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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Top 10: Sites of the former East Germany in Berlin

It's hard to explore the remnants of the former GDR, so much so that they have been erased from the capital's public space. The architectural heritage of East Germany is shrinking. Fortunately, the city's museums preserve a heritage that is hidden from view, but essential to understanding the new national identity. Here are the top 10 sites in Berlin to capture the East German moment.

1. The Stasi Prison Memorial

Hohenschönhausen is a code word for dehumanization and political terror during the GDR. Deep in the heart of former East Berlin, this former police complex was the place where political opponents, real or imagined, were interned. The buildings and their interiors have retained their original appearance, reinforcing the sense of unease. The Stasi Prison Memorial tells the story of psychological torture and ideological cynicism. Not to be missed.

Duration of visit: 2-3 hours

2. The GDR Museum of Everyday Life

The GDR lived for forty years. A historically short period of time, but enough to allow for the renewal of generations. People were born and raised in East Germany, creating new socio-cultural codes. Faced with prohibitions and lack, citizens learned to live in spite of them. The Museum of Everyday Life in the GDR perfectly captures the atmosphere of yesteryear, thanks to its superb exhibits.

Duration of visit: 30-60 minutes

3. The Soviet Memorial in Treptow Park

On the edge of a gentrified neighborhood, stands a gigantic Russian memorial to the Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The site became the GDR's preferred commemorative space. Grandiloquent and monumental, the Soviet Memorial in Treptow Park exudes extraordinary power. The statues are impressive, and the heroic reliefs lost in the heart of the forest reinforce the feeling of stepping into another time.

Duration of visit: 45-60 minutes

4. The Memorial of June 17, 1953

Today's Ministry of Finance is located on the premises of the former GDR House of Ministries, at the heart of a National Socialist architectural complex: the Luftwaffe Aviation Ministry. A colorful mosaic retraces the genesis of the East German state and the socialist project it set out to build. In the background, a fresco pays tribute to the demonstrators of June 17, 1953, suppressed by the Red Army. The contrast is striking, and never has such a small space been the bearer of so many histories and contradictions.

Duration of visit: 10-20 minutes

5. Marx-Engels Forum

Close to Museum Island, this monument to the theorists of scientific socialism was one of the last major projects undertaken by the GDR shortly before its collapse. Its aesthetic breaks with the codes of the time, and its symbolism is implicitly evoked by parallel and antagonistic steles. Above all, the Forum Marx-Engels is a witness to, and victim of, the upheavals in Berlin's politics of remembrance.

Duration of visit: 10-20 minutes

6. The Berlin Wall Memorial

The Berlin Wall Memorial stands on the site of the former border zone. This is a public space, where memory and everyday life coexist in harmony. Photos give a face to the victims, and the new wooden buildings fit in perfectly with a site that has become a place for political education and walking. A documentation center completes the information and an observation platform gives a bird's-eye view of the last cross-section of the wall.

Duration of visit: 30-60 minutes

7. Stasi Museum

In the Lichtenberg district, an uninviting disaster area conceals the presence of a highpoint of East German power. The Stasi Museum stands on the site of the former political police headquarters. The museum's exhibits are devoted to Stasiland, the permanent surveillance of the population by the police apparatus. The main attraction, however, is a visit to the Stasi chief's vast Formica offices. Impressive and timeless.

Duration of visit: 60-90 minutes

8. Karl-Marx-Allee

The last major boulevard to be built in Europe, Karl-Marx-Allee is an architectural laboratory where the foundations of a new city were laid. Monumentalism and tiled facades were the hallmarks of socialist realism. Take a stroll along the immense thoroughfare to appreciate these imposing buildings, straight out of the 1950s.

Duration of visit: 30-60 minutes

9. Ernst Thälmann Monument

A heroic, monumental stele on a dilapidated median strip, on the edge of East Germany's prefabricated housing blocks: this is the bleak picture in the midst of which the Monument to Ernst Thälmann sits forlornly. This vestige may be in its final hours. It bears witness to a past that many are trying to forget, or even erase. An impromptu discovery combining repressed memory and a sense of belonging.

Duration of visit: 5-10 minutes

10. GDR Museum

Fun and learning: the GDR Museum offers a playful and entertaining approach to the former East Germany. The results may seem mixed, given the dichotomy between tourist imperatives and the desire to pass on information. Nevertheless, the museum is a haven for hundreds of objects, photographs and audio recordings. It thus preserves a significant part of East German heritage: that devoted to ordinary life in the GDR.

Duration of visit: 45-90 minutes

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