When first arriving to Berlin from Amsterdam, by now almost two years ago, I was startled to find so many of the remnants of the communist past scattered around the city. Just at the very beginning of my time in the German capital, a friend of a friend took me out for a ‘Berlin style’ walk. We got a cold beer from a corner Späti (a small kiosk, originating from the GDR times, usually open till late at night) and strolled around the neighbourhood. We ended up on a rather small, green terrain that reminded me of a park, but which on that April evening looked rather grey and uninviting. I wondered, why would my new friend bring me to this part of the city? 
Eventually, we walked to the other side of the park and suddenly the dullness of it illuminated a gigantic monument of, as I later found out, the leading figure of the Communist Party (KPD) in Weimar Germany – Ernst Thälmann. To top my surprise, the monument’s base was decorated with a single, spray-painted word held (hero).
After my first encounter with the architecture of memory, which in many Eastern European countries like Poland or Ukraine got intentionally removed from the public space in order to separate people from the traumatic past and start anew, I began noticing more and more of those landmarks across Berlin. 
One of the most famous – The Marx-Engels Forum, originally located next to the Palast der Republik, now gazing over the Spree and towards former West Berlin – is a place where curious tourists enjoy taking pictures at Marx’s stone lab. Two others; The Soviet War Memorial located at Treptower Park and the even more monumental Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten every time surprise me with their grandeur and a feeling of power they evoke. Both constructions were designed and financed by the Soviet Union to commemorate the war casualties and to celebrate the Soviets’ win over the fascists. Today, they are significant gathering spots for those commemorating the 9th of May – Victory Day – which every year sparks political discussion as well as civil unrest. Many of the more controversial Socialist statues got destroyed or were removed and relocated to museums, such as Citadel Spandau. The “Holy Grail” of that museum is the enormous head of Lenin – reminiscent of his 19 metres high statue that in 1991 got removed from Platz der Vereinten Nationen, formerly known as Leninplatz. 
The other striking elements scattered around Berlin, usually connected with brutalist buildings of the past regime, that intrigue me even more than the monumental stone structures are the colourful murals and mosaics. Those huge wall paintings portraying a happy Volk of the German Democratic Republic till this day decorate the urban landscape and merge with contemporary street art and graffiti that the city is famous for. 
As early as around the famous Alexanderplatz – the main spot of tourist gatherings, marked by the 368 metres tall TV tower – you can already find two of those wall paintings. One of the most recognisable ones is Unser Leben (Our Life), created between 1962-1964 by the famous GDR artist Walter Womacka, is considered to be the largest public work of ‘building-related’ art in Europe. It counts 800,000 tiles and extends around Haus des Lehrers (House of the Teachers), formerly the ministry of education. Like many other murals from that time, it takes inspiration from Mexican art. Due to the somewhat particular placement, around the second floor of the building’s facade, the Berliners gave it a nickname: the abdominal bandage. 
One crossing further, on the facade of the former Haus des Berliner Verlages (House of the Berlin Publishing House) and Pressecafe, you can find another big, colourful painting looking at three of the corners of the world. The 76 metres long mural – Die Presse als Organisator (The press as organiser) by Willi Neubert – was uncovered after being hidden behind a commercial banner of a steak restaurant for nearly 30 years. Neubert took four years to create this piece and finally finished it in 1973. The mural depicts journalists reporting on various scientific, cultural and sporting events, as well as distribution and the (self perceived) plurality of the East German press. When looking closely, you will also find a rather creepy face of Karl Marx, which at the time of its creation was criticised for being too small.
Café Moskau located at Karl-Marx-Allee, not far from Alexanderplatz, also holds a 9×15-metre mosaic entitled Aus dem Leben der Völker der Sowjetunion (The Life of the People of the Soviet Union) made in 1964 by Bert Heller. This piece was created from very small tiles and brings forward a calmer pastel colour palette. Here, the focus is not the East German nation but the whole ‘great’ Soviet Union. When looking closer, you can find people of different cultures, societies and ethnicities, all looking happy while involved in their daily physical activities, often connected to the land. 
