Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Block C South. Read Part 2 here.
In the late eighties, the German Democratic Republic was bleeding people like money; the Iron Curtain was coming apart at the seams. November 9, 1989, would be the turning point, the evening on which the Socialist party allowed what had once been unimaginable.
In Block C South of the Karl-Marx-Allee, Otto Stark sat in the quiet of his apartment, tuning in to the historic national blunder that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall: one of the few international press conferences in East Germany’s history, with one very ill-prepared party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, at the microphone.
Schabowski: (reading from a memo) “Permanent departures can be made through all border crossing points of the GDR to the [West German] Federal Republic of Germany. This eliminates the temporarily allowed issuance of appropriate permits in foreign missions of the GDR or permanent exit with the identity card of the GDR via third countries.” […]
Reporter: When does this take effect?
Schabowski: (leafing through his papers) To my knowledge this takes effect immediately … without delay.
Further along the Karl-Marx-Allee, people were buzzing at the Kino International. They had come from the West to see the first—and what would be the only—gay film of the GDR. Later, these West German visitors would witness, by accident, the historic event, as thousands of East Berliners gathered at the border-control points and the confused guards finally relented. Thousands of East Berliners strolled through the gates of the Berlin Wall, their blue GDR passports waving in the air. Scaling the Wall, sitting on the Wall, ecstatic reunions between families after three decades apart.
But things were quiet in the Stark household on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Mr. Stark, the famous actor and later director of the Cabaret Distel, and his wife, the famous actress Ilse Maybrid, did not go out that evening: they would wait until the next day to see for themselves what was going on at the Wall. Otto had had a long day; it was nearing midnight when the gates opened, he was already in his late sixties, he’d just returned home from work. The Starks held a privileged position in the GDR. They were a prominent couple, they traveled to the West on professional engagements, and they lived in a penthouse on the showcase boulevard—something reserved for celebrities and the “best workers,” as Otto Stark, now ninety-two, tells me from his living room of fifty-four years. The same living room in which he and his wife first watched the collapse of the GDR on television, twenty-five years ago this Sunday.
Less than one month before, tanks had rolled down the Karl-Marx-Allee for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had hugged General Secretary Erich Honecker, the two sides coming together after years of stubborn disagreement. “If we stay behind, life will punish us immediately,” Gorbachev told Honecker that day. The last Day of the Republic, the last military parade on the crumbling Karl-Marx-Allee.
* * *
Exiting the subway on Karl-Marx-Allee can be something of a disorienting experience, given the homogeneity of the buildings in every direction. The curve of the street reveals Strausberger Platz, which bends around a large centerpiece fountain with decorative metal panels like studs or brass knuckles, which give the fountain its title, “Floating Ring.” In the direction of the curve lies Alexanderplatz and the district Mitte, while the rest of the monumental boulevard, and Friedrichshain, unfolds along the straight traversal of the long, broad street.
The sidewalk is quiet early on a Wednesday, save a few mothers and their strollers. The haziness of the skyline is accented by the biscuit-colored monotony of the buildings that follow one after the next. The street is disarming for its consistency, but there are a few anomalies interspersed: the two modernist Laubenganghäuser nearing Frankfurter Tor, which were built in the Bauhaus tradition before the concept for the Stalinallee emerged; and the later Plattenbauten, or prefabricated buildings, nearing and past Strausberger Platz, which were built after a dwindling of resources and dwindling esteem for the neoclassicist style. There are glitzy modernist buildings here, too, like the Kino International, the Café Moscow, and the House of the Teacher, which became popular attractions after the regime backtracked on its disavowal of the supposedly bourgeois and formalistic International Style, but these are in the other direction, beyond Strausberger Platz and what most people think of when they think of Karl-Marx-Allee.
Ugly prefabricated buildings fill either side of the next block, offset from the sidewalk as if in deference or apology to the impressive compositions that silhouette them before and beyond. On that block, the monumental project of the Karl-Marx-Allee is confused, moderated; on the next, it’s resurrected in its all-encompassing might.
