standards; in opposition to the Industrial Revolution tenements that were to be found throughout Berlin up to this point, and based on continued cooperation between the Allied occupation powers.
As animosity between East and West increased, Scharoun’s grand plan foundered.
What would follow it, in the East, would be less comprehensive – far from seeking to completely re-order the entire city – but come to be more cost-efficient in its purpose. A specific project that would represent the social, political, and philosophical outlook of the East German state – a wide boulevard leading into the heart of the city, lined with grand structures, and designed in such a way as to impress upon the visitor the magnificence of the people and politics responsible.
Ironically for the East, the focus would not be on increasing the overall living standards of the population – but on symbolic prestige projects to express the ideological direction of the state and society.
Rather than import architects from the Soviet Union, the East German government would however rely on a collection of homegrown names to lead this project and ensure a characteristic Socialist style. Chiefly amongst them the man who would be appointed head architect for all of East Berlin in 1953 and later provide the plans for the city’s most visible prestige project – the TV Tower – Hermann Henselmann.
In 1961, a 4.8m high bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, introduced here ten years earlier, was torn down as the street was renamed Karl-Marx-Allee. A remnant of this statue can still be found in Cafe Sybille (near the Karl Marx book shop), on display inside - Stalin's ear.
Henselmann would contribute the first structure on the street, the Hochhaus an der Weberwiese – not only the first skyscraper constructed in East Berlin but also the first example of Socialist Classicism in the German Democratic Republic.
This building had been proposed earlier, as part of the overall combined reconstruction effort that Han Scharoun had submitted in 1946, for the district of Friedrichshain. Scharoun’s aim to implement a model of New Objectivity, reminiscent of the design styles of the 1920s and 1930s, would be rejected by the East German state as decadent and elitist – instead Henselmann would be assigned the job of redesigning the structure and “returning to national traditions” by channeling the work of Neo-Classical architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, in a distinctly Soviet Socialist style.
This structure would serve as the prototype for the entire aesthetic of East Berlin’s epic boulevard.
Monumental eight-storey structures, designed in what is colloquially known as ‘Wedding Cake style’, line this two kilometre street that stretches from the twin towers at Frankfurter Tor to the square at Strausberger Platz – and beyond to Alexanderplatz. Many of the buildings are covered in ceramic tiles, some feature balconies, others Doric or Ionic columns, ornamental gables with architraves and friezes. The modern amenities available, such as indoor plumbing, central heating, and an intercom system meant that these ‘worker’s palaces’ would prove popular with East German citizens and were intended to represent the strength and engineering skills of the German Democratic Republic as much as its ideological leanings.
When construction began in 1952, government film crews were dispatched to cover the immense popular effort made by Berliners who would help clear rubble from the area in preparation for the project.
Originally named Stalinallee in 1949, the street would be renamed in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization process in the East – instead since called Karl-Marx-Allee.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, many East Germans had taken to the streets of the country to protest against increased work quotas and attempts by the government to accelerate the path towards ‘true socialism’. The workers on Stalinallee chose to lay down their tools and march on the government headquarters, only to face Soviet tanks a day later on 17th June 1953.
While the image projected here during the Cold War era was one of a prosperous state that sought to provide for its citizens and offered spacious and appealing accommodation, the reality was often much different – for millions of other East Germans who lived in prefabricated Plattenbau or dilapidated pre-war housing. Beyond the cinemas (Kino and International), the restaurants (such as Cafe Moscow) that offered regional cuisine of the Socialist sister states, and the sparkling historicist facades of this impressive project. The military parades, the diplomatic routes that would pass along this street, and the sporting events held here, would only serve to further highlight the absurd reality.
The state and East German society was slowly crumbling, under the weight of its own ideological failings.
Some useful links related to Karl Marx Allee:
The Berlin government page on Karl Marx Allee
Learn more about the history of Nazi Germany and life in Hitler’s Third Reich with our Capital Of Tyranny tours.
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin and explore this urban battlefield with our Battle of Berlin tours.
Learn more about the history of East German and life behind the Iron Curtain with our Republic Of Fear tours.
Learn more about the history of Prussia and the life of Frederick the Great with our Glory Of Prussia tours.
Learn more about the Nazi Concentration Camp industry and visit Sachsenhausen on our Invention of Hell tours.