As the German art critic and author Karl Scheffler once put it – “Berlin is damned always to become and never to be” – and even 110 years later this statement couldn’t ring truer. No matter where you go in Berlin, if you just lightly scratch the historical surface of any building or square, you’ll most likely dig up 300 year’s worth of politics and regime changes. The square formerly known as Leninplatz is a prime example of Berlins perpetuum mobile-like history.
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From Landsberger Tor to Landsbergerplatz
Back in the early 18th Century – Berlin was becoming quite the industrious city. And any city that attracts merchants and traders wants to collect taxes – so King Friedrich Wilhelm I did what any good ruler would do, and built a (literal) Customs Wall around the city. While the majority of the Berliner Zoll- und Akzisemauer (Berlin customs and excise wall) was made out of wooden palisades (only small segments were made out of brick) it did have 14 city gates – each named after a city which the gate was pointing towards to.
Fun fact: This is how we got the Brandenburg Gate – which ironically is the only physical survivor of the 14 Berlin Custom Wall gates today (though of course not in its original form). While the other 13 gates were either demolished over time or destroyed during the second world war, some of their names have survived to this day and will ring familiar with any Berlin resident or visitor: Oranienburger Tor, Kottbusser Tor, Frankfurter Tor and Hallesches Tor.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of King Friedrich II ascension to the throne in 1840, they city approved the construction of a large spacious park in front of the Landsberger Tor. Construction lasted between 1846 and 1848 – and gave us the park we all know as Friedrichshain (which also gave the district its names in 1920). The Landsberger Tor, like many of its kin, was demolished in 1864 as the city was expanding yet again and needed the space. With the gate now gone, the empty square was renamed to Landsbergerplatz.
From Landsbergerplatz to Leninplatz
The Nazis realized that the war they had unleashed on the world was going to come back home, so they hastily began the construction of massively fortified flak towers all over Berlin (as well as trying to build a bomb proof city) – and one of them was built in in 1941 in the middle of the Volkspark Friedrichshain. When the air raids over Berlin started – these flak towers became bomb magnets, and the area around the Landsbergerplatz was almost completely destroyed.
The rubble and debris from the area was collected and dumped into the park, creating two artificial hills known as the Kleiner Bunkerberg and Großer Bunkerberg (small and large Bunker Hills). The large Bunkerberg is literally the Flakturm Bunker covered in rubble and earth as they didn’t quite manage to blow the thing to bits. This was a common solution at the time – as both the Teufelsberg and the Volkspark Humboldthain are artificial hills covering bunker structures.
As Berlin was being reconstructed into a socialist workers paradise, not only did its old monuments and buildings disappear, so did its old street names. The Landsbergerallee, one of Berlins longest and most important streets was renamed to Leninallee in 1950, and in turn the Lansbergerplatz followed suit and was renamed to Leninplatz.
A new Leninplatz
One thing East Germany had in common with West Germany was that during the early 1960s, both Germanys pushed forward a city design which favored cars over people. East Berlin was no exception to this, and large motorways paved their ways through the city. Thanks to the expansion, a new empty square popped up between the intersection Lichtenberger Straße and Leninallee. The opportunity was seized, and the square was renamed Leninplatz, robbing the old Landsbergerplatz of its last piece of identity and reducing it to a nameless intersection.
The Politbüro decided on the 31st of January, 1967 to host a competition “to solve the urban, architectural and visual design of the Leninplatz”. Five institutions were invited to take part, namely the German Building Academy, the District Building Office, the University of Architecture and Construction Weimar, the VEB Berlin-Projekt and the Wohnungsbaukombinat Berlin. The winner of the competition was the Collectiv of the German Building Academy led by the architect Hermann Henselmann.
Henselmann was one of the most prolific german architects of the late 1940s to late 1960s. His works include the first socialist “skyscraper” in East Germany, the Haus des Lehrers, the Frankfurter Tor along the Stalin Allee, and he designed the precursor of the Berlin TV Tower.
Henselmanns design for the Leninplatz in Berlin envisioned it as a gateway to the center of East Berlin. The original designs planned for a seven-level high-rise building which would form the backdrop for a sculptural Lenin library that would have been placed in the center of the square. The Lenin library was envisioned to be in a spiral form, emulating un unfurling red banner. Henselmanns thought was to combine the spirit of Lenin, while constructing a culturally usable building.
Two eleven-story curved residential buildings (known today as the “Schlange” or snake) would have then framed the whole ensemble. While not spectacular by todays standard, the curved buildings were a constructional revolution, as Henselmann and his team figure out a way which allowed for the construction of ring-shaped and S-shaped prefabricated residential buildings. Henselmanns envisioned a Panoramic staircase up the aptly named Mont Klamott (the local name for the Großer Bunkerberg) – which would have had a cafe at its peak.
Grand Designs – Reduced
Henselmanns plans were handed over to the Wohnungsbaukombinats Berlin, which was led by Heinz Mehlan (who supervised the restoration and redesign of the Neue Wache, was a complex designer for the newly reconstructed Unter den Linden, was responsible for the the restoration of the Marstall and the Ribbeckhaus). Despite being such a prestige construction project – for reasons that be it suffered from crippling budget cuts.
The panoramic stairs and the cafe were never built, the seven-tiered high-rise was reduced down to three tiers and the sculptural Lenin library had to make way for an actually 19-meter-tall Lenin statue. Nevertheless, the project was going to construct over 1200 apartments, and the ground floor of the Highrise would encompassed a souvenir shop, a restaurant, a post office, a flower shop and an espresso bar.
