Berlin Long Reads | The Dual Traces of Cold War Berlin

The West Berlin Congress Hall
The West Berlin Congress Hall by Hugh Stubbins/Photo by Caroline Marburger

Only three decades in, the Cold War is not a historical time that the wider public or historians have been able to fully understand, at least not yet.

For me, the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and German reunification were the reasons why, ten years after the wall came down and fresh out of high school, I desperately wanted to study history right in this city’s heart. And twenty years in, I surely know a lot more about Berlin than I did back then, yet still remain transfixed on the era and its grand narratives.

A little reservation is without doubt warranted when approaching this period: acknowledging that our views of the Cold War era are still limited and still partially informed by the biases that ideological conflict imposed on the world is necessary. The historical analysis on this era has developed, since 1990, beyond the simple binary sense of good and evil. We are no longer entrenched in the Cold War perspective of the opponent as the enemy, fully demonizing either the United States or the Soviet Union, and the Capitalist or Communist worldview. Depicting either West Germany as little more than a capitalist, corporate, profit-oriented ‘firm’ or East Germany as a cold, grey, joyless prison is no longer acceptable.

Although neither of these extreme views simply crumbled along with the Soviet system. An informed, balanced, and deep knowledge of the other side did not simply drop into either opponent’s lap. Having been ‘othered’ for decades, and largely left as unchartered territory for unbiased research, a serious reassessment of popular understanding has been necessary. Perspectives have been hugely widened and multiplied. Archive access, while not complete on either side, has changed our understanding massively and now allows for more balanced views. Yet, as a rule of thumb, double checking ourselves and what effect our Western or Eastern background might have on our understanding is not a bad idea when approaching the legacies of this era.

Cold War Historiography and Entangled Perspectives

Cafe Moscow on Karl Marx Allee
Cafe Moscow on Karl Marx Allee/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The most commonly held view with regards to the Cold War is, understandably, that the West won and democracy, freedom and free market capitalism have triumphed over socialist dictatorship and planned state economies. The former, hence, has taken the place of the latter.

As a result, visitors to Berlin – from the West, and younger generations, particularly – will wish to go see the ruins of the system which has disappeared and the structures which have become irrelevant since: the Berlin Wall and any now defunct insignia which the socialist regime left behind. Sites once run by the East German secret police, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS or Stasi), such as the Hohenschönhausen prison and the Stasi headquarters, now memorial sites and a museum, are further proof of the socialist regime’s lack of humanity. And, yes, those are common sites of a Cold War tour. How the system of suppression in East Germany worked and eventually failed is a fascinating story to tell and hear.

There is nothing wrong with this story of how democracy and freedom prevailed. It is a beautiful story to tell and hear. It reminds visitors what kind of gift, inspiration, and challenge being free from suppression can be. Yet, at the same time, even when visiting these sites, it can become apparent that there are many flaws and limitations the perspective of a simple ‘victory of the West’ has. This simplistic narrative leaves us prone to overlook the importance and agency of East Germans or the states and people of Eastern Europe in eroding the socialist system from within – and that goes beyond just the popular dissidents. To limit their resistance to just embracing the ideals set forth by the West would be misleading and belittle their contributions.

This is just one indicator of how memories of the Cold War are often conflicted, simplistic, and tend to take the other side out of the equation. As culture and politics are heavily intertwined, we can see how perspectives on the Cold War have changed over time and where we might be now.

In the early years of the conflict, authors like John le Carré and Ian Fleming (responsible for the James Bond series) reinforced the ideological hostility. The other side was portrayed as a dangerous subversion which had to be stopped at all costs.

From the 1970s, the détente spread and the morality of either side was portrayed as less in doubt. The plots in television and movies became more complex and abandoned cliché-ridden oversimplifications. And while a more entangled view has surfaced in more recent popular fiction such as Bridge of Spies, Weissensee, or Deutschland ’83 – which all tell us that story in an entertaining and thoughtful way – some of that entanglement is far more visible than the popular focus on the intelligence community and espionage lets us think.

Without relativizing the difference between dictatorship and democracy, emerging research is redefining the conflict as an interaction promoted by both sides. The Cold War was a confrontation of two opposing systems in which neither moved without considering, observing and suspecting the other.

It is, for example, enshrined in both East and West Berlin’s cityscape and post-war architecture. It has taken more than 20 years since German reunification in 1990 to see East and West Berlin’s urban development in terms of each side’s particular historical logic and their reciprocal/confrontational ideological roots – now subsumed under the catchphrase “Dual Berlin”.

A Microcosm Of The Cold War : A Dual Architectural Legacy

The Oskar-Niemeye-Haus in the West Berlin Hansaviertel
The Interbau Contribution by Oscar Niemeyer in the Hansaviertel/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The formerly divided German capital is a microcosm of this past global conflict. As architectural historian Simone Hain has said: “Berlin presents the lines of 20th century history like the lifeline in an open palm”.

To follow and understand the subtle lines in this outstretched hand requires little esoteric knowledge, but can be accomplished with open eyes, good shoes, and interest. As Berlin was one city split in two by the Cold War, nowhere else can you better try to explore and do justice to the multidimensional and interactive nature of the East-West conflict – the duality of the era – than within the confines of this city’s present day limits. Although still out there, the remains and scars of the Cold War era are less visible than a lifeline in a palm; as preservation and maintenance of these traces has, in many instances, taken second place to intentional removal or neglect.

The Cold War era entities of West Berlin and East Berlin ceased to exist, at least politically, in October 1990. The Berlin Wall, which entirely surrounded West Berlin, was dismantled almost completely by November 1991. However, as the popular catchphrase “the wall in our heads” (Die Mauer im Kopf), signifying the persistence of a division where one no longer officially exists, illustrates, these two separate entities have not yet fully merged.

