“More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War

Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By Paul Sigel

Neighborhood Rebuilding in postwar Germany was not only confronted with the challenge of reconstruction of housing, infrastructure, industry and sites of cultural identity, but was also embedded in Cold War competition. Analyzing two case studies, Berlin and Dresden, is specifically fruitful since these two cities can be considered as exemplary laboratories for rebuilding in postwar Germany. Berlin as a divided city can be analyzed as a prominent stage of competing rebuilding approaches, while Dresden can be seen as case study of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) political intention to transform the city’s identity from a former symbol of royal court and bourgeois culture into a model city of socialism.

On the other hand, we can see that much of the planned and executed postwar transformations were closely related to older and more general discourses on city improvement and transformation that already existed at the beginning of the 20th century. Visions of the “new city” with new neighborhoods, functional, green, full of light and air, had enriched this discourse for decades. The disaster of war destruction could therefore not only be considered as catastrophic loss but also as a chance for a new beginning and a better future. This belief in improvement fundamentally inspired neighborhood rebuilding after the war and soon became a core element of political propaganda. 

Neighborhood Rebuilding in Berlin as Cold War Propaganda

“Berlin. More beautiful than ever before!” Propaganda poster for the GDR National Housing Program. 1952 (Postcard, author’s archive)

Initial postwar planning in Berlin after 1945 focused on reconstruction concepts for the united city. A variety of rebuilding concepts were adopted. The rebuilding of destroyed houses and the return of former inhabitants were contrasted by the approach of radical new urban designs with new neighborhood constellations as programmatic alternative to the notorious prewar “rental barracks.” But soon after the founding of the GDR in 1949, radical changes in planning politics happened.  Rebuilding in the GDR within the “National Rebuilding Program” shifted from modernist planning concepts to the Stalinist concept of architecture and town planning as both a continuity of national tradition and building the new socialist society. Socialization of space and of building grounds was one of the most important preconditions of socialist city structures. The first representative rebuilding area in the GDR capital was the Stalinallee, today called Karl-Marx-Allee, one of the main axes of the capital, located in a typical worker’s district. Conceived as a monumental neo-classicist corridor avenue, it reflected clearly Soviet patterns, but was proclaimed as architecture in the national tradition. Palaces for the workers, as was the proclaimed aim of this building endeavor, sought to prove the success of the new socialist society as the winner of history. The artistic iconography, notably the sculpture and relief program, referred to a classless society with equal opportunities for everyone. The high comfort of the apartments with central heating and elevators, the dense infrastructure with high quality shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, were to be regarded as the benefit of a caring state and the potency of the socialist economy. The broad sidewalks alongside the avenue with large green spaces and common roof top terraces on the residential buildings were to offer generous space for community life. National lottery programs and voluntary participation in construction work could increase one’s chances to obtain one of the attractive apartments, which were distributed by national housing authorities. The collective spirit was to be expressed in numerous common activities, notably in festivities and political activities, and the social mix aimed to mirror the socialist society. Numerous publications, posters, and films served as mediums of political propaganda displaying these new neighborhoods as a core element of the victorious system.

As a reaction, western rebuilding focused on the international modernist concept of neighborhood rebuilding, prominently presented in the International Building Exhibition “Interbau” in West Berlin in 1957. Here, architects from West Germany and all over the western world, such as Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, and Alvar Aalto, cooperated in developing a new neighborhood based on the principles of modern urban design. Composed as open structure in a green surrounding, the quarter displays a multitude of housing typologies for a multifaceted neighborhood and once offered a multitude of affordable housing based on social housing programs. The “Interbau” aimed to exhibit the modernity and international gesture of West Berlin. Although being executed as a top-down process, the openness and typological variety was to represent the “city of tomorrow” as proof of liberty and progress.

At the same time, building politics in the GDR started with initial steps towards a radical turn, now focusing on the programmatic reintroduction of economic modernist planning, impressively demonstrated in the second section of the Karl-Marx-Allee. Built in the 1960s, it demonstrated a significant shift away from traditional urban patterns and a move towards standardization and industrialization. This new section presented prefabricated apartment blocks along the axis surrounded by green areas. The whole ensemble exemplified the new, consequently modern gesture of the city center with a predominant presence of low-cost housing, enriched by spectacular buildings for culture, leisure and shopping, such as the Cinema International and the glamorous Café Moskau with its significant copy of the Sputnik satellite. This new socialist neighborhood sought to express modernity, internationality, and technical advancement.