The Karl-Marx-Allee came about in the early fifties, when East and West Berlin were just beginning to be carved out in the way we now remember them: the Allied zone had just become its own tentatively occupied West German state and the Soviet zone had shortly thereafter become its own East German state. On Stalin’s seventieth birthday, just seventy-five days after the founding of the German Democratic Republic in October 1949, East Berlin’s Grosse Frankfurter Strasse and the connecting Frankfurter Allee were symbolically renamed Stalinallee. The streets had been largely destroyed during the bombings of World War II. They offered up a sorry sight of half torn-down buildings and lots of rubble. An ideal boulevard had to be constructed anew, a boulevard to show the world just what Socialism could be.
Seventy percent of the bricks were resurrected from the ruins of Berlin. They were gathered in a voluntary effort: thirty-eight million bricks picked out of the debris during four million hours of voluntary work to construct this, the Socialist utopia of the new East German state.
Isa Henselmann, the daughter of the GDR’s most prominent architect, Hermann Henselmann, recalls her childhood breaking stones: Steine klopfen, a foreign notion to English ears, is as natural as woodcutting to any German. “We all broke stones back then, from our grandfathers to the children,” she said in an interview with Die Zeit last year. “We wanted to be the ‘Good Germany.’ We wanted to make a whole lot better. We still had so much guilt.”
When the houses were completed they were top of the line, with elevators, heat, running water, and an iconic architecture, well proportioned and well located on the most exemplary boulevard of the GDR. They were monumental, overpowering in their grandeur and consistency, with tile upon tile of ornamental, decadent might. Not decadent, really: the houses of the Stalinallee were “Worker’s Palaces,” available at an extremely fair rate, all in the name of equality. And at first, people say, they really were.
* * *
The worker’s uprising came on June 17, 1953. Isa Henselmann remembers this as the moment she first questioned the benevolence of her liberators. When she saw the street—her street, the Stalinallee—full of people, and after them the tanks, she thought it was a political celebration, so she put on her pioneer’s outfit with its characteristic red kerchief and she went outside. There, she saw the green tanks with red stars. “I had learned that these were our emancipators after the war; these are the good ones.”
When she waved to the tanks rolling by, she was greeted with knocks on the head and reprimands by her fellow compatriots. “They’re against us!” they told her.
The GDR bound itself to the mighty Soviet crutch through the interference of the Red Army on the day of the worker’s uprising, which certainly helped trample it underfoot. The uprising had been organized, among other reasons, in response to the increasingly untenable construction demands for the workers of the Stalinallee and it was quashed. Many historians mark this as the date from whence the young nation’s gloomy path was set, a day that precipitated the siphoning off of its population through the thousands who fled to the West, leading to the Berlin Wall as a countermeasure.
The uprising was celebrated in West Germany within the week through the christening of an iconic West German boulevard: the Street of the Seventeenth of June, which runs from Brandenburg Gate through the Victory Column, and begins right behind the wall that would later be erected.
* * *
Every year on the first of May and the seventh of October, tanks rolled down the great Stalinallee, celebrating first the workers and second the state of the GDR. The parades were televised across the country. In later years, the tanks were left out of the May Day celebrations, but the processions continued with politicians and celebrities alongside the common people, balloons, parade floats, members of the Free German Youth holding up massive pictures of the country’s leaders—a “demonstration” in the name of Socialism, peace, and worker freedom.
Stalinallee came twelve years before the Wall—shortly after the Wall went up, it became the Karl-Marx-Allee. In an effort to distance the regime from the despotic image that Stalinism had acquired in the decade since Stalin’s death, his statue was torn down and modern buildings were erected in the remaining one kilometer of the boulevard. The Soviet wedding cake–style (known alternately as Socialist Classicism or disparagingly in German as Zuckerbäckerstil) had proven itself far less popular than the modernism embraced by the West; the Stalinist neoclassicism was seen as outdated, perhaps too massive. And since it had been championed by the now-eschewed Stalin, a change of taste might not be so bad.
