Title Image (Fig­ure 1): Chil­dren in Marzahn. Cour­tesy Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn-Hellers­dorf, e.V.

8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.3 | Rubin­PDF

Abstract | Com­mu­nist soci­eties in East­ern Europe have left behind mas­sive pre­fab­ri­cat­ed hous­ing set­tle­ments with­in and out­side cities as per­haps their most vis­i­ble lega­cy, often assumed to be a neg­a­tive lega­cy. Yet this assump­tion is a super­fi­cial judg­ment, one indica­tive of a larg­er trend in the his­to­ry of East­ern Europe, espe­cial­ly that of East Ger­many, which only oper­ates with­in a frame­work of pow­er and state ver­sus soci­ety. What hap­pens when we exam­ine every­day life in social­ism with­out tak­ing as our start­ing point a search for state pow­er as the goal of the research?  Remov­ing this solip­sis­tic frame­work, we see a dif­fer­ent, more bal­anced pic­ture, not one that nec­es­sar­i­ly white­wash­es or ignores the pres­ence of the state, but one that clear­ly tells the sto­ry  of a kind of social­ism that was expe­ri­enced by ordi­nary peo­ple as a tight-knit com­mu­ni­ty rather than a form of top-down con­trol.   Such an analy­sis points the way for­ward to a reassess­ment of East­ern Euro­pean com­mu­nist society. 
Résumé | Beau­coup des grandes ensem­bles pré­fab­riqués sur­vivent dans les villes des sociétés com­mu­nistes. Ils sont l’héritage le plus vis­i­ble de com­mu­nisme, lieux de mémoire d’un monde pro­fané. Mais ce juge­ment est super­fi­ciel, et c’est par­tie d’une ten­dence plus grande dans l’histoire de l’Europe de l’Est, notam­ment de l’histoire de RDA. Cette ten­dence perçoit seule­ment le sys­tème de pou­voir. Je vois l’histoire quo­ti­di­enne dans les ensem­bles. Cette per­spec­tive révèle une société qui a bon fontion­né et com­mence une réval­u­a­tion de la socio-his­toire des pays com­mu­nists dans l’Europe de l’Est. 

Eli Rubin | West­ern Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty, Kalamazoo

Beyond Domination:
Socialism, Everyday Life in East German Housing Settlements, and New Directions in GDR Historiography

If there is one par­tic­u­lar type of urban space that is asso­ci­at­ed with East­ern Euro­pean com­mu­nism, it is the mas­sive blocks of pre­fab­ri­cat­ed hous­ing, found both with­in old­er cities and on the out­skirts of cities from East Berlin to Siberia. Pre­fab­ri­cat­ed, mass-pro­duced apart­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly those built in clus­ters or set­tle­ments, were not unique­ly East­ern Euro­pean or social­ist. The tech­nol­o­gy of pre­fab­ri­ca­tion came from the West, and west­ern nations built them in post­war France, Britain, and West Ger­many, but because they were built to such a mas­sive extent in the social­ist Bloc, they were and remain among the most vis­i­ble, imme­di­ate, and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal links to the com­mu­nist past. Noth­ing says “this was once a com­mu­nist land” like see­ing the rows of near­ly iden­ti­cal hous­ing blocks, some­times sym­met­ri­cal, some­times fold­ed inward as semi-closed poly­gons, sep­a­rat­ed by green spaces, ris­ing along the out­skirts of cities. From ear­li­er set­tle­ments such as Halle-Neustadt in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (GDR) built in the 1950s and 1960s to lat­er set­tle­ments such as Przy­morze in Gdan­sk and Ujpla­ta in Budapest built in the 1970s and 1980s, this archi­tec­tur­al and urban form remains as a spa­tial and visu­al ele­ment of the com­mu­nist past that can­not be erased from the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal field of urban space. Long after the stat­ues of Lenin and the giant ham­mers and sick­les have been removed, the out­dat­ed and pol­lut­ed fac­to­ries either dis­man­tled or com­plete­ly mod­ern­ized, and idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly “East­ern” signs and slo­gans replaced with west­ern cor­po­rate adver­tis­ing, these apart­ments remain.

To west­ern vis­i­tors, the sight of these pre­fab­ri­cat­ed blocks—called Plat­ten­bau in Ger­man, Pan­elaky in Czech, and Khrush­choyv­ka in Russian—immediately con­jures up neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions, that is, when vis­i­tors from the West see them at all. Most west­ern vis­i­tors in Prague, for exam­ple, nev­er take the metro line out of the his­toric dis­trict to see the immense hous­ing set­tle­ments at the end of the line in Sto­dulky, nor do vis­i­tors to Berlin ven­ture beyond the cen­tral his­toric and trendy dis­tricts imme­di­ate­ly east and north of the city cen­tre; thus they do not see the mas­sive set­tle­ments of Marzahn, Hohen­schön­hausen, and Licht­en­berg. If any­thing, it is com­mon­place for west­ern­ers to assume that these hous­ing set­tle­ments sig­ni­fy the fail­ure of the com­mu­nist regime; in this, their shared mod­ernist her­itage with the ill-fat­ed hous­ing projects of the 1940s to 1960s in the Unit­ed States fur­ther taints them to west­ern eyes. Indeed, many of these hous­ing set­tle­ments have suf­fered after the fall of com­mu­nism, becom­ing in some coun­tries ghet­tos or bas­tions of right-wing extrem­ism (see Sam­marti­no; Urban, “Tow­er and Slab”). A sym­bol of fail­ure might be what these spaces look like to west­ern­ers but, as always, there is a wide gap between the sur­face and the inte­ri­or. What was life real­ly like in these spaces?

For a long time, schol­ar­ship has ignored life with­in the Plat­ten­bau. The cen­tral the­o­rist of what has become known as the “spa­tial turn,” Hen­ri Lefeb­vre, dis­missed them as “undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed space” (Lefeb­vre 54). His­to­ri­ans of East­ern Europe, and espe­cial­ly of the GDR, have large­ly ignored them except to sug­gest that they were arti­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ties cre­at­ed by the state and the par­ty (Pal­mows­ki 191). Much of the work done by urban and archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­ans has focused on the pres­tige or neo-his­tor­i­cal projects that took place large­ly in city cen­tres, such as East Berlin’s Palace of the Repub­lic or Tele­vi­sion Tow­er (Pugh; Urban, “Neo­his­tor­i­cal”). This is begin­ning to change, with a spate of stud­ies on mass-pro­duced hous­ing in com­mu­nist coun­tries that attends to every­day life with­in these new apart­ment blocks.[1] How­ev­er, much more needs to be done, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that this form of life was so preva­lent and defined every­day life in social­ism in its final decades.