Dresden: Neighborhood Rebuilding between Reconstruction and the Search for a New Socialist Identity

Looking at Dresden comparable developments can be seen. Before its devastation in February 1945, the city was regarded as one of the most important cultural hotspots in Germany and as symbol of sophisticated bourgeois culture, its shape being dominated by baroque and historicist towers and domes, especially the big stone dome of the Frauenkirche (the Church of our Lady).  After the devastations of World War II, the ruin of the Frauenkirche became a memorial of war, a constant reminder of the disaster. It seemed to be impossible to rebuild the city, as the losses were too extensive. Nevertheless, reconstruction of some of the most important buildings started soon, including the world famous baroque Zwinger, which was rebuilt step by step until 1956.

Besides the reconstruction of its cultural heritage, the city faced the even bigger challenge of providing concepts for the reconstruction of housing and neighborhood units. Especially the Altmarkt area, the old market square and historic core of the city, was chosen as one of the symbolic starting points for neighborhood reconstruction. Comparable to the first section of Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, the Dresden Altmarkt was meant to represent an amalgamation of new mass housing complexes with baroque architectural design elements derived from regional tradition. Further parallels to Berlin were obvious, since the Altmarkt area was to be a core element of political manifestations and May Day parades, and the rebuilt neighborhood was conceived as a stage for the representation of the new system, dominated by a big culture palace on the north front of the square.

Only a stone’s throw away, the adjacent Prager Straße represents a further step in Dresden’s neighborhood rebuilding. Comparable to the second section of Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, the Dresden Prager Straße clearly demonstrates the radical 1960s shift from a national tradition to international modernism. The functional mix of Prager Straße, with long stretched apartment buildings, big international hotels, pavilions for shops, restaurants, cafés and a big cinema, sought to represent neighborhood rebuilding as a core element of identity building. Instead of simulating traditional bourgeois culture, this new neighborhood served as a programmatic stage where regional identity was to be incorporated into an international socialist society.

After Reunification: Valuation and Devaluation

After the reunification of 1990, the results of postwar neighborhood rebuilding in both West and East Germany had soon become a matter of multifaceted criticism. On one hand, the monumental neo classicist Stalinallee received an iconic status and confirmed its status as a representative neighborhood attracting numerous new tenants. The same is true for Dresden’s Altmarkt. On the other hand, the modern neighborhoods of the 1960s and 1970s have been frequently criticized as monotonous structures and as neighborhoods with problematic social structures. The incorporated initial promise of the new city as a place for a better life seemed to have failed, and the late modern mass housing programs became subject to devaluation. In many cases, the former significant social cohabitation of the neighborhoods was lost. Recent developments in the real estate market, however, with their tremendous effects of gentrification have led to a new valuation of these housing estates. Meanwhile, the modern section of Karl-Marx-Alle and the Prager Straße are protected monuments, and there are chances to preserve the physical and social structure of these quarters. Nevertheless, post-war heritage and post-war neighborhoods are still at risk, and their future is still a matter of ongoing debate.

Further Reading:

Durth, Werner and Paul Sigel, (2009). Baukultur: Spiegel gesellschaftlichen Wandels. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.

Paul Sigel studied Art History and German Literature. In 1997, he received his PhD for a thesis on the history of German pavilions in world fairs as a medium of national self-representation, published in 2000 as Exponiert: Deutsche Pavillons auf Weltausstellungen. From 1997 to 2005, he worked as academic assistant at the Technical University of Dresden, Department of Art History and Musicology. From 2006 to 2009, he worked together with Werner Durth in the Department of History and Theory of Architecture at the Technical University of Darmstadt on the research project Baukultur: Spiegel gesellschaftlichen Wandels (Building Culture), published as a book in 2009. In 2010, he was habilitated at the Technical University of Dresden. Since 2010, he has held various positions as guest professor at the Technical University of Dresden/Department of Art History, and the Technical University of Berlin/Center for Metropolitan Studies and the HafenCity University Hamburg. His research interests are concentrated on the question of urban identity constructions, the history of building exhibitions, debates on reconstruction, and urban transformation processes and debates in Germany since 1975. Some of his other monographs include Konstruktionen urbaner Identität (with Bruno Klein), Berlin 2006, and Freiraum unterm Fernsehturm: Historische Perspektiven eines Stadtraums der Moderne (with Kerstin Wittmann-Englert), Berlin 2015.

Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:

Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.

Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.

Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.

Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.

Citation: Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19748.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2019, 25. September). “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19748

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