Gerd Danigel is one of the few photographers that managed to capture the essence of life in East Berlin. As a young man, he brought his camera with him everywhere he went and, perhaps because his snapshots of East Berlin were never intended for publication, they provide a fascinating window into a nearly forgotten past.
Central squares; Plattenbauten in Marzahn; hidden backyards and spectacular events like the demolition of the gasometer in Dimitroffstraße: these are 12 pictures of East Berlin in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse
Few photographers living behind the Wall ever pointed their camera directly at the inner-city border crossings. This picture was taken in 1985 and shows the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint and Bösebrücke bridge connecting the districts of Prenzlauer Berg (East) and Gesundbrunnen (West). Four years after this scene, on November 9th 1989, chaotic scenes erupted following the announcement that the borders would be opened immediately and hopeful DDR citizens gathered en masse to cross over to the West.
Alexanderplatz train station
Alexanderplatz has long been at the centre of Berlin history. Built on a filled-in royal moat in 1882, this station subsequently endured two world wars – in 1945 the damages caused as a result of the Battle of Berlin took seven months to repair. It was an important transport hub in the DDR, and this picture is filled with a quiet beauty and melancholy.
This photo was actually taken shortly after the wall fell, but the depiction of Berlin striking everyday moment of Berlin history has Danigel’s signature written all over it. Freibad Pankow remains open until this day (in Summer) – check out more of Berlin’s open-air pools here.
Haus der Technik
If walls could speak, Berlin’s Haus der Technik could write a multi-volume novel. Initially built in 1909, it was first home to a shopping arcade – the Friedrichstraßenpassage – but the building was later bought by tech giant AEG, who gave it the proud name Haus der Technik (House of Technology). During the second World War, the Nazis claimed control over the offices and used it to house the German Labour Front. Heavily damaged during the war, the building was kept upright and was then used again in GDR times – in the 1970s, for example, it housed the Camera cinema.
After reunification, an artists’ initiative occupied the half-destroyed ruin and its grounds and founded the Künstlerhaus Tacheles with a cinema, theatre, concert hall and studios. They’ve since been evicted and the building is currently under reconstruction pending future projects.
Palast der Republik
The Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) stood on the site of the old Berlin City Palace. It’s probably the most famous building of Berlin’s lost buildings. The DDR’s magnificent centrepiece served as the headquarters of the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) from 1976 until 1990. Because of the opulent interior lighting, it was popularly nicknamed “Erich’s lamp shop” (After Erich Honecker – former chairman of the GDR). Today, it houses the controversial Humboldt Forum.
Plattenbauten in Marzahn
For a long time, Marzahn was just a cluster of small houses on Berlin’s eastern fringe – it even had an old-timey village centre replete with church and a windmill. That is, until East Berlin city planners decided to drastically rethink housing policy and filled Marzahn with huge Plattenbauten (prefabricated housing blocks). The buildings are iconic for East Berlin, living reminders of a socialist spirit that was determined to ensure housing for everyone (even if somewhat grey and gloomy).
Gerd Danigel’s pictures of these iconic structures shows a group of children standing proudly on a mound of dirt in front of their homes.
Milchhäuschen am Weißen See
The Milchhäuschen (milk house) represented the sunnier side of the DDR. The Weißensee café opened long before the wall was built in 1961. The traditional spot had a cute panorama terrace with an old-fashioned flair. Danigel’s photo shows the timeless magic of the Milchhäuschen – and it hasn’t changed much at all since.
This photo depicts where the grand boulevards of the Karl-Marx- and Frankfurter Allee came to an end, marking the transition to Lichtenberg. Today, this is the site of the Ring Center, an unimaginative shopping centre that looks like the result of a capitalistic fever dream. When Gerd Danigel took this photo in 1991, the old Ringbahnhalle still stood there, but like so many sites of the former east, this was demolished in 1993.
Hirschhof in der Oderbergerstraße
The idyllic Hirschhof must be one of Beriln’s most charming backyards. Behind the apartment buildings on the corner of Oderberger Straße and Kastanienallee, this spot has gained legendary status over the years. Back in the early 1980s, it was already called a “paradise garden”. Dissidents, East Punks and artists gathered here to create an alternative reality in East Berlin – away from the looming omnipresence of their repressive government.
Today, Hackescher Markt has become synonymous with the new Berlin, but this photo was taken in May 1989, just a few months before the fall of the Wall – and it’s remarkable how many of the windows still don’t have glass in them. Today, grand visions by investors have made the space much busier, though not necessarily much nicer.
Time and again, Gerd Danigel found interesting perspectives from which to contemplate the city. He climbed bridges and roofs, seeking unusual vantage points. This photo was taken above the malthouse in Pankow in 1990. It’s truly remarkable how a large part of the city Danigel wandered through with his camera in the 1980s no longer exists today. To learn more about the Berlin photographer’s work, visit his website and discover more of the lost city yourself.