This essay is based on my attempt to research and write a his­to­ry of every­day life in the largest East Ger­man Plat­ten­bausied­lung (Plat­ten­bau set­tle­ment): a vast, mass-pro­duced dis­trict on the north­east edge of East Berlin known as Marzahn.  This project bor­rowed from the idea of a Geertz­ian “thick descrip­tion” by pay­ing close atten­tion to the habits, expe­ri­ences, and rela­tion­ships of ordi­nary peo­ple, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly lead­ing polit­i­cal or cul­tur­al fig­ures. It sought to under­stand every­day life as it was lived with­in the space defined by the mass-pro­duced buildings—the Plat­ten­baut­en—that came to define East Ger­man and East­ern Euro­pean social­ist archi­tec­ture. In attempt­ing to con­struct such a thick descrip­tion, this study employs a wide range of sources. I car­ried out inter­views with for­mer East Ger­mans who lived in Marzahn, read pub­lished inter­views and mem­oirs of for­mer Marzah­n­ers, often avail­able only local­ly, and exam­ined print­ed and archival sources. Orig­i­nal­ly, I was expect­ing to find evi­dence that the rul­ing SED (Social­ist Uni­ty Par­ty) had been able to trans­form the con­scious­ness of ordi­nary East Ger­mans by trans­form­ing the spaces that defined their every­day lives. In so doing, I was fol­low­ing one of the dom­i­nant tropes of GDR his­to­ri­og­ra­phy over the past two and half decades: I was look­ing for the traces of what many his­to­ri­ans refer to as Herrschaft, loose­ly trans­lat­ed as “dom­i­na­tion” or “soft pow­er,” described below. Instead, what I found was that in Marzahn every­day life was defined by a lived and expe­ri­enced a kind of social­ism that was not a form of dom­i­na­tion or Herrschaft, and can per­haps be best described as a most­ly self-orga­nized social­ism built around the local com­mu­ni­ty that devel­oped in these spaces--what one might call a “com­mu­ni­tar­i­an” social­ism. In the spaces of Marzahn, peo­ple did not live under the yoke of the rul­ing par­ty. Yet their com­mu­ni­ty could only be described as a form of social­ism, one that func­tioned well. In the case of this qual­i­ta­tive oral his­to­ry project, I did not use ques­tion­naires or sur­veys. I met Marzah­n­ers, spent time with them in their homes and their famil­iar spaces, talked with them, lis­tened to them tell the sto­ry of their lives and their fam­i­ly his­to­ries, looked through their pho­to albums and doc­u­ment­ed their prized pos­ses­sions, fur­ni­ture, memen­tos, and read their let­ters and unpub­lished nov­els and poems. Lives are lived in spaces, and spaces inter­twine with lives to cre­ate topogra­phies of mem­o­ry. Some of my infor­mants were inclined to view the topogra­phies of their lives in Marzahn through the rose-col­ored glass­es of Ostal­gie (a Ger­man neol­o­gism refer­ring to nos­tal­gia for the bygone days of East Ger­many). As described below, many of those who moved to Marzahn did so because they were priv­i­leged by the system—acquiring an apart­ment in Marzahn was in cer­tain ways con­nect­ed to belong­ing to impor­tant state or par­ty insti­tu­tions and organizations.

Yet even if we allow for some ide­o­log­i­cal bias in the respon­dents and archives, the nar­ra­tive that emerged for me from lis­ten­ing to East Ger­mans recount their lives on their own terms stood in stark con­trast to the nar­ra­tive that sur­rounds pre­fab­ri­cat­ed, mass-pro­duced com­mu­nist hous­ing blocs and, more broad­ly, the nar­ra­tive of top-down pow­er that has defined the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and pop­u­lar dis­course on the GDR. Since the col­lapse of East Ger­many in 1989-90, often called the Wende (“turn­ing point”), a focus on study­ing the pow­er of the state and the rul­ing Com­mu­nist par­ty pro­found­ly over­shad­owed and framed GDR his­to­ri­og­ra­phy in Ger­many. Books, dis­ser­ta­tions, arti­cles, fund­ed insti­tu­tion­al research projects, pub­li­ca­tion series, muse­um exhi­bi­tions, con­fer­ence papers, etc. abound with terms like Macht (“pow­er”), Dik­tatur (“dic­ta­tor­ship”), and Herrschaft, as well as the relat­ed terms Wider­stand (“resis­tance”) and Oppo­si­tion.[2] Pub­lic pres­sure from well-orga­nized and polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed for­mer East Ger­man dis­si­dents ensured that top­ics such as the oppres­sion by the secret police (Stasi) and oth­er secu­ri­ty organs, the Berlin Wall, and the failed upris­ing against the par­ty and state on June 17, 1953 have been thor­ough­ly researched and have dom­i­nat­ed the his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on East Ger­many.[3] As a result, numer­ous research insti­tutes, archives, muse­ums, and sub­si­dized pub­li­ca­tions have appeared in Ger­many, all ded­i­cat­ed to the Aufar­beitung (the “work­ing-through”) of the lega­cy of the GDR, many of which are sup­port­ed with state funds or oth­er polit­i­cal sources of cap­i­tal. Many of these, such as the Bun­dess­tiftung zur Aufar­beitung der SED-Dik­tatur (Fed­er­al Foun­da­tion for the Work­ing-Through of the SED Dic­ta­tor­ship) and the Bürg­er­büro (Cit­i­zens’ Office) are led by for­mer dis­si­dents and vehe­ment anti-com­mu­nists who are fierce­ly opposed to any inter­pre­ta­tion or rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the GDR that does not cen­tre state repres­sion and its vic­tims and resis­tors.[4]

Even Ger­man schol­ars who have con­duct­ed more nuanced schol­ar­ship and dis­course on every­day life in the GDR define their work large­ly by a need to under­stand the extent to which the state and the par­ty con­trolled that every­day life. Specif­i­cal­ly, many schol­ars have made sig­nif­i­cant use the con­cept of Herrschaft—a con­cept intro­duced by Max Weber and lat­er became asso­ci­at­ed with Alf Lüdtk—to explain how those who hold pow­er often depend on the con­sent of those they rule. These analy­ses of East Ger­many focus on the more sub­tle and cul­tur­al ways in which the par­ty “dic­ta­tor­ship” exer­cised “soft pow­er”[5]—the fram­ing for a large num­ber of works done on the GDR in Britain and North Amer­i­ca. Many stud­ies in this vein looked, for exam­ple, at con­sumer cul­ture, sports, gen­der, domes­tic­i­ty, pri­vate life, etc.[6] How­ev­er, the gen­er­al pur­pose was ulti­mate­ly to uncov­er the extent of par­ty Herrschaft over East Ger­man soci­ety. To a degree, the rea­son that the term Herrschaft became so ubiq­ui­tous was its con­cep­tu­al flexibility—it could accom­mo­date a more nuanced, even Gram­s­cian, or Fou­cauldian inter­pre­ta­tion of pow­er, or it could mean pow­er more gen­er­al­ly or col­lo­qui­al­ly.[7]

By the ear­ly 2000s the schol­ar­ship on the GDR, par­tic­u­lar­ly in his­to­ry, had become so pro­found­ly shaped by the search for Herrschaft that it seemed as if there were no oth­er way to think about study­ing the GDR. Near­ly every study, in both Eng­lish and Ger­man, began with the par­a­digm of the GDR as a state and par­ty as well as a soci­ety, and essen­tial­ly tried to doc­u­ment the extent of the impo­si­tion of the for­mer onto the lat­ter. Most of this schol­ar­ship, as valu­able as it was, bor­dered on ques­tion-beg­ging, con­tain­ing much of the con­clu­sion with­in its premise. It began with the notion that there was a state on the one hand and a soci­ety on the oth­er, that there was inter­pen­e­tra­tion, and end­ed with the con­clu­sion that, in fact, the state/party pen­e­trat­ed into the soci­ety. The only real point of con­tention in this schol­ar­ship was the degree to which that pen­e­tra­tion hap­pened and how to char­ac­ter­ize it. The focus on “pow­er” from the begin­ning was self-rein­forc­ing because, as Michel Fou­cault argues, pow­er, espe­cial­ly in its sub­tler or more dif­fuse forms (such as Herrschaft), is every­where, in every soci­ety, and not just dic­ta­tor­ships. That there was Herrschaft in the GDR is not, in the end, what is most impor­tant. Instead, I argue that one of the aspects of East Ger­man soci­ety and every­day life that tends to be de-empha­sized in the lit­er­a­ture is the real­i­ty of social­ism itself, as both an ide­ol­o­gy and a sys­tem of orga­niz­ing every­day life. That is, the impres­sion emerges from much of the lit­er­a­ture that the “social­ist” part of East Ger­man every­day life was mere­ly epiphenomenal—almost as if it were inci­den­tal whether East Ger­many was social­ist, or fas­cist, or whatever—and that what real­ly mat­ters when study­ing the GDR is gain­ing an under­stand­ing of how pow­er-in-gen­er­al works. Yet East Ger­many was unique not because of Herrschaft but because it was social­ist. This was a core of its exis­tence, not an epiphenomenon.