Profound East-West differences, mutual prejudices and different mentalities are still discussed widely, 30 years following reunification. Physically, neither part of town was fully erased. West Berlin’s cityscape remained basically unaffected by this momentous change in 1990 – while the Wall was being dismantled, life continued as per usual in the city’s western districts. Soon, however, West Berlin would take a back seat as the hip Eastern districts of the city, which would play a central role in turning the Berlin of the 1990s and 2000s into a fascinating, somewhat different European metropolis, were developed.

In the East, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the centre of East Berlin, was demolished in 1996, eventually deconstruction of the Palace of the Republic on Museum Island would begin in 2004. Both now largely forgotten and replaced by reconstructions of their historical predecessors. It has been asserted that the 1990s saw much public debate about the urban expression of Berlin’s histories but that the Cold War era and its architectural remains never registered as yet another significant layer in Berlin’s historical formation. Unofficial memory activists would publicly question that view, however, and due to them at least the Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), the Wall Path (Mauerweg), and few other sites are now firmly established in Berlin’s cityscape and memory culture.

With the popular gaze of the Cold War period firmly fixed on matters of espionage and repression – visitors may feel at a loss to grasp the everyday aspects of Berlin’s division beyond border controls and surveillance in the East. But the traces of everyday life and the ideological aspirations of the competing states remain, in both the East and West. Particularly in the form of architecture – its utility, purpose, and meaning.

The devastation the Second World War brought to Berlin meant that, in 1945 – beyond food – one of the most pressing needs on both sides of this growing ideological conflict was housing. At least 30% of the city stood in ruin, inner districts fared much worse than those on the outskirts, 75 million cubic metres of rubble needed to be cleared – and Berlin was struggling with the loss of more than a million of its pre-war inhabitants.

How both sides, East and West, would address this issue of housing would be judged an obvious sign of more than simple success or failure – but ideological supremacy.

Two noteworthy urban ensembles, East Berlin‘s Stalinallee (today’s Karl-Marx-Allee and its entrance from Alexanderplatz) and West Berlin’s International Building Exhibition (Interbau) of 1957, with its buildings particularly around the Hansaviertel, are a perfect example of what have been called “thinking and acting on lines of political as well as aesthetic confrontation”.

Shared Traditions And Post-War Beginnings

The Berliner Mietkaserne
The Berliner Mietkaserne

After 1945, first Soviet occupiers, then local authorities under joint-Allied administration called upon a collective of eight people, under the leadership of architect Hans Scharoun, to redefine the Cold War cityscape. The members of this ‘collective’ had all been either students of the Technical University Berlin, the Bauhaus in Weimar and/or involved in innovative Berlin housing projects such as Siemensstadt or Onkel Toms Hütte in the Berlin of the interwar years. These modern housing estates, Siemensstadt being in the UNESCO-heritage list today, had been attacked by the Nazis as “parrot housing” at best or “degenerate” at worst. Their colour schemes and modern forms were at odds with the historicist monumentalism favoured by the Nazis.

But with the Nazi regime crushed, Nazi aesthetics now morally obsolete, these architectural ideas of the interwar years, once connected to democracy, openness, and community, won ground again.

One wished to finally disentangle the densely built Berlin of the Wilhelminian era. And war destruction allowed for it in a more radical way than ever imagined.

Berlin’s dominant form of housing, until that time – Industrial Revolution apartment blocks – had been the result of the explosion in the city‘s population in the late 19th century. Back then, the city’s growth had led to an increase in real estate speculation and an incredible building frenzy on the long and narrow land plots the city had been divided into. Berlin’s huge industrial workforce would end up living in precarious circumstances in the backyards of these new buildings, with shops on the ground floor facing the street, and above them beletage apartments for middle class clientele. In the most overpopulated workers’ districts such as Wedding, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain these 5-storey buildings tightly packed against each other in perimeter blocks were referred to as ‘rental barracks’ (Mietskaserne), and Berlin the “biggest rental-barrack-city”.

Today, this mix of classes and functions is considered a rather healthy social make-up and guarantee of an active and pleasant urban environment. In their freshly renovated state these so-called ‘Berliner Altbau‘ apartments, with wooden floors and high ceilings, are considered among the most desirable and charming housing options in the inner city today – especially when located in a nice active Berliner Kiez (neighborhood). But back in the 19th and early 20th century, faced with overpopulation and lacking any of the modern amenities they are now graced with, these apartments presented severe social and hygienic shortcomings. And in the 1950s they were still considered the opposite of charming; and far from desirable.

Many architects saw the right angles of facades, and the lack of light and greenery as part of the social, cultural and political malaise of the past. New vision was necessary.

Looking at the discussions and plans of the immediate post-war years, it is hard not to be struck by the shared zeal and idealism of architects clearly eager to build a democratic society and a new open city on the ruins of the past. The collective’s six men and two women, whose personal relationships often reached back two decades, were committed to the same general ideas: brighten up and greenify the city, pacify residential areas therein from urban stresses, pollution, and overpopulation; and break up the mixture of all urban architectural functions – residence, work, transport, and leisure. A mixture believed to be detrimental to citizens’ quality of life and which Berlin – a “desert of stone” – had grown particularly infamous for.

Uniquely Socialist Architecture? : Stalinallee I

The Weberwiese High Rise by Herman Henselmann
The Weberwiese High Rise by Hermann Henselmann/Photo by Caroline Marburger

As ideas of disentanglement, asymmetry, and residential green areas, famously formulated by Le Corbusier before the war in the ‘Athens Charter’ (1933), were picked up as an obvious cornerstone of Berlin’s building plans – fashionable across Western countries and particularly favoured by the local Social Democrats – unease befell the leadership in the East. Just doing the same did not fit the authorities’ growing self-consciousness as a completely new, revolutionary socialist society.

