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Bittersweet Utopia: Eli Rubin ’97

In his second monograph, Amnesiopolis: Modernity, Space, and Memory in East Germany (Oxford University Press), Western Michigan University Professor Eli Rubin ’97 crafts the only history of everyday life in Marzahn, the largest of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)’s socialist housing projects.

In your book you said the GDR was creating a “concrete utopia,” with the hopes to erase the hardships of the past and build a new socialist mentality. Do you think that these goals were accomplished back then?

On the one hand, yes. Though, not throughout society—when the GDR collapsed in 1989–90 there were still millions of East Germans who continued to live in the crumbling old buildings that predated the GDR. Had the GDR not collapsed, the housing program would have continued on, both in terms of building new, prefabricated “concrete utopias” and renovating old city areas, and it would have accomplished these goals on a much larger scale.

On the other hand, the argument of the book is more complicated—the title Amnesiopolis is intended with a kind of poignant inherent contradiction. Because as much as the GDR tried to “erase” the past and build a new socialist space as part of a new socialist culture, it found that the past resists erasure in all these ways. Part of the argument I make is that time and space are intertwined, and they are intertwined with human subjects, especially through subjects’ sense of memory. I use the jargon “mnemotopography” and “socio-spatial dialectic” for this, but it’s really about just the feeling you get when go to a place you once lived in, like your hometown, or where you went to college, and how the memories flood back but also the wider meanings, on a social and political level, of what that place stood for. We are all connected to strands of time and the spaces they intersect with.

But with that said, trying to erase the past by creating an all-new space actually connects people to deeper, older strands of time, too—for example, in digging up the ground to build this massive housing settlement, the GDR’s construction teams found that time and history are literally and figuratively buried. Wreckage and weapons from World War II, remnants of more ancient civilizations that had once lived there going back to the very first human settlers, all of it came up to the surface. So people had a sense of connection both to a brand-new future and also a much more ancient past—it turns out, they were just the latest in a long pattern of settlers on this landscape going back 10,000 years.


Do you think the new residents felt like they were indeed in a concrete utopia or more of a concrete jungle?

Definitely not a concrete jungle. That term implies a kind of urban slum beset by crime. This concept was precisely what the GDR was attempting to erase—and they were not the first. Generations of city planners had dreamt up ways to rebuild working-class housing outside the slums of the inner city, in Berlin and elsewhere, so that they could be free of the cramped quarters and inhumane housing. In fact, some modernist urban planners like the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier believed in a form of what we might call geomancy—they were convinced that open spaces, fresh air, greenery, sunlight, and geometrical and symmetrical buildings and transitways would cure society of criminality, political radicalism, alcoholism, etc.

Marzahners took pride in the fact that they had a strong community that was heavily populated by families with children. People looked after one anothers’ children, they all pitched in to take ownership of the common areas, landscaping together and throwing impromptu parties in the common rooms of the buildings or on the greenways. In many ways, their experience was the opposite of the experience of Western, especially American, housing projects in which social networks and a shared sense of space and destiny and community were destroyed. The comparison is fascinating, and it has to do with issues of race, ideology, and history.


How would you describe the Marzhan community now?

It has changed quite a lot. When the Wall fell in 1989–90, and East Germany became absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany (formerly West Germany) a year later, the conversion from communism to capitalism made itself felt very acutely in certain areas. One of those was real estate. In a communist system like the GDR’s, the state owned a lot of the housing, directly or indirectly, on behalf of the people themselves. There was some private property, much of it grandfathered in from before the GDR, though it was possible to build a house for oneself in certain cases. But what was not allowed was an open real estate market.  One could sell one’s house, but there was no “real estate industry” or “market” as we would recognize it.

This changed after the fall of the Wall, and as the older, neglected properties in the heart of the city were converted to private property, they were snatched up by Western real estate investors and renovated—they were “flipped” and therefore gentrified. The trendiest and hip neighborhoods in Berlin are the old working-class neighborhoods that were falling apart and that had the traces of the capitalist past in them, precisely the same ones that the GDR wanted to get rid of and allowed to fall into disrepair and neglect—they underwent and are still undergoing massive gentrification as hipsters and yuppies from around Germany and Europe move in.

At the same time, the opposite happened to Marzahn. What was once the most desirable place to get a home in now saw an exodus, especially of young people. The apartments were converted to condos, essentially, but had no character, were outside the city and far from the trendy bars and restaurants. It is a place that only makes sense in a socialist system, because it was made by a socialist system. It is a socialist space. Socialism is intertwined in its spaces. There have been attempts to adapt it to a capitalist system—the old communal municipal space was converted into a big mall with a food court, and the remaining apartments have been spruced up with new facades, balconies, etc. A lot of money, from the German government and from the European Union, has gone into Marzahn to prevent it from becoming like a U.S. housing project.

