Berlin has rapidly changed over the past decade. Historic buildings that stood for over a century have been torn down to make way for luxury apartments and hotels, while the ghosts of a long abandoned past have risen again in the shape of a disneyfied castle in the center of Berlin.
Piece by piece it seemed like the remnants of East Berlin were slowly being swallowed up and spit out to make way for a more commercial and investor appealing Berlin – but every now and then it seems like there’s a glimmer of hope that not all is lost. A long forgotten East German mural – “Die Presse als Organisator” by Willi Neubert- was uncovered after being hidden behind the commercial banner of a steak restaurant for nearly 30 years.
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Haus des Berliner Verlages
Before we get into the mural by Willi Neubert, we have to take a slight detour and look at the building were it hangs to this day. The universally despised (by both West and East Germans) Axel Springer decided to build his new publishing house in Berlins Newspaper district in Kreuzberg between 1959 and 1965 – where at one point over 500 printers, graphic designers and publishers once had their headquarters. The new Axel Springer Hochhaus was situated directly along the border to East Berlin and from 1961 onwards had the Berlin Wall virtually running right in front of it.
Irritated by the very visible Axel Springer building, the East German government pushed for the construction of not just one but two representative Publishing Houses. Walter Ulbricht, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED – who we also can thank for the construction of the Berlin Wall – pushed for the construction of the “Haus des Berliner Verlags” (House of the Berlin Publishing House ) at Alexanderplatz as it was considered the most central and representative square in East Berlin.
The construction of the Haus des Berliner Verlags also fit in neatly with the complete architectural redesign of the Alexanderplatz, which began in 1964 and saw the construction of a whole series of socialist styled buildings (which still stand today) such as the Haus des Lehrers, Haus der Statistik, Haus des reisen and the Interhotel Stadt Berlin (now the Park Inn by Radisson). Both the House des Reisens and the Haus des Lehrers have fantastic GDR era art attached to them as well which are always worth having a look at when passing by.
During the construction Haus des Berliner Verlages, a smaller secondary building was built right next to it – the Pressecafe. The Pressecafe was a two story – low rise cafe and restaurant, and a popular haunt for the journalist working next door, and for those who wanted to glimpse at the foreign publications that were available in the cafe.
Both the variety and quality of the the food available, as well as the interior decoration were said to have been above average compared to the East German standards. The interior of the cafe was (at least partially) furnished with a so called “Z-Stuhl” or “der hockende Mann” (the squatting man) hairs by the West-german designer Ernst Moeckl. The design was extremely popular in both West and East Germany in the 1970s, and seemingly has lasted until this day.
A production company based in Chemnitz acquired the legal rights to produce the chairs around 2014 – selling them to the tune of €1,150 each. Somehow ironic that you can still buy the original chairs on ebay for less than €150 (for a set of 3).
The majority of the newly constructed buildings around the Alexanderplatz had some external decorative elements to them – the most impressive and visible being the large works of art on the Haus des Lehrers (the world’s largest external mosaic) and the Haus des Reisens. The Pressecafe was to be no exception – by 1970, it would be adorned with a 76 meter long frieze titled “Die Presse als Organisator” (The press as an organizer) by the artist Willi Neubert.
Before we go into the details of the large frieze on the Pressecafe, its worth delving into the vita of Willie Neubert. Willi Neubert was born in on the 9th of November 1920 in Brandau, Czechoslovakia – a large village directly next to the German border. After working as a locksmith for a few years, he managed to successfully complete a long distance course and became a qualified technical draftsman and design engineer, until he was drafted for military service from 1940 to 1945.
After the war, he worked as a steelworker and industrial designer from 1948 until 1950 (while joining the SED at the same time). From 1950 to 1952 he studied at the Hochschule für industrielle Formgestaltung Halle – which would become one of the most prominent and influential art and design schools in East Germany and then proceeded to work as a freelance artist in the city of Thale from 1953 onwards.
The city of Thale was home to europe’s oldest sheet metal enamelling plant (dating back to 1835), as well as europe’s largest (the Eisenhüttenwerk Thale AG – 1872) – so it should come to no surprise that this would have an influence on Neuberts work. It was in Thale where Neubert further developed a new technique for producing industrial enamel. With this new technique, Willi Neubert soon became renowned for his large format enamel artworks
Willi Neuberts first well known enamel artwork was titled “Die Presse als kollektiver Organisator ” (The press as a collective organizer) and was 16x5m large piece attached to the Printing Facility of the newspaper “Freiheit” in 1964 (which was the main press publication of the local SED in Halle).
