Monday, 9 August 2010

Karl-Marx-Allee - Socialist Realism in Stone

I imagine that most tourists alighting at Alexanderplatz Bahnhof will spend a bit of time exploring the square - the Fountain of International Friendship, the World Clock, and the fall of the wall exhibition - before maybe shopping at Galeria Kaufhof or Alexia, then perhaps booking a slot to go up the Fernsehturm TV tower. They might then wander off towards the Nikolaiviertel or the Museumsinsel by way of Rotes Rathaus, the Marienkirche and the Neptunbrunnen. I'm guessing of course, but I don't think many tourists will be heading towards Karl-Marx-Allee for a stroll amongst the best display of Socialist Realist architecture outside the USSR. Which is a great shame, because to really understand DDR Alexanderplatz and the large parade ground joining it to the previous site of the Palast der Republik on the opposite bank of the Spree, you really need to see it as the culmination of the wide processional show-piece of Soviet might and progress that is Karl-Marx-Allee.

So, if you have a stout pair of walking shoes, or a bike, or a motorised wheel-chair, then I would recommend a trip up Karl-Marx-Alee (it's about 2km long). Just don't go up it in a Soviet tank - that kind of thing is frowned upon nowadays.

The starting point is the Haus des Lehrers (The House of the Teachers), next to the domed Kongresshalle. This was the first high-rise building to be built at Alexanderplatz (opened 1964), replacing a building from 1908 which was kind of a club-house and restaurant for the Berlin Teachers Association. Of particular note, on what is otherwise a boring tower block, is the frieze encircling the building (apparently like a 'cigar band') between the second and fifth floor. Called 'Unser Leben' (Our Lives') it was designed by Walter Womacka in the Mexican mural style and is supposed to show everyday, happy and fulfilling life in the DDR.

I might sound cynical, but really I quite like this style: it has a lot of movement, colour, and joyful innocence. The Haus des Lehrers has also been the canvas for more contemporary playfulness: in 2001 (and at other times since) 'Project Blinkenlights' has used the windows as individual pixels on a giant computer screen and created, for example, a way to play 'Pong' using mobile phones. Sounds crazy, and as this video shows, it probably was.

Not far up Karl-Marx-Allee itself is a contemporary of the Haus des Lehrers, the Kino International (opened 15th November 1963).

This cinema was used for many premiers of films coming out of the state-owned film studio DEFA (Die Deutsche Film AG) based in Babelsberg. I particularly associate DEFA with the production of the children's stop-motion animated adventures of das Sandmännchen, but its mission statement was to "help in the restoration of democracy in Germany, to unshackle German heads from Fascism, and also to nurture socialist citizens." ("Helfen, in Deutschland die Demokratie zu restaurieren, die deutschen Köpfe vom Faschismus zu befreien und auch zu sozialistischen Bürgern erziehen."). To this end, about 700 movies filled with happy, smiling, socialist workers were produced. More socialist realism like the Haus des Lehrers mural then. Honecker and the SED party elite had their own party room for after-show drinks, and even a private bunker underneath the cinema just in case WWIII broke out whilst they were watching a film about joyous tractor production.

Nowadays the Kino International is still used as a cinema, and plays a prominent role in the Berlinale Film Festival, mostly thanks to its cool retro architecture and deco.

Near to the Kino International you can still see Soviet-era advertisements on the roofs of buildings. They are in fact protected monuments of historical significance. This one advertises Tatra Motors, which is the third oldest car maker in the world after Daimler Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. Unfortunately you've likely never heard of them, because they were based in what became communist Czechoslovakia which crippled their export to the west somewhat. They seem to have been big in East Berlin though, and according to their Tatra website it looks as if they are still going.

This far up Karl-Marx-Allee, apart from a few Sixties era buildings like the Kino International, (and you might have seen the Cafe Moskau and Bar Babette, which however retain little of their original style), there is little by way of architecture to SMS-Text home about. However, just take a look back towards Alexanderplatz (that's the Park Inn in the centre) and marvel at the sheer width of this boulevard. Why would anyone build a street this wide? Especially as we don't seem to be heading anywhere major. Au contraire; you are heading East. East towards the homeland of the soldiers who ploughed through this way in the final stages of World War II. This was one of the main routes for the tanks and soldiers of the Red Army, fighting street by street, constantly under fire, advancing through the rubble of bombed out buildings in order to liberate Berlin from Fascism. There, now I'm getting carried away by Socialist Realism too!

More practically, Karl-Marx-Allee is as wide as it is because it was built for the May Day parades showing off the size of the army, their rocket missiles, and the patriotism of marching blue-shirted FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) kids.

The architecture starts to really get imposing as you approach Straussberger Platz. On the left of Karl-Marx-Alle as you approach the circular Platz is Haus Berlin:

On the right of the Allee is an almost identical building, Haus des Kindes (named thus because it housed a department store catering for the needs of children). This view is looking back towards Alexanderplatz, with 'The Floating Ring' fountain in the foreground (and some building works), and the two 'Haus's like guarding sentinels.