Still, once you set market forces to work, they will have an effect. It’s not considered “desirable” real estate anymore, so rents and costs are cheaper. And that draws people from a lower socioeconomic status, including immigrants. The older residents are still very proud of their settlement, and what it stood for in terms of a socialist new world. But they are suspended in time, in a way, which is why I describe Marzahn as “the future of a past world,” a “bittersweet utopia” “stranded in time.”


While doing research for this book, what surprised you the most?

 I set out to demonstrate the way in which the past was erased, through spaces first and then through people’s memories. What surprised me was the extent to which the past was reawakened as much as it was buried or erased. (See above.) That seriously complicated my initial hypothesis, but it allowed me to contemplate the “deep history”—or longue dureé history, as historians say—of the land, the water, the soil, etc., that interacted in a much bigger dialogue with humans, which in turn really helped me reframe the history of the GDR itself outside of the usual debates, much of which are still influenced by the legacy of the Cold War. There is a much bigger picture to see.


You come up with great book titles. Your first book was Synthetic Socialism: Plastics and Dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic and now Amnesiopolis: Modernity, Space, and Memory in East Germany. Where do you get your inspiration?

Thanks. With the first one, the publisher (University of North Carolina Press) told me to think of a new title that would sound a little better than my dissertation’s. They encouraged me to be creative and shoot them anything. They did a great job with it. It’s really important to work with people who encourage you to be creative. I think that inspires you to carry that forward. Beyond that, just having fun and at the same time trying to find something that will get to the heart of what it is you’re really saying.


What do you hope will be the ultimate takeaway for readers? 

Well, for people who are not German historians, I think it is really important for them to know that when you see these vast prefabricated housing blocs in formerly socialist countries, they do not represent “the failure of socialism” as many Westerners, especially Americans, think. We have a tendency to see the rest of the world through the categories that come from our own culture, obviously. But it is more than that—to grow up in a capitalist, neoliberal society and culture means to value the individualistic, the distinctive, the “cool,” the “attractive,” etc., and this is very true when we look at how we perceive space.

When you drive or walk through a neighborhood where all the homes look old, are distinctive from each other, have “personality,” many of us have a tendency to “like” that spatial-aesthetic surrounding—this is what is often called “curb appeal.” That’s because when we encounter space we do so conditioned primarily as consumers. When we see repetition, symmetry, identical spaces, we are often repelled, or ignore these altogether as “nonspaces.” “Curb appeal” as we understand it has little meaning in socialism. That is all a way of thinking and feeling and judging spaces that is particular to capitalism, not in any way a universal or objectively true sense of judgment.

Most tourists to Europe (especially in Eastern Europe) stay in the older inner cities, because they want to “consume” gingerbread houses, gothic structures, cobblestones, etc., with their eyes. Most do not take the train out to the end of the line to see where vast numbers of residents live in these prefabricated housing blocs. They see with “Western eyes.”

So, the truth is, these housing settlements are not a testament to the superiority of one “system” over another, they are a reminder of two things: that there is another way to live besides the idea of individually owned private property that did in fact function, and function well, and that spaces are themselves often the most powerful repositories of time, and in particular built spaces, because they are the things that cannot be easily changed or destroyed. And yet spaces alone are nothing—it is the personal and personal–political meanings that inhere in them from the memories of the people who dwelled in them that make them repositories of historical time.


Thinking back to when you were a student here at Swarthmore, what was the most memorable experience for you?

The Honors Program (external examination program). There’s never been anything quite like it in my life ever since; I hope current students are aware of how unique it is. I’d love to be able to implement something like it, and I do try to, but it is very hard—absolute magic results from sustained and intense study of a subject. It is the easiest thing in the world to do, and yet it almost never happens, not in terms of the really big questions.

For me, it was the study of continental and 20th-century philosophy as well as modern Chinese, Russian, and European history. I still work off many of the insights I developed in those seminars. In particular, Rick Eldridge’s 19th-Century Philosophy seminar. I still see myself and my work as deeply influenced by Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Marx’s Capital, which we read in that seminar.


Was there a special professor at Swarthmore who especially inspired you? How so?

My adviser Pieter Judson was a great mentor and guide, as well as being one of the world’s greatest historians. In fact, he still is. Rick Eldridge and Tamsin Lorraine challenged us with some of the hardest and yet most profound material there is, and held nothing back. And Bob Weinberg’s Russian History seminar was really impactful as well.