Half of Berlin spent 40 years under communist rule, but it’s hard to pinpoint a truly Marxist building in the capital. EXB takes a tour of four historic sites with links to the philosopher and three others that would surely make him smile.
This two-kilometre long boulevard of housing blocks, stretching from Friedrichshain to Alexanderplatz, was Moscow’s gift to war-traumatised East Germans, but it sparked a workers’ rebellion that almost toppled the young nation.
In 1949, when the street was renamed Stalinallee, most Berliners were still living in the fairly primitive conditions of the bombed-out city. The project was billed as a workers’ paradise, flats with luxuries like central heating and built-in bathrooms. This was Marxism in material motion, technology raising the standard of living for the proletariat, not the elite.
A year after construction began in 1952, things turned ugly. The project was behind schedule and Moscow cracked the whip, demanding more work with no additional pay. As per Marx’s script, the workers united in a strike that spread across East Germany on June 17, 1953. And following the now well-known Soviet script, tanks rolled in and crushed the rebellion. Dozens of protesters were killed and thousands more were imprisoned. West Berliners memorialized the event by renaming the avenue running through Tiergarten Straße des 17. Juni.
Despite the kerfuffle, the grandiose boulevard was eventually finished and, in 1961, renamed in honour of Karl Marx. Its facades were regularly draped in banners bearing Marx’s likeness for military parades right up to the 40th birthday of East Germany on October 7, 1989, a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It’s ironic that one of West Berlin’s busiest shopping streets was named after capitalism’s best-known critic – or is it? Today Karl-Marx-Straße sits on the front line of the ongoing battle to subvert the speculative real estate market.
When locals renamed their main drag after Marx in 1947, it was part of a rebranding campaign to shake off the district’s shady reputation as Berlin’s haven for prostitution and crime. That “no-go area” notoriety kept rents relatively low until Kreuzberg’s rapid gentrification crept southwards.
Today, longtime Neuköllners face harassment from new landlords – often faceless investor groups – wanting them to move out or accept extreme rent increases. Residents of Karl-Marx-Straße 179 have been battling owner Wolfgang Köhnk for years, claiming that, among other things, the Hamburg-based investor turned off their water supply in order to drive them out.
In 2015 and 2016 after sustained efforts by activists, large swathes of Neukölln on both sides of Karl-Marx-Straße were designated Milieuschutzgebiets. This zoning law preserves a district’s milieu, or way of life: rental flats can’t be upgraded with luxury features or sold off as condos.
In September 2021, Berliners approved a referendum, Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen, calling for the city to buy up the holdings of large property owners for state ownership. While such large-scale expropriation is unlikely, that same month Berlin’s government signed a deal to buy 15,000 apartments from private owners, about 2,000 in Neukölln alone. Since 2016, Berlin has spent about €2.4 billion purchasing a total of 41,000 flats.
These pro-tenant measures passed with full-throated support from the coalition partners Die Linke party. As direct heirs to the East German Communists, they’ve carried the banner of Marx’s ideas into the 21st Century and may be the best friends residents of Karl-Marx-Straße could hope for.
One of Karl Marx’s key economic notions was schöpferische Vernichtung, or creative destruction. The East German authorities famously applied this policy to the built world, dynamiting large parts of the old city to make way for the new socialist metropolis. This included not only our (now-reconstructed) Prussian royal palace, but an entire city district between it and Alexanderplatz that was densely packed with buildings, some from the Middle Ages. All that’s left today is the lonely Marienkirche dating back to the 13th century.
In 1977 this grassy urban void was officially named the Marx-Engels-Forum. Its crowning feature, a giant bronze sculpture of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, arrived nine years later. By then, Soviet power was waning and, with it, Marx’s reputation. Sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt portrayed Marx seated, hoping to make the iconic figure appear more accessible. Instead, he just looked tired. The pair earned the nickname “Die Rentner”, or “The Pensioners”.
After Berlin was reunified in 1990, planners wanted to rebuild the old quarter à la neighboring Nikolaiviertel, but locating the current owners of the thousands of plots of land below the park proved impossible.