Shared Allied administration of Berlin would fail spectacularly, and the final split into two irreconcilable German states – the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East – would take place in 1949.

East German party leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered architects to learn from Moscow instead. Soviet thought had labeled, in true ‘othering’ fashion, all the former ideas of a more decentralized, dispersed cityscape as downright ‘Anglo-American’ – which German Bauhaus architecture and Classic Modernism hardly was. Soviet thinkers, also based on experiences with housing estates built in Russian cities by German architects in the 1930s, denounced that style of architecture as being responsible for isolating people from political and public life. The public, its political activity and gathering, it said, had to be given much greater value not only in socialism vis-à-vis capitalism but also its respective architecture, which was particularly intent on using public space in the city differently.

The existing plans that had shown shared backgrounds and styles were rejected and labeled as too standardized and cosmopolitan (see: American). The architects would be accused of not showing appreciation or adaptation of local tradition or outstanding artistry. As a result, the GDR formulated its very own ‘16 Principles of City Development‘ which favoured hierarchical public spaces, wide straight streets, squares fit for mass assemblies, and monumental buildings to catch the eye.

Both states and respective occupation powers claimed their sectors of Berlin for themselves – and would state their Cold War ideological commitment through the style of architecture they would embrace. Not yet physically divided by the Berlin Wall for another decade, the city would become a boxing ring for both sides’ competing ideas, both championing different ways to create societies – and city spaces – most beneficial to the peoples’ well-being. Both set out to prove and show it, right under the nose of their opposing Berlin; the other state; the other political idea.

The former collective’s plans were dismissed. Three out of eight of the architects would become involved in projects in the West, the others remained in the East.

A slightly younger range of architects moved into the prominent positions for creating the new architecture for the socialist capital. While the Soviet demand for, and declaration of, architecture having to be “socialist in form yet national in style” hardly seemed a viable specification for creating palpable architecture, an example of what the Soviet Union intended be built was the new monumental Soviet Embassy which had been towering above the ruins around it on Unter den Linden since 1948.

A shining example of this new socialist style would be the Stalinallee boulevard, set to stretch from Frankfurter Tor towards Alexanderplatz.

Hermann Henselmann, the most prominent of the architects involved in the Stalinallee project in the coming fifteen years, an architect taught within the modernist Bauhaus tradition, built the first, highly acclaimed example of new, socialist architecture in 1951: the 11-level highrise at Weberwiese. His building was praised by former critics as showing the superiority of socialism vis-à-vis the soulless “American-style egg boxes” built in the West. As required, Henselmann said, his design paid tribute to the classicist style of Berlin’s early 19th century starchitect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a reference many of the architects responsible for the monumental architecture built on Stalinallee would pick up on. Greg Castillo, Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, judges the Hochhaus though as “ill-proportioned, poorly laid-out, expensive to build and banal in detailing”, its novelty only celebrated because of political needs at the time. Whatever judgement we cast, the political turmoil of the times definitely gave the building an identity boost, for better or worse.

In addition to classicist references, the grand boulevard would find its stylistic role models across Europe, these ‘workers palaces’ were inspired by noble housing in London and Bath, yet intended to be revolutionary in their social makeup: Stalinallee would be an area intended to showcase magnificent buildings and an impressive boulevard yet at the same time reach new historical heights of providing for the working class. As such, the project bordered on the utopian, but stylistically some criticised it as traditionalist or anti-modernist.

Outer appearances aside, the interiors of the buildings were certainly revolutionary: the buildings under construction on Stalinallee would provide light, spacious apartments, varying in sizes from 1 bedroom studios to 4 bedroom family sized living spaces, all furnished with telephones, intercoms, electrical stoves, heating, parquet floors, and elevator access. So remarkable was all this at the time that Berliners from all over, West Berliners as well, came on Sunday pilgrimages just to see the street with their own eyes.

Another crucial aspect of the undertaking’s public success was that authorities had called on the population to support the reconstruction effort in times of limited funds. Volunteering to clear rubble on the site was, while of great propaganda value for the East German government, quite popular with the people. Eventually, 2,000 flats would be given to those who had volunteered for at least a hundred 3 hour shifts and had received lottery tickets for such involvement or a donation. The first residents to move in arrived in the winter of 1952/53.

As construction workers from all over the country were called to the prestigious building site, there were complaints that other sites having suffered war damage across the country were being neglected. But officially, any dissonant tone was downplayed and it was celebrated as a collective achievement and success, with a propaganda song “Baut auf!/Rebuild!” calling on the youth to build a new future. Based on eyewitness statements, it seems the sentiment resonated with the population at the time. Pupils came after school, workers after their usual work was done, and praised the atmosphere even more than the free theatre tickets or books they received for it.

Possibly an early example of what became known as the IKEA effect decades later: you value more what you have built and helped put together yourself.

A Rupture And Its Entangled Legacies

Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee Facade/Photo by Caroline Marburger
Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee Facade/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The honeymoon period would not last long, however, as this new architecture became the backdrop not for the kind of official mass assembly the East German government had envisaged. But the unofficial gathering of workers intent on expressing their dissatisfaction with state policy – as dissent on the biggest construction site in East Berlin became the spark for the people‘s uprising of June 17th, 1953.

Following Stalin‘s death earlier that year, East German authorities saw the need to strengthen their control, to favour heavy industries at the expense of other industries and further collectivise private property. Rebuilding efforts were to be increased at all costs, particularly at the cost of the people they allegedly served to benefit: 10% more work output was demanded while wages would remain the same.

