When the Second World War ended, occupying powers and Germans alike spoke of ‘Germany Year Zero’ or ‘Nulle Stunde’, the idea of Germany as a blank slate that could be rebuilt anew in such a way that the horrific moral stain of Nazism could be obliterated. This idea proved to be a myth. Of course, the buildings and institutions of the Nazi era persisted, especially in a city like Berlin, which had been the nerve center of the Third Reich. Attempts to entirely eradicate them were futile, and the city continued to stumble on with the damaged buildings left behind by war as the early institutions of the post-war era.
Then came division: by 1949, two Berlins came into being, one Communist, one Capitalist, both significant symbols of their respective regimes. It is here that our story begins in this Context Conversation, where we will trace the extraordinary architectural debates and projects that were developed on both sides of the city, as each side strove to embody the idea of a new Germany cleansed of the sins of the past and reflective of new orders that promised a better future.
Amongst the places we will visit and the stories we will encounter will be: the building of the huge Soviet War Memorials all over East Berlin, especially the one at Treptower Park, the building of the Hansaviertel, and the Kulturforum in West Berlin, as that half of the city was transformed into the ‘showcase of Western Capitalism’, and the construction of Stalinallee (Karl Marx Allee) in the East, as well as the story of the King’s Palace and the Palast de Republik on the Unter den Linden. Along the way, we will find out how the famous TV Tower in Berlin was a prestige project aimed at embodying the utopian promise of the Soviet World. We will meet some of the architects who struggled to envision these new places, with the brutal past so close in their rearview mirrors.
And we will see how in Berlin, the landscape is haunted by many buildings whose meaning was potent in the historical moment, but that now stand mysterious, almost like archeological artifacts, abandoned by the ideologies that created them, yet still existing in the constantly changing palimpsest that is the city today.
Dr. Lauren van Vuuren is a South African born historian currently living in Berlin. As an AW Mellon Fellow and then lecturer at the University of Cape Town she taught and researched across a range of subjects from the history and theory of warfare and violence, to representations of the South African and German past on film. In December of 2012 she came to the Free University as a research fellow in contemporary history, and encountered the most compelling world she had ever experienced: Berlin. Then, the sheer weirdness of the gloomy winter city merged with her understanding of its recent past to convince her of the utter uniqueness of Berlin as a place, and as an idea. Within a year she had permanently relocated to the city. Today she researches, writes about, and teaches on the twentieth century history of Berlin. Sharing the stories of this excoriating place has become an enduring joy for her. She is the recipient of the South African Thomas Pringle award for short story writing in 2013 and is currently collaborating with a photographer on a book of stories and photographs about Berlin.
This conversation is suitable for all ages.
90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.