Looking Back – The Evolution of Strausberger Platz

There are few other places in Berlin where history is as tangible as it is at Strausberger Platz. Today, the “wedding-cake style ” buildings give little indication of the monumental upheavals the square and its access road, Karl-Marx-Allee, have borne witness to over the years – destruction, reconstruction, demonstrations and, most recently, its renaissance as an urban hotspot. Let’s take a look back at the historical events that have made Strausberger Platz what it is today.

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An example for the “wedding-cake style” at Strausberger Platz

From Executions to Demonstrations

In a previous incarnation, Strausberger Platz was a place of execution. The square‘s most famous fatality during this period was the merchant Hans Kohlhase, whose six-year feud with a Saxon ruler ended in 1540 when he was broken on the wheel. He was later immortalised in Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas about a horse dealer on a quest against social injustice.

Let’s cut to more recent events: during the March Revolution in 1848-49, Strausberger Platz and its surroundings witnessed confrontations between the Prussian army and the protesters who demanded freedom of the press and the abolition of censorship. When protests on Schlossplatz escalated on 18 March 1848, people started erecting barricades to fend off the troops in various locations, including Strausberger Platz.

During World War Two, the square and its access road, which was still called Große Frankfurter Straße at the time, were completely destroyed. Following an urban planning competition after the war, the area was divided into different blocks and the architect Hermann Henselmann was put in charge of the Strausberger Platz reconstruction project. Stalinallee, as it was called between 1949 and 1961, was designed as a monumental socialist boulevard to impress the rest of the world. At 89 metres, it is wider than the Champs-Élysées. People started moving back into the apartments around Strausberger Platz immediately.

Avenue des Champs-Elysees with Christmas lighting leading up to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France

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For comparison: the Champs-Élysées above and the Karl-Marx-Allee underneath.
Image courtesy: Champs-Élysées: FelixCatana – Fotolia.com

However, the rebuilding process fostered discontent of a different kind. On 16 June 1953, workers from the construction sites at the Friedrichshain clinic and Stalinallee joined forces in a strike to protest against the new work quotas imposed by the government. The crowd soon swelled to 10,000 people. The general strike called the day after escalated into a mass uprising in 700 cities and towns across the GDR. The protesters’ demands included lowering the work quotas, release of political prisoners, resignation of the government under the First Secretary of the SED Central Committee, Walter Ulbricht, and German reunification. Once again, the Strausberger Platz area was at the epicentre of events. The uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks and would haunt the East German leadership until the end.

From the late 1970’s onwards, Karl-Marx-Allee became the site of the official 1st of May rallies as well as the annual military parade on 7 October to celebrate the anniversary of the GDR’s constitution.

Berlin’s Place-To-Be?

Of course it is! Since reunification, the area around Strausberger Platz has experienced a new lease of life. Sporting events such as the Berlin Half-Marathon, summer events or the variety of galleries and museums draw crowds of tourists and locals to this location steeped in history. But even when there’s nothing special going on, there’s always a reason to celebrate life at Strausberger Platz.

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