A drop in living standards that would not win over the population.

These increased work quotas were but one point of contention. The joy and idealism many had felt and experienced on the construction site had dissipated. On June 16th workers constructing a hospital near Stalinallee went on strike, they would be joined by labourers from this showcase boulevard and set out to march on the government headquarters. The crowd grew. The next day, state-wide open protests would take place in over 700 cities and communities, as a million people marched against the state, up until June 21st. Moscow had actually disapproved of the East German government’s action and had strictly called upon it to show restraint and lessen the people’s burden. But faced with mass protests and with the East German government appearing helpless, Soviet tanks would assist in suppressing the uprising.

Six hundred tanks rolled into East Berlin to clear the streets, 15,000 people were imprisoned, 3,000 sentenced and some executed. Tens of thousands fled to the West.

The distance between the government and the people became painfully obvious.

The authorities’ reaction to what would arguably be the biggest threat the East German state faced, until 1989, set the tone for decades to come: fuelling a paranoid expansion of the security police. Officially, the extent of the uprising was downplayed, the event officially brushed under the rug and what could not be denied altogether was retold as a story of mischievous Western infiltration, not a story of people standing up for themselves.

West Berlin quickly responded with Cold War politicking. On June 22nd, the West Berlin Senate decided to rename West Berlin’s prestigious East-West-Axis, which connected Charlottenburg via the Tiergarten central park to Berlin’s historical center, to the ‘Street of June 17th’ (Strasse des 17. Juni). A name the street bears to this day. This central Berlin street fell completely under Western jurisdiction, once widened as part of Hitler and Speer’s Germania project it was not dissimilar in size to Stalinallee, just lacking in residential buildings. This 17th June Street would end at the Brandenburg Gate – and the border with East Germany. Eight years later it would come to a premature end in front of the Berlin Wall, but in 1953 that was not yet the case.

Renaming a central, representative street in West Berlin pointing towards East-Berlin in honour of a date and event the East was in denial about was quite the statement. The fact that before it reaches the Brandenburg Gate, this street passes by one of three huge Soviet War Memorials in the city, an official Soviet enclave in the West, made the name even more meaningful – and confrontational – within the framework of the Cold War.

Uniquely Western Architecture?: Interbau 57 And The Hansaviertel

The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson
The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson/Photo by Caroline Marburger

As life on the construction sites of Stalinallee shifted to a new normal, five kilometres (less than three miles) to the West and only a stone’s throw away from the Street of June 17th, the West Berlin government set in motion its own prestigious and architecturally ambitious construction project. With many of its own inhabitants having flocked to see what was taking form on Stalinallee, the West had to concede it had fallen behind the East in terms of developing the city.

Intent on not only development but also testing out new concepts in terms of social, cultural and ecological ideas, West Berlin decided to revive a peculiar tool of innovation in urban engineering and architecture – introduced in Germany in the early 20th century – a building exhibition. This was not an architectural trade show but an invitation to German and international architects; asking them to produce new forms of architecture to be lived in and to last.

While the East German project in distant Friedrichshain had caught public imagination and created a stir in the West, this project’s location was chosen to be even closer to the sector borders. Hence, it would be easy to reach for potentially curious East Berliners, yet also well-connected to the existent public transport, the S-Bahn, and a new subway line under construction. Yet, build what? Many were not happy with the ideas set forth in the early 1950s and art critic Will Grohmann wistfully recalled of the modernist housing estates which had been built in the 1920s, yet located in more outer districts: “We look almost with envy [at them today…] when we should actually have made progress”.

Stylistically, modernist architecture reminiscent of the architectural ideas of the 1920s would be the key ingredient in the Interbau 57 project. With a certain sense of irony, the Bauhaus architecture school, partially involved in the housing estates Grohmann reminisced about, had previously been sceptically regarded as European modernism with a socialist touch in the United States. But via the teachings and buildings of German emigrés Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and Walter Gropius in Harvard, further catalyzed by American discussions and input in the 1940s and 50s, it was reimported into Berlin now as American Modernism or International Style. An unexpected Cold War reboot. The Soviets too, not unlike Americans at the time, would claim that this architecture represented US culture to the T.

Altogether 53 architects, 19 of whom were from abroad, among them famous architects such as Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, Arne Jacobsen and Le Corbusier, would develop different housing options for the city.

Nearly all of it was built in a central area just north of the Tiergarten Park known as the Hansaviertel. The project would see the construction of highrise, multi-level housing estates and smaller pavillon houses, a library, a cinema and an Academy of Arts. The latter raised it to relevance for cultural activities but otherwise it remained in complete line with the Athens Charter’s plea for differentiating pure residential areas from business, industry, or leisure areas. Obvious reference to the East was made by the West’s Senator of Construction, Karl Mahler, who called for a sharp “contrast to the false pomp of Stalinallee” and Mayor Ernst Reuter (SPD) wished it “to show the population of a poor Eastern bloc that is constantly being bled dry that living in freedom also had its economic benefits”.

Streets lined with buildings were out of the question and the initial design featured structures in a green urban landscape freely scattered “like people having a conversation”. If in its completed form this is noticeable is questionable, at least. A green landscape, though, it is.

What was discussed at the time, welcomed by some, criticized as too cold and stark by others, today lives a niche life in the heart of Berlin.

In-fact mostly residential, neither visitors nor Berliners usually set foot in the area and even architecture aficionados need a second look to see the quarter’s beauty and innovative spirit. But for architecture historians, the Interbau project is constantly referred to as the breakthrough of modernism in West Germany. An important post-war achievement in Germany it was also a sign of the reintegration of German architects into international discourse.

