German Phoenix: East Berlin's Capital Statement

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

German Phoenix: East Berlin's Capital Statement

Stern, Fred, The World and I

Fred Stern, currently based in Loenia, New Jersey, is a writer on art and architectural subjects for ArtNet and other publications.

When the Berlin Wall came down on that November day in 1989, East Berliners walked west, West Berliners east, and both found two different worlds.

East Berlin was a shambles. The Communist German Democratic Republic did not have funds to demolish and rebuild its crumbling housing stock, except to provide marginal quarters for its labor force. But it did manage to create the broad boulevard originally called Stalin Allee, renamed Karl-Marx-Allee on Stalin's demise. The Communists had envisioned masses of citizens parading on the Allee in march formation, affirming the doctrines of the East on such holidays as the First of May and the day of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Drab, gray buildings confronted West Berliners who entered the sector for the first time. East Berlin had denuded its streets of greenery and trees. On the other hand, citizens of East Berlin streaming west were overwhelmed by the plethora of foods, clothing, and other consumer goods they saw in West Berlin stores and movie houses that offered not the mean, meager socialist fare they were accustomed to. Here was a world of color and wealth, Hollywood and the West. But most East Berliners, if they could afford it, flocked to shoe stores to buy real leatherwear and to discard their ersatz-leather footwear.

To fully appreciate the architectural changes in today's Berlin, one must look back at all that has happened there over the last eighty-some years. In the 1920s, after the end of World War I, Berlin became the capital of the Weimar Republic. For the city, it was an era of cultural brilliance. The theater, cabarets, music, and literature of the period have never been equaled. But economically, Berlin like the rest of Europe, suffered severe downturns. The Third Reich and its Nazi dictatorship took over in 1933. Democratic life in Germany and in Berlin quickly ground to a halt.

With the coming of World War II, the lives of Berliners changed dramatically. Berlin, along with the rest of Germany, suffered bombing and devastation, especially during the last days of the war, when Soviet artillery shelled the city. When Germany was forced to capitulate on May 2, 1945, the victorious allies (the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union) divided Berlin into four zones. The Soviet Union took the eastern part of the city and eventually combined it with the other East German territory they had previously been occupying.

In June 1948, the Soviets sought to eliminate the Berlin zones under Western control, by starving West Berlin: it cut off rail, highway, and water links to those areas of the city. The United States responded with an airlift bringing food, coal, and other vital supplies to the 2 million Berliners under Western control. A total of 2.3 million tons of supplies were flown in on more than 230,000 flights. After 11 months, the American effort bore fruit and the Soviets relented, lifting the blockade.

Over the years, many East Germans fled to the West for a better life. The drain of young, talented, and forward-looking Berliners led the Soviets to try another way of containing the population. In 1961, they erected a wall of steel, concrete, and barbed wire to reduce the numbers fleeing west. The wall, 29 miles in length, kept the East Germans in, the West Germans out. About 800 East Berliners lost their lives trying to escape across the wall. With the collapse of the Soviet system, the wall came down on November 9, 1989, after 28 oppressive years.

Architecturally, Berlin offered on the one hand the pompous architecture of the Nazis, with its boring facades. On the other hand, there were the hapless Mietskasernen (rental barracks) which still house many Berlin wage earners in Berlin's erstwhile East. But all this is changing, or has changed over the years since the unification and the return of Berlin as the national capital of the Bundesrepublik. …

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