Indeed, the expe­ri­ence of for­mer East Ger­mans high­lights this dis­crep­an­cy between the pol­i­tics of aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course on the GDR and the actu­al lived expe­ri­ence in the GDR. In inter­view after inter­view, East Ger­mans in Marzahn paint­ed the same kind of pic­ture of their life in the Plat­ten­bausied­lung—a new begin­ning, a pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty, a major upgrade into the long await­ed social­ist good life, and most of all, a real and authen­tic every­day lived expe­ri­ence of socialism—not ide­o­log­i­cal social­ism, not the social­ism of the par­ty line, but a true com­mu­ni­tar­i­an social­ism that worked even where and when the sys­tem did not func­tion. They attrib­uted lit­tle impor­tance to their belong­ing to the SED or the pres­ence of that offi­cial sys­tem, but rather described a lived expe­ri­ence that was, in fact, social­ism. Fur­ther­more, what many com­plained about, and what many East Ger­mans in gen­er­al have found hard­est to under­stand in the years since 1989, is that their expe­ri­ence in the GDR seems to have been gross­ly mis­un­der­stood by west­ern­ers, espe­cial­ly his­to­ri­ans.[8] The nar­ra­tive below depicts a very dif­fer­ent real­i­ty than much of the Ger­man and Eng­lish schol­ar­ship on the GDR.

The impor­tance of this dis­con­nect goes beyond the milieu of for­mer East Ger­mans. Quite apart from the pol­i­tics of GDR his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, there has been a transat­lantic explo­sion of inter­est in East Ger­man every­day life and mate­r­i­al cul­ture.[9] While this inter­est is per­haps easy to explain away as Ostal­gie among for­mer East Ger­mans, it is much hard­er to under­stand its transat­lantic and inter­na­tion­al appeal. The well-known GDR Muse­um locat­ed in the heart of the most touristy area of Berlin—just off Unter den Lin­den, between sev­er­al muse­ums and monuments—is not large but it is heav­i­ly vis­it­ed, almost exclu­sive­ly by for­eign tourists. Shops sell­ing for­mer East Ger­man con­sumer goods, mar­ket­ed as “com­mu­nist kitsch” have appeared in hip, trendy neigh­bour­hoods, espe­cial­ly in Berlin, where many for­eign­ers or young peo­ple with no mem­o­ry or con­nec­tion to the GDR live. The largest exist­ing muse­um devot­ed to the mate­r­i­al cul­ture and every­day life cul­ture of East Ger­many now exists in Cal­i­for­nia. Known as the Wende Muse­um, it hous­es an impres­sive array of objects, visu­al art, film, cloth­ing, and print­ed sources (includ­ing Mar­got Honecker’s papers).[10] The Wende Muse­um has demon­strat­ed that, amaz­ing­ly, in Los Ange­les there is a strong inter­est in East Germany—the museum’s suc­cess has led it to recent­ly move to a new, larg­er build­ing, and it man­aged to stage an impres­sive spec­ta­cle (even for Hollywood’s stan­dards) for the 20th anniver­sary of the fall of the Wall, shut­ting down Wilshire Boule­vard with seg­ments of the Berlin Wall placed across it, the May­or of Los Ange­les and the Gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia in atten­dance. Indeed, inter­est in East Ger­man every­day life and mate­r­i­al cul­ture is found through­out the world.

One might argue that in a neolib­er­al era this inter­est sig­ni­fies a strong yearn­ing for “some­thing else” (Rubin, “Future,” 2). Indeed, East Ger­many rep­re­sent­ed an alter­na­tive moder­ni­ty--not just any alter­na­tive, but a dis­tinc­tive­ly non-cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty. As such, the sug­ges­tion here is that the GDR holds a strange and uncan­ny fas­ci­na­tion for west­ern­ers. This is espe­cial­ly true of the younger gen­er­a­tion, which is apt to be both attract­ed to and con­de­scend­ing­ly amused by the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal world left behind by a high­ly devel­oped, mod­ern social­ist soci­ety. One of the endur­ing slo­gans of the Occu­py move­ment is “Anoth­er World is Pos­si­ble.” Among the polit­i­cal left in the Unit­ed States and through­out the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, there is a rad­i­cal­ly new open­ness to con­sid­er­ing alter­na­tives to cap­i­tal­ism itself. This has been made clear by the suc­cess of Bernie Sanders—a self-avowed socialist—in near­ly gain­ing the nom­i­na­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, as well as by a recent Har­vard study reveal­ing that just over half of all mil­len­ni­als do not sup­port cap­i­tal­ism and one-third sup­port social­ism (Ehren­fre­und). Yet in the sud­den­ly flour­ish­ing dis­course to be found, for exam­ple, in mag­a­zines and blogs such as Jacobin, Dis­sent, and The Baf­fler, there is lit­tle to no men­tion of what life was actu­al­ly like in a mod­ern social­ist soci­ety that exist­ed in recent mem­o­ry. Begin­ning to under­stand every­day lived social­ism on its own termss a first step in fill­ing in the blind spots regard­ing what “oth­er worlds” are pos­si­ble and what they actu­al­ly look like. What fol­lows is an attempt to write a his­to­ry of every­day life in social­ist East Ger­many beyond Herrschaft.

In 1982, Gabriele Franik and her hus­band drove from cen­tral East Berlin to the vast Plat­ten­bau con­struc­tion site in Marzahn, a rur­al dis­trict on the north­east edge of Berlin. They were hop­ing to see their new apart­ment in what had become the sin­gle largest hous­ing set­tle­ment in all of Europe. Eight months preg­nant with twins, Gabriele had been on pre­scribed bed rest, but was so excit­ed to see this new world and the place in it for her and her fam­i­ly that she could not resist. She recalled the expe­ri­ence of enter­ing this com­plete­ly new world, a world still in the process of becom­ing: “[My hus­band] drove and drove. We emerged into a giant con­struc­tion site: our way was lined with con­struc­tion cranes. New­ly begun Plat­ten­baut­en stood every­where. There were no streets to be seen any­where. Moun­tains of sand tow­ered, a gigan­tic waste­land of mud; nowhere was there a tree, or even a shrub” (Franik, 80). When she got to their apart­ment, on the sec­ond floor of a WBS-70/11 mod­el pre­fab­ri­cat­ed apart­ment block on Lud­wig-Renn-Strasse 43, her enor­mous stom­ach mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to walk, the social­ist future sud­den­ly became a real, mate­r­i­al space:

My heart was in my throat with excite­ment; my knees shook as I left the car and we walked up to the sec­ond floor togeth­er, the build­ing still smelling of cement and paint. My hus­band opened the door to our new apart­ment and […] a giant empire appeared, with enough room for five fam­i­ly mem­bers. Cen­tral heat­ing, warm water from the wall, and a six-meter-long bal­cony! This is what hap­pi­ness looks like. We fell into each other’s arms, euphor­i­cal­ly. (79-80)

The Franiks were among over 400,000 East Ger­mans who would come to live in Marzahn and the con­nect­ed Plat­ten­bausied­lun­gen of Licht­en­berg, Hohen­schön­hausen, and Hellers­dorf between 1977 and 1990. Marzahn was built as the cen­ter­piece of a larg­er cam­paign by the East Ger­man state, the Hous­ing Pro­gram (Woh­nungs­baupro­gramm), which aimed to build or ren­o­vate three mil­lion mod­ern dwellings for East Ger­mans by 1990 to elim­i­nate the per­sis­tent short­age of ade­quate hous­ing that had afflict­ed East Ger­mans, the Ger­man work­ing class in gen­er­al, and Berlin­ers in par­tic­u­lar since the 19th cen­tu­ry. By the time the GDR col­lapsed, its Hous­ing Pro­gram had built two mil­lion apart­ments and ren­o­vat­ed anoth­er one mil­lion, and almost five mil­lion East Ger­mans (28 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion) lived in pre­fab­ri­cat­ed hous­ing set­tle­ments such as Marzahn (Rubin, Amne­siopo­lis 29-31). Most of these—650 to be exact—were built on the out­skirts of cities, rang­ing from a few thou­sand res­i­dents to 90,000 res­i­dents; exam­ples include the Fritz-Heck­ert set­tle­ment out­side Karl-Marx-City, the Grü­nau set­tle­ment out­side Leipzig, and the Nord­west set­tle­ment out­side Ros­tock (Rubin, Amne­siopo­lis 160-63).

