Berlin History

Karl-Marx Allee

It was a place to walk through, and stare. Built in the early fifties, Karl-Marx Allee, leading into Alexanderplatz, with its omniscient television tower, was the Communist showpiece of war reconstruction efforts. The superior society would be built in the East.

And it was impressive: the architecture of intimidation, the friezes about the working people, the solidity of the constructions. There is now also the poignancy of grandeur of a fallen regime. My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!


Although in the centre of the reunified city, the avenue is largely empty. There are few restaurants and bars down its lonely way –there is the Stalinist red drapery of the movie theatre, Kino International, and you can drink a good White Russian at Café Moskau across the street. But these are fetish stops, a place to experience the contrasts of Western decadence in historical buildings attesting to Eastern decline. Berliners avoid this stretch of their history. It’s not a place you would choose to live.

Or is it?

‘We’re going where?’

‘To look at an apartment on Karl Marx Allee’.

‘You’ve got to be kidding’.

But I wasn’t.

We were not flustered by the warning of one friend who said we would end up with only ex-Stasi as neighbours, who had held onto their trophy flats after the Wende. Another pictured us wheeling a grocery cart from a distant supermarket down the forlorn avenue, a December wind hindering our journey home. And yet another promised never to visit us, reminding us that the protesting workers who had built this socialist paradise had been crushed by Soviet tanks, with more than a hundred killed, at the conclusion of their 1953 strike.

Over the colonnaded entrance of the building on Strausberger Platz, about half-way down the Allee, was a mosaic of men holding pick-axes. The mailboxes inside were wooden, finely carved, with original handles. The stairwell to the top was a severe circular affair, with a straight drop down seven floors. I imagined devotees of the regime using it to determine their own fates after the Wende. But when we walked inside the apartment, I remembered that there was a reason we were considering living here.
The rooms were bright and large. The apartment was huge, and since few people (except for the couple of hipsters who joined us and looked around as if they had a sense of irony) want to live here, it was also very inexpensive. And ten minutes by metro, one is in most places one would want to be in Mitte or Kreuzberg. The original doors were all in place, with luminous bottled glass. The view beyond was precipitous and awesome: long avenues, the roofs of Berlin, and miles and miles and relentless Soviet blocks. We could not tell whether it was a Soviet Dream, or a Soviet Nightmare.


‘We could live here, there’s a subway station just outside the door, the apartment is great, it would be like living fully exposed to the history written on the skin of the city. Isn’t that one reason we like Berlin?’


I wandered into the bathroom, a bright window to the heights above the experiment. And it reminded me of something. And I knew what it was.
In the 1994 Russian film, Burnt by the Sun, an NKVD agent Mitya revenges himself on a romantic rival and Stalinist officer. He takes on a mission to go to the Colonel’s country home, where he meets his family and ex-lover, and there he destroys the man’s life, and the lives of all those around him. It is the time of Stalin’s purges, but in this film a personal vendetta profits from the politics of fear and murder. At the end of the film, Mitya commits suicide by slitting his wrists in a bathtub in an elite Muscovite apartment block.

The bathroom looked just like the one in the flat.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We are still looking for an apartment.

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Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.