Karl Marx Allee

Karl Marx Allee

A walk along Karl Marx Allee may not be everybody’s idea of a morning or afternoon out in Berlin, but if the old communist GDR ideology fascinates you as much as it does me, then try and find a gap in your itinerary to come and take a look at this grand East German boulevard.

Stretching almost 2 kilometres from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor, Karl Marx Allee is 89m (292ft) wide with 8 storey apartment buildings built in the socialist realist style lining both sides of the avenue: It never took on this appearance of course until the road found itself inside the Soviet sector after the end of World War II.

From the 1780s onwards, the road was called the Große Frankfurter Straße and connected Berlin to Frankfurt on the Oder, but on 3rd February 1945 a heavy Soviet air raid reduced it to rubble.

In December 1949 the road was renamed Stalinallee in honour of the incumbent Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and two years later a 16ft high bronze statue of him was added to the landscape – but there were bigger plans ahead.

The Statue of Stalin (Bundesarchiv)

In 1952 it was decided to make Stalinallee a showpiece communist project and convert it into a six-lane highway with as much space for pedestrians as there would be for cars. Of course, this wasn’t just for the benefit of the locals, but also to show the world that what West Berlin could do, then East Berlin could do better.

The road was built in two phases; the first section between Strausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor was completed in 1959, and the second phase connecting Strausberger Platz with Alexanderplatz was constructed between 1959 and 1964.

It’s claimed that 70% of the bricks used in the project were salvaged from what was left behind after the 1945 air raids, and to put that into some sort of context, it meant that around 2 million volunteers picked some 38 million bricks out of the rubble with their bare hands: Now that’s what you call dedication to recycling on a grand scale.

As with many grandiose projects, it never quite went according to plan, because on June 17th 1953 the construction workers of Stalinallee downed tools, ostensibly in opposition to repressive working practice demands. The demonstrations that followed though were as much to do with attempting to change the communist political system in the GDR as they were about working conditions.

The demonstrations spread, the Soviet tanks moved in, and the uprising was crushed within days. Figures vary, but up to a hundred and twenty-five people across the GDR lost their lives in the process. It wasn’t a total bloodbath in comparison to other insurrections elsewhere perhaps, but the seeds of discontent had been sown.

The 1953 Uprising in Stalinallee (Associated Press)

Just a few months before the uprising Joseph Stalin suffered a stroke from which he never recovered, and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, began the process of de-Stalinization. The term wasn’t used at the time but Khrushchev had ideas of his own, and so it was a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’.

The high cost of building the Workers Palaces along the Allee saw a change in direction after the first phase had been completed, and the second phase took on a more modern international look. In 1961 Stalinallee was re-named Karl Marx Allee after the revolutionary socialist, and the statue of Stalin was unceremoniously removed.

Constructing Stalinallee (Data Gaps Tumblr)

The authorities were no doubt proud of Germany’s ‘first communist street’, but Western perception of it was not so complimentary. For the East Germans they saw it as a prestigious achievement, a benchmark for a future modern society, and somewhere they could show off their military hardware, but Westerners didn’t quite see it the same way.

Military Parade in Karl Marx Allee (Bundesarchiv)
Military Parade in Karl Marx Allee (Bundesarchiv)
Karl Marx Allee (Bundesarchiv)
Karl Marx Allee (Bundesarchiv)

By the time of re-unification, the road, like the German Democratic Republic itself, was beginning to look as though it belonged to a bygone era.  A poor choice of materials used in the construction of the buildings added to the decaying appearance of this once grand boulevard, and inclement weather could make it feel like an austere, soulless and rather desolate urban landscape; but in the late 1990s an investment bank bought the entire street and started to bring it back to its former glory.

In 2016 I was staying in a hotel at the Alexanderplatz end of the road and so I decided to walk the complete length of it to Frankfurter Tor to see how it looked now. The buildings at this end of the road were pretty much what I expected: Post-war building in Western Europe has had more than its fair share of critics, and I think it’s fair to say that the GDR’s idea of trying to compete with its political opponent at building modern architecture in the 1960s was not such a good idea. They may have looked great at the time, but they certainly didn’t now.

Having said that, there’s one building here at the junction with Grunerstraße called the Haus des Lehrers which translates to House of the Teacher. There’s no architectural merit to the building at all but it does have a communist mural typical of the times wrapped around it. The mural, called Our Life was created by Walter Womacka, and definitely worth looking out for.

1960s Architecture including the House of the Teacher
'Our Life' Mural

Unless you’re a complete masochist like me, I think in all honesty you would be better off taking the U5 to Strausberger Platz (or Frankfurter Tor) so that you can save your energy for strolling along the most interesting section between the two.

Strausberger Platz is not really a square, but more of a large oval roundabout with a fountain in the middle, and was where the 1953 uprising kicked off. It’s a pretty impressive introduction to the first phase of the boulevard and it would be easy to miss the bust of Karl Marx himself in the south-east corner.

Strausberger Platz
Bust of Karl Marx in Strausberger Platz

The credit for the design of the apartments and the ‘entryways’ at Strausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor was an architect called Hermann Henselmann, who was also responsible for the design of the House of the Teacher I mentioned earlier.

The apartments were positively sumptuous for the time and they were accompanied by some of the best facilities in Berlin, such as schools, doctors’ surgeries, retail stores, restaurants and cafés.

At number 72 is Café Sibylle which opened in 1953 as a milk bar/ice cream parlour, but then took on its present name in the 1960s. After reunification it closed down, and then just after the dawn of the new millennium it re-opened again with a small exhibition showing the history of the road, along with some paintings from the early days of the milk bar that were uncovered during renovation. Not only was it a welcome pit stop, it was fascinating as well.