The foundation was laid in a lavish ceremony on the 7th of November 1968 – the 51st anniversary of the October Revolution. Ten thousand construction workers and citizens came to watch Walter Ulbricht (first secretary of the Central Committee and chairman of the State Council) lay the foundation stone. Other esteemed guests were Herbert Fechner the Mayor of east Berlin, Erich Honecker, Kurt Hager, Günter Mittag, Albert Norden and Paul Verner as well as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR in the GDR, PA Abrassimo and rofessor Nikolai Tomski, President of the Academy of the Arts of the Soviet Union.
A time capsule was left in the foundation, containing a certificate signed by Walter Ulbricht along with some other documents (sadly we don’t know exactly what was left in the cassette).
The Leninplatz is unveiled
As seemingly every date was a symbolic date in East Germany, it should have come to no surprise that the Leninplatz in Berlin was officially unveiled on the eve of Lenin’s 100th Birthday (the 19th April 1970 to be exact). The unveiling ceremony was an equally grand spectacle amassing crowds of 200,000 people – marching with banners and singing songs towards the Leninplatz. As with the foundation ceremony, the same guest appears – from Walter Ulbricht, to the members of the ZK to the Soviet Ambassador and Prof. Tomski.
Walter Ulbricht used the occasion to officially unveil Professor Tomski’s creation – the 19-meter-tall Lenin statue. Resting on a 26-meter-wide base, the statue was made out of red Ukrainian Kapustin granite – Tomski had hoped that it would create a contrast to the green hills of the Bunkerberg in the background.
Tomski, who had already created numerous Lenin statues before, tried to combine Lenins ideas about the construction of the social order of happiness and beauty for people – Lenin’s idea of socialism – with his appearance in such a way that the memorial, on the one hand, is a portraiture, however at the same time not just the figure of a single person, but a symbol of the deed of many people.
The side of the Lenin statue facing the high rises also included a small relief on Soviets and Germans shaking hands, symbolising the German Soviet Friendship.
Heads must roll
The German reunification was often a blunt tool to rid the east of any and all of its symbols. The district council of Friedrichshain voted (40 yes, 13 no) in 1991 to remove the Lenin Statue. Despite being a listed monument in the GDR since 1979, the Urban Development Senator Volker Hassemer decided to remove it from said list. This riled up quite a few people, and protest groups formed – though it begs to question if they were upset about the fact that Lenin was being removed, or because Lenin had become a symbol of their vanishing east german identity.
Protests and demonstrations were held, and even Tomski’s grandchildren tried a legal intervention – which ultimately failed. The protestors even proposed to let the statue be overgrown with plants, but this was just dismissed as well. Construction workers began dismantling the Lenin statue on the 8th of November 1991, with his 3,5 ton head being toppled on the 13th of November. For those familiar with the movie “Goodbye Lenin” – this moment was used in a “slightly” adapted version toward the end of the movie.
The dismantling took several months, until there was nothing left of old Lenin in February of 1992. The 129 pieces of the statue were then taken to a sandpit on the outskirts of Berlin and buried, to be forgotten forever.
Did you know that there is still one last original “public” Lenin Statue left in Germany? We wrote about it here: Germanys last Lenin
From Leninplatz to Platz der Vereinten Nationen
The Leninplatz outlived its statue counterpart by one month, as the square was renamed to Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square) on the 13th of March 1992. While the square was named after the institution, id like to think it was a subtle tribute to the newly unified Germany.
With Lenin now removed, the square had lost its main focal point – reducing it to the drab constellation that it really was. With half of its features never having been realised, and the other half only having been implemented in a reduced form – the former Leninplatz never actually served as a catalyst for urban life, it was never an inviting place for a stroll or for a nice sit down (especially since its basically in the middle of a giant intersection).
The Lenin statue was replaced in 1994 with a fountain designed by Adalbert Maria Klees. The fountain consists of 14 glacial erratics (glacially-deposited rocks), with five differently coloured granite rocks, symbolising the five inhabited continents. While well meaning, the fountain is a sad – and somewhat lacklustre replacement (and to be honest, in the plus 10 years that i’ve lived in Berlin, i’ve never seen the fountain turned on).
The mysterious plaques of the Leninplatz
The southwestern edge of the Platz der Vereinten Nationen, just a few meters away from the local supermarket harbors a little mystery. If you look closely at the floor, you’ll spot two plaques – one saying „Hier ist die Mitte des Leninplatzes“ and the other : „Hier ist die Mitte des Platzes der Vereinten Nationen“. (Here is the center of the Leninplatz and Here is the center of the Platz der Vereinten Nationen).
A few years ago, locals complained to the local road construction office that the plaques were being removed. The road construction office then asked the locale museum, if these plaques were really worth the effort saving. Seemingly misunderstanding that these plaques were installed during the GDR era, they said of course – and so the plaques stayed. Nobody knows who laid them, or when they were installed – but they’re here to stay. Forever a mystery.
Lenin makes a comeback
And just when you thought you got rid of him, Lenin makes a comeback. After denying for years about the whereabouts of the Lenin Statue, it was finally dug up in 2015. Lenins head now graces a highly engaging permanent exhibition called „Enthüllt. Berlin und seine Denkmäler“ (“Revealed. Berlin and its monuments “) at the Zitdalle Spandau. Definitely worth a visit – and not just to see Lenins head.