These set­tle­ments were most­ly iden­ti­cal apart­ment blocks, repeat­ed in rows in vary­ing pat­terns, which were con­struct­ed using pre­fab­ri­cat­ed, steel-rein­forced con­crete pan­els assem­bled on site by three-shift assem­bly lines of work­ers. How­ev­er, they were not intend­ed by the East Ger­man state and its rul­ing par­ty to be mere hous­ing. The Hous­ing Pro­gram was itself the cen­tral pil­lar of the most impor­tant lega­cy of East Ger­man leader Erich Honecker’s regime, which last­ed from 1971 until 1989, offi­cial­ly called the “Uni­ty of Eco­nom­ic and Social Pol­i­cy.” Often referred to in short­hand as “real exist­ing social­ism,” it was a mas­sive effort to bring the “good life” to social­ist cit­i­zens (see Stein­er; Bou­vi­er). Until Honeck­er took pow­er in 1971 from aging leader Wal­ter Ulbricht, life in social­ist East Ger­many had most­ly con­sist­ed of promis­es of a deferred utopia. “As we work today, so we will live tomor­row” was a favorite slo­gan of the par­ty in the 1950s and 1960s (Merkel 121). While the regime focused on build­ing up its heavy indus­try, col­lec­tiviz­ing farms, and invest­ing in pres­tige projects such as Alexan­der­platz, the TV tow­er, and the Palace of the Repub­lic in East Berlin, it ignored the needs of ordi­nary cit­i­zens in the realm of con­sumer goods and social needs such as child­care, infra­struc­ture, and, above all, housing.

As of 1971 most East Ger­mans lived in dwellings that were inad­e­quate, with two-thirds built before 1918 and the major­i­ty of those from the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. One-third had no run­ning water, which increased to two-thirds in small­er towns; only one-third had an indoor toi­let. In Berlin the prob­lem was espe­cial­ly acute; since the rapid expan­sion of Berlin after the uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many after 1871, it had become infa­mous for its slum apart­ments, called “rental bar­racks,” which were cramped, dark, and expen­sive. Tens of thou­sands could find no afford­able hous­ing at all, instead liv­ing on the streets and in shan­ty­towns out­side the city. Because of eco­nom­ic depres­sion, the war, and the low pri­or­i­ty of hous­ing pol­i­cy dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, East Berlin con­tin­ued to resem­ble the “mis­ery quar­ters” of the 19th cen­tu­ry. In oth­er words, in terms of lived every­day expe­ri­ence, lit­tle had changed for work­ers, even though the GDR was sup­posed to be the “Work­ers’ and Peas­ants’ State.” Yet by the 1970s a new gen­er­a­tion was com­ing of age, born after the war, hop­ing to start a new life and yet unable to find ade­quate hous­ing, mak­ing inad­e­quate and unavail­able hous­ing by far the lead­ing top­ic of cit­i­zen Eingaben (com­plaint let­ters) addressed to the gov­ern­ment. By 1970, the state esti­mat­ed that 90,000 peo­ple in East Berlin were unable to find hous­ing at all, often young mar­ried cou­ples still shar­ing a small liv­ing space with their fam­i­lies (Peters and Seifert 17). Sovi­et Pre­mier Niki­ta Khrushchev first called for his Sovi­et comrades—and the lead­er­ship of oth­er com­mu­nist nations—to pay atten­tion to the com­plete­ly inad­e­quate hous­ing in com­mu­nist coun­tries, espe­cial­ly in light of the post­war boom of most­ly sub­ur­ban hous­ing in the US and var­i­ous mod­ern hous­ing devel­op­ments in West­ern Euro­pean cities, such as the Villes Nou­velles (“new towns”) in France, the “New Towns” in Britain, and pre­fab­ri­cat­ed hous­ing set­tle­ments in West Ger­many such as Gropiusstadt, Märkisches Vier­tel, or Neu Per­lach. Specif­i­cal­ly, he want­ed com­mu­nist nations to build hous­ing “bet­ter, cheap­er, and faster” (Khrushchev), lead­ing to a boom in pre­fab­ri­cat­ed hous­ing set­tle­ments across the Sovi­et Bloc, from Nizh­ny Nov­gorod in the USSR to New Bel­grade in Yugoslavia, Nowa Huta out­side Krakow, or Ujpla­ta out­side Budapest.

Yet the prob­lem fac­ing the GDR was not sim­ply that cit­i­zens lived in inad­e­quate cir­cum­stances while the promise of a social­ist utopia had raised their expec­ta­tions; it was that the his­to­ry of capitalism—and fas­cism, as the rise of Nazism had played out in these streets—was inscribed into the very phys­i­cal spaces that made up these old neigh­bor­hoods. They were, lit­er­al­ly, the prod­uct of cap­i­tal­ist logic—East Ger­man offi­cials even referred to the old slum neigh­bor­hoods as “the cap­i­tal­ist lega­cy” (das kap­i­tal­is­tis­che Erbe). They could be ren­o­vat­ed, but because they were built to cram in as many res­i­dents as pos­si­ble, the only way to make them con­form to a base­line of ade­qua­cy and modernity—an Exis­tenzmin­i­mum—would be to reduce the total avail­able liv­ing units in order to increase the aver­age liv­ing space with­in each unit. This meant that the hous­ing cri­sis was built into the city struc­tures by the sys­tem that built the city—capitalism. To solve the hous­ing cri­sis, and thus to final­ly break free of the cap­i­tal­ist lega­cy, social­ism would have to build a new phys­i­cal space, not just new hous­ing but a new city, from scratch. The plan for Marzahn, devel­oped in 1974-75 at the behest of the SED’s Polit­buro, under the lead­er­ship of Gün­ter Mit­tag,[11] was not only to build hous­ing but to build an entire, self-con­tained city, with every con­ceiv­able need in life mapped out, ratio­nal­ly, in advance: not only apart­ments, but schools, shop­ping cen­ters, ath­let­ic and recre­ation facil­i­ties, com­mu­nal spaces, health clin­ics, pub­lic trans­porta­tion, etc. These guide­lines were enshrined into East Ger­man law a year lat­er in 1976 (Geset­zblatt Son­der­druck 195).

