Berlin Urban Form and Politcal Ideology Essay

Discuss the relationship between political ideologies and urban form in 20th century Berlin Berlin has developed over 800 years and has undergone major changes. It is the place where German unification, after 40 years of separation, becomes apparent and this provides us with an excellent location for studying urban processes. The twentieth century saw different political ideologies impose themselves onto the city and I will use certain political ideologies and explain the impact they had on urban form. I will use these examples to show a relationship between political ideologies and urban form and the implications of this. Firstly, the key terms must be defined. When referring to urban form, I use the basic definition by Anderson et al (1996), who define it as the ‘spatial configuration of fixed elements within a metropolitan region.’ They go on further to state that it includes the spatial pattern of land uses and their densities as well as the spatial design of transport and communication infrastructure.

More importantly from a political perspective, a change in urban form requires a change in people’s lifestyles and this may not be possible unless there is a shift in attitude from the public (Kuhn, 1992). This is something to bear in mind when looking at 20th century Berlin. Political ideology can be loosely defined as a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved (Denzau and North, 1994). They further go on to say ideologies are shared models that groups possess and that these models provide an interpretation of the environment and how it should be structured. I am now going to discuss the relationship between political ideologies and urban form in the 20th century Berlin. The relationship can be approached by looking at Berlin at different stages throughout the 20th century. I will look at urban form before the Second World War, during the period where Berlin was divided and finally after unification.

At each stage, a certain political ideology had influence on urban form. It is important to note that when the allied forces took control of Berlin, the city had undergone amalgamation on a gargantuan scale. In 1920, 59 villages and 27 estates were joined to form a city of 3.9 million citizens, making it the third largest city in the world after London and New York (Elger, 1992). This is important because the city would have had less time to develop its urban form to the same stage as London and New York, which developed over many years. Their urban form reflected that of the concentric zone model. The Nazi regime tried to impose their nationalist ideology onto the urban form of Berlin. They built the Ministry of the Air Force, which eventually became the Treuhand holding company, who restructured the former GDR industries after reunification (Blockmans, 2003). In 1942, Albert Speer designed plans for the Nazi regime which intended on creating a new urban centre. Tempelhof airport was designed as a result.

There were also railway stations planned for north and south Berlin as was Siegesallee, or the Lane of Victory. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, had an obsession with building big monuments and when queried as to why he always wanted to build the biggest, he would say that it was to restore self-respect to each individual German (Hall, 1996). A north-south avenue was planned and this was designed to show the political, military and economic power of Germany. Plans were made to build seventeen highways and big towns to the north and the south and these towns would do away with the Nazi favouritism towards single family homes and a shift towards closed apartment blocks that surrounded big yards (Larsson, 1978). In terms of the basic principles, Hall says that Speer’s plan showed that incompatible land uses were segregated, through traffic was excluded from residential areas, light and air and space was in abundance.

It is important to state that much of this vision was not built and only one ceremonial space was built on the east-west axis (Helmer, 1980). Whilst much of Speer’s plans were not fully implemented, it does not stop us from seeing the relationship between political ideology and urban form in 20th century Berlin. We can see from what Hitler said to Speer, that the priority was trying to impose the ideology first. The preference for huge monuments is clear to see and this implies a state that is all powerful. In my opinion, building these monuments was Hitler’s primary focus in terms of implementing his ideology and the people’s needs were of a lower priority. The focus on monuments is apparent throughout the plans especially when looking at housing. Hall said the plans showed housing that resembled apartment blocks with big courtyards. Courtyards in apartment blocks are designed for the people living there to gather and socialise.

Similarly, people gather at huge monuments because they mean something to the people. So we can see that if the vision had been implemented then the ideology behind the design would not only have occurred in public space but also in a subtle way, entered people’s private space. Where Hall describes the Nazi aim of creating the ultimate ‘City beautiful’, Koshar (1991) prefers to describe Nazi Berlin as ‘city as Stage’. Nazism was in favour of heritage preservation and introduced legislation in 1936 aimed at creating stricter guidelines for new buildings and adapting old buildings for more up to date uses. The aim for the Nazis was for the city and urban region to retain their function as spatial settings for commodity production but without liberal capitalist, Jewish and Marxist influences. National Socialism tried to disengage the city from ‘historical contingencies’, giving rise to the metaphor for the city as a stage where actors were the masses and Hitler was the star (Koshar, 1991).