The official American contribution was built about a mile east of the Hansaviertel and therefore much closer to what was the border at the time. Its initiators intended it to be a “beacon on the hill” in West Berlin, a city which became increasingly referred to as the “outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain”. And even if bulldozers could only pull up a tiny elevation; a terrace and considerable illumination would do the rest: the structure was visible from East Berlin, even at night. Architect Hugh Stubbins, former assistant to Walter Gropius in Harvard, was charged with the design of what was agreed to be representative of one of the most important liberties to protect: a Congress Hall for exercising the right of free speech.

In his first designs Stubbins played with flat roofs and half-opened domes. But the form he eventually decided on was a result of the input of his construction engineer, Fred Severud. Severud had been involved in the design of Dorton Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina. As with that structure, the roof of the West Berlin Congress Hall would be a hyperbolic paraboloid. It looks a bit like a saddle from above, from the ground more like a shell opening up on both sides. The roof’s entire weight rests on two spots on the sides. A wide open terrace on which the building stands, accessible for everyone via wide stairs; and the water basin in front of it made for an ingenious building combining expressive imagery, flair, and technical modernity at the same time. Hugh Stubbins readily admitted with regard to the building: “This was essentially a propaganda building aimed at the Soviets just half a mile away”.

The Congress Hall quickly became the recognisable highlight of the Interbau 1957 project. West Berlin had grimly registered the West Berliners flocking to the East in the early 50s to see Stalinallee, but their competitive project, with the Hall as one of its flagship buildings – soon lovingly nicknamed the ‘pregnant oyster’ by Berliners – earned them at least as much interest; and as many visitors.

Socialist Architecture Reloaded: Stalinallee II/Karl-Marx-Allee

The East Berlin House of Teacher
The House of the Teacher and East Berlin Congress Hall/Photo by Caroline Marburger

On the respective construction sites in East Berlin, work in the meantime continued. With the crisis of 1953 painfully averted, Stalin not only dead, but in 1956 furthermore fallen from grace as his crimes were openly disclosed, a course correction took place. Taking down Stalin’s gigantic statue from ‘his’ street in a cloak-and-dagger-operation in 1956 was just a step towards renaming it Karl-Marx-Allee, five years later.

In many respects, Krushchev who had eventually succeeded him, ventured a new course. The kind that would also affect the architectural expression of socialism. Krushchev painted Stalin’s ornate gigantomania as too extravagant, buildings such as those built in the early 1950s on Stalinallee as financial follies which in the end belied socialist ideals. The new Soviet leader argued that socialist architecture needed to be created by the convergence of cost calculation, on one hand, and the overriding principle of serving the people on the other. The new economy of construction, which soon was to be subsumed under the simple slogan “faster, better, cheaper” was not to be historicist – no more ‘palaces for the working class’ – but would find a more progressive way to achieve better housing for all: industrial building methods and a simplicity in design would prove paramount.

Confronted with the post-war consumerist boom in the West, particularly West Berlin, where among other things the abundance of consumer goods which the Marshall Plan had made possible was on immediate display, Krushchev confessed that Berlin had become a “bone in his throat”. At the 5th congress of the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) in Moscow in 1959, dealing with Post-war Construction and Reconstruction, the East German delegates, based on their ‘front experience’ had warned against any inspiration by ‘fashionable Western architecture’ and against any co-existence of the two allegedly dissimilar styles. A more modernist approach to architecture would be agreed upon in the East now as well.

Although something had to be found missing and inherently wrong with the existing Modernism: now it was the ‘organic’, asymmetrical forms and the free composition of the Western set-up which were rejected. Particularly the high rises of the Hansaviertel, which were said to be representative of Western competitiveness and individualism. Such characteristics were to be strictly avoided – even if the East German’s own flagship highrise at Weberwiese clearly contradicted this argument. The architects’ collective moved forward to create a more open and green setting instead, in many ways consistent with older and once shared ideas. But a clear stance had to be made: in order to set their own building and spaces apart, right angles and a clear formation of buildings was maintained. Additionally, the building ensemble was created to be more representative and never focused on housing alone. Hence, among the residential buildings and prominently facing the street – still wide enough for parades – the second phase of construction would involve introducing one of the major premiere cinemas of Berlin, ice cream pavillons, cafés and cultural venues for more than just local residents.

Marking the entrance to this ensemble from Alexanderplatz, East Berlin would also build its answer to Stubbins’ Congress Hall.

East Berlin’s Congress Hall was completed to accompany what became known as the ‘House of the Teacher’. This name and purpose is reminiscent of a building formerly located here which had served as home to a self-organised teachers’ association since before World War I.

Completed in 1964, the House of the Teacher was the East’s first reinforced concrete frame construction with a glass and aluminium facade, designed by Hermann Henselmann. The adjacent congress hall, a two-level building with an elegant, low dome, has an impressive open foyer with wide winding stairs providing access to the central hall on the top floor. The foyer and stairs are designed to easily catch your eye, demonstrating a certain sense for flair, openness, and transparency.

With Walter Womacka’s 2-level mural, reminiscent of Mexican wall murals such as the ones by Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera, laid around the third and fourth level of the House of the Teacher, an Indonesian restaurant inside, the Kino International down the road and nearby Café Moskau, the architecture of Phase II did not involve international architects like the Interbau 57  project but sure made use of international references.

Just like West Berlin’s collaboration with 19 non-German architects was a strategy to demonstrate inclusion in a transnational framework, adding legitimacy and appeal; Henselmann’s two-piece construction (the Congress Hall and House of the Teacher) actually made reference to Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture in Brasilia – an architect who had, in-fact, participated in the Interbau 1957 project.