The curly orange sign outside the Café Sibylle brings something of this new aesthetic to the Stalin-era café, and just a short ways further, the unlit sans-serif of the KARL MARX BUCHHANDLUNG reveals a revamped identity if not in style, then certainly in name. From the Doric portico of Block C South, seven stories of Soviet wedding cake–style ornamental tiling shoot up. Twelve central reliefs portray the values of Socialist daily life: hard work, and labor, manual labor, quotidian labor, good cheer, conversation amongst laborers during a break from labor, good cheer, family.
In Five Germanys I Have Known, Fritz Stern, an American intellectual and German emigrant whose family fled during his childhood from the Nazi regime, recalls his first visits to the GDR and its iconic bookstore as a visiting academic at the Free University in West Berlin:
I also repeatedly visited the stately, spacious Karl Marx Buchhandlung on Stalinallee, where one could buy inexpensive editions of the great “classics of socialism” and translations of acceptable foreign works. The SED-controlled publishing enterprises produced a great flow of authorized books at low prices, hoping to leave no comrade behind. And in the secondhand section one could find “bourgeois” editions of old classics at bargain prices: I bought an old four-volume edition of Herder’s Werke with a modern stamp on the flyleaf: FROM THE GHETTO LIBRARY—no place specified. A grim irony: the works of an Enlightenment philosopher taken from the ghetto, perhaps the one place where he might have been read in the old spirit.
I also purchased a big volume entitled Deutschland, translated from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Its editors, Jürgen Kuczynski and Wolfgang Steinitz, noted that this “most comprehensive scientific work in the history of humanity” had been raised to a “still higher level” in its 1950 edition, as decided by the Soviet Union’s Council of Ministers. Of contemporary historical writing, it reported, “After the destruction of Hitler’s Germany by the Soviet Union, German historians have gained wider perspectives in free scientific research … However, reactionary ideas are once again prevalent in West German historiography, as Anglo-American imperialists conduct a policy of dividing Germany so as to allow the revival of fascism and militarism in West Germany.”
Still, West Germans and even the odd “Anglo-American imperialist” made the cumbersome journey over to the East, undergoing the stringent border control and mandatory currency swap after the construction of the Berlin Wall, to visit the spacious bookstore. It’s associated with names like Christa Wolf and Bertolt Brecht, who both numbered at times among the happier and the more miserable inhabitants of the GDR. Thomas Mann had shown himself open to East Germany, visiting both the Allied Frankfurt and the Soviet Weimar when he was honored with the Goethe Prize in 1949 and later exhorting his Frankfurt-based publisher to authorize the publication of his books in the East:
I know no zones. My visit counts to Germany itself, Germany as a whole, and not to any occupied territory … Who should ensure and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer, whose true home … is the free and unoccupied German language?
His death in 1955 prevented him from witnessing the development of the GDR and the heartache of the embodied Iron Curtain, but his early show of goodwill brought him enduring celebrity in the East; his face was put on a stamp and even a special 5-Ostmark coin at the centennial of his birth, and his works were always to be found at the Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung, one of those rare places where the two Germanys could truly mix.
The Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung hasn’t been a bookstore since 2008—today it’s a film production company, Cobblestone, with its Berlin office run by Juri Wiesner. The 6500-square-foot space is kind of the ultimate worker’s paradise: a Ping-Pong table right in the middle of the foyer, a Foosball table overlooking an incredible boulevard view, and oddly pleasing curations distributed among its oak bookshelves—thirty-one brightly colored piggy banks filling one set of shelves, action figures in another, mounted butterflies, a model factory with tiny, electrically wired industrial sewing machines, and other odd tidbits lying somewhere between item and art.
