Richard Carter visits the former homes of East Berlin’s leading politicians…
“Entschuldigen Sie, ist das der Sonderzug nach Pankow?” (excuse me, is that the special train to Pankow) sang West German rocker Udo Lindenberg in his 1983 hit Sonderzug nach Pankow.
In it, he suggested he’d sit down with East German leader Erich Honecker to ask, over a bottle of Cognac, to be allowed to perform in East Germany. He suggested that Honecker was really a closet rocker who’d don a leather jacket, lock himself in the toilet and listen to western radio, an image which, once you’ve got it in your head is hard to let go of.
Pankow was, in the early days of the GDR, where many of the top officials of the ruling party, the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – Socialist Unity Party of Germany), lived and so the name Pankow became synonymous with the East German government itself.
Anyone taking a Sonderzug (or even a normal S- or U-Bahn train) to Pankow will arrive at Pankow Station. The S-Bahn station building is from 1911 and is, if you ask me, quite an impressive piece of work.
It’s not what I’ve come to look at, though. I’m headed for the Majakowskiring, home to many of the most important SED party members, before they decided they needed more security and moved to a new, specially built development in Wandlitz in 1960. Built for wealthy Berliners in the first three decades of the 20th century, the large houses on Majakowskiring were first requisitioned for official use by the Soviets following WWII.
The imposing neoclassical villa at Number 2 (pictured above) accommodated important guests of the state visiting Berlin, then later served as a polling station, where functionaries were often photographed having made their votes. A further wander round the ellipse-shaped street takes you past the homes of a who’s who of early East German politics.
Number 12 was home to Lotte Ulbricht, wife of Walter Ulbricht, after his death in 1973. Walter Ulbricht was the GDR’s most powerful politician, the General Secretary/First Secretary (the name of the title changed while he was in office) of the SED’s Central Committee (Zentralkomitee) from 1950 until 1971, as well as being chairman of the State Council (Staatsrat) from 1960 – 1973.
The house which the Ulbrichts lived in before their move to Wandlitz was at 28 – 30. It was demolished in 1975 as part of attempts to remove traces of him from the state. A more modern housing block occupies the space now.
Number 29, with its fairy-tale tower, was home to Wilhelm Pieck, the GDR’s first president (a position later abolished). He also lent his name to the Wilhelm Pieck Kindergarten, at 13-15, where residents’ children were looked after.
Conspicuous by its absence is the house of First Secretary Walter Ulbricht and his wife Lotte at number 28. It was replaced by a ’70s accommodation block after his death, erasing any trace of him from the street, though Lotte later lived at number 12. Number 34 bears a metal plaque testifying that it was home to poet Johannes R. Becher, later Minister for Culture, who wrote the words to the GDR’s national anthem.
An expanse of grey stone forms the entrance to number 46-48, home of the first Soviet town major of Berlin, and later to Prime Minister Otto Grotowohl. And last but not least, there’s number 58, which was home to Erich and Margot Honecker.
Erich Honecker took over from Walter Ulbricht as First Secretary (which became General Secretary again in 1976), also taking the position of chairman of the State Council in 1976; before this, in 1961, he was, as the Central Committee’s secretary for security, in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall.
These days, suburban ordinariness has thoroughly reclaimed the street. Honecker’s house is now a children’s play centre; the Wilhelm Pieck Kindergarten has become a day nursery. Many other houses are back in private hands, rubbing shoulders with a scattering of embassies and consulates.
The large numbers of trees make it feel quite secluded, protected even, and it’s quite easy to imagine that a politician could live quite a sheltered life here. Obviously not enough to stop them from moving to Wandlitz in search of even greater shelter, though…but that’s another story entirely.