The plan for Marzahn was to cre­ate an entire­ly new social­ist city, a mon­u­ment to “real exist­ing social­ism” in con­crete. The plan bor­rowed heav­i­ly from mod­ernist urban plan­ning concepts—especially those of Le Corbusier—that empha­sized apart­ment tow­ers sep­a­rat­ed by large swaths of green space and ori­ent­ed to allow max­i­mum sun­light and fresh air for res­i­dents while also reduc­ing the inter­mix­ing of pedes­tri­an and auto­mo­bile traf­fic. No school or nursery/preschool (called Kinder­garten-Kinderkrippekom­bi­nat or “KiKo”), health clin­ic, sports/recreation cen­ter, or pub­lic tran­sit stop could be more than 600 metres from any res­i­dence. The new town con­tained four­teen large and thir­teen small school gym­na­si­ums (Schul­turn­hallen) and eleven school sports facil­i­ties, which includ­ed tracks, soc­cer fields, vol­ley­ball areas, and small­er ath­let­ic fields. Anoth­er eleven sports recre­ation facil­i­ties were to be built for adults. One of these was to be a cen­tral sta­di­um with 5,000 seats. Oth­er planned social facil­i­ties includ­ed a home for trou­bled youths (Heim für Jugend­hil­fe), which also had to be no more than 600 metres from a poly­tech­nic high school (Mag­is­trat Berlin 30-32); three phar­ma­cies; up to nine retire­ment homes/hospices, each sev­en sto­ries (Peters 107); a cen­tral sup­ply depot for gar­den­ers; a music school with a rehearsal stu­dio; an open-air the­atre with enough capac­i­ty to hold large fes­ti­vals, includ­ing the appro­pri­ate facil­i­ties for food and drink; and a youth hos­tel (Mag­is­trat Berlin 30-33). Lat­er, the Polit­buro man­dat­ed that four church­es (Catholic and Luther­an) be added to the plan, all from pre­fab­ri­cat­ed con­crete, with a stark­ly mod­ern and min­i­mal­ist design (Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn 126-30). Each dis­trict had restau­rants, milk bars, cafes, dance halls, pubs, ser­vice shops (Dien­stleis­tun­gen, denot­ing repairs, auto mechan­ics, etc.), a cin­e­ma, a pub­lic swim­ming pool and sauna, and so on. There were even plans to make a bob­sled run (Rödel­bahn) and bun­ny ski hill out of the arti­fi­cial moun­tains cre­at­ed by the enor­mous amount of earth—two mil­lion cubic metres (Peters 103)—displaced by the con­struc­tion of this entire­ly new city (“Vor­flut Kanal” 2-3). There were also senior liv­ing cen­ters, youth hos­tels, and a youth group home. In short, it was what plan­ners described as a heile Welt—a holis­ti­cal­ly planned and self-con­tained world. On paper, Marzahn looked like the Utopia that social­ism had longed promised. It was also a world ful­ly detached from the old spaces defined by the bygone fas­cist and cap­i­tal­ist eras, at least in terms of how it appeared to the senses.

How­ev­er, once peo­ple began to inhab­it this new space, it was no longer just a blue­print or a space, but rather a “socio-spa­tial dialec­tic” (Soja 76-94). The cru­cial point is not just what Marzahn looked like, but what life was actu­al­ly like there. For many, it was obvi­ous­ly a sig­nif­i­cant mate­r­i­al upgrade in liv­ing stan­dards, which remained lit­tle bet­ter than they had been in the 19th cen­tu­ry. This was true, for exam­ple, for Elis­a­beth Albrecht, a librar­i­an who lived in a crum­bling and damp one-room apart­ment in Berlin’s old ten­e­ment dis­trict of Friedrichshain, where the ven­ti­la­tion was so bad she and her nine-year-old son Stef­fen suf­fered from high lev­els of car­bon monox­ide fumes, a sit­u­a­tion so com­mon in East Berlin it was known to many sim­ply as “Berlin con­di­tions” (Marin 81). For Albrecht, mov­ing to a two-bed­room, ful­ly mod­ern apart­ment in a WBS 70/11 block with a ninth floor, gor­geous view of the Bran­den­burg plains stretch­ing out to the east was obvi­ous­ly a sig­nif­i­cant upgrade. It was also the case for Bar­bara Diehl, who lived in a cramped and dark one-room “rental bar­rack” apart­ment in Friedrichshain with her hus­band Rolf and young son Dieter, with no warm water or heat­ing. For them, mov­ing to a three-bed­room apart­ment in 1980 on the Allee der Kos­mo­naut­en (“Cos­mo­naut Street”), in time for their sec­ond son, Sebas­t­ian, to be born was a seri­ous upgrade in mate­r­i­al liv­ing stan­dards (Diehl), as it was for almost every­one who moved to Marzahn.

The move meant a new begin­ning for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. For Diehl, it meant being able to have a mar­riage again—Dieter and Sebas­t­ian could have their own rooms and she and her hus­band some pri­va­cy. Not only that, but Dieter, who had had prob­lems mak­ing friends and being ostra­cized at his old school in Friedrichshain, seemed to be more accept­ed in his new school, where none of the kids knew each oth­er pre­vi­ous­ly and his moth­er could see his school yard from her bal­cony, watch­ing him slow­ly begin to make friends dur­ing out­door recess (Diehl). Albrecht, like oth­er res­i­dents, helped plant trees along the out­side of her build­ing, and for her both the new tree she plant­ed and the new apart­ment she and her son now occu­pied, rep­re­sent­ed lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly putting down new roots in new soil. She even learned to mea­sure the pas­sage of time in terms of both the tree—as it reached close to her balcony—and her grow­ing son, who grad­u­at­ed from high school and moved away: “but in the mean­time, the poplar that I plant­ed dur­ing those days [when he was a child] has reached all the way to me, almost grow­ing into my win­dow. It is now 21 years old” (36).

The move to Marzahn also meant a chance to cre­ate a new com­mu­ni­ty. Most build­ings in Marzahn and in the GDR had a com­mu­nal build­ing asso­ci­a­tion (Haus­ge­mein­schaft, HG), usu­al­ly run by a five-per­son lead­er­ship com­mit­tee (Haus­ge­mein­schaft­sleitung, HGL) elect­ed by the build­ing res­i­dents. Marzah­n­ers recall their HGLs as hav­ing orga­nized a good deal of the build­ings’ social life: sum­mer par­ties out­side on the green­ways with grills and beer (Wormbs 18); Car­ni­val (Fasching) par­ties every Feb­ru­ary in the com­mu­nal rooms includ­ed in the WBS 70 build­ings (Wormbs 18); fes­ti­vals on Inter­na­tion­al Children’s Day (Albrecht 38); and Advent cel­e­bra­tions for the senior cit­i­zens (Weber 41). Namensge­bung and Jugendwei­he—sec­u­lar cer­e­monies intend­ed to replace bap­tism and con­fir­ma­tion, respec­tive­ly, wide­spread in the ear­li­er work­ing-class left-wing milieu and com­mon­place in the GDR—were fre­quent occa­sions (Wohn­bezirk­sauss­chüss 103-4), as Marzahn had the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of chil­dren of any oth­er sin­gle dis­trict in the entire coun­try (Nieder­län­der 2). So too were com­ing home cer­e­monies for young men com­plet­ing their manda­to­ry mil­i­tary ser­vice (Lad­wig 78) or char­i­ty events coor­di­nat­ed with qua­si-state char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions such as the Volkssol­i­dar­ität (Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn 121) and the Soci­ety for Ger­man-Sovi­et Friend­ship. Some­times, the HGL would throw par­ties just for fun and every­one was invit­ed, even those who had been shirk­ing their vol­un­teer com­mit­ments, as Jasper Oelze recalled: “The vibe was great, and we had lots of fun” at these events (Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn 121). Jut­ta and Joachim Kret­zschmar agreed: “When it came to com­mu­nal fes­ti­vals, it didn’t mat­ter if you had helped clean the stair­well or not, every door­bell was rung. There were a few peo­ple who orga­nized it all […] we had a cook in the build­ing, as well as the direc­tor of the shop­ping mart, and that was rea­son enough to throw a par­ty” (Vere­in Kids & Co. 54). Karin Hinkel remem­bered the res­i­dents of the twen­ti­eth floor where she lived hav­ing spon­ta­neous parties:

Over­all, we par­tied a lot. Nev­er planned it, just did it. We’d meet up in the hall­way on the twen­ti­eth floor, and that’s how it would start. Every­one brought a chair, and with the kids we’d do some­thing for Car­ni­val (Fasching), or we’d orga­nize dance par­ties for the old­er kids (jugendliche Diskos). Or, right in front on the green­way, there would be kids’ par­ties, some­times in con­junc­tion with the school near­by. And there would be a lot of baked treats. There was a real sense of togeth­er­ness and socia­bil­i­ty (gesel­liges Zusam­men­sein) in the build­ing. (Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn 121)

