- Risen from the Ruins: The Cultural Politics of Rebuilding East Berlin by Paul Stangl
Berlin is one of the most densely packed urban palimpsests in the world. Barely more than a provincial residence for the Hohenzollern electors and kings before 1871, the following century saw the city's monumental topography accumulate as many layered inscriptions as the urban fabric of a metropolis with millennial history. After radically expanding into the German empire's capital and largest city with a vast industrial [End Page 184] landscape by 1918, in the Weimar era Berlin had arguably become the capital of European modernity and cultural production. After Nazi Berlin had eradicated architectural emblems to Germany's largest Jewish community, bombastic planning delusions, aerial bombardment, and Soviet depredations brought Hitler's capital to utter ruin. Divided, it ultimately became the Cold War's most famous walled city.
In 1998 Brian Ladd's Ghosts of Berlin delivered a tour de force survey of Berlin's century of architectural hubris, erasure, and memorialization. Berlin has also played a leading role in the booming field of comparative urban space and memory through studies by Klaus von Behme, Jeffry Diefendorf, Werner Durth, Niels Gutschow, and Rudy Koshar. As capital of the German Democratic Republic, East Berlin alone has enjoyed a myriad of specialized studies, most recently Florian Urban's analysis of the city's late-communist historicism (2009) and Eli Rubin's examination of East Germany's largest prefab high rise development in Berlin-Marzahn (2016). Adding to this crowded field, geographer Paul Stangl applies deep archival research to closely assess key East Berlin architectural projects before the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Building upon previous scholarship on reading symbolism in urban memory landscapes (notably Koshar), Stangl emphasizes a twofold means by which Berlin's cultural and political leaders chose to restore, construct, or demolish major architectural ensembles (4). On one hand, to varying degrees over time, authorities awarded or denounced an edifice for its substantial symbolic value. Whereas the Hohenzollern City Palace was dynamited for its implied ties to Prussian, even fascist, militarism, the new Stalinallee was upheld as a boulevard celebrating the best in German architectural traditions; in both cases, the symbolic potential for a usable national narrative was emphasized. On the other hand, they, at times, retained a structure for its utilitarian value to satisfy practical needs such as housing or office space. Here one thinks of the indubitably fascist-style Air Ministry building. As Stangl rightly observes, banal rituals or dramatic events could strengthen or weaken cultural memory on a given site even after a monument had been demolished. In like manner, renaming or reconstructing such sites could take on tremendous propagandistic meaning.
Yet at the same time that political and planning elites proceeded with the belief that space determines a population's outlook, disparate views yielded overlapping and contradictory results. Painstaking preservation of Hohenzollern icons along Unter den Linden can seem incongruous after demolition of the street's centerpiece, the City Palace. Likewise, the socialist realist emphasis on national traditions dropped off after 1954 with the rise of high modernism, before interest in forging historical landscapes returned in the 1980s. Throughout these shifting fads, a political leader like Walter Ulbricht could decree exceptions to any rule, while material limitations regularly prevented considerable clearance and change.
In his first two chapters, Stangl surveys larger trends. First, he explores how elites purged Nazi and usually Prussian relics whose symbolic elements were seen as at odds with new regime mantras, replacing them with monuments to communism and [End Page 185] Soviet military victory. Although socialist materialism should have prioritized housing and infrastructure for the suffering civilian population, political concerns prevailed in securing scarce resources for inscription of Soviet mythologies in the gargantuan Treptower Park war memorial, as well as restoration of revolutionary burial grounds from 1848 and 1918. Second, he sketches the evolution of urban planning mandates from socialist realism to modernism, each of which was a radically different interpretation of the same "Sixteen...