Exploring the GDR’s Ruins

While Strausberger Platz is an excellent example of perfectly preserved GDR history and architecture, Berlin also has plenty of buildings from the same period that haven’t been this lucky. They are forgotten and awaiting a slow but inevitable decay or demolition. Sad, isn’t it? As a big fan of GDR history/architecture AND abandoned buildings, these places are small pieces of paradise to me. I’ve visited quite a lot of them and I’d like to share my favourites with you.

One Last Dance: Ballhaus Grünau

It’s not hard to imagine what a picture-perfect location this must have been for any kind of party, back in the day. Between 1890 and 1991, Ballhaus Grünau was a beloved venue for dances, and with a little bit of imagination you can still see the partygoers walking through the garden, chatting on the waterfront of the river Dahme and enjoying a drink. The ballroom is still stunning, with its 9 metre high ceiling and elegant windows – but unfortunately when I visited it two years ago, I was already afraid that the whole thing would collapse any monument.

We took the risk and even visited the rooms upstairs, where people could change or perhaps even stay the night after a party full of dancing and alcohol. In the basement we found big kitchens that were probably used up until the day the Ballhaus closed its doors permanently. In the past two decades, the city of Berlin discussed a new use for the building with several developers, but nothing ever happened. A big shame, because this building could still be a great, monumental event venue.

Regattastraße, Grünau, 12527 Berlin

A Piece of Iraq in Pankow: the Iraqi Embassy

In 1969, Iraq was the first non-socialist country to officially recognize the GDR. An embassy was opened in Pankow, East Berlin. But right from the start there were rumours. Embassy employees were caught with a suitcase full of explosives, supposedly for an attack on West Berliners. Yes, the embassy would house terrorists – not just from Iraq, but also from the West German terror movement RAF.

The GDR seemed to accept it all, because Iraq was a loyal, oil-bearing ally. But in 1991, Saddam Hussein lost his German friends. In the middle of the First Gulf War the personnel of the Iraqi embassy was requested to leave the country as soon as possible. The GDR was part of the reunited Germany now and the government in Bonn had no interest in maintaining a warm bond.

From that moment on, nobody cared about the embassy building anymore. There’s a new embassy now, in a pretty neighbourhood in the west of the city, but the former embassy building in the east was never demolished. When I visited the building in 2013, it was still obvious that the staff had left in quite a hurry. Much of the furniture remained; cosy armchairs, office chairs and desks, typewriters, a kitchen with pans and some cots in the basement.

Embassy1
Still ready for the job.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Tschaikowskistraße 51, 13156 Berlin 

Where the Ferris Wheel Never Stops Turning: Spreepark

Probably the most famous abandoned GDR location of all, but also the most likely to get a new purpose someday soon.  The Spreepark, originally called ‘VEB Kulturpark Plänterwald’, opened its gates in 1969 and was the only amusement park in the GDR. It welcomed more than 1.7 million visitors a day, which equals more than 10% of the total population of the GDR.

The park remained in operation after the German reunification, but it didn’t manage to compete with the bigger and much more modernized theme parks in West Germany. After closing in 2002, it became a whole new attraction: taking a walk surrounded by a rusty rollercoaster, crumbling plastic dinosaurs, swan boats that seem to have been scattered throughout the park and a Ferris wheel that’s still turning.

 

Spreepark1
Some swan boats have been luckier than others.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

The fences around the Spreepark got higher and higher as the city tried to figure out what to do with the park and all the people trespassing. A few events were organised in the past years, which gave me the chance to enter the Spreepark legally in 2013. We weren’t allowed to go ‘backstage’ and snoop around at the attractions – but obviously we did it anyway.

Spreepark2
The squeaking and creaking Ferris wheel.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Kiehnwerderallee 1, 12437 Berlin

The Abandoned Soviet Town: Vogelsang

This was my most recent trip, taken 2 weekends ago together with my friend and fellow blogger Sebastian, who wrote a great report about it. You need 1.5 hours to get from Berlin to the small village of Vogelsang, located north of the city – and then another 30 minutes or so to find what you’re really looking for: the abandoned Soviet town in the woods, once the home of 15,000 souls.

Vogelsang1
The Soviet Union is still going strong here. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

There was a restaurant, a cinema, a sports hall and everything else a small city needs, but in fact everything was focused on just one thing: nuclear weapons, ready to launch in the direction of England and Western Europe.

The Soviets built their Vogelsang in 1951 and stayed until 1994, but more than 20 years later their traces still haven’t been entirely erased – although attempts are made by both humans and the forest. We didn’t find any weapons (apart from nuclear warheads, the city was packed with other missiles and tanks), but many of the buildings are still there.  It’s not as impressive as Chernobyl, which I visited 3 years ago, but the sensation is slightly the same: walking through the forest and suddenly realizing that you’re in the centre of what once was a lively city.

Vogelsang2
The sports hall is still in relatively good shape. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Vogelsang, 16792 Zehdenick, Oberhavel, Brandenburg, Germany

Disclaimer: urban exploring, as this habit of mine is called, means most of the time that you’re trespassing – which makes it illegal. It’s great fun but make sure you don’t destroy anything and be very careful, because some of the buildings are on the verge of collapse.