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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.