The Haus des Kindes has a quote from Goethe's play 'Faust' carved into the stone (and note the hints at socialist classicism in the columns and rustification):

It says:
Solch ein Gewimmel möcht’ ich sehn,
Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehn.

Or in translation, something like:

Such busy, teeming throngs I long to see,
Standing on freedom’s soil, a people free.

I'm sure this wasn't put there as a prophecy of the fall of the rather un-free East German Soviet state. Nor was it all that accurate in that there was hardly anybody around, let alone a teeming throng.

Here's looking across at the Haus Berlin again. After the common-place Plattenbauten of Karl-Marx-Allee thus far, Straussberger Platz does seem like you've passed into another country. The architecture lining the wide Karl-Marx-Allee from herein just gets more alien to your typical Berlin tenement blocks or pre-fab high-rises.

It's here that you'll also find a statue to the eponymous hero of the boulevard, Karl Marx.

It might come as a surprise though that this boulevard wasn't always known as Karl Marx Allee. From its rebuild in 1949 up until 1961 it was named Stalinallee (previous to that it was called Große Frankfurter Straße). By the early sixties, even the DDR was realising that Uncle Jo had personally caused the death of millions (variously calculated between 3 and 60,000,000) of Russian dissidents and that it would be better not to revive his memory with the main show-piece Socialist street of East Berlin. It will be interesting to see if Berlin continues with the name Karl-Marx-Allee post-unification, or whether at some stage it will be renamed Große Frankfurter Straße again. Watch this space.

Karl Marx Allee (okay, Stalinallee) from here onwards is the result of a national building program ('Nationales Aufbau Programm') and a competition for architects with a five year plan (how Stalinist!) to create the first Socialist street on German Soil (der 'ersten sozialistischen Straße auf deutschem Boden'). Or as SED Secretary-General Walter Ubrecht said: 'The Stalinallee is the foundation stone of building Socialism in Berlin, the capital of Germany' ('Die Stalinallee ist der Grundstein des Aufbaues zum Sozialismus in der Hauptstadt Deutschlands, Berlin.'). There are still commemorations to this five-year plan in the buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee (as usual on my blogs, click for a larger photo - all taken by me, by the way!):

Meanwhile, some of the 'foundation stones' of the SED survive in the entrance halls of the buildings, e.g. this by PM Otto Grotewohl:

Whether the architects succeeded in building Socialism, I find their creations amazing. Here are a few photos:

I particularly like the façade of the Karl Marx Bookshop. If you have ever watched the German film about the Stasi 'The Lives of Others' ('Das Leben der Anderen'), you might remember this bookshop near the end:

Just by here you will also find the excellent Cafe Sibylle, which apart from a good place to rest and have a cuppa after traipsing up Karl-Marx-Allee, also has a very interesting museum about the construction of the street.

As you approach the Twin Towers of Frankfurter Tor, you might notice another 60's style cinema; this is das Kosmos, and premièred all the other DEFA films that Kino International couldn't manage because of the high output from those studios of films about ecstatic communists.

It is ironic that the five year plan to build 'the first Socialist street on German soil' was also the cause for the first demonstration by workers against the East German Soviet regime. But so it was when on the 16th June 1953 construction workers on Stalinallee, dismayed by increased productivity targets for no wage increase, went on strike, triggering mass uprisings across the whole of the DDR. Demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the Red Army and the East German Volkspolizei the next day in Berlin, during which they shot dead at least 55 protesters. It is for that reason that the former Charlottenburger Chaussee (the Western continuation of Unter den Linden) was immediately renamed the Straße des 17. Juni by West Berlin. It was a consequence of disaffected workers going to West Berlin for better-paid jobs that the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, before which the DDR had lost 20% of its 'happy' citizens.

Soon though you come to the domed towers of Frankfurter Tor:

These rise up like lighthouses either side of the boulevard:

From here on the road is now called Frankfurter Allee. There are further examples of the kind of architecture that dominates Karl-Marx-Allee, but they have missing tiles, heavy graffiti, and a general air of neglect. At Frankfurter Tor, money for renovation ran out. It is worth having a look though to see the state that the rest of Karl-Marx-Allee had descended into. The final irony of DDR Socialist Realism is that in the end East Germany was running on a bankrupt economy, and when glasnost and perestroika swept through the Soviet Bloc it knocked out the props from a subsidised DDR. The May Day parade of 1989 had Erich Honecker and an uncomfortable looking Mikhail Gorbachev celebrating 40 years of the DDR, as tanks and soldiers passed by them along Karl-Marx-Alle. By the end of the year, it was all over.


  1. Interesting :-)

  2. Very interesting!I enjoyed walking through the Karl-Marx-Allee! Reminded me of my trip to Berlin and Russia in 1984!


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