Last edited 14 Mar 2020

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Post-war new towns in Germany

Walter Womacka mural.png
A 1958 mosaic mural by Walter Womacka at the Rathaus (Town Hall), Eisenhüttenstadt (Photo: Peter Kersten, Wikimedia).

The arrival of millions of displaced people on the territory of present-day Germany during and after the second world war prompted the building of the first generation of post-war new towns.


It is not widely known in the UK that approximately 12 million displaced people arrived on the territory of present-day Germany between 1944 and 1948. They were Germans who had fled or been expelled from East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia when they were annexed by the Soviet Union and Poland; from Sudetenland in the western half of Czechoslovakia; and from the Baltic and the Balkans.

Their instant need of housing posed a gargantuan logistic challenge as the cities lay in ruins and could hardly provide shelter for the existing population. Many ammunition factories and barracks built to house forced labourers during the second world war (over six million in 1944) were turned into refugee camps and became the nuclei for the first generation of post-war new towns in Germany, the so-called Vertriebenenstädte und -gemeinden (‘towns and communes for the expelled’).

One of the new towns for expellees is Espelkamp in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), formerly in the British Zone. Initially called Espelkamp-Mittwald (the latter meaning ‘in the middle of the woods’), its first name reflected the well-camouflaged, forestry location of ammunition factories where most habitations for expellees were built, a leafy new town with its own greenbelt that Ebenezer Howard would have approved of. An initial conflict between NRW and the Protestant Church about the concept and character of Espelkamp (free market town vs charitable model village) was resolved in 1949 in favour of a secular new town with commercial buildings and social housing. In 1959 it was formally raised to the status of a town. Like other post-war new towns, Espelkamp was laid out in the spirit of modernism, thus reconnecting to housing estates of the Weimar Republic.

The master plan shows an irregular grid of curved roads and trapezoids with two- to three-storey buildings, centred around a hub (Breslauer Strasse) between the town hall (Rathaus, 1960) in the west and the Protestant church (Thomaskirche, 1963) in the east. St Thomas, which has been at the heart of the local community of expellees for 56 years, contains a stained-glass window commemorating the exodus. The church was listed in 2016 and is undergoing repair after a fire in 2018. When I visited Espelkamp as an adolescent while undertaking genealogical research at ancestral farms in the periphery, the new town seemed like a place without history. Perhaps that is what appealed to those generations whose memories were too painful.

A different type of new town, but of similar age, is manifest in the cities planned to serve industrial plants. Wolfsburg, home of the Volkswagen and arguably the most famous, successful, and largest 20th-century new town in Germany, had been founded in 1938 under Nazi rule, but it still deserves its place among post-war new towns. The factory had to be largely rebuilt after the bombing and of the originally planned town (for a population of up to 90,000), no more than 3,000 homes had been built by the end of the war. The original plan by Peter Koller had been based on garden-city and modernist principles, albeit with concessions to Nazi monumentalism; it was abandoned in favour of the 1948 plan by Hans Bernhard Reichow, who later became known for his publication ‘Die Autogerechte Stadt’ (Automotive City, 1959).

Wolfsburg grew rapidly, from 14,000 in 1945 to nearly 90,000 in 1970. An administrative reorganisation in the state of Lower Saxony in 1972 pushed the population beyond 100,000, thereby gaining Wolfsburg the status of Großstadt (large city). Entire new quarters, such as the 1960s town extension Detmerode, were built along modern transport routes, while the original division of Wolfsburg into ‘work’ (north of the Mittellandkanal and railway line) and ‘live’ (south of the canal and railway line) remained visible. Many of Wolfsburg’s buildings, ensembles and estates are listed, including the Cultural Centre (opened 1962), a Gesamtkunstwerk by Alvar Aalto, who designed the building as well as its light fittings and furniture. The theatre by Hans Scharoun, architect of the Berlin Philharmonic, was opened in 1973. Steimker Berg, the first estate built in 1938 beside labour camps, and now at the infamous core of the city, is listed, as are its green spaces. The historic VW plant, with its thermal power station, is considered to be the largest industrial monument in Lower Saxony. Wolfsburg has become by far the wealthiest city in Germany by GDP.

