chapter  2
39 Pages

Building Socialism on National Traditions: Socialist Realism and Postwar Urban Reconstruction

According to surveys conducted by American evaluators in 1945 the combined bomb weight dropped on Germany amounted to 2,697,473 tons and nearly a quarter of the bomb tonnage was targeted against large cities; the attacks heavily damaged or totally destroyed 3,600,000 dwelling units, about 20 percent of Germany's total residential units, and rendered 7,500,000 people homeless (Sorge 1986 110)4 In Berlin about 70 percent of all the buildings were damaged, over 10 percent of which were beyond repair; the central areas of the city suffered the most severe destruction (Sewing and Hannemann 1999 208) As the playwright Bertolt Brecht sarcastically observed, Berlin's "moonscape" resembled an erasure that was executed by Churchill based on Hitler's plans (Muller 1975 105) The city also lost half a million dwellings and the collected debris amounted to 70 million cubic meters (Ebert 1953 268; Liebknecht 1986 108)

These statistical figures are truly overwhelming, but they also feel somewhat abstract and hardly convey the palpable scale and psychological impact of the

destruction of the built environment (see Figures 2.1 and 22) They do suggest, however, that the act of building - and with it architecture - assumed unprecedented symbolic power after the war. Building became a compelling metaphor for reconstructing not only cities, but identities, communities, and social institutions. New buildings became symbols of renewal and, with the onset of the Cold War, increasingly of competition between opposing political systems as well (Aman 1992; Castillo 1992, 2000, 2010)

Somewhat ironically, for architects and urban planners the immense physical destruction also presented rare opportunities. The war razed large-scale urban structures like the outdated street structure, crowded tenement houses - in Berlin's case the "world's largest residential barracks" (Hegemann 1930) - that modernist architects and social critics lambasted incessantly in the interwar era. It seemed the ground was cleared for a new, more enlightened epoch in urban planning and architecture. The occupation of Germany, the deepening partition of

the country, and economic stagnation stalled the reconstruction process until the early 1950s. During the interim period architects and planners dedicated themselves to translating prewar modernist fantasies about rationally planned, functional, and aesthetically consonant cities into urban master plans (Castillo 2000; Hain 1992; Schatzke 1991)

With the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949, however, the incorporation of East Germany into the Soviet sphere carried repercussions for all terrains of social life, architectural orientation being no exception. The symbolic repertoire of building would soon be expanded to include a new meaning, the building of socialism, and be coupled with a search for a new socialist architecture. This quest was bound to be closely guided by first-hand experience accumulated in the Soviet Union as an integral part of a larger socialist "civilizing process."5 Namely, Soviet domination wasn't based exclusively on the use of coercion by occupying Soviet forces but on elaborate cultural and political schemes that aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe through persuasion and voluntary resocialization (Fitzpatrick 2000; Kotkin 1995)


In the spring of 1950 a delegation of high-ranking architects and urban planners as well as the Minister of Reconstruction embarked on a trip to the Soviet Union to study the "socialist" reconstruction of war-ravaged Soviet cities 6 The participants were expected to acquaint themselves with the institutional organization of urban planning and architectural design, with new methods and innovations in

construction and planning (e.g., prototype design), but also with theoretical questions pertaining to definitions of a new "socialist architecture." Six weeks later the delegation returned to Berlin with a draft that formulated the basic principles of urban reconstruction for East German cities. The "Sixteen Principles of Urban Reconstruction" became a piece of legislation with astounding rapidity as part of the so-called Reconstruction Law (Aufbaugesetz) on September 6, 1950.