When I stop by, Wiesner is already in the midst of a busy morning, his phone ringing again. I spend a long time examining a large painting of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first human in space, portrayed here with young red kerchief–clad Soviet pioneers, an array of rockets, tanks and satellites at their feet. Wiesner explains the mixed heritage of the objects, East and West: the 1970s Gagarin painting purchased at auction, the Richard Neutra furniture and props—like the piggy banks—incorporated into the office space after commercial shoots, as well as things dug out from the bookstore’s original bookstore days.
“There are a few relics: the Manifest der kommunistischen Partei and a number of pictures of GDR authors taken at readings here. I found those in the basement and hung them up.”
Wiesner was born and raised in the GDR and recalls it as a somewhat odious state in which there was little freedom and little to do as a youth. “After the age of fifteen, sixteen, one rejected everything. One thought the East was dumb and wanted out,” he says, mildly. “One didn’t find the system so great.”
His choice, after a brief period following German reunification in which he completed his high-school diploma in the former West, to study here and to settle here does not represent a return to his childhood space, he says; it’s changed so much and, besides, Berlin was always different from the rest of the East.
“Berlin was always a showcase area. One could buy things in Berlin that weren’t available elsewhere,” he recalls. “Everything was bigger and more grand.”
It was also a place of less uniform thinking. “There were always people here who spoke out against the system, who were nonconformists,” he says, and, of course, it had its cultural offering, like the Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung or the operas and theaters. The Bookstore, the boulevard, and Berlin were three microcosms within microcosms that Wiesner associates with exception: “Not super East.”
In a sense, the space does recall Wiesner’s childhood, but not the one spent in a remote East German town. Wiesner, who’s half Russian, would visit his maternal relatives in St. Petersburg during the summer, memories of which are evoked by the bookstore and the Allee. His father was also an officer, and on occasion the family would visit GDR bases of the Soviet Army in Eberswalde and Bad Freienwalde. The forces, he says, were housed in buildings of this style. “Heavily paneled, hardwood—very similar.”
Today, plaques on the street point to similarities to Moscow’s Gorky Street, while literature points to architectural likenesses to Moscow’s Seven Sisters towers, commissioned by Stalin following World War II as the buildings that would define the capital’s skyline. These, along with the main building of the Moscow State University and the Palace of Culture and Sciences in Warsaw, were models for the GDR’s showcase boulevard.
It’s ironic but not all that surprising that an East German delegation was sent abroad to study the architecture and city planning of Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev in order to come up with an architectural manifesto demanding fidelity to the local German building traditions. The “Sixteen Principles of City Building” state that the “city planning and architectural design of our cities must express the social order of the German Democratic Republic, the progressive traditions of our German people, and the goals set for the reconstruction of the whole of Germany.”
Of course, an understanding of those “progressive traditions” was subject to the whims of politics, and goals for reconstruction were set with a heavy hand. Before he designed the bookend neoclassicist buildings of the original Stalinallee, Hermann Henselmann was immersed in the modernist German tradition of the Bauhaus, serving as the director of the Weimar College of Architecture and Fine Arts (the original Bauhaus), where he’d called for a stronger return to the Bauhaus program initially set forth by Walter Gropius in 1919. But he had to rescind those modernist ideals to assume projects on the Stalinallee, later becoming chief architect of Socialist Berlin. The Soviet wedding-cake towers showed fidelity to the German tradition, but not to the Bauhaus; they paid homage to Friedrich Schinkel, a Prussian architect responsible for many other landmarks in Berlin, whose work predated modernism.
When modernism was restored to vogue in the Socialist party, Henselmann was restored to his modernist principles—he designed the Karl-Marx-Allee’s House of the Teacher and helped to design the iconic TV tower just beyond. What do these buildings say? Freedom from one totalitarian regime is just another, the next.
This is the first in a two-part series. Read Part 2 here.
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a writer based in Berlin. Currently, she spends her time thinking and writing about the once divided capital and, separately, the merits of metaphysics. She’s written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Berfrois, and others.