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FIRST FIVE STOPS ON AN OSTALGIE TOUR OF EAST BERLIN
KARL-MARX-ALLEE (U5 Frankfurter Tor)
    No one should have been surprised by the real phenomenon of Ostalgie, that is, nostalgia for the East, “Ost,” or, more broadly, life in the East German state.  It was a life that had its downsides, of course, but in retrospect it struck many former East Germans as a whole lot better than what followed.  Tourist kitsch has nothing to do with real Ostalgie.  The real thing lives on among former East Germans in ways that are subtle and complicated.  Books and movies can help get you to some understanding of the complicated psychology of missing and not missing the old ways.  Renting a tiny little Trabant car to drive around Berlin for the day will not tell you anything.  If that’s your idea of fun, fine, knock yourself out, but better would be a quiet, contemplative tour of East Berlin.  The wide boulevard of Karl-Marx-Allee, the former Stalin Allee, with its wedding-cake buildings and air of high Stalinist drama, is a perfect way to start the tour.  Take the U-Bahn to the Frankfurter Tor stop and then stroll back in the direction of Alexanderplatz. 

KINO INTERNATIONAL (Karl-Marx-Allee 33, U5 Schillingstraße)
    After a little more than a mile of walking from Frankfurter Tor, passing by the great Monumentalist circle of Strausberger Platz, you’ll end up at a spot with Café Moskau on the left and the Kino International on the right, which, by the way, opened on November 15, 1963, exactly one week before John F.  Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  The Kino International’s distinctive architecture takes you back to the 1960s and is a perfect example of the Plattenbau style long associated with East Germany.  Named so for the prefabricated concrete slabs, or Platten, the size of buildings in this style varied wildly, from the modest Kino International to the gigantic residential buildings most often associated with the term, such as those found along Karl-Liebknecht-Straße near Alexanderplatz.  Oh, and FYI, even though many think that Plattenbauten only existed in East Germany, one need only to explore the slightest bit of the former West Berlin to realize this was not the case.  Berlin-Gropiusstadt, where the dystopian childhood of Christiane F., author of the chilling Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, took place, is located in Neukölln and was itself constructed in the 1960s.  The Kino International was the prestigious movie theater in East Germany and served as the location for nearly all significant East German film premieres for decades, right up until the fall of the Wall. 

ERNST-THÄLMANN-DENKMAL (Ernst-Thälmann-Park, Griefswalder Straße, S-Griefswalder Straße)
    If you head away from Alexanderplatz and the Fernsehturm on Otto-Braun-Straße, which then becomes Greifswalder Straße, it’s easy to miss the nondescript park looming on the left.  As your tram picks up speed, though, and the park turns into a blur, you’ll see a strange hunk of blackened metal that practically unspools a sound clip in your head of martial music, it’s so steeped in the Socialist realist style.  Sculpted by Lev Kerbel, whose works also include a Lenin monument that is still standing in Havana, Cuba, this Ernst Thälmann monument went up in 1986 when Ernst-Thälmann-Park was created on the site of a former coal and gas plant that left behind a mess of cyanide and other contaminants.  Thälmann had been the leader of Germany’s Communist Party in the years before World War II and ran against Hitler in elections.  New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kulish mused in 2006 about “ugly old Ernst's monumental bald head” reminding him of what he loved about Berlin.  “Here was Adolf Hitler's opposite in the era of street fighting captured in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories,” Kulish wrote.  “Thälmann was executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in 1944.  The cold war Communist government erected this ugly statue while the city was still the center of a standoff between superpowers.  It had since been tagged around the base with extensive graffiti in the strange brew of post-wall Berlin.”

ALAIN SNACK (Schönhauser Allee 116A, S/U Schönhauser Allee)
    Take the S-Bahn one stop from the Prenzlauer Allee stop to the Schönhauser Allee stop and right across the street you will find a funny little Wurst stand that has been there for many years.  You can spot it by the playfully psychedelic paint job, each letter of the sign getting its own bright color: red (A), orange (L), yellow (A), green (I) and blue (N).  The place has been serving up so-called Ketwurst for decades.  This was the German Democratic Republic version of a hot dog, served in a long, hollowed roll with a hole on one end for the sausage to slip into and smothered in ketchup with seasoning.  (In)famous as a symbol of the former East, the Ketwurst has engendered controversy from the very beginning, starting with its origins and the name itself.  Like most things involving the German language, there is always a second (and third, and fourth and fifth, ad infinitum) opinion when it comes to spelling, pronunciation and history.  Though most spell the tasty Ketwurst with two t’s and say the sausage received its name due to being delivered to snack stands in chains (Kette) of linked sausages, purists claim this socialist snack takes its name from a combination of the words “ketchup” and “wurst” and was created by a nifty little outfit called the Rationalisierungs- und Forschungszentrums Gaststätten (or Restaurant Rationalization and Research Center) in the late 1970s.  Whether you spell it with one “t” or two, the Alain Snack stand features some newspaper clips and pictures from the old days and is well aware of its Ostalgie appeal.  Nowadays they are much more proud at this little stand of their organic currywurst, or as the Germans say, bio.  Definitely worth a stop.

MAUERBLMCHEN (Wisbyer Straße 4, S/U Schönhauser Allee)
    It’s a neighborhood hangout type of bar tucked away at the far end of Prenzlauer Berg, near the border with Pankow, but with a twist: This is a full-fledged Ostalgie bar.  As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2002: “Here you stumble on artifacts of a lost world.  A side room has a dart board, a comfortable sofa – and a massive portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.  Nearby are shelves stocked with a remarkable array of consumer products: wash powder, packets of seeds to grow vegetables, canned goods, all of it looking strange and alien and centuries, rather than decades, old.  Near the front door, a framed collage offers a snapshot of two pupils in a classroom, staring at a chalkboard on which the gray-haired teacher (in a very '70s polyester jacket) has written Der Imperialismus ist das hoechste und letzte Stadium des Kapitalismus.” (Imperialism is the last and highest stage of capitalism.) Robert Heller opened the Mauerblümchen with a partner in 1994.  “I’m not an old Communist,” he told the Chronicle.  “We just wanted to have something connected to the East, so we could preserve a part of how it was.” Info online at: www.hog-mauerbluemchen.de.

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