The relationship shown in the case of Nazism is one where the political ideology is dominant in everyday life. From Hall and Koshar’s ideas one can see that Hitler wanted complete power and that people should be aware of this power through certain changes in urban form such as heritage preservation. Exclusion of modern buildings would eliminate the idea of capitalism from people’s minds. Under Nazism, there seems to be a preference for segregated areas in Berlin, in terms of function. This idea of Nazi dominance, power and control would suggest knowing that an area only had one function would make it easier for authorities to control. In one sense it can be misleading explaining about Hitler’s influence on urban form in Berlin seeing as many of his ideas did not come to fruition however the nature of some of his plans tells us that political ideology had a great influence on his thinking about urban form.

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I will now look at the relationship between political ideology and urban form after the second world war, specifically just before and during the Cold War period. In the case of the GDR, the authorities wished to show their ideology and demolished the city palace of the Prussian kings in 1953 and erected the Palace of the Republic, which was open to the public. The reminders from the past were destroyed and new projects were designed such as Karl-Marx-Allee. Here we are seeing the construction and demolition of remnants as a way of the political ideology to express their ideas on the land usage aspect of urban form. Top- down processes lead to this acquisition of political attitudes in the GDR as well as the case of nationalism with the Nazi party (Lost et al. 2009). It is important to note that transport also constitutes urban form and transport policy can affect urban form. The literature has so far primarily focused on the land use policy and not enough attention has been allocated to transport. Urban design in East Berlin was contradictory to what one might expect.

There was a shift towards traditional design as seen in Gendarmenmarkt with its baroque style buildings. This has prompted Urban (2009) to question the GDR regime and its sudden change in thought from a modernist approach to urban design, which was seen at the time to be the only appropriate expression of a socialist system, to a focus on historical buildings. Urban does not explicitly mention the reasoning behind the change so it is important to bear in mind that other factors could have affected the change in urban design. Of course, this does not stop us from making assumptions based on facts. The launch of an ambitious housing program in the 1970s resulted in many old buildings being renovated and the majority of these were built on the periphery of East Berlin. The socialist policy in the 1970s was to go ahead with the abandonment of German reunification and this allowed socialist leaders to use certain pre-socialist traditions as their own. In essence, this means that socialism was increasingly evident in the urban form and signs of German history could be removed.

Monuments returned to their original position such as the one of Prussian King Friedrich II on the boulevard of Unter den Linden. New socialist principles are partly behind such moves and this was said to guarantee ‘joy of life, aesthetic pleasure, social activity, and high performance’ (Urban, 2009). Unter der Linden is an interesting case to look at because it has been described as the most interesting and important boulevards in the history of twentieth century design (Stangl, 2006). Its importance means that it is a valid location to research when discussing the relationship between political ideologies and urban form. After the Second World War Unter der Linden became a battleground for the competing socialist and capitalist ideologies. Communists and leading German elites had a considerable effect on the urban form in many different ways.

As mentioned by Urban (2009), Stangl says that historical buildings were preserved and this was intended to show the strength of the new system. Socialist- Marxist ideology was essential to this. The East German state wanted urban form to be incorporated into the building of the state. Why might they emphasise urban form as a key expression of their ideology? You could say that the urban landscape shows change and certain urban landscape expressions such as monuments and old buildings carry significant social meaning. As mentioned before, the monument of the King Friedrich II was moved to Unter den Linden. The ideology has influence over urban form as the monument has been moved and has been reinterpreted to legitimise state thinking so from this we can deduce that ideology plays an important role in the interpretation of the urban landscape. It is important to note that Stangl’s use of Unter den Linden as a case study is particularly interesting mainly because, contrary to the views in West Berlin at the time, socialist planning was not a unified vision from Marxist ideology but rather it was a series of compromises between different strands of socialism and communism.

