Friday, 6 February 2009

Abandoned GDR era flat in Leipzig

by Kathryn Hadley

Last week, the daily Berliner Morgenpost newspaper reported the discovery of an abandoned flat in Leipzig which had been preserved and left untouched since the end of the GDR era. The 40-square-metre flat on Crottendorfer Strasse in the Reudnizt district of Leipzig was discovered by the architect Mark Aretz whilst working on the refurbishment of an East German apartment block. The two-bedroom flat, left completely intact, appears to have been abandoned in a hurry towards the end of 1989.

The calendar on the wall reads ‘August 1988’ and the furniture, fittings, groceries and personal objects provide a fascinating insight into everyday life in East Germany twenty years ago. The shelves were stacked with East German brands such as ‘Vita’ cola, ‘Marella’ margarine, ‘Juwel’ cigarettes and ‘Kristall’ vodka and stale bread rolls, dirty plates and left-over food were found in the kitchen. A zinc bath was found against one of the walls and the flat was not equipped with a toilet. The only western product in the flat was a bottle of ‘Henkel’ deodorant, which was most likely smuggled over from West Germany.

It is a mystery, however, why the flat, built at the end of the 19th century, had not been renovated like the others in the building. The German news agency DDP also reported the Leipzig city water provider’s confirmation that the water bills for the flat had been paid up to 1992, explaining that they had most likely been taken over by the building’s owner.

The story of the occupier of the flat also remains a mystery. Documents found in the flat suggest that the occupier was a 24-year-old man who was in trouble with the East German police. The most recent document was a police search warrant for a caravan dating from May 1989. The occupier had also served a one-year prison sentence and evidence revealed that the East German police had searched his car and confiscated a magnetic tape recorder.

Aretz described to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper how:

When we opened the door we felt like Howard Carter when he found the grave of Tutankhamen […] Everything was a mess but it was like a historic treasure trove, a portal into an age long gone

The architect has refurbished over one thousand apartments in East Germany since 1990 and has frequently come across abandoned buildings, as many East Germans fled to the West when the government of the GDR began to crumble at the end of 1989. The discovery of the flat, perfectly preserved for the past twenty years, is however, unique as a testimony to life in the GDR. It has also unearthed intriguing clues about the mysterious fate of its occupier. Why was the flat not discovered before? Why did the water bills continue to be paid for three years? Who paid them and, if the owner of the building made the payments, did he not enquire into the disappearance of his tenant?
There are, however, no plans to preserve the apartment and renovation work is due to continue.

In the lead up to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 8th, this year, the discovery is particularly timely. Protests against the government of the GDR began in Leipzig at the beginning of September 1989. They took place every Monday evening and eventually became known as the Monday demonstrations. The protests gradually spread to other East German cities and, throughout October 1989, ever growing numbers of protesters put increased pressure on the East German government. The Berlin Wall eventually ‘fell’ on November 9th. During the following weeks, border crossings were gradually opened up, including the Brandenburg Gate on December 22nd, 1989. The official dismantling of the wall by the East German military began on June 30th, 1990. On July 1st, all border controls ceased and East Germany adopted the West German currency. The formal reunification of Germany was concluded on October 3rd 1990.

For an overview of the history of the construction of the Berlin Wall, read our article Berlin: The Flash-Point of the Cold War, 1948-1989
For more information on the Western powers’ response to the wall, read our article The Berlin Wall: A Secret History

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