Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Planned Community

South of Frankfurt an der Oder, right on the Polish border, there's a city called Eisenhüttenstadt. Formerly it was known as Stalinstadt and before that Wohnstadt. I visited it over the Easter weekend primarily because I had read that it was an excellent example of Soviet-style city planning. The site on the Oder river was chosen after increasing tensions between East and West Germany made it difficult to bring steel products into the East sector from the Ruhrgebiet. A steel production industrial city was needed in the East and this particular piece of land had a number of advantages for German Democratic Republic planners, the first one being that it was a clean slate. There was nothing built there and the city could be laid out properly. River transportation was available as well as a good rail infrastructure.

Then, having made my decision to visit, I learned about the Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur der DDR. It's a very small museum devoted to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and it's in Eisenhüttenstadt. For any readers who might find themselves on the eastern border of Germany with an afternoon to kill, it's a must-see.

Like many of my generation, I'm intrigued by stories from behind the "Iron Curtain." The night my older siblings told me that the world was ending is one of my earliest memories. "In the morning, you'll be dead!" they reported gleefully. It was October of 1962 and Khrushchev and Kennedy were facing off over Cuba. Halloween was going to be ruined and I had a great cannibal costume I was planning. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant worked hard to find a peaceful compromise and it cost my mom just as much effort to reassure me that I wouldn't be blown up soon. Not before Christmas in any case. So my life, at least that part of it that I am aware of, really began with the cold war. Six years of grade school with the School Sisters of Notre Dame didn't help to give me a balanced view of communism. So, I had plenty of assumptions about life in the former GDR when I first came to Germany, four years after the Wall came down. But I have to say, not many of my assumptions are reinforced by current experiences. Not that I'm soft on Communism. When I think of the Stasi payroll, with what seems like the entire citizenry being paid to spy on each other, it seems like an inefficient system to say the least. But visiting the Dokumentationszentrum in Eisenhüttenstadt shows a side of this vicious police state that made me a little nostalgic for the old times. By the time I got to the video interview with the man who invented a tent that could be mounted on the roof of a Trabant, I was a convert of sorts.

The museum is housed in one of the Soviet style developments that represent the first phase of building in Eisenhüttenstadt. The buildings are well planned, and use the same kind of inner Hof set up that I've seen on the Stalin/Frankfurter Allee in Berlin. Later money was short and the Plattenbau took over, but these first buildings were quite nice. The museum is in the former daycare center for the community and the main stairs leading up are decorated with really wonderful stained glass. When I walked by the Plattenbau later in the day, my enthusiasm for the worker's paradise was dampened some, but no system is perfect, right?

Now that the wall is down, a new spirit reigns in Eisenhüttenstadt. The Plattenbau is being abandoned and new development is springing up all over. I'm glad the West won, but I'm not sure about current city planning in this new capitalist era in the former East Germany. I walked by a brand new shopping center in Eisenhüttenstadt called "City Center" and it's a toss up for me whether it looks more like Ogden, UT or Patterson, NJ. Either way, I think I prefer having the missiles in Cuba.


Andi Leser said...


It's good to read that you've recommended our "Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur der DDR" as a must-see!

Anonymous said...

When I watch movies about the cold war they often seem laughable. Unless people are directly affected by stuff, I think most people just don't care that much. Your childhood story about a ruined Halloween reminds me that a nuclear holocaust almost did happen! Unfortunately I can only appreciate that fact in an unconnected historic sort of way. If only there was a better way to truly appreciate humanity's past; perhaps we wouldn't make the same mistakes so frequently.

Oh and the stained glass was really cool.

Shawn B.

Christopher T. Terry said...

Lieber Andi,

I really did enjoy the Dokumentationszentrum and in retrospect, I think my compliment is maybe a little left-handed. Let me say without any sarcasm or irony, it's a wonderful museum; well planned, a good collection of artifacts and nicely displayed. I was glad I went. I also visited a restored Wohnung on a street a block or two over from the Dokumentationszentrum. I don't know if it has a name, but the woman working there on Ostersonntag was very helpful and in addition to a personal tour, she gave me a copy of an informative book about Eisenhüttenstadt that I'm reading now.