How Karl-Marx-Allee lost its only hotel (but you can’t tell)

Some people are lucky enough to win an apartment in the centre of Berlin, others have to resort to booking a room when they want to visit Berlin. But if you’ve ever tried to find a hotel at Strausberger Platz or Karl-Marx-Allee, you will have noticed there aren’t any. That is, if you’ve tried since 1995. Until then, there was the big and once famous Hotel Berolina, right behind Kino International. Unfortunately, this hotel suffered the same fate as many other GDR buildings in the past 25 years.

But there’s something strange about Hotel Berolina. Because even though it was demolished exactly 20 years ago, it’s still there. Have a look at these pictures, taken in April 1964 and in October 2015: isn’t this the same building? That blue facade, that little cube on the roof, those many small windows, that entrance on the left side of the front?

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Image courtesy of Bundesarchiv and Daphne Damiaans

Don’t be fooled

Alas, architecture is playing a little game with us. In 1996, Hotel Berolina was definitely wiped off the face of the earth. In what seems to be an attempt to save the street’s face, however, the architects designed almost the exact same building to house the new Rathaus Mitte (town hall of the district Mitte).  The streetscape was saved, but the Karl-Marx-Allee’s only hotel had disappeared. Thankfully, if you want to book a stay in the vicinity of this street, there are still plenty of options – but more about that later.

Let us first take a look at the history of the former Hotel Berolina, because as with virtually any object in the GDR, its history is fascinating in itself. The hotel welcomed its first guests in April 1964, after a construction period of 2 years. It had 375 rooms, an in-house restaurant seating 200 people, another ‘speciality restaurant’ in the basement (‘souterrain’), a bar on the top floor and several meeting and conference rooms. At the back side of the hotel was a shop. When it opened, the hotel was property of the Handelsorganisation HO (a trade organisation of the government), but from 1965 on it was one of the so-called ‘Interhotels’. Berlin had 7 of them and there was an Interhotel in any larger city of the GDR, from Hotel Kosmos in Erfurt to Hotel Neptun in Rostock.

They’ll be watching you

At first glance, Interhotel was a chain, comparable to Hilton or Radisson. But since the GDR was a socialist state, this chain was property of the government. The remarkable thing about them was that the beloved workers and farmers of the GDR weren’t supposed to stay in the hotels; they were mostly designated for the upper-class of the country and guests from non-socialist states. It was an easy way for the government to earn the foreign currencies it so desperately coveted, since the D-Mark was not accepted in the Interhotels. At the same time, the Ministerium of Staatssicherheit, better known by their secret intelligence service Stasi, made sure everything that happened in these hotels was monitored. There are even confirmed stories of Stasi members who pretended to be prostitutes in order to place western guests into compromising situations.

Please don’t steal away our guests

Contrary to what you might expect, staying in the GDR was popular. As the western newspaper Die Zeit wrote in 1967: “A new trend is starting to show in Berlin and worries the national tourism board. Increasing numbers of foreign visitors, who used to prefer West-Berlin for their stays, decide to spend the night in the new Interhotels.” As the newspaper describes, Interhotel Berolina alone welcomed 14,500 guests since its opening three years before. Every week, guests from 45 countries were checking into the hotel.

According to the newspaper, these numbers are slightly exaggerated, but the conclusion is: the hotels in East-Berlin are very successful. This was also due to the ‘Intershop’, which was a part of every Interhotel: a shop selling western goods for eastern prices, “like on the duty-free islands Helgoland or Tenerife”. The room prices were a lot lower, but guests still enjoyed western-style comfort in Interhotels – even though it must be said that the GDR government awarded the hotels one star too many, compared to western standards.

How to sleep in the GDR

After German reunification, the fate of the Interhotels wasn’t instantly sealed; the company was transformed into a commercial corporation, Interhotels AG. Many hotels remained in business and kept their original name, Interhotel Berolina among them. During the 1990’s, they were sold and resold and finally the name Interhotel disappeared. This doesn’t mean all the hotels closed their doors: in Berlin, for example, 4 of them survived. They are all part of international chains, just like many hotels in other regions of the old GDR.

This means you still have the chance to stay in a former Interhotel close to Karl-Marx-Allee. The gigantic Park Inn Hotel, impossible to miss when you visit Alexanderplatz, was Interhotel Stadt Berlin when it opened in 1970. The 125-metre high building with its 1,012 beds in 1,006 rooms on 37 floors was one of the most glamorous hotels in the GDR. If you’re hoping to still find traces of the former glory of the hotel, or maybe even an Intershop, you’ll most likely be disappointed. The hotel was completely renovated outside and inside and unless you know exactly where to look, you won’t find any GDR remnants. There’s a better option for those who want to stay in the GDR for a night or two: the Ostel (Wriezener Karree 5), just around the corner from Karl-Marx-Allee. It’s anything but authentic, but it’s undeniable “GDR-style” – from the furniture and the wallpaper to the state portrait above your bed.

Clich here for a short movie about the opening of Interhotel Stadt Berlin, now Park Inn Alexanderplatz.