Lenin is back – but not at Leninplatz

Remember Lenin’s flight at the end of Good Bye, Lenin!, the wonderful tragicomedy about the final days of the GDR? Well, Lenin is back. Or at least his head is. After years and years of discussions about politics and lizards, last week his 3.5 tonne head finally came out of the sand. For now it’s going to Spandau, but who knows: maybe one day the former Leninplatz, now Platz der Vereinten Nationen, will finally get its famous statue back.

Platz der Vereinten Nationen is Strausberger Platz’s slightly less famous neighbour and the place where the inhabitants of Strausberger Platz do their daily grocery shopping. To the superficial observer, it may seem like there’s not much to see in this x-shaped square – but looks can be deceiving. Strausberger Platz is a perfect example of late 1950’s GDR architecture, while Platz der Vereinten Nationen does the same for the late 1960’s – however, with the disappearance of Lenin, the square actually lost much of its former charm.

Leninplatz – how it all began

So let’s get back to the start, in 1864. That’s right, long before the GDR existed. That’s when Landsberger Tor, one of Berlin’s city gates, was demolished. Where the gate had been, was now Landsberger Platz. It was a green square with beautiful townhouses on the edge of Volkspark Friedrichshain, the first public park in Berlin (1840). Like so many lovely historic squares and streets in Berlin, it suffered heavy bombings in World War II. After the war, there was no Landsberger Platz left.

The new city council of East-Berlin decided that Landsberger Platz and the adjacent Büschingplatz had to become a vital part of the new city centre. As early as April 1950, when the GDR was just half a year old, the area was renamed Leninplatz. It took until 1967, however, before architects were asked to enter a competition for the design of the new square. Hermann Henselmann, already famous for his design of Karl-Marx-Allee, and his partner Heinz Mehlan had the winning idea. They showed how creatively apartment buildings could be designed with organic shapes instead of simple rectangular blocks.

19 granite metres of Lenin

The new Leninplatz had to be finished before the Soviet Union’s founding father’s 100th birthday in 1970. In November 1968, GDR leader Walter Ulbricht and Berlin’s mayor Herbert Fechner laid the foundation stone for the new buildings. Only a year and a half later, the square was finished. No less than 200,000 people, among them leaders of socialist brother countries, witnessed the official unveiling of a 19-metre-tall Lenin statue – the centrepiece of Leninplatz. It was designed by the president of the Russian Academy of Arts and made of Ukrainian red granite.

Just like Strausberger Platz, Leninplatz must have been a lively square in the middle of Berlin. It’s situated right next to Alexanderplatz, Volkspark Friedrichshain and Karl-Marx-Allee. The 77-metre-tall ‘Hochhausturm’ (‘high-rise tower’) was one of the tallest apartment buildings in the GDR and housed a famous restaurant as well as a flower shop and a post office on its ground floor. The buildings opposite were nicknamed ‘boomerang’ and ‘snake’ because of their shapes. Their front yards were green and filled with trees (they still are) and the architects designed special artists’ apartments with glass roofs on the top floors. The 1,100 m2 ‘Kaufhalle’ (the East-German equivalent of a Western supermarket) was one of the most modern in the GDR – and is now my very Western supermarket.

How to get rid of him

But Leninplatz had a name and a central statue that were bound to draw the attention of the new city council as soon as the GDR ceased to exist. Despite a lot of protest, including claims by local residents who said the statue was an integral part of the ensemble of their square, Lenin was dismantled in 1991. In order to make this happen, it had to be struck off the official list of national monuments. It took three months before the 129 pieces of the statue were collected and buried in a sandy hill in Müggelheim, in the far south-east of Berlin. Why? To foil souvenir hunters, according to the local government. Total cost: 100,000 Deutschmarks, or 80,000 euros.

 

Lenin seemed to have found his final resting place in the sand, a fountain was built on his former patch and the square was once again renamed (Platz der Vereinten Nationen, United Nations Square, very politically correct). But this wasn’t the end of the story. 17 years later, in 2009, people started making plans for an exhibition in Spandau – and Lenin had to be a part of it. Years of discussion followed, and on top of it all, a rare lizard prevented the excavation works from happening. But last week, on September 10th, Lenin’s huge head made its reappearance – a short one, because it’s still unclear when the exhibition in Spandau will take place.

Time to give Lenin a second chance?

So what about the flying Lenin statue in Good Bye, Lenin? No such thing happened. The scene is based on the events at Leninplatz, but Lenin was dismantled before he made his journey to the sandy hills of south Berlin. 128 pieces of the statue remain here, safely buried underneath many layers of sands. Some people hope that one day Lenin will find his way back to his former location. It could make Platz der Vereinten Nationen a museum of GDR architecture and would restore the focal point the square had until 1991. Because truth be told: the stone fountain that replaced Lenin just doesn’t have the same appeal.