Stalinism was a verboten subject in the former GDR. The author, an emigree to America, wrote his novel about the lasting consequences of Stalinism in English; it wasn't published in German until 34 years later.
The year is 1956, three years after Stalin's death. In the GDR, Socialist construction is progressing — especially the "Road to World Peace," which is to be a shining example of Socialist architecture with a message of resurrection from ruins. The first construction phase is nearly finished. Architect Arnold Sundstrom and his associates have been working for months on the plans for further development. But they are still awaiting the approval of the party leadership.
Sundstrom is tense as a result, quick to get annoyed. His much younger wife, Julia, feels this as well. She is part of his planning team; together they have a son. It feels a bit out of place then, when Daniel Tieck — Sundstrom's former friend and mentor, and a former Bauhaus teacher — shows up completely unexpectedly after having spent the last few years in Stalin's prison camps.
When this picture from Berlin's Friedrichshain district was taken, the main thoroughfare was still known as Stalin-Allee and construction was not yet completed. Later the pompous parade route, a study in Socialist architecture, was renamed Karl-Marx-Allee.
When the courage to question awakens
The successful architect feels, as he meaningfully expresses, "personal and political responsibility" for his friend Tieck. But his sudden arrival raises many questions — inconvenient questions about the time when, as Communists, Sundstrom, Tieck, and Julia's parents had sought refuge in Moscow from the Nazis. Julia's mother was denounced as a collaborator; she and her husband were then murdered by Stalin's henchmen. Julia was just a girl at the time. She grew up under Sundstrom's care and at 18, she became his wife.
The master builder is highly respected in the GDR, which allows the couple to live a privileged life in a villa with a car always available to them. But when the seriously ill returnee Daniel Tieck wants to join in to offer his ideas for Socialist construction, the bourgeois life of the Sundstroms becomes endangered. Julia, who until then has looked up to her older husband, has always been respectful and allowed herself to be instructed by him. Suddenly, she begins to question things.
When the past comes back to haunt you
Julia shows interest in Tieck's Bauhaus-oriented architectonic ideas, which stand in stark contrast to the sugar-coated style that her husband has planned for the further construction of the pomp-and-circumstance Prachtstraße. At first, she distrusts her own suspicions:
"Together with the reflections of the light in the narrow windows of the street's sunny side, this variety of small forms helped to lighten the heroic proportions of the blocks of building and created a mood that encouraged Julia. Why should a sight that a few brief weeks ago she had found beautiful have lost its lustre? Why should the aesthetics on which she had been brought up have lost their validity?"
But her doubts continue to fester; even the past seems to be less and less certain. Finally, she elicits the truth from Tieck: It was Sundstrom who had betrayed her mother and had him taken to the penal camp.
A negotiation of East German contemporary history
Stefan Heym wrote his book in 1966, originally in English, his early literary language. At that time it could not have appeared in the GDR as the subject was too explosive in light of East German history. The victims of Stalinism were never mourned during GDR times, and the aberrations of the early years were not addressed.
In the book, the Sundstroms live in the hinterlands, but the historical references to the construction of Stalin Allee, later Karl-Marx-Allee, in East Berlin are unmistakable. The 1954 Moscow "All-Union Conference of Builders, Architects and Workers in the Building Materials Industry" focused on Stalinist architecture and prescribed more pragmatic designs for its architects. This paradigm shift was only recognized in the GDR after a bit of a delay and it is precisely in this post-Stalinist phase of upheaval, the short-lived thaw under Khruschev, that Heym sets his novel. He first published it — after translating it from English into German himself — in 2000, a few months before his death.
As in many of his other books, Heym is also concerned in The Architects with the freedom of the individual to address societal decisions, while striking a balance between reason and one's attempts to fit in. It is about political progress and regression — and humanity. That makes his novel important even today — and very much worth reading.
Stefan Heym: The Architects, Daunt Books (German title: Die Architekten, 2000). Heym wrote the English version of the book himself.
Shortly before the fall of the Wall, Stefan Heym took part in a large demonstration at Alexanderplatz to appeal for a better GDR
Stefan Heym was born the son of a Jewish merchant family under the name of Helmut Flieg in Chemnitz in 1913. A committed Socialist, Stefan Heym escaped from the Nazis to Czechoslovakia and later emigrated to the United States. He gained American citizenship and landed with US troops at Normandy. In a protest move against the Korean War, he gave up his American citizenship and moved to the GDR, although he never became a member of the Socialist Unity Party. His novel The King David Report, on the relationship between spirit and power, created a small sensation in the GDR. He remained a Socialist, even while sitting in German Parliament for the reform communist PDS party in the early years following reunification through 1995. He died in 2001 during a trip to Jerusalem for a panel about the "dissident" poet Heinrich Heine.