Karl-Marx-Allee from Hausbuch to Great Literature

Concierges play a starring role in many French films – elderly women decked out in pinafores who cast a beady eye on anybody entering the building.

Slightly humorous, utterly harmless, at most a little prone to gossip – that’s the view from the West. When the German Democratic Republic was founded 67 years ago, the job description of the Hauswart, or caretaker, was a little different. They were officious party soldiers who closely monitored the inhabitants of their assigned buildings. On Karl-Marx-Allee, special measures applied as befitted the boulevard’s special status.

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The historic Strausberger Platz, image courtesy of mato – shutterstock.com

At Strausberger Platz 16, the visitors’ monitoring station, a relic of a bygone era, is still visible today. Today, the former concierge’s cubbyhole in the arcades is occupied by an art gallery, another sign of the new times that have brought so much positive change to Karl-Marx-Allee. Back in 1953, when the first tenants moved into their new apartments, the comings and goings of any visitors were recorded meticulously in a log known as the Hausbuch as part of the socialist government’s all-pervasive surveillance of its citizens’ private lives.

Café Sibylle, which is located about half-way up the boulevard, has put some of these logs on display – important historical documents, though without any literary merit.
Karl-Marx-Allee does make an appearance in a number of literary works, the majority of them thinly disguised – and instantly forgettable – government propaganda singing the boulevard’s praises as a heroic location.

Fortunately, there are far more interesting books out there, including Victor Grossman’s account of his adventurous journey from Broadway to Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin. Propelled by visions of a better world, the American-born son of Jewish parents whose forebears had left Russia to escape pogroms travelled back in the opposite direction of his own accord. History has long since taught us that, however seductive the allure of communism may be on an intellectual level, in the real world it inevitably leads to human misery. Grossman’s first-hand experience only confirms this – he wasn’t even allowed to join the Socialist Unity Party (SED) because of his tendency to think for himself and form his own opinion. Last year, Crossing the River: Vom Broadway zur Karl-Marx-Allee came out on Kindle.

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image courtesy of maglara – shutterstock.com

Ricarda Junge’s novel Die komische Frau, written in 2010 in a building not far from Karl-Marx-Allee, also features a journey from west to east: Lena and Leander’s move from Hamburg to Berlin. It’s unfortunate that the author falls for the myth of the boulevard’s magnificent buildings being exclusively populated by former high-ranking party officials and unreconstructed communists. Still, her novel is well worth reading for its nuanced descriptions of the area.

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Impressive fountain at Strausberger Platz, image courtesy of jock+scott – photocase.de

Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel Purity is an absolute must-read. The American novelist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award, spent many years in Berlin, where he wrote large parts of his breakthrough work The Corrections.  Published in 2015, Purity links socialist East Germany and the power of the internet in an unforgettable story about the inability to forget. One of the novel’s main characters, Andreas Wolf, uses his apartment on Karl-Marx-Allee as a vantage point from which to observe and describe the world he lives in. Although pitch-black in tone, his story, which is set during the times of political and societal upheaval before, during and after the Fall of the Wall, makes for a far more uplifting read than the Strausberger Platz Hausbücher.