The HGL also was the main con­duit for larg­er pro­grams, such as Mach Mit! (“Join In!”). This nation­wide pro­gram, run by the Nation­al Front, encour­aged res­i­dents to beau­ti­fy and land­scape their build­ings’ com­mu­nal areas and neigh­bor­hoods. This work was part of the 25 annu­al hours of com­mu­nal ser­vice (volk­swirtschaftliche Mass­enini­tia­tiv­enVMI) required of all East Ger­mans (Betts 145). In Marzahn, res­i­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed in Mach Mit! by help­ing to land­scape the grounds around their build­ings, which were most­ly still mud and dirt churned up and packed down by the tens of thou­sands of con­struc­tion work­ers who had just recent­ly moved on to the next build­ing in the row. For many Marzah­n­ers, par­tic­i­pat­ing in Mach Mit! was one of their foun­da­tion­al expe­ri­ences of mov­ing to the Plat­ten­bau. Torsten Preußing recalled that one of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries of mov­ing into Marzahn was see­ing a plac­ard post­ed by his building’s com­mu­nal asso­ci­a­tion in the lob­by: “Tomor­row top­soil is com­ing. All men out­side, with shov­els in hand!” “It worked,” Preußing remem­bered. “We stood there [the next day], and we spread out the top­soil. And we designed the gar­den in front of our build­ing our­selves. It was a time which can be described with a phrase that was often thrown around back then: ‘From ‘I’ to ‘we’” (17-18). Klaus Höl­ger­mann recalled the Mach Mit! days as a kind of foun­da­tion­al myth, with hon­est labour yield­ing a well-deserved reward:

The res­i­dents were ready to join in. One didn’t need a lot of con­vinc­ing. The tasks were orga­nized here, in the build­ing. On this or that day, for exam­ple in May, it would be announced: “In four­teen days we’re get­ting bush­es and trees deliv­ered. You are to see to it that they are plant­ed.” And it worked. We got start­ed at eight in the morn­ing, and we worked straight through to 11:30am. And when we fin­ished some­thing, we went and grabbed a case of seltzer, or two, and also per­haps a crate of beer. It was all work, sweat, and beer! (Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn 119)

Through these shared expe­ri­ences, res­i­dents of the Plat­ten­bausied­lung expe­ri­enced a strong sense of com­mu­nal trust and com­mu­ni­ty. Inge­borg Häm­mer­ling described her mem­o­ry of the com­mu­ni­ty in Marzahn:

The renters were blue-col­lar and white-col­lar work­ers, and intel­lec­tu­als, although these intel­lec­tu­als had come orig­i­nal­ly from the work­ing class, tak­ing advan­tage of the many edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties they had, as I had in earn­ing my degree in eco­nom­ics. So, there was no divi­sion into social class­es. And we res­i­dents took over respon­si­bil­i­ty for main­tain­ing the build­ing and the land­scap­ing, and for uphold­ing order and secu­ri­ty in the build­ing, includ­ing observ­ing the fire code. […] With us, the pro­fes­sor lived next to the clean­ing woman, and we all used the infor­mal form of address (Du). […]

The res­i­dents absolute­ly sup­port­ed their duty to take care of the liv­ing area. We main­tained the apart­ment, the build­ing, the land­scap­ing in the front, and we made sure all the kids in the build­ing were respect­ful of the prop­er­ty. Because all the res­i­dents were employed, includ­ing women and young adults, the com­mu­ni­ties in these build­ings were not envi­ron­ments where pet­ty crim­i­nal­i­ty, drug addic­tion, van­dal­ism, or a seedy atmos­phere could take root. Out­side of a few cel­lar break-ins, I don’t recall any crim­i­nal­i­ty at all. (3)

This was not just a case of view­ing the past with rose-coloured glass­es. In the 1980s, Loni Nieder­län­der of the Hum­boldt University’s Insti­tute for Marx­ist-Lenin­ist Soci­ol­o­gy found that most fam­i­lies in Marzahn had close rela­tion­ships with between three and five oth­er fam­i­lies, with only 14 per­cent of the res­i­dents hav­ing no close rela­tion­ships with any oth­er res­i­dents. Two-thirds of the res­i­dents report­ed that they would leave their key with at least one neigh­bor, and in the five-sto­ry WBS build­ings the atmos­phere was even more trusting—95 per­cent report­ed they trust­ed their neigh­bors enough to leave a key with them (28). Marzah­n­ers, like East Ger­mans in gen­er­al, tend to feel that this sense of com­mu­nal­ism and col­lec­tive trust has been severe­ly erod­ed since 1989. As Marzah­n­er Wil­fried Klen­ner put it, “this us-feel­ing is gone today. Now, there are bor­ders, which didn’t used to be there” (38).

It was true that these Marzah­n­ers lived with­in an envi­ron­ment that had def­i­nite traces of the influ­ence of the state’s secu­ri­ty poli­cies and forces. For one, there were a num­ber of fam­i­lies in which one or both par­ents worked either for the armed forces, the SED, the police, or the Stasi (though there was a sep­a­rate Plat­ten­bausied­lung a lit­tle fur­ther to the west, in Licht­en­berg, where most Stasi fam­i­lies were set­tled). One of the ameni­ties of the new WBS 70 build­ings was a cen­tral anten­na, with a con­trol box in the base­ment mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to receive West Ger­man TV sig­nals (Min­is­teri­um für Staatssicher­heit, Gemein­schaft­san­ten­nenan­la­gen 1); in any event, the tall con­crete build­ings often inter­fered with the air­borne sig­nals (Dom­nitz 42). The Stasi had an inter­est in Marzahn, in part because there were so many well-con­nect­ed peo­ple there (and thus peo­ple with access to sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion, for exam­ple) but they were espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in learn­ing how pre­fab­ri­cat­ed build­ings were built so as to max­i­mize their abil­i­ty to observe res­i­dents (Min­is­teri­um für Staatssicher­heit, Doku­men­ta­tion; Rubin, Amne­siopo­lis 139-45).

These were unde­ni­able facets of life in the GDR. Yet the real­i­ty of life in this new social­ist city pre­sent­ed a para­dox of sorts. On the one hand, res­i­dents built a close-knit com­mu­ni­ty based in almost every con­ceiv­able way on social­ist prin­ci­ples, or at least a kind of social­ist com­mu­nal­ism. There was a strong sense of trust, social cohe­sion, and a col­lec­tive and egal­i­tar­i­an iden­ti­ty. Marzah­n­ers, and East Ger­mans in gen­er­al, were joiners—they fre­quent­ly belonged to orga­ni­za­tions, whether the state labor union (FDGB), Volkssol­i­dar­ität (“Peo­ples’ Sol­i­dar­i­ty,” a state-sup­port­ed nation­al char­i­ty orga­ni­za­tion), the Nation­al Front’s local com­mit­tees, HGLs, par­ent com­mit­tees (Elter­nak­tiv­en), com­mit­tees or “brigades” at their work­places, and so on. In many ways, these con­formed to the ide­ol­o­gy of the state, for exam­ple, the wide­spread adop­tion of Jugendwei­he instead of Chris­t­ian confirmation.

On the oth­er hand, most Marzah­n­ers seemed to have lit­tle alle­giance to the high­er organs of the state. Many were SED par­ty mem­bers and showed lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion to admit this mem­ber­ship, or even the fact that they were tru­ly com­mit­ted ide­o­log­i­cal­ly. Yet when it came to the mem­o­ries that shaped the nar­ra­tives of their lives in Marzahn, inter­ac­tion with the nation­al SED played lit­tle role. Although many of them par­tic­i­pat­ed in com­mu­nal activ­i­ties sup­port­ed by the state—many of the HGs received their bud­get from the Nation­al Front—they did not par­tic­u­lar­ly dwell on that rela­tion­ship. For exam­ple, those build­ings that did the best Mach Mit! work were award­ed a cash prize and an offi­cial plaque, the “Gold­en House Num­ber,” which was could be affixed to the front of the build­ing entrance; many win­ning build­ings took only the cash and dis­card­ed the plaque, as Wil­fried Klen­ner recalls (37). Sim­i­lar­ly, accord­ing to Niederländer’s study, 72 per­cent of Marzah­n­ers had no idea who their Nation­al Front Volk­skam­mer rep­re­sen­ta­tive was, and 50 per­cent respond­ed that who­ev­er they were, they were total­ly use­less. At the same time, a large major­i­ty of Marzah­n­ers had a strong inter­est in the activ­i­ties of the com­mu­nal asso­ci­a­tion, with 84 per­cent report­ing inter­est in help­ing with cel­e­bra­tions and fes­ti­vals and 67 per­cent report­ing inter­est in help­ing with VMI labour (such as Mach Mit!) (Nieder­län­der 27).

