If I’m being honest, the most fascinating part of Berlin the most enticing part of Berlin for me was how life was like when the Berlin Wall divided the city, and how that divide shaped Berlin. Berlin has been shaped by its complex history of two cities separated by a wall of politics and ideology. There was one part of town that I knew I had to visit – Alexanderplatz and its famous radio tower.
All cities have a radio tower for communication services but there’s not many cities that places theirs smack in the middle of town. It towers behind the Bundestag and the Brandenburg Gate, you can see it from any of the main sites in the centre of the city. The structure is so prominent it has become a core backdrop of the skyline of the city.
And that was precisely the reason the radio tower was built in the centre of East Berlin just infront of Alexanderplatz. I stood in front of the tower, my head straining to take in all that stood before me. This was a feat, and a marvelous one at that. Had the dark irony not been pointed out to me, I could imagine myself as a West Berlin shuddering under a not to subtle threat and as an East Berliner shuddering under the sheer power of the state. It has turned into a restaurant and has become a great vantage point to see the whole city (although, I’d argue that it has become part of the city and therefore you’d want another less conspicuous vantage point to take in the tower as well.
But why was it built?
We begin the story not in Berlin but in Stockholm in 1952. The many free nations met to coordinate and radio frequencies for their different channels. Because the DDR was not recognised, the area under East Germany was given only two radio frequencies. The lack of frequency channels meant that small radio towers would not be able to sufficiently cover all of Berlin without interference, the only was was to build a large radio tower. After a series of delays a proper location was decided upon in 1965. The designed called for a large glass tower ball at the apex of the tower and was slated for completion in 1969 (the 20th anniversary of the founding of the DDR).
The Radio Tower had come up at a time when atheism was replacing Christianity as the state religion. Despite the different gods (the belief in no god is a belief too), both Christianity and Soviet socialism understood the power of symbolism. The tallest structure in town represented not just money, but power and influence, since Soviet Germany was now in control they needed to show that atheism and socialism was the way forward. Not for them the arcane, unenlightened, bourgeois way of religion*, atheism was the way forward – science, people, no god.
Why was religion such a pest? Under Marxist-Leninist ideology, religion was a way for the capitalist classes go keep the poorer classes satisfied, an excuse and tool to make the lower classes accepting of their station in life as normal and acceptable, religion was the opiate that promised them rewards for good behaviour in the after life. Since religion, fro, this vantage point would weakening the resolve of the lower classes to join in the class warfare, it had to had outlawed with atheism in its place.
Towards that end, and to announce the death of god and the triumph of man, the crosses at the top of the church spires were removed all over Berlin. A radio tower was the product of science and technology, it was a symbol of development and progress to classlessness. And so the radio tower was located near the Saint Nicolai church, the Berlin Cathedral and the St Mary’s Church all among the oldest and most prominent emblems of Christianity in Berlin and the radio tower dwarfed all of them. Using practical requirements (a radio tower needs to be high to send and receive signals with less noise), the Soviets created the myth of the triumph of science.
Beyond the obvious intention of making a statement about the greatness of socialism and grandeur of Soviet society to the east Berliners in their gilded cage, the Soviets had more nefarious intentions of scaring the west Berliners and hurting their morale, we are watching you, you will never go around peacefully was the obvious, dark message.
The tower was majestic upon completion its tower ball shone brightly and reflected the sun. This was what the architects wanted except, the physics of the reflection of the suns rays meant that what reflected to everyone from the sun was a cross. And this cross shown even brighter and higher than any cross on the church spire. The grand design had become ‘The Pope’s Revenge’.
In 1966, midway through the construction, restoration works at the nearby Alexanderplatz revealed a pre-World War II public. Inspired by this, the decision was taken to place a new public clock in the square. There were to be 24 panels on the clock to reflect the 24 hours in the way. At the bottom, were four small analogue clocks telling the time in Berlin. Major cities in the world (then only from countries friendly to or within the Soviet orbit) were placed according to their time zones this mechanical clock moves all the time (as a mechanical clock would) to accurately reflect the time of the the city. You can see that it was about 10.30am at Reykjavik when I was at the clock.
The clock was unveiled in 1969 successfully and was a triumph of science, something that even in united Germany has been recognized as an architectural creation of significant cultural value. The clock soon become an icon of East Berlin and was the site of massive protests most notably in 1989 by East Berliners against the DDR, this protest was conducted a month before the actual fall and precipitated the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. The clock doesn’t have a setting for daylight savings time and is therefore an hour off for six months in a year, a small detail developed by Germany in 1895 that did not make the design plans.
I continued on, there was one more former Soviet creation that I had to lay my eyes on.
ON THE MAP (World Time Clock)
ON THE MAP (Berlin Radio Tower)