Ever since there was traffic between Berlin and Frankfurt a/d Oder, there must have been a -about 100 kilometer long- road between these cities. Since Berlin’s expansion around 1700, it was named the Frankfurter Straße – and since the late 1780s, a part was named the Große Frankfurter Straße. City’s gates came and went, barricades were thrown up and blasted down. The (Große) Frankfurter Straße had a serious history – until a heavy air-raid at the 3rd of February 1945 wiped out most of it. Yet, this all is only a prehistory of the Stalinallee – as the street was called since December 1949.
By renaming the street, the East German politicians didn’t only congratulate Stalin with his seventieth birthday – but they also dedicated their most prestigious urban project to the Soviet dictator. The Stalinallee should be the labor paradise, the incarnated socialist utopia – so it had to be perfect. GDR’s politicians named this architecture an example of ‘socialist classicism’ and they implied that one day, the whole of the GDR would look like this 2.3 kilometer long boulevard. Buildings were up till 14 levels high, while shops on the ground floor turned the street into a 90 meter wide shopping street. Such a Stalinallee doesn’t sound bad at all, don’t you think? Don’t worry. I am not going to explain how this ‘paradise’ raised out of WWII’s ashes. Although I think that the East-European Retro (my words) architecture is really eye-pleasuring, I’m not just going to copy GDR’s propaganda story. In fact, GDR’s politicians actually had not the reason to be satisfied with the Stalinallee – since many things went wrong during its realisation!
Already when the Stalinallee was still named Große Frankfurter Straße, its future to ever end up as the utopian boulevard was challenged. Before the GDR was proclaimed in October 1949, the Soviets were in charge of rebuilding East Berlin. They installed a city planner who had in mind realise the Socialist Dream by constructing gallery flats. Two of them were realised before the East German communists were in charge and were able to stop it. In despite of being approved by their Soviet comrades, GDR’s politicians convicted these buildings for being ‘formalistic’ and an expression of ‘western decadence’. Poplars were planted in front of the gallery flats, so they won’t disturb the street-view too much.
When the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students was held in East Berlin (August 1951), it was proven that the boulevard was named after Stalin. In their young and enthusiastic spirit, the Soviet delegation brought a 4.80 meter bronze statue of Stalin with them. The statue was put on a three meter high stand in front of the Deutsche Sporthalle (German Sports Hall), which was build for the occasion of this festival. This Sporthalle was the first construction at the Stalinallee that was finished by the East Germans independently. It was build within 148 days, in despite of a general lack of building materials. Various parts were recycled from demolished buildings in the city, such as the Stadtschloss (City Palace). Due to a political boycott, the West-Germans didn’t want to deliver the steel girders that was necessary for the excessive roof. As a result, an improvised roof had to be build by the East Germans themselves. The rush in which the Sporthalle was made, had to be paid after all. Due to the poor construction, the Sporthalle closed in 1969 and was demolished in 1971.
Since constructions were produced at the Stalinallee, there were people who agreed that the socialist boulevard will be the heaven on earth, if socialism wasn’t perfect already. That means, many of Stalinallee’s inhabitants were members of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED, Socialist United Party of Germany), as the ruling Communist Party was called. Members of the SED had benefits when it came to waiting for houses and such. So, they were not necessarily the elite in an economic way – but in a political and ideological way, they absolutely were. The ones who lived here, were the types that took part in the seven hour long march – or laid wreaths at the statue of Comrade Josef, when he died in March 1953.
When a construction progress was made, this was celebrated with one of the SED‘s prominent politicians. For example in February 1952, when Otto Grotewohl (Prime Minister of the GDR) laid the symbolic cornerstone for a residential block in the middle of the boulevard. In his speech, Grotewohl claimed that “In this reconstruction work, Berlin should also be a symbol of unity. Berlin is, and shall become, the capital of a united Germany!”. In the summer of 1953, Grotewohl got impatient for this dream to come true. He demanded that the construction labourers worked 10 percent harder – without financial compensation. Very soon, Grotewohl was taught what the labourers at the Stalinallee thought of these measurements. It couldn’t have been more symbolic: an uprise started exactly where the Socialist Dream should have been realised. A labour uprise spread throughout the whole GDR and had hundreds of thousands of participants. After Soviet tanks intervened -and 55 till 75 protesters were killed- the construction at the Stalinallee continued.