Little did I know at the time but in April 2018 it was to close down again due to financial problems, but by then the café had become an institution, and by the end of the year a new owner had been found and re-opened by Hans Modrow, the GDR’s last head of government.

Cafe Sibylle

Many of the buildings along the Allee are of similar design, but not all. The one below is more ‘Wedding Cake’ style than Bauhaus, which at least makes the walk along here even more interesting.

The walk ends at Frankfurter Tor where the road then continues as Frankfurter Allee. It’s an appropriate place to finish our walk because the two towers that face each other across the square, symbolise Frankfurter Thor, the historic entrance into the city through the Berlin Customs Wall.

Karl Marx Allee may not be the Champs Elysees, 5th Avenue or even Unter Linden, but it’s a part of Berlin’s history – and a pretty impressive one at that.

Frankfurter Tor
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15 thoughts on “Karl Marx Allee

  1. Toonsarah

    I enjoyed my walk with you and it was great to see all the archive material alongside your modern-day photos 🙂 I do like the Our Life mural, and the detailing on those buildings at Frankfurter Tor. We’ve never made that far along but maybe on a future Berlin visit.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Maybe some people would see it as a long walk for no real reason, but I know you would see it differently. Thanks for your support Sarah 🙂

      Reply
  2. starship VT

    Great post and photos, Malcolm. Post WWII and early Communist era history is interesting and especially for me as it is reflected in architecture and propaganda art. While in Bulgaria for the last Euromeet, I had hoped to take the “Communist Tour of Sofia” but lacked the time — we did see a former Communist building or two. But, sorry I have to disagree with you on finding anything positive in Communism or Socialism. They never result in the kind of society they claim, and frankly, I still wouldn’t care for them if they did. If you have not seen it already, I recommend you see “The Lives of Others.” It’s a stunning movie.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks once again for your comments Sylvia, even those where they disagree with my own point of view 🙂

      I would agree with you that communism is flawed and I certainly wouldn’t want to live under communist rule, but there are a number of people who used to live in East Berlin who would like to see those days back. They call it ‘Ostalgie’ and if you look at the way the Western world behaves at times, then I can begin to understand why. The regime may have been harsh, but they didn’t suffer crime the way they do now and there weren’t any homeless people or unemployed.

      That said, any government that needs to keep its people shut in behind a wall and Iron Curtain isn’t somewhere that I would like to live, and the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc didn’t like it like that either. All I’m saying is that not everything is black and white. I went to Moscow and Leningrad during the height of the Cold War and the people I was allowed to communicate with were very defensive about their way of life. It’s a topic I could talk about for ages.

      I haven’t seen that film, but I’ll definitely look out for it. Thanks again for taking a look 🙂

      Reply
  3. jogacreations

    I’m sure someone told me this is now one of the most expensive areas of Berlin to live. When I wandered up it there was an amazing juggler on an extended unicycle working one of the intersections when the lights were red. Fortunately I didn’t have a lot of coins but he was worth everything in my pocket. Nice piece Malc.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for taking a look John. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if you’re right about it being expensive now. It seems bizarre that the people who were there in the early days can’t afford to live there anymore because their GDR pensions aren’t enough to allow it. At least that’s what I read somewhere.. I like the bit about the juggler by the way 🙂

      Reply
  4. Fergy.

    Another fascinating piece as always, Malc, well-researched and beautifully photographed.

    Isn’t it appalling to think that Uncle Joe” was doing things like this when there were so many people starving in the “Communist Utopia”? The man was a card-carrying lunatic. It is nonetheless impressive and I love that Café, very tidy.

    I hope everything is as well with you and yours as it can be at present.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      It’s estimated that up to 20 million people died through starvation and genocide in the USSR under Stalin – and some people still think that it’s a great system. I can see why communism came about, but the system is flawed because it seems that it only changes one despot for another.

      As for life down here in the West Country I can’t grumble, but I’m glad to see these restrictions easing at last. I hope things are going well for you, and thanks for your smashing comments again Fergy. They’re always very much appreciated.

      Reply
  5. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

    Must say lovely pictures indeed, but because of your artistry as a photographer Malc. I don’t have any sympathy at all for communism and I think the best part of the history of that part of Berlin was when they tore it down and brought freedom to those people. But you are a fantastic writer and your narratives, where you lace information with lore and tie it all up with precise words that take the reader through the article with ease and with pleasure. Smashing good work my friend! Hope you are enjoying a lovely Palm Sunday!
    Cheers,
    FBC

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Quite a few years ago I dreamt up a little quote which says that if we could have the “Best from the past, best from the future, best from the West and best from the East” then we would have a planet much better than we’ve got now, and I think it still applies.

      Not everything in the communist world is bad, but if those left-wing anarchists think it’s a better world than they’ve got here in the West now, then it might not do them any harm to go over for some ‘Life Experience’ in the East and see what it’s really like.

      Thanks for your kind words again F. I really appreciate them.

      Reply
      1. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

        Yes, I agree Malc, I would like to send a few communist wanna-be’s from our government over to Cuba or Venezuela, to live like the rabble and see if they like it. One of these chaps has tripled his net worth since becoming part of the new government and he’s a raving communist!
        All the best to you and it is always a pleasure to pay you a visit my friend.
        Cheers,
        FBC.

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          And it’s always a pleasure to read your comments Francesc. Have a great Sunday lunch and I’ll catch up with your posts a bit later.

          Reply

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