As a building, the East Berlin Congress Hall stands in the shadow of the spectacular Congress Hall of West Berlin and today, squeezed between the buildings of the 2000s which tower around it, it fits so easily with examples of International Style that this one hardly registers as ‘socialist’. In-fact, recent publications simply depict it as being an example of ‘International Style’.

Berlin’s Dual Post-War Legacies

The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson & Hansabücherei/Photo by Caroline Marburger
The Schwedenhaus in the Hansaviertel by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson & Hansabücherei/Photo by Caroline Marburger

The lesson in Berlin is clear: that the Cold War trickled down into these architectural designs, on either side. But also, like in the case of the Congress Halls, that there is more to their mutual relationship than just simplistic opposition.

There are many more examples of this phenomenon across the city. West Berlin had been lacking most crucial institutions of a ‘proper’ city after the 1945 division because many were located in the Soviet sector, and historical centre. This meant that, eventually, every major institution in Berlin had at least one sibling on the other side of the Wall. These relatives grew up apart and had issues: as the new building often came into the world in order to be the better, timelier, more adequate version of its older sibling living with the other parent, it is easy to understand why.

To give some examples of architectural sibling rivalry:

  • The Berlin State Opera on Unter den Linden (1753, East) and the German Opera (1961, West)
  • the Humboldt University (1810, East) and the Free University (1948, West)
  • the State Library on Unter den Linden (1785/1914, East) and the State Library on Potsdamer Straße (1960, West)
  • the Philharmonic (1963, West) and the former Royal Theater (1821) refurbished as the Concert House in 1985 (East)
  • Museum Island (1830 -1930, East) and the Kulturforum (1963-1998, West)

In all these cases, the post-war buildings in West Berlin are now Cold War remnants. They do not just make up for lacking such institutions due to the division. A substantial amount of time and effort went into making them stand out against their older counterparts in the East, often with the same intentions as the post-war housing projects: overcome their historical predecessors,  distinguish the West from the East, and set this new democratic society apart from the megalomaniacal visions of the Nazis and their respective architecture – which meant monumental and imposing architecture was not the language of the time.

These buildings can therefore seem comparatively modest and their political zeal is less obvious, too. Yet, we mostly look at such buildings in West Berlin as examples of postwar architecture and praise them for their aesthetic qualities or lack thereof. Instead, acknowledging the conflicts’ interactive nature clearly shows and helps us to appreciate West Berlin – and East Berlin – differently. Postwar buildings and structures, unless built for mere necessity, always sent a message, in East and West alike.

The Cold War narratives might not have defined these structures in their entirety, they were always more than just propaganda stunts, yet the Cold War surely helped shape and bring them about.


Caroline Marburger

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Caroline Marburger



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Loeb, Carolyn: Planning reunification: the planning history of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Planning Perspectives, vol. 21 (2006), no.1, pp.67-87.

Mehilli, Elidor: The Socialist Design: Urban Dilemmas in Postwar Europe and the Soviet Union, in: Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 13 (2012), No. 3, , pp. 635-665.

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Schätzke, Andreas: Zwischen Bauhaus und Stalinallee. Architekturdiskussion im östlichen Deutschland 1945-1955, Gütersloh/Berlin 1991.

Urban, Florian: Recovering Essence through Demolition: The “Organic” City in Postwar West Berlin, in: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 63 (2004), No. 3 , pp. 354-369.

Berlin Long Reads | Dark Tourism And Why We Visit Atrocity Sites

View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz
View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz

In the fourth installment of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member, Asaf Leshem, discusses the phenomenon of ‘Dark Tourism’ and why atrocity sites remain popular destinations for tourists. 

Over the past decade, the Sachsenhausen memorial site and museum became one of the most visited sites for tourists travelling to Berlin. Although, this former Nazi concentration camp is actually located some 35km away from Berlin’s city centre, in the Brandenburg town of Oranienburg – which means the trip usually requires people to make a decision to take a suburban train out of the city or join a tour that includes a visit to the former camp as part of its itinerary.

It is by no means a typical holiday activity. It is unlikely that anyone would describe visiting Sachsenhausen as a fun tourist ‘thing to do’, or a temporary relaxing escape from one’s ordinary life – such as time spent in a nice hotel spa or an exciting evening at the opera. Naturally, most tour guides refrain from concluding their Sachsenhausen tours with remarks such as ‘I hope you enjoyed the tour today’. Yet, the site continues to draw visitors.

Why does Sachsenhausen attract nearly one million visitors each year?

In this article I will discuss the motivation behind visiting sites of death and atrocity, such as Sachsenhausen, acknowledging their ‘darkest’ position on what Dark Tourism expert Philip Stone’s ‘light to dark spectrum’. In addition, I will explore the expectations tourists may have of visiting sites such as Sachsenhausen.


The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence
The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence

What is Dark Tourism?

The act of visiting a site like Sachsenhausen is nowadays referred to in academic circles as Dark Tourism: “the travel and visitation to sites associated with death, acts of violence, tragedy, scenes of death and crimes against humanity” (adapted from Tanaya Preece and Gary Price’s 2005 definition). Although the term has gained some mainstream popularity, the phenomenon of visiting sites of death and atrocity is as old as travel itself.

One notable form of the movement of people during Roman times was travel to attend activities and attractions that can be considered an early manifestation of dark tourism entertainment – think of the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, the gladiator fights and public executions. Another example of an early form of dark tourism came centuries later when Edward Stanley, the Bishop of Norwich, testified as to the popularity of tourists walking through the Catacombs in Paris, where bodies of guillotined prisoners were stored.

