The center of Berlin lay in ruins at the end of World War II. Cultural and political leaders faced decisions regarding what to restore, rebuild, or raze. Yet the future of Berlin would not be envisioned in a vacuum. They would wittingly and unwittingly draw from inherited traditions, ideologies, and theories to structure their understanding of the city and guide decision-making about its future. For Berliners, the rebuilding of their destroyed city would remain a central part of their lives for years. Communist political leaders sought to mobilize the population for the reconstruction effort and to use this effort in the political socialization of the citizenry.
After the war, Berliners' dire need for housing and infrastructure sometimes presented a life or death struggle. Some resources and labor were diverted to transform the symbolic dimension of the urban landscape. The Allies called for the removal of all public symbols of Nazism and German militarism, and German officials at the local level were delegated the task of identifying these sites. The Berlin Magistrat developed lists of street signs and monuments to be removed as symbols of Nazism, militarism, and Prussian monarchy. The process involved debate that followed party lines. German Communists took the most iconoclastic stance, due to a view of German exceptionalism that traced the roots of Nazism to the Prussian state. German Communists and the Soviet Military Administration (SMAD) began constructing memorials to honor their fallen, imposing narratives that honored enemies of the former Reich.
Between 1945 and 1949 a series of modernist plans were developed for Berlin. In this time of political turmoil, planners and politicians projected a broad range of meanings onto the plans. After the founding of the East German state, Lothar Bolz orchestrated the adoption of socialist realism as state policy, requiring a return to traditional urban design. This theory included a range of tenets guiding planning, but Walter Ulbricht intervened to assure that planning would be dominated by a concern for parade routes leading to an immense square in the city center. In response to West Berlin's international building exhibition, the German Democratic Republic held their own design competition for a "socialist" city center in 1958. The recent introduction of industrialized building, along with uncertainty and debate over the nature of "socialist" architecture, was evident in designs with a range of influences, including international modernism, midcentury modernism, and socialist realism.
Shortly after the war, preservationists lobbied for funds to carry out emergency repairs to key structures on Unter den Linden. The SMAD displayed little interest, and German Communist politicians sought to efface monumental buildings as symbols of the Prussian-German monarchy and military. The adoption of socialist realism in 1950 meant that valuable architecture should be restored as national cultural heritage. Buildings created for cultural purposes were readily rehabilitated, while those with militaristic place-based meaning prompted debate over how best to reinterpret them. Socialist realism allowed multiple possibilities, and decision-makers sought a solution that best mitigated concerns over militarism while maintaining conceptual and formal continuity.
Modernist architect Hans Scharoun led efforts to obtain Magistrat funds for emergency repairs to the Berlin Palace after the war. He faced opposition from Communist politicians taking an iconoclastic view, although they came to value parts of the palace as space for exhibitions and other uses. Unlike the architecture on Unter den Linden, this structure would not be saved by the shift to socialist realism. Walter Ulbricht concealed his disdain for the palace's symbolism, while declaring it a ruin that must be removed to create space for a central square for demonstrations. While socialist realism demanded a central square, it could have taken many forms on many locations. Attempts to begin shaping Marx-Engels Square included proposals for a FIAPP Memorial, a grandstand, and Marx-Engels Memorial as well as debate over the future of the Building Academy.
Wilhelmstrasse evolved over several centuries from an upscale residential quarter to the center of German government. Its architecture was considered less culturally and artistically significant than Unter den Linden and more tainted by association with the Prussian-German state and the NSDAP in particular. In the late 1940s, Berlin planners intended for the area to continue serving as government center. They began to transform Wilhelmplatz into a larger square, Thälmannplatz, with a memorial to honor the fallen Communist leader. After the state founding of the GDR, Ulbricht and leading GDR planners shifted planning for the government center to Marx-Engels Square, leaving Wilhelmstrasse as an area of secondary concern. Socialist realism had limited impact here, as decisions over demolition and preservation hinged more on utilitarian spatial value than architectural merit or place-based meaning. Nazi structures were cleansed of iconography and preserved, while older residential structures were demolished.
For more than a century before the war, debate over the "housing issue" engaged politicians and reformers in Berlin, although Communists refused to participate, seeking revolution rather than reform. After World War II, newly empowered Communists had no choice but to address the housing crisis. Initially they joined others in supporting modernist planning efforts, with a first "residential cell" that would be constructed along Frankfurter Allee in Friedrichshain. The introduction of socialist realism necessitated a halt in construction as new plans for a monumental Stalinallee were developed. This formed the centerpiece of the state building program until the 1953 Uprising, which along with a shift to industrialized construction in the Soviet Union would result in a search for a new "socialist architecture." As a result, the section of the street between Straussbergerplatz and Alexanderplatz would be built combining some socialist-realist tenets with modernism, while highlighting technological power.
Key cultural and political groups displayed a great deal of internal unity in their approach to the urban landscape due to their adherence to the same frameworks of interpretation and political interests. This is not to imply that humans agency was irrelevant. Individuals and groups created and altered these frameworks, and made decisions about how to apply them to the city. The triad of place-based meaning, spatial/formal relations and representation was consistently significant, albeit with vastly different levels of importance attached to each on a case-by-case basis. The differential treatment of memorials, monumental architecture, vernacular buildings, public spaces, and city plans suggests that they differed in how they conveyed cultural meaning. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 made an emphatic statement about the GDR that would always stand as a counterpoint to its other building projects.