The same can not be said about Eisenhüttenstadt in the State of Brandenburg, formerly in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Here mass redundancies due to the privatisation of the local steel factory following reunification and the resulting emigration to western Germany have led to a population decrease from 53,000 in 1988 to 25,000 in 2017. Eisenhüttenstadt (literally ‘Ironworks Town’) had been founded in 1950 as the GDR’s socialist model city. It was named Stalinstadt until de-Stalinisation led to its re-naming in 1961.

A proposed modernist master plan by Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich had been rejected in favour of the Stalinist design (socialist classicism) by Kurt Walter Leucht, which implemented the 16 Grundsätze des Städtebaus (‘Sixteen Principles of Urban Design’, issued by the government of the GDR). A more rigid grid with consistent multi-storey housing and slightly higher density than its western counterparts consciously expresses urbanity as well as equality. External and internal murals by Walter Womacka adorn some of the buildings.

Like Espelkamp and Wolfsburg, Eisenhüttenstadt is its own ‘lower’ conservation authority, with its town hall and many of its industrial, public and residential buildings enjoying listed status. Covering 230 acres, the original part of the new town has become the largest monument in Germany and attracts funding for its upkeep. The new town extensions, on the other hand, have seen the demolition of over 6,000 homes between 1990 and 2014. The German weekly Der Freitag once published an article by Wolfgang Kil about the struggling new town under the heading ‘the difficult monument’ (Das schwierige Denkmal, 4 January 2008). Kil referred to a local planner’s concern about the limits of listing: ‘We can’t turn every day-nursery into a museum of the GDR’.

While Eisenhüttenstadt has been managing shrinkage for many years, the former capital of the GDR and eastern half of Berlin during the Cold War continues to be attractive. It was here that the government implanted a new socialist core into the bombed-out heart of Berlin; not a new town as such, but a new centre the size of a city nevertheless. The new quarter not only exemplifies the 16 principles as applied to the capital, but it illustrates the changes in town planning throughout the 45 years under communist rule. Construction of the boulevard Stalinallee (re-named Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961) began with habitations in Bauhaus tradition (first phase, 1949–1951), continued with monumental architecture inspired by Stalinist designs and Prussian classicism (second phase, 1951–1958, including the two gate towers of the Frankfurter Tor) and was completed in the socialist equivalent of International Modernism (third phase, 1959–1964, including Kino International and Café Moskau with 1:1 Sputnik satellite model).

The housing estates on either side are laid out as superblocks with landscrapers in characteristic Plattenbauweise (prefabricated concrete slabs). The wide central square, Alexanderplatz, at the west end of the boulevard is overshadowed by Germany’s tallest building, the 368-metrehigh Fernsehturm (TV tower, opened 1969) with a rotating restaurant. A symbol of socialism triumphant, it was listed as early as 1979. The last-minute GDR-era listing of Karl-Marx-Allee in 1989 survived the reunification of Germany in 1990, but not without challenge. In the 1990s, when I wrote heritage statements for properties in the district of Berlin-Mitte, this authority and the neighbouring district Friedrichshain were the authorities in charge of monument protection in the Alexanderplatz and Karl-Marx-Allee area. However, it was at the higher city state level that the listing was questioned.

In 1991 an attempt by several senators to lift listing restrictions in order to enable wide-reaching interventions across the ensemble (regarding parking, signage, changes to shop interiors and repair of almost 50 per cent of the ceramic-tiled facades) was rejected. As a sign of increased acceptance of the socialist heritage, in 2014 the Senate of the city state of Berlin put the complete ensemble of the Karl-Marx-Allee and the 1957 showcase estate Hansaviertel in former West Berlin forward for Unesco inscription, but the attempt was thwarted by the federal conference of ministers for culture. In 2015, the Berlin Senate declared the second phase development of the boulevard an urban conservation funding area to safeguard its future and in July 2019 re-communalised 670 flats to combat speculation.

Germany has seen examples of large-scale town planning in later years, such as the 1972 Munich Olympic Village, but these have not reached the level of communal autonomy of the early new towns. In Espelkamp, Wolfsburg and Eisenhüttenstadt the local authorities keep the list of protected monuments, and exercise control over their own heritage, supporting a more holistic approach to protect the character of the new towns.


This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 162 (Page 12), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in November 2019. It was written by Michael Asselmeyer, an architect, who has been principal conservation and design manager at the London Borough of Islington and senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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