“Die Presse als Organisator” – Pressecafe Berlin
Five years later – in 1969 – Willi Neubert was invited to showcase his enamel art talents again, and this time in quite the prominent location, on the facade of the Pressecafe in Berlin. Over the next 4 years, Willi Neubert would work on his newest piece called “Die Presse als Organisator” (The press as an organizer). Now if that title sounds very familiar to his previous work in Thale – well you’re not wrong. It seems Willi was more creative with his art than with his titles.
Neubert completed his socialist frieze in 1973 – and in the same year his 76 meter long and 3.50 meter high artwork was attached to the Pressecafe in Berlin. His artwork in broad terms was a depiction of the editorial work done in the German Democratic Republic.
The left side of the mural (facing Memhardstraße) depicts Journalists reporting on various scientific, cultural and sporting events, while the front facing mural (Karl-Liebknecht-Straße) depicts the distribution and (self perceived) plurality of the press in East Germany.
If you look closer at the newspapers and magazines, you can decipher some of the names “Rosa” – alluding to Rosa Luxemburg, “die Rote” being a reference to the Rote fahne newspaper, the central orgarn of the Communist Party in Germany until 1933, and „takus“ – a reference to the Spartakusbund. Of course all three names are deeply related to each other as Rosa Luxembourg was both one of the Editor in Cheifs of the Rote Fahne as well one of the founders of the Sparakusbunds.
Its interesting that Willi Neubert added such a central yet coded reference to Rosa Luxembourg in his piece, as the GDR was deeply skeptical of Rosa Luxemburg and viewed her involvement in the Novemberrevolution with deep skepsis and labeled her actions as flawed. She was used as a propagande figure, but the GDR kept her “afterlife” under such tight control that her complete works were only published in 1970, and her critique of Lenin in 1974 (with her more radical texts labeled as mistakes).
Also worth pointing out is the rather “moderately” sized depiction of Karl Marx – which if the sources are correct – was criticized at the time for being too small. And for those who’ve kept an eye on the East German Art in Berlin – you can’t miss the obligatory GDR peace dove which Karl Marx seemingly wants to grab. The smallest segment of the socialist mural, facing the TV Tower and Alexanderplatz depicts the technological printing process.
Willi Neuberts Mural was and is a refreshing splash of color in an otherwise monotonous concrete landscape of white, grey and beige – and created a very attractive focal point for the rather busy intersection.
The Pressecafe and the Socialist Mural after reunification
The Haus des Berliner Verlages was sold to the Publishing House Gruner + Jahr in 1990, which then proceeded to rent out the Pressecafe to the Steakhouse Escados in the year 1992. The Steakhouse promptly covered Willi Neuberts Artwork with a gaudy neon sign – and it remained that way for almost 30 years.
The Landesdenkmalamt (the State Heritage Office) drew up a proposal in 2013 for the Pressecafe and the mural, which resulted in the entire building (including the artwork and the Pressecafe lettering) to be listed as a protected monument in 2015. Maybe it was a stroke of luck that the building wasn’t torn down after reunification, and that Neuberts mural survived hidden behind the commercial banner of the steakhouse. Other murals of that era were less fortunate and were simply torn down.
In 2016, the american real estate company bought the Haus des Berliner Verlages and the Pressecafe and began renovating the building (according to the standards of the heritage office) – but sold off the buildings again in 2019 to the german real estate company GEG German Estate Group AG for a cool 365 million euro. In tune with the renovations, the Steakhouse Escados was forced to move out of the Pressecafe as the new owners planed to renovate it and use it for other retail and “gastronomic” purposes.
The Willi Neubert’s mural “Die Presse als Organisator” was slowly unveiled in August 202), but was covered in scaffolding and tarp until October when it was on full display again. The Pressecafe is still currently undergoing renovations which will most likely go on until early 2022, but the now free mural already lightens up the area with its vibrant red colors.
Did you know, that with the reappearance of Willi Neuberts mural – there are now 8 surviving depictions of Karl Marx in Berlin? We’ve tracked them all down in this article here: The last depictions of Karl Marx in Berlin
On a side note, the majority of buildings in the area have undergone a massive facelift over the last few years – with much of the original GDR era facades being removed and replaced. It seems like the building directly behind the Pressecafe – the Memhardstraße 2 (with Honeckers Window) is the last holdout with its divisive facade. It’s probably inevitable that it too will undergo renovation and replacement in the next year or so, but I do hope that it will last for a bit longer as it offers a wonderful glimpse back in time.
*Once all the scaffolding is off and the building is slightly more accessible, ill retake the photos in this post and update this article with hopefully some shots of the interior.
Pressecafe Berlin Adress