Perhaps, the following five years were how the GDR intended it. In October 1954, Wilhelm Pieck (President of the GDR) opened the Haus des Kindes (Children’s House) at the Strausberger Platz. In its basement, a puppet theatre was build – while a warehouse for children was opened at the 2nd and 3rd floor. At its 13th floor, there was a café with a view over the city. It is said that the staircase of the Haus des Kindes was decorated with images of fairy-tales, but the most people must have used the elevator. At -nearly- the end of the boulevard, two identical domes dominate the Frankfurter Tor (as the square is called since 1957). These are inspired by the Französische Dom (French Dome) and the Deutscher Dom (German Dome) – which are build 1701 till 1708 at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin’s historic city center. These by the way, are probably inspired by another identical pair of domes: the Queen Mary Court and the King William Court in London-Greenwich. There is more copying in the Stalinallee’s initial architecture. The same monumental lampposts are to be found at the Charlottenburger Straße (since 1953: Straße des 17. Juni) in West-Berlin, where Albert Speer located them. I think that these lampposts are notorious for being designed to hang (propagandist) banners on them – perfect for dictatorships. Who ever expected that the communists would copy a design from the Nazi’s, exactly at such a prestigious socialist boulevard?
In 1959, it was decided not to finish the Stalinallee’s construction works in the same type of socialist classicist architecture, in despite of a harmonious desire of the politicians. Most likely, the obvious reason named money had to push the change towards other architecture. That the socialist classicist style was thought as a bit outdated already, was used a good excuse. An example of the new, kind of Retro Futuristic or Space Race-Age architecture is the Kosmos cinema (build 1960/2) close to the Frankfurter Tor. More dominant though, was this architecture from Strausberger Platz up till Alexanderplatz. Public buildings as the more famous cinema Kino International (build 1961/3) and the Café Moskau (build 1961/4) filled up the wasteland. These interesting buildings though, are varied again with rather unattractive, functionalist Plattenbau buildings which are far from utopian.
Still, the biggest mistake for a Socialist Heaven on Earth was to name its main boulevard after Stalin. As said, Stalin died three springs later – in March 1953. In absence of his power, Stalin’s crimes towards humanity were revealed during the 10th Communist Congress in 1956. Two Communist Congresses later, in 1961, it was decided that the Stalinallee should be renamed into Karl-Marx-Allee and Frankfurter Allee. Stalins statue, only ten summers old, wouldn’t survive the decisions made during the 12th Communist Congress either. Three socialist jacuzzis (for the people!) came in its place.
All summed up, the project of the GDR wasn’t close to the Socialist Utopia that it should have been. Most symbolic of all, GDR’s first major demonstration started here in June 1953. Not the socialist classicist architecture, but an uprise spreaded from the Stalinallee over the rest of the GDR. Also, the architectural project wasn’t actually finished in the way it was meant. New architecture replaced the initial idea for financial and aesthetic reasons. The short twenty years that the Stalinallee’s first monumental building (the Deutsche Sporthalle) was given, was even long enough to witness that Stalin’s statue was demolished and the street was renamed. To see how Stalin’s statue ended up, you can visit the nearby Café Sibylle, where the ear and a part of Stalin’s mustache are exposed. You could also visit the Tierpark (Animal Park), since a new statue of a tiger and a bison were made out of the melted statue of the communist dictator.
After the Wall fell, the Karl-Marx-Allee is enlisted as a cultural monument, and has been renovated after the Wall fell down. Interestingly, the ‘rather unattractive functionalist buildings’ still hold socialist advertisement for Czech (Tatra Motokov) and Bulgarian (Balkancarpodem) motorvehicles, because these are now enlisted as monuments. In great contrast is the last ‘socialist classicist’ block, down at the Frankfurter Allee. I think it’s because these are not at the actual Karl-Marx-Allee, so they’re excluded from being protected cultural heritage. At least, these fronts are not renovated – and one can imagine, that the whole of the Karl-Marx-Allee looked like this by the end of the 1980s. In other words: this is what happens to a building when it is part of a birthday present to Stalin!