A criticism of Stangl is that he does not mention whether this compromise is seen in other parts of East Berlin. Whilst using one of the most important boulevards in the twentieth century makes his assumptions more valid, it would have been useful to know a brief picture of whether this was the case in the whole of the city, after all the discussion that is taking place is of Berlin and not just a small fragment of it. So far I have looked at political ideologies before and after the war when Berlin is divided. After the war, there is an emphasis on preservation of historical buildings in certain parts of Berlin and the urban form is such that it deliberately reflects the ideology that is dominant. With Unter den Linden being a relatively central, the strategic location of buildings and monuments is important hence the King Friedrich II monument was relocated.

The political thinking at that time prioritised Marx-Engels Square as a place for parades and what you would see from there is the historical buildings of Unter den Linden (Stangl, 2009). People would watch the parades and associate the buildings with the ideology of socialist realism. The influence of political ideology over urban form can be noticed in this instance. One can see that socialist ideology is very clever in that it does not change the urban form a huge amount however by preserving what was in the past, it can change the historical meaning and apply its own interpretation. Simply put the designers original intentions are thrown away and replaced.

Finally I briefly look at Berlin after reunification in the late part of the twentieth century. After the fall of the Berlin wall and moves to unite Germany in 1990 there was a considerable shift in political ideology. Now it was a capitalist dominated approach and this had effect on the urban form. Kujath (2005) talks about how the unification meant that two separate states were founded, Berlin and Brandenburg. It restructured to make economic clusters for the core region. There was spatial redeployment of manufacturing plants from the core to the suburbs; many new shopping malls were built in the suburbs as were warehouses for logistics providers. You can see the core of the city is providing knowledge services and suburbs providing other useful services. Conclusion

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I have looked at three different political ideologies, Nazism before the war, socialism in the GDR and briefly touched unification and capitalism. Each had a different approach to urban form. Nazism and Socialism had similarities in that both resorted to keeping historical buildings however much of Hitler’s stuff could not be built. From all three we know that political ideology is effective when expressed upon the urban form hence it has its greatest influence however for some like Nazism this can be misleading at it was very influential in terms of their control over people but hardly any of their plans were built.


Anderson, W.P., and Kanaroglou, P.S., and Miller, E.J., (1996) Urban Form, Energy and the Environment: A Review of Issues, Evidence and Policy Urban Stud 1996 33: 7

Kuhn, D. (1992), Science as argument : Implications for teaching and learning scientific thinking, Science Education, 77, 3, p.319-325

Denzau, A.T., and North, D.C., (1994), Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions, Kyklos, 47, 1, p.3-5

Ellger, C., (1992), Berlin: Legacies of division and problems of unification, The Geographic Journal, 158, 1, p. 40-45

Blockmans, W.P., (2003), Reshaping Cities: The Staging of Political Transformation, Journal of Urban History, 30, 1, p7-12

Hall, P., (1996), Cities of Tomorrow, p.86-90, Blackwell Publishers,

Cambridge, Massachussets, USA

Larsson, L.O., (1978), Die Neustalgung der Reichshauptstadt: Albert Speers General bebauungsplan, Stockholm, Almqvist and Wiksell

Helmer, S.D., (1980), Hitler’s Berlin: Plans for reshaping the Central City developed by Albert Speer, Ann Arbor, University Microfilms

Koshar, R.J., (1991), Altar, Stage and City: Historic Preservation and Urban Meaning in Nazi Germany, History and Memory, 3, 1, p. 30-34

Lost, J.T, and Federico, C.M., and Napier J.L., ( 2009), Political Ideology : Its structure, functions and Elective Affinities, Annual Review of Psychology, 60, p. 307-18

Urban, F., (2009), Neo-historical East Berlin: Architecture and urban design in the German Democratic Republic 1970-1990, MPG Books, Great Britain

Stangl, P. (2006), Restorting Berlin’s Unter der Linden: ideology, world view, place and space, Journal of Historical Geography, 32, 2, p.352-370

Kujath, H.J., (2005), Restructuring the Metropolitan region of Berlin- Brandenburg: Economic trends and political answers, URL accessed:

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