Opposite the street you will find the impressive Kino International – one of the two cinemas, along Kino Kosmos, that screened films in East Berlin. Also here, the walls of the building are covered with a single tone 3D structure artwork Aus dem Leben heutiger Menschen (From the lives of today’s people) depicting some of the GDR favourites; work, free time, sport and culture.  
Another, rather impressive piece can be seen on Leipziger Strasse, attached to a building that in the Nazi Era served as the Ministry of Aviation, during GDR times as the House of the Minister and today functions as the German Ministry of Finance. Aufbau der Republik (Building of the Republic) is a 18 metres long artwork created between 1950 and 1952 by Max Lingner and 14 other artists. The painting propagates an ideal socialist nation on their way towards the bright future. Ironically, the building became the focal point of the 1953 East German uprising.
Two of the more famous historic mosaics can also be visited in the Eastern district of Berlin, Marzahn – known for its multi-storey blocks of flats landscape. Arbeit für das Glück des Menschen (Labour for the Happiness of People) and Frieden (Peace) were both created by the before mentioned Walter Womacka along the Marzahner Promenade. The pedestrian street was designed as the centre of the new district and both wall paintings were intended to add some colour to what was originally a very dull part of the city.
Some other of the city’s mosaics and GDR murals are slightly more hidden, for example the Oranke Orange, again inspired by Mexican muralists and put on a wall next to the building of the Computerspielemuseum at Karl-Marx-Allee 34. One of the most striking features of this simple mosaic is its complete lack of political agenda. No doves of peace, cosmonauts or jubilant workers – just a folksy, feel-good design that could have been lifted straight from a child’s picture book. Originally, it was created to adorn the terrace of Cafe Warschau, a former East Berlin restaurant that’s now home to the above mentioned Computerspielemuseum.
The famous Berlin underground also hides quite a few of the impressive, historic wall paintings, among other a collection of twenty murals created by Wolfgang Frankenstein in 1986 and displayed on both platforms inside the Magdalenenstrasse station. All of them showcase the history of the German labour movement, from the March Revolution to the founding of the GDR in 1949. At Erich-Kurz-Strasse – Tierpark station you can also see Wandmosaik mit Tiermotiven (Wall mosaic with animal motifs), created by Dagmar Glaser-Lauermann in 1973, which is a great visual teaser when visiting the nearby Berliner Zoo!
The changing architecture of Berlin and its persisting gentrification slowly erases the remnants of the communist past and, what goes with it, the public propaganda art that was often attached to its buildings. Some mosaics and murals were lucky to gain the status of National Cultural Heritage and are therefore regularly maintained and put under protection. Some other like Der Mensch, das Mass aller Dinge (Man, the Measure of All Things) – up until 2010 located on the GDR’s Ministry of Construction, now seen on the residential building complex at Friedrichsgracht, next to the Jungfernbrücke – got relocated and placed in  different parts of the city. There is no doubt that those art pieces spread a propaganda about the ideal and unrealistic image of the Soviet Union and its states. Nevertheless, when looking up close, those politically charged art pieces do contain enormous craftsmanship, to some degree lost in contemporary visual arts. It would be a pity to lose those colourful compositions from the Berliner landscape, even though they do need to be viewed within the time and context of their creation.
10/11/2022
Patrycja Rozwora
Maksymilian Rębisz
Articles
Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s ‘building, Ernst Thälmann, German capital, The Marx-Engels Forum, The Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park
Artist and writer. Studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Critical Studies Department at the Sandberg Institute. Her ongoing research relates the post-Soviet countries. In 2020, she launched a podcast series called ‘Kitchen Conversations.’
Contemporary Lynx is an international and independent publication for art, design, collecting and photography on visual culture. With specially commissioned artwork, bespoke cover and a specific theme, it includes interviews with key figures in the art world and a range of insightful essays that debate current trends in arts.
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All images are copyrighted by the authors. Made by EO + 8080.
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