Musekamp on Stangl, 'Risen from Ruins: The Cultural Politics of Rebuilding East Berlin'
Paul Stangl. Risen from Ruins: The Cultural Politics of Rebuilding East Berlin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. 352 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0320-2.
Reviewed by Jan Musekamp (University of Pittsburgh)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54596
Beyond Socialist Remodeling: Rebuilding East Berlin, 1945-61
Given its tumultuous history, it is not surprising that numerous scholars focus on postwar Berlin’s changing urban landscape. This is an interdisciplinary endeavor, with architects, urban planners, historians, and art historians looking at the city from markedly different perspectives. Paul Stangl is a geographer by training and adds to this growing body of scholarship on the divided city. His focus is on the twenty-five years between the end of the Second World War and the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall—a time when Germany and the entire European continent “rose from ruins,” as the GDR national anthem put it. However, the Berlin case is unique for a number of reasons. First, the former German capital quickly developed into the front city of the Cold War. Second, as a result of this geopolitical background, both East and West Berlin served as showcases of the ideologies clashing here. Third, Berlin soon became a truly divided city in both spatial and ideological ways. Here, architects and urban planners often had to make decisions that followed not only general trends in urban planning but also ideological guidelines or directives. Stangl’s main subject is the urban landscape and the meaning assigned to its different elements, with a special emphasis on the ideological shifts occurring between 1945 and 1961.
In the introduction, Stangl identifies eight major discourses (or “pathways,” as he calls these urban planning and ideological trends) that shaped the rebuilding of East Berlin after 1945. In his book, he focuses mostly on the interplay of modernism, preservationism, and socialist realism. In the first chapter, the author examines “the purge of symbolic elements” (p. 24) incompatible with the new regime’s ideology. Drawing from Maoz Azaryahu’s work on Berlin street names, he describes how the Soviet Military Administration and East German Communists superseded the previous, Prussian-German-dominated memoryscape with a new one that heralded the commemoration of the antifascist fight and the sacrifice of Soviet troops during the Second World War—as manifested in the vast Soviet soldiers’ memorial in Berlin-Treptow.
The second chapter focuses on the development of rebuilding plans against the backdrop of ideological shifts. In the beginning, urban planners developed modernist proposals for a still-united city—most notably Hans Scharoun’s 1946 exhibition in the Imperial Palace. This would change after the 1948 split of the city government, when Eastern and Western planning efforts slowly drifted apart. In the East, socialist realism would be the dominant style in the 1950s. Stangl tellingly calls these comprehensive plans for East Berlin “ephemeral urban visions” (p. 102), since not a single one was actually put into practice.
In chapters 3 to 6 Stangl elaborates on four relevant case studies, namely Unter den Linden, the Berlin Palace grounds turned Marx-Engels Square, the government quarter on Wilhelmstraße, and the massive housing building program on Stalinallee (Karl-Marx-Allee). Shifting between questions of adequate housing, state representation, and ideology, Stangl demonstrates how the different currents mentioned in the introduction influenced the decision making—in many cases going far beyond a simplistic idea of a uniform socialist city transformation. In these thoroughly researched case studies, maps and archival images help to carve out the “place-based meaning” (p. 4) of urban planning as intended by the author. This is especially true for the discussions around the ruins of the Imperial Palace—hated symbol of Prussian militarism for some and grand architecture for others. In the late 1940s, it seemed that urban planners could agree on the renovation of at least part of the huge structure. However, for ideological reasons, the early GDR’s most powerful leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered the 1950 demolition of the structure to create space for large parade grounds. On Wilhelmstraße, the need for office space on the one hand and the administrative building’s National Socialist legacy on the other clashed and led to a compromise where Hitler’s chancellery was destroyed but the former Ministry of Aviation building was adapted to host GDR ministries.
The strengths of the book are undoubtedly the in-depth research behind the analysis as well as the ability of the author to break down theoretical debates (such as those about the meaning of socialist realism) to their manifestation in urban space. Other aspects of the book are not that convincing. Most importantly, as a book claiming to make an important contribution to urban memory cultures, it lacks profound engagement with theories of memory as articulated by Pierre Nora, Aleida Assmann, and others. While this is not a significant void in the book's case studies, it shows in the subchapter on the Soviet memorial in Treptow. Here, the author suggests that this ensemble is a unique Soviet or Communist approach to commemoration. However, it is deeply rooted in global ways of commemorating the fallen with tombs of unknown soldiers, including guards of honor and eternal flames. Also, it is not entirely clear why the author claims that 1961 is an important caesura for urban planning—other than for dramaturgical purposes, following the turns of the Cold War narrative. It seems as if the Berlin Wall did not overly influence urban planning in East Berlin—if one leaves aside the demolitions needed to create the infamous death strip on the border. Rather, it was at the end of the 1950s, and not 1961, that a shift from socialist realism back to modernism occurred. Also, this was a time when prefabricated housing took off (as seen in the Stalinallee’s housing construction of the late 1950s and early 1960s). Moreover, as the author correctly states in the introduction, “key individuals could play prominent roles” in the planning process of the city (p. 6). However, Stangl rarely elaborates on the professional background of the numerous planners involved. The case is clear for Walter Ulbricht, who was not an architect but a Stalinist politician whose vision was to create a parade ground beyond the scale of the Red Square. On the contrary, most architects of both East and West Berlin had enjoyed a similar prewar education and were influenced by international trends continuing after 1945 (or 1961, for that matter). These close connections existed even across the newly erected ideological barriers and manifested themselves in urban developments that referred to each other—an East-West dialogue Stangl rarely mentions in his study. One such example is Hans Scharoun, who for some time remained affiliated with institutions in East Berlin and was responsible for some structures on Stalin-Allee. However, in the 1960s and 1970s he became the architect of the famous Berlin Philharmonic concert hall and the State Library in West Berlin, next to the Wall. Finally, the book would also have profited from more accurate copy editing. This is especially annoying in the case of typos in German names (e.g., Schlögl instead of Schlögel, Deutcher instead of Deutscher, etc.)
Despite some shortcomings, this book is highly recommended to all those interested in early GDR planning in Berlin. It will be especially valuable for history and urban planning students (and well-informed tourists) making their way across the architectural layers of Berlin’s East. For those who want to know more about the transformation of East Berlin after 1961, the reviewer recommends Simon Ward’s book, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin.
. To name just a few more recent works: Simon Ward, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin: Framing the Asynchronous City, 1957-2012 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016); Emily Pugh, Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014); and Florian Urban, Neo-historical East Berlin: Architecture and Urban Design in the German Democratic Republic, 1970-1990 (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009).
. For a non-Cold War narrative of Berlin city planning, see Ward, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin.
Jan Musekamp. Review of Stangl, Paul, Risen from Ruins: The Cultural Politics of Rebuilding East Berlin.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.