If we approach this his­to­ry in search of how pow­er or Herrschaft func­tioned, we do indeed find ample cas­es of pow­er. After all, the ini­tial impe­tus for my research in Marzahn was to exam­ine how spaces cre­at­ed by the state were used to sub­tly con­trol cit­i­zens. Nos­tal­gia presents an unde­ni­able bias for some for­mer East Ger­mans who con­trast the present unfa­vor­ably with the past. Yet there is sub­stan­tial bias the oth­er way, in terms of the over­all fram­ing of GDR research that pre­cedes the for­mu­la­tion of research ques­tions and prob­lem­at­ics. Try­ing to under­stand any his­tor­i­cal era or expe­ri­ence on its own terms is also high­ly fraught and prob­lem­at­ic. Indeed, his­to­ri­ans over a cen­tu­ry ago saw their task as under­stand­ing the past wie es eigentlich gewe­sen ist (as it actu­al­ly was)—an uncrit­i­cal accep­tance of objec­tiv­i­ty, sci­en­tif­ic thought, and pos­i­tivism that over 30 years of post­struc­tural­ist cri­tique has decon­struct­ed. This essay is not sug­gest­ing a return to uncrit­i­cal pos­i­tivism in research­ing the GDR. Instead it is sug­gest­ing an atten­tion to the gaps and con­tra­dic­tions between the mem­o­ries and expe­ri­ences of his­tor­i­cal sub­jects and the dis­cours­es of his­to­ri­ans and their insti­tu­tions and texts. It is espe­cial­ly argu­ing for a crit­i­cal reflec­tion on the polit­i­cal and meta-his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal dynam­ics and con­di­tions that cre­at­ed these gaps. Doing so can open up new spaces for new ques­tions and new debates. Above all, we should move away from an end­less and tau­to­log­i­cal search for Herrschaft in study­ing the GDR.

What would mov­ing away from search for state pow­er in every­day life entail? This essay has sug­gest­ed that such a shift might begin with tak­ing the func­tion­ing of social­ism in every­day life on its own terms, rather than a reflec­tion of some kind of pow­er dynam­ic. Per­haps in a polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic cli­mate in which alter­na­tives to neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism are active­ly being dis­cussed, in which there is a real yearn­ing for a neb­u­lous “oth­er world,” the lived expe­ri­ence of social­ism in East Ger­man Plat­ten­bausied­lun­gen can help fill in what that alter­na­tive might look like. Fur­ther­more, per­haps mov­ing away from Herrschaft and into a study of East Ger­man social­ism as a form of every­day life on its own terms may lead to oth­er direc­tions of research. Until we leave behind the ten­den­cy to weigh every facet of life in East Ger­many on the scale of Herrschaft, we will not be able to open up spaces for new ques­tions and debates.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Title Image (Fig­ure 1): Chil­dren in Marzahn. Cour­tesy Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn-Hellers­dorf, e.V.
Fig­ure 2: Map of Berlin-Marzahn. Cour­tesy of Jason Glatz, West­ern Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty Map­ping Services.
Fig­ure  3: Sebas­t­ian and Daniel Diehl in front of their new WBS 70 build­ing, Allee der Kos­mo­naut­en, Marzahn, 1984. Cour­tesy of Bar­bara Diehl.
Fig­ure 4: View from the Diehls new apart­ment, Allee der Kos­mo­naut­en, 1983. Cour­tesy of Bar­bara Diehl.
Fig­ure 5: Mar­quardt fam­i­ly on first day of school, 1982, Marzahn. Cour­tesy of Eve­lyn Marquardt.
Fig­ure 6. WBS 70 build­ings in Marzahn, 1984. Cour­tesy of Bezirksmu­se­um Marzahn-Hellers­dorf, e.V.


[1] In addi­tion to works already men­tioned, see also: on the USSR, Mark Smith, Prop­er­ty of Com­mu­nists: The Urban Hous­ing Pro­gram from Stal­in to Khr­uschev (North­ern Illi­nois UP, 2010), Steven Har­ris, Com­mu­nism on Tomor­row Street: Mass Hous­ing and Every­day Life After Stal­in (Johns Hop­kins UP, 2013), and Chris­tine Var­gas-Har­ris, Sto­ries of House and Home: Sovi­et Apart­ment Life dur­ing the Khrushchev Years (Itha­ca, NY: Cor­nell UP, 2015); on Poland, Kather­ine Lebow, Unfin­ished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stal­in­ism and Pol­ish Soci­ety, 1949-56 (Cor­nell UP, 2013); on Hun­gary (as well as East Ger­many), Virág Mol­nár, Build­ing the State: Archi­tec­ture, Pol­i­tics and State For­ma­tion in Post­war Cen­tral Europe (Rout­ledge, 2013); on Yugoslavia, Brigitte Le Nor­mand, Design­ing Tito’s Cap­i­tal: Urban Plan­ning, Mod­ernism and Social­ism in Bel­grade (U of Pitts­burgh P, 2014).

[2] For a small sam­pling, see: Lothar Mertens, edi­tor, Unter dem Deck­el der Dik­tatur: Soziale und kul­turelle Aspek­te des DDR-All­t­ags (Dunck­er & Hum­blot, 2003); Ulrich Weiss­ger­ber, Giftige Worte der SED-Dik­tatur: Sprache als Instru­ment von Mach­tausübung und Aus­gren­zung in der SBZ und der DDR (Lit, 2010); Dorothea and Michael Parak, edi­tors, Opfer und Täter der SED-Herrschaft: Lebenswege in ein­er Dik­tatur (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2005); Gary Bruce, Resis­tance with the Peo­ple: Repres­sion and Resis­tance in East­ern Ger­many, 1945-1955 (Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2003); on dic­ta­tor­ship, Rubin, Syn­thet­ic Social­ism: Plas­tics and Dic­ta­tor­ship in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (U of North Car­oli­na P, 2008); Corey Ross, The East Ger­man Dic­ta­tor­ship: Prob­lems and Per­spec­tives in the Inter­pre­ta­tion of the GDR (Arnold, 2002); Mary Ful­brook, edi­tor, Pow­er and Soci­ety in the GDR, 1961-1979: The ‘Nor­mal­i­sa­tion of Rule’? (Berghahn, 2009).

[3] A cat­a­logue search in Ger­many will turn up more than 150 titles on the 1953 upris­ing alone, with hun­dreds more stud­ies to be found in oth­er places. A small sam­pling: Roger Engel­mann and Ilko-Sascha Kowal­czuk, edi­tors, Volk­ser­he­bung gegen den SED-Staat: Eine Bestand­sauf­nahme zum 17. Juni 1953 (Ch. Links, 1996); Kowal­czuk, 17. Juni 1953, Volk­sauf­s­tand in der DDR: Ursachen, Abläufe, Fol­gen (Tim­mer­mann, 2003); Huber­tus Knabe, 17. Juni 1953: ein deutsch­er Auf­s­tand (Propy­läen, 2003).