Now the Forum’s status as a green space is secure. A €23 million re-do of the park, designed by Cologne-based RMP Stephan Lenzen Landscape Architects, was announced last August, with construction due to start in 2024. The bronze Marx & Engels, now venerable selfie icons, will form the centrepiece.
If we could travel back to 1837 at the site of today’s East Side Gallery, it might be possible to catch a glimpse of the 19-year-old Karl Marx making the 6.5 kilometre trek from Berlin University (now Humboldt) to his rented room in Stralau. He moved to the then-rural fishing idyll when his doctor insisted sickly Karl needed some fresh air.
Marx’s idyllic months on the banks of the Spree River sparked his passion for bucolic freedom and, during beer-soaked debates, inspired him to change his field of study from law to philosophy. His long-gone home at Alt-Stralau 25 is marked by a DDR-era monument by sculptor Hans Kies.
Just across the Spree lies Treptower Park and an island that the East Germans dubbed the Insel der Jugend, or Island of Youth. Crossing over its high arching bridge, young communists entered a secluded Eden all their own where they swayed to state-approved rock bands and held their own inebriated debates about class warfare.
Karl Marx’s status as a global philosophical rock star arguably reached its peak in July 1973 when East Berlin hosted the 10th World Festival of Youth. For one week, the Haupstadt became an East Bloc version of Woodstock with 25,000 young visitors from 140 countries. A total of 95 stages throbbed with live music, from Alexanderplatz to the wooded Insel der Jugend. As thousands cheered, American civil rights icon Angela Davis delivered a stirring speech – in German – proclaiming a golden future shaped in Marx’s image. The downtrodden masses are still waiting.
The ultimate “Marxist building” might be a corporate office block converted by workers into low-cost housing. The closest Berlin has is this non-descript 1970 office complex, formerly East Germany’s Ministry of Statistics. For decades it sat unused, one of several plots around Alexanderplatz slated to be replaced with new high rises. After those plans fizzled, the windowless orphan was squatted by activists hoping to turn it into art studios and housing.
In 2018, their dreams came true when an alliance of government agencies and non-profits bought the building for €50 million, with another €100 million earmarked for construction. Cultural spaces will occupy the main building with an added 16-storey town hall for Berlin Mitte next door and a third building with 15 floors of affordable flats. Completion is set for 2024. The once-empty building is already alive with a dizzying array of projects from kid-centred arts and crafts to strident climate activism.
A lot about this three-building cooperative housing complex would make Marx smile. First, its wooded riverside setting recalls student Karl’s home in Stralau, a few blocks east. Second, it subverts the speculative housing market by eliminating profit-driven middlemen. Spreefeld is a high-profile example of a Baugruppe, a housing collective in which members pool their money, buy some land and construct first-class apartments themselves at a fraction of market rates.
Spreefeld’s designers used a standardised kit of parts to keep costs low. Still, this is no cookie-cutter Plattenbau – each of the 40 units is a unique, personalised home, ranging from one-room studios to multi-family communal flats that open onto large, shared living and dining spaces. Spreefeld is a close-knit community where hard-working families of all kinds have the security of home ownership, protecting them from the uncertainty of capitalism’s ever-changing financial winds.
Of all the buildings in modern day Berlin, this would surely be Marx’s favourite. Opened in 1963, this icon of Cold War West Berlin might be read as a gold-plated bourgeois pleasure den, but in fact architect Hans Scharoun’s whole career was shaped by his youthful submersion in the leftist avant-garde. His concert hall, with its wave-like roofline, is a throw-back to expressionist art and architecture of the early 20th century. Comparing the Philharmonie to Mies van der Rohe’s nearby Neue Nationalgalerie, Marx would applaud Scharoun’s unique organic form – revealing the “maker’s hand” – in contrast to Mies’ coldly-industrial minimalism.
But it’s the interior space where the designer hits his Marxist stride, challenging not only conventional models of cultural production but social hierarchies as well. Scharoun places the stage at the centre with the audience arranged on the surrounding rising terraces. This radical design not only creates better acoustics but a more egalitarian listening experience while visually blurring the boundaries between music makers and consumers.