In terms of scale and degree of tourism infrastructure, however, these early form of tourism cannot be compared to the way we perceive travel, accommodation and services today. Modern tourism – and with it modern dark tourism – may have changed but as we shall see several of the motivations to visit sites presenting death as a tourist commodity have not changed that much.

The term dark tourism itself is relatively new.

Researchers John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley coined the term in 1996 in a special issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies. In the same edition, Tony Seaton referred to this emerging unique form of tourism as Thanatourism. For Seaton, the word Thanatopsis – meaning contemplation of death – played a major role in the need to name a social behaviour, which had grown in scale to the extent that it required its own tourism category, and consequently, more research.

Perhaps as it is easier to pronounce, it was ‘Dark Tourism’ rather than ‘Thanatourism’ that became the more popular term to refer to any tourist visitation to sites presenting death, human tragedy, or atrocity. Nevertheless, to many in the general public the term remains somewhat confusing, and occasionally I still get people asking me if by ‘dark tourism’ I mean guiding a tour at night or a sinister form of tourism.

Despite the ambiguity of the term, the growth in popularity of dark tourism as a segment or a category of travel on its own has attracted researchers to further expand the body of theory on the subject. From the late 1990s, researchers engaged in various avenues of enquiry on the various aspects of dark tourism.

These included:

  • the morality and ethics of visiting dark tourism sites,
  • the management of dark tourism sites,
  • the ethics of marketing of such sites,
  • the interpretation of these sites,
  • tourist behaviour,
  • the shades of dark tourism,
  • and the motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites.

The infamous camp lettering 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets One Free)
The infamous camp lettering ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets One Free)

Why do we visit Dark Tourism sites?

Like many similar sites, Sachsenhausen’s first aim as a memorial site was to be a place of mourning and remembrance. Along with education these are worthy of mention as motivations for people to visit the former concentration camp during its incarnation as a memorial site of the German Democractic Republic (GDR). Mourning and remembrance, and education, are still known to us as common motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites (before the 1990s, such sites would often be called heritage or even difficult heritage sites). During the GDR times, many schools from all over the north-east of the country visited Sachsenhausen (similarly, GDR students from the south of the country visited Buchenwald, near the city of Weimar).

Although German reunification brought a temporary decline in the number of school groups visiting, the number soon climbed back up to include today not only groups from north-east Germany, but also from other parts of the country and from neighbouring countries.

The next motivations we can identify are from those people who have a general interest in history or in learning about history and culture. Very often, interest in history is accompanied by family heritage, or the desire to learn about the exact location where known events took place. For many, the latter is closely related with the need to “see it to believe it”. Even today, despite ample amount of research and proof that exists, many find it hard to believe that humans would commit such heinous crimes against each other. Sadly, the shocking, almost unbelievable nature of these crimes makes the life of Holocaust deniers easier. For that reason, visits to Sachsenhausen by school groups or individual adult tourists carry a special weight of responsibility.

Certainly, as many different scholars have suggested visiting a dark tourism site is closely related to various naturally occuring human attributes, such as fascination with death and/or violence of war, morbid curiosity, and voyeurism. In a way, these, especially the latter, are argued to be akin to the act of ‘rubber necking’ – slowing down your car to get a better look at an accident.

There are many sites around the world that fall under the rubrik of Dark Tourism, from the ‘lighter’ London Dungeon to various sites where famous battles took place. In the case of such sites, it is not uncommon for people to be motivated to visit by the feeling of affiliation with one side or the other.

The feeling or even showing empathy to the Nazi side when visiting Sachsenhausen – beyond the possible ideological motivations – could also be classified as Schadenfreude, in itself a motivation identified in the dark tourism literature. In the case of Sachsenhausen, Schadenfreudea pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune – could, of course, also be an additional motivation for neo-Nazis, people with anti-Semitic ideologies, or people with other racist ideologies to visit the site. It may be the case that they would try to visit in order to take pride in the crimes committed by the SS, intentionally to spite and/or to draw political attention. It is important to note here that although a person can visit the memorial site without having any identifiable clothing or behaviour, if a visitor were to show such behaviour they would be asked by management to leave to premises.

In contrast to the latter, a sense of social duty/’the thing to do’ and the need for social belonging are also strong motivations for visiting a site such as Sachsenhausen. Tourists often tell their guides that part of the reason they wanted to come on the Sachsenhausen tour is the need to understand an event (i.e. the Holocaust) that was so instrumental in shaping the value system of our contemporary society. In addition to that, some scholars (see for example Philip Stone) have argued that in secular societies there is a modern need to contemplate death, fulfilling a void that has been left by the absence of religious ceremonies, which as western society becomes more secularised are no longer part of everyday life for many people.

One of the most pedestrian reasons for visiting a dark tourism site, such as Sachsenhausen, is due to the combination of global population growth and the recent rapid advances in online communication technologies, as many people are motivated to visited Sachsenhausen simply because ‘it is the place to go while in Berlin’; perhaps following a recommendations they have read on one of the big travel websites. Another related motivation, similarly influenced by technological and social changes, is when people may wish to visit Sachsenhausen to try a new or different experience. In the process paradoxically reducing the dark tourism site to its most meta form, that the appeal is not just in that Sachsenhausen as a location presents aspects that attract the visitor and qualify it as a dark tourism site but as a dark tourism site it is worthy of visiting because of its Dark Tourism label. That the claim to dark tourism itself has become enough of a motivation.