[4] A good intro­duc­tion to this top­ic is Mar­tin Sabrow et. al., edi­tors, Wohin treibt die DDR-Erin­nerung? Doku­men­ta­tion ein­er Debat­te (Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht, 2007). This pub­li­ca­tion is a doc­u­men­ta­tion of the “Sabrow Com­mis­sion,” tasked in 2005-06 by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment with report­ing on and cre­at­ing rec­om­men­da­tions for how best to fund and man­age the offi­cial mem­o­ry of the GDR. It caused a firestorm of con­tro­ver­sy for rec­om­mend­ing that more atten­tion be paid to the every­day life his­to­ry of ordi­nary East Ger­mans along with the con­tin­ued spot­light on the repres­sion and dic­ta­to­r­i­al nature of the GDR. For exam­ples of those vehe­ment­ly opposed to any nuanced con­sid­er­a­tion of every­day life in the GDR, see Huber­tus Knabe, Die Täter sind unter uns: Über das Schönre­den der SED-Dik­tatur (Propy­läen, 2007); Man­fred Ageth­en, Eck­hard Jesse, and Ehrhart Neu­bert, edi­tors, Der miss­brauchte Antifaschis­mus: DDR-Staats­dok­trin und Lebenslüge der deutschen Linken (Herder, 2002); Vera Lengs­feld, “Das DDR-Bild der west­lichen Linken: Eine Polemik,” Ostal­gie Inter­na­tion­al: Erin­nerun­gen an die DDR von Nicaragua bis Viet­nam, edit­ed by Thomas Kun­ze and Thomas Vogel (Ch. Links, 2010), pp. 211-19.

[5] For exam­ple, see Thomas Lin­den­berg­er, edi­tor, Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Dik­tatur: Stu­di­en zur Gesellschafts­geschichte der DDR (Böh­lau, 1999), espe­cial­ly his intro­duc­tion enti­tled “Dik­tatur der Gren­zen”; for a more recent work, see “SED-Herrschaft als soziale Prax­is, Herrschaft und ‘Eigen-Sinn:’ Prob­lem­stel­lung und Begriffe,” Staatssicher­heit und Gesellschaft: Stu­di­en zum Herrschaft­sall­t­ag der DDR, edit­ed by Jens Gieseke (Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 23-47, and his Volk­spolizei, Herrschaft­sprax­is und öffentliche Ord­nung im SED-Staat 1952-1968 (Böh­lau, 2003). For a small sam­pling of works with Herrschaft as their pri­ma­ry fram­ing, see Mar­tin Sabrow, Geschichte als Herrschafts­diskurs (Böh­lau, 1999); Ste­fan Wolle, Die Heile Welt der Dik­tatur: All­t­ag und Herrschaft in der DDR 1971-1989 (Ch. Links, 1998); Alf Lüdtke and Peter Beck­er, edi­tors, Akten. Eingaben. Schaufen­ster. Die DDR und ihre Texte. Erkun­dun­gen zu Herrschaft und All­t­ag (Akademie, 1997); Patrice Poutrus, Die Erfind­ung des Gold­broil­ers: Über den Zusam­men­hang zwis­chen Herrschaftssicherung und Kon­sumen­twick­lung in der DDR (Böh­lau, 2002); Hein­er Tim­mer­mann, edi­tor, Das war die DDR: DDR-Forschung im Fadenkreuz von Herrschaft, Aussen­beziehun­gen, Kul­tur und Sou­veränität (Lit, 2004). On the ear­li­er work done by Lüdtke on Herrschaft, see Lüdtke’s intro­duc­tion to his edit­ed vol­ume Herrschaft als soziale Prax­is (Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht, 1991) and his intro­duc­tion to his edit­ed vol­ume “Sicher­heit” und “Wohlfahrt”: Polizei, Gesellschaft und Herrschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhun­dert (Suhrkamp, 1992).

[6] Some exam­ples: Andreas Lud­wig, edi­tor, Fortschritt, Norm und Eigensinn: Erkun­dun­gen im All­t­ag der DDR (Ch. Links, 1999); Lud­wig with Kat­ja Böhme, edi­tors, Alles aus Plas­te. Ver­sprechen und Gebrauch in der DDR (Böh­lau, 2012); Dorothee Wier­ling, Geboren im Jahr Eins: Der Jahrgang 1949 in der DDR: Ver­such ein­er Kollek­tivbi­ogra­phie (Ch. Links, 2002); Don­na Harsch, Revenge of the Domes­tic: Women, the Fam­i­ly, and Com­mu­nism in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (Prince­ton UP, 2006); San­drine Kott, Com­mu­nism Day to Day: State Enter­pris­es in East Ger­man Soci­ety, trans­lat­ed by Lisa Godin-Roger (U of Michi­gan P, 2014); Josie McClel­lan, Love in the Time of Com­mu­nism: Inti­ma­cy and Sex­u­al­i­ty in the GDR (Cam­bridge UP, 2011); Heather Gum­bert, Envi­sion­ing Social­ism: Tele­vi­sion and the Cold War in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (U of Michi­gan P, 2014); Scott Moran­da, The People’s Own Land­scape: Nature, Tourism and Dic­ta­tor­ship in East Ger­many (U of Michi­gan P, 2013); Moni­ka Sig­mund, Genuss als Poli­tikum. Kaf­feekon­sum in bei­den deutschen Staat­en (De Gruyter Old­en­bourg, 2014); Judd Stitziel, Fash­ion­ing Social­ism: Cloth­ing, Pol­i­tics and Con­sumer Cul­ture in East Ger­many (Berg, 2005).

[7] This abil­i­ty of the term Herrschaft to encom­pass dif­fer­ent view­points became clear ear­ly in the devel­op­ment of GDR his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. See Lüdtke, “‘Helden der Arbeit’—Mühen beim Arbeit­en. Zur miß­muti­gen Loy­al­ität von Indus­triear­beit­ern in der DDR,” Sozialgeschichte der DDR, edit­ed by Hart­mut Kael­ble, Jür­gen Koc­ka, and Hart­mut Zwahr (Stuttgart, 1994), pp. 188-216, as well as Kocka’s con­tri­bu­tion to that vol­ume, “Eine durch­herrschte Gesellschaft,” pp. 547-54. Both of these are among the most cit­ed and ref­er­enced essays in the field of GDR his­to­ry, although they rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent viewpoints.

[8] Lutz Nietham­mer (who pio­neered the field of every­day life his­to­ry and oral his­to­ry and was one of the few west­ern his­to­ri­ans to be allowed to work in East Ger­many before 1989) also makes this point in an inter­view with the tageszeitung, May 12, 2006, cit­ed here in Sabrow, Wohin treibt die DDR-Erin­nerung, 208-9 [see note 4].

[9] There has been impor­tant schol­ar­ship done on this phe­nom­e­non of offi­cial and unof­fi­cial mem­o­ry of GDR every­day life, more so in Eng­lish than in Ger­man. In Eng­lish see Jonathan Bach, “Col­lect­ing Com­mu­nism: Pri­vate Muse­ums of Every­day Life under Social­ism in the For­mer East Ger­many,” Ger­man Pol­i­tics and Soci­ety 114, vol. 33 no. 1-2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 135-45, and Bach, What Remains: Every­day Encoun­ters with the Social­ist Past in Ger­many (Colum­bia UP, forth­com­ing 2017); in Ger­man see Thalia Gigeren­z­er, Gedächt­nis­la­bore: Wie Heimat­museen in Ost­deutsch­land an die DDR erin­nern, trans­lat­ed by Christa Krüger (Be.Bra, 2013).

[10] See www​.wen​de​mu​se​um​.org and its recent major pub­li­ca­tion: Jus­tin­ian Jam­pol, edi­tor, Jen­seits der Mauer / Beyond the Wall (Taschen, 2014).

[11] Mittag’s role was exten­sive in cre­at­ing the Hous­ing Pro­gram and specif­i­cal­ly the Marzahn project. See Bun­de­sarchiv (BArch) Stiftung Archiv Parteien und Massenor­gan­i­sa­tio­nen (SAPMO) DY 2838 (Büro Gün­ter Mit­tag), “Woh­nungs­bau in Berlin, Bd 4, 1972-73,” pp. 345-47, “Entwick­lung des kom­plex­en Woh­nungs­baues in der Haupt­stadt der DDR, Berlin, für die Jahre 1976-1980.”

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