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East Berlin: Capital of the German Democratic Republic

East Berlin was the capital of East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and East and West Germany reunited less than a year later. As the capital of East Germany, East Berlin was always the “shop window” for socialism. As such, the Communist regime invested more into the reconstruction and design of its capital city after World War II than it did in much of the rest of the country. There was always a conscious spirit of competitiveness with the “other” Berlin that had since become imprisoned behind a massive Wall.

A city is divided: building of the Wall in 1961

Although Berlin had been divided into four occupation zones since the end of World War II, the East German government’s construction of the “anti-fascist protection wall” was in response to the increasing number of its own citizens fleeing to West Berlin seeking asylum. Indeed, in July 1961 alone, more than 30,000 people had fled from the GDR to the West. Despite East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s insistence that “ one has the intention of building a wall”, the construction of just that Wall began along the border dividing the Soviet sector from those occupied by the USA, Great Britain and France, thus physically dividing a city and a country.

Life with the Wall

West Berlin and West Germany were literally eliminated from the official maps issued by the East German government. The people of East Berlin were now living in a city which was dominated by a fear-inspiring edifice, while openly speaking about it became taboo. Even the Brandenburg Gate was marooned in the middle of no-man’s land and the rear wall of the Reichstag made up part of the border defences.

Housing and Architecture

To overcome the great housing shortage in the East, the government began erecting new tower block housing estates made from large concrete panels. Anyone who managed to obtain one of these new apartments was considered lucky, because the waiting lists were long. The existing building stock in central Berlin was left to fall apart and was not repaired over the decades. After the war, the East German regime embraced the style of socialist classicism made popular in the Soviet Union, derisively called “wedding cake style” due to its ostentatious use of decoration. There was later a return to the plain unadorned styles first made popular by the Bauhaus and modernist architecture, epitomised in the typical East Berlin tower block. The Stadtschloss, the former city residence of kings and emperors, was torn down by Communist party leadership in 1953, despite its repairable state after the war and protests lodged from around the world. The State Council building was built on part of the site in 1964, incorporating the balcony of the Stadtschloss from which Karl Liebknecht had proclaimed a short-lived socialist republic during the German revolution of 1918. Also built on the site was the Palace of the Republic with its distinctive copper-coloured reflective glass. The building was the seat of the East German parliament, but also served as a general entertainment centre with restaurants, a discotheque and a bowling alley open to the public. Numerous artists from the West were allowed to appear on its stage, including Udo Lindenberg and Milva. Alexanderplatz also underwent a fundamental reconfiguration, especially when the 368 metre high TV Tower was erected between 1965 and 1969 right at its centre. The TV Tower soon became the distinctive, highly visible landmark of East Berlin. Ironically, the planners had failed to realise that the sphere at the top of the tower would cast a shadow that looked like a giant cross – an embarrassment for the officially atheist East and a source of laughter in the West. In 1987, both halves of the city marked the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin with separate celebrations. The East German government restored the Nikolai Quarter in a historicist style, albeit built from prefabricated panels.

Fall of the Wall

By the end of the 1980s, the separation between East and West become more permeable as Hungary and Czechoslovakia loosened their border controls. Countless GDR citizens tried to escape via this route, including some who sought refuge in the West German embassy in Prague, finally receiving exit visas in October 1989. The celebrations in October 1989 marking the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR were marked with growing discontent and the desire for reforms like the perestroika and glasnost that had begun to take hold in the USSR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was greeted with jubilation by the crowds, especially when he called for reforms in the GDR. The result was mass demonstrations, the founding of the Neues Forum (New Forum) civil rights movement and eventually the resignation of long-time East German leader Erich Honecker. At a press conference on the evening of 9 November 1989, the right of East German citizens to travel freely was announced and events quickly accelerated. The media reported that the Wall “had fallen”, by which they meant that the border guards had opened the border crossing at Bornholmer Straße. That night, the people of East and West Berlin celebrated the end of years of division and the beginning of a common future.

Unification with West Berlin

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, West Berlin’s special status as an occupied city came to an end as the two halves were reunited to become the single city-state of Berlin. On 2 October 1990, the first joint Berlin legislature was elected. The traces of the city’s division were largely bulldozed under, most of the Wall demolished, streets re-joined and links between East and West re-established or created for the first time. Thus, for example, the restored Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge that had once been a border crossing, was restored to traffic in 1995. In 2001, the city’s districts were realigned, with many of the new districts overlapping what had once been the Iron Curtain.

East Berlin today

Since then, the historic district of Mitte (meaning “Centre”) has once again become the true centre of the city, home to many of its major attractions and museums. After unification, many districts, such as Prenzlauer Berg have been extensively refurbished and are now some of the popular residential areas in the city.