A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison
A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison

Individual motivations vs the group dynamic

Most visitors to Sachsenhausen (as scholars such as Richard Sharpley have argued in relations to other dark tourism sites) have more than one motivation to visit. Often, people visit as part of a student group, an incentive tour with itinerary set by the company, or a family day tour to the memorial site. For example, a person may wish to learn more about this part of the Holocaust or the war, but is also motivated to go because there is an opportunity to go with friends or colleagues. Thus, although there is little research on the social circles of expectations, tour guides have made interesting observations on the subject of motivations to visit dark tourism sites within the context of group dynamics.

More generally, as sociologist Erving Goffman famously suggested: social performance may hinder truthful behaviour. It can be argued then, that social performance can alter behaviour during the visit to the former camp, and may influence the motivations of the individual to visit a former concentration camp such as Sachsenhausen.

Most commonly observed are the expectation circles in student groups, and they are indeed an interesting example. In such groups a student’s motivation to visit Sachsenhausen may involve:

  • going because everyone in their class is going and/or because it’s common in their country,
  • going because their close friends are going,
  • going because someone they like (or or attracted to) is going,
  • going because their teachers and/or parents expect them to go,
  • going because they are interested in history,
  • going because they have just recently learned that chapter of history for their exams, or are about to have exams on, for example, the Second World War,
  • and going because they want to understand their family’s or ethnic heritage,

As explained above, the student may also harbour different expected outcomes. In this case, what they think is expected of them to gain from such a visit, in terms of learning outcomes, social behaviour and etiquette, cultural and social belonging, understanding of moral values, etc. Noticeably, young students may or may not have interest in history as their motivation to visit Sachsenhausen.

However, I would argue that even those who do not initially show interest will in most cases become curious during their visit, with the added educational value of the content they learn.


The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum
The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum

What do visitors expect when visiting a Dark Tourism site?

Expectations when visiting Sachsenhausen or similar sites are indeed a distinctive topic within the context of tourism research.

There is a tendency among researchers to argue that most of tourism is motivated by hedonistic and individualistic needs. Intuitively, we may agree with that assumption, with the understanding that people often travel on a holiday with family and/or friends and are therefore required to have their own expectations or hedonistic wishes somewhat limited by the needs and wishes of others in the group.

Nevertheless, the social aspect is amplified in a visit to a dark tourism site such as Sachsenhausen where, as I explained in the student example, social norms play a much bigger role. Reactions of the individual are to some extent determined by the pressures of their social environment or at the very least by the expectations they believe come from their immediate or larger social circle.

Continuing on the same vein as the students’ case, a great example can be seen in the groundbreaking documentary “Uploading Holocaust”, produced by film-makers Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein in 2016. In the film one of the protagonists believes he was suppose to cry after visiting one of the former extermination camps (on a group trip to Poland), and as a result feels shame that he didn’t. The outcome of the visit, being different than what the young man had initially expected, was the feeling that took him by surprise. In my years of joining such groups and meeting with them several weeks after I observed that it is that feeling of sadness, feelings of cultural belonging, or further contemplation of death may take weeks, or even months to sink in.

To extend this observation to the matter of education, a family may visit Sachsenhausen, motivated by the parents’ wish for a learning experience and their expectations that their children will learn about this part of history, but their wishes may only be fulfilled in the following years to come.

No one person can know all that there is to know about any dark tourism site. And inevitably, people visiting Sachsenhausen will have varying degrees of knowledge on the Holocaust and specifically on the SS concentration camp system. Naturally, many will not be very familiar with, for example, the lives of the prisoners in the camp, or all of the SS objectives regarding the camp. It can be argued that lack of knowledge is a perfectly acceptable justification for visiting the camp.

For some people, walking around in solemn contemplation, or maybe just taking pictures and reading information boards in some of the exhibitions is the way to go. For others, an audio guide proves the most useful and informative structure. Others still, may choose to book a private tour or join a tour organised by a public tour company.

For all, whatever their motivations may be, I would argue that the outcome of the visit is largely a positive one.

Asaf Leshem

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Asaf Leshem

Sources and further reading:

Biran, A., Poria, Y. and Oren, G. 2011) Sought experiences at (dark) heritage sites. Annals of Tourism Research38(3), 820-841.

Bookheimer, B.J. (2015). The layers of memory at Sachsenhausen. From the GDR to contemporary Germany (thesis). University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

Cohen, E., (2011). Educational Dark Tourism at an IN POPULO SITE. The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, 38, (1), 193-209.

DW, 2018. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: Anniversary of Liberation.

Feldman, J. (2002). Marking the boundaries of the enclave: defining the Israeli collective through the Poland ‘experience’. Israel Studies, 7 (2), 84-114.

Foley, M. and Lennon, J. (1996) JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198-211.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London, Anchor Books.

Lennon, J.J. and Foley, M. (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. London: Continuum.

Nir, U. and Bornstein, S. (2016). Uploading Holocaust. Available at: Accessed on: 20.4.2017.

Preece, T. and Price, G.G. (2005). Motivations of participants in dark tourism: A case  study of Port Arthur, Tasmania. In Ryan C., Page S., & Aitken M. (Eds.), Taking tourism to the limits: Issues, concepts and managerial perspectives (191-197).

Seaton, A.V. (1996). Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 234-244.

Sharpley, R. and Stone, P. (2009). The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Eds.). Bristol: Channel View Publications.

Sharpley, R. (2014) Tourist experiences of genocide sites: The Case of Rwanda.

Keynote Paper, Belgrade International Tourism Conference, College of Tourism, Belgrade, 27-29 March.

Soen, D. and Davidovich, N. (2011). Israeli youth pilgrimages to Poland: rationale and polemics. Images, 11, 17-18.

Stone, P. and Sharpley, R. (2008). Consuming dark tourism: a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35 (2), 574–595.

Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions, Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 54(2), 145-160.