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Capital Cities Compared

Chalk and Cheese? Or Why We Should Compare

Grayness was one of the main Western stereotypes of the Eastern Bloc. Indeed, the gerontocratic party leaders seemed to match the grayness of their countries. Smoke from factories, soot from coal ovens, exhaust from antiquated cars, and other environmental hazards rendered Eastern European cities gloomy and gray. In the fall and winter, Berlin (West along with East), Prague, Warsaw, and virtually every large communist city fell beneath a blanket of stifling smog. There were scant possibilities to brighten up the cities or even individual houses. Planned economy resulted in permanent scarcity. Building supplies and brightly colored paints were hard to come by, and there was not enough money to renovate the old apartment blocks anyway. The East also seemed gray because of its lack of consumer trappings. As supply was regulated by planned economy, there was no need for eye-catching window displays or flashing neon signs. The East German songwriter Wolf Biermann was exiled from the GDR in 1976 because of his critical lyrics and went to live in West Germany. Just after the fall of the Wall, he took up the stereotype of Eastern grayness and parodied it in his song “Berliner Liedchen”: “The West is better / The West is brighter / And nicer and cuter / And richer and free … The East is grimmer / The East is grayer / Prospects are bleak / With more hardship ahead.”1

On the “good side” of the Iron Curtain, West Berlin and the old Habsburg capital Vienna were also perceived as gray. Of course, comparisons always depend on the viewpoint of the observer. Architecturally, Vienna resembled Prague and Budapest in many ways, and like Berlin, it still suffered from the aftereffects of the two world wars. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire caused the population of the Austrian capital to shrink from two million in 1913 to 1.5 million in the late 1980s. Berlin’s population was reduced from 4.3 million in 1938 to 3.1 million in 1985 (almost 1.9 million in West Berlin and 1.2 million in East Berlin). A disproportionately large number of residents were elderly, as were the buildings. Because of World War II bomb damage and inner-city decay, many East Berliners moved to industrialized suburban developments, leaving large stretches of the traditional core empty and desolate. Ambitious new housing estates were built in West Berlin and Vienna, too; old stucco buildings and narrow lanes were not considered as desirable as they are today. In view of the cities’ declining populations, their location near the Iron Curtain, and the loss of large parts of their former hinterlands, it did not seem worth investing in older districts. Apart from a few tourist areas, such as West Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm and Vienna’s old town, many streets were left unrenovated and appeared correspondingly gloomy.

Although “grayness” may inspire songwriters, it is not a suitable parameter for historical comparison. How could shades of gray be measured, and by means of which indicators?2 The following comparison is chiefly concerned with the economic transformation of the cities examined. It will ask to what extent each city took advantage of the opportunities that arose when communism collapsed and Europe opened up. Zooming in on the capital cities can also help to shed light on the social effects of reforms, and how they affected the everyday lives and attitudes of the urban populations. Some of the aforementioned indicators will serve again as reference points, including gross domestic products, unemployment rates, average incomes, and home sizes. The main focus is on the transformation from below, which took place in the cities compared here in different ways. The sociohistorical analysis will be supplemented by observations in the field of cultural history and on changes to urban landscapes and topographies.

Before embarking on any scientific comparison, the question of whether the subjects are comparable at all must be addressed, or whether they are like the proverbial chalk and cheese. All the cities considered here were national capitals with over a million inhabitants. In Berlin’s case, this status had a brief interruption: East Berlin had been the capital of the GDR, but it was not until June 1991 that the reunified city was made the capital of Germany, instead of the former West German capital Bonn, and once again played in the same league as Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, and Vienna—also Kyiv from 1991, and Bratislava from 1993.

The decades of separation by the Wall and West Berlin’s special status may seem to challenge Berlin’s suitability for comparison. Indeed, West Berlin did not experience any major changes to its political order or social elites, and retained its currency, the deutschmark. But the economic changes that occurred after 1990 in East and West Berlin showed a number of parallels. Industry in both parts of the city was rendered uncompetitive overnight: in East Berlin due to monetary union, in West Berlin because its subsidies were cut. A dual transformation took place, then, which is comparable to the economic development of the other Eastern European capitals.

This book is not intended as a study exclusively of the former Eastern Bloc. That would imply viewing recent European history through the lens of the Cold War, more than twenty-five years after it ended. To broaden the perspective, Vienna is included. Like Berlin, the former Habsburg capital was initially divided into four zones of occupation, which were abolished in the Austrian Independence Treaty of 1955. But Vienna remained locked in by communist states on two sides and could not evolve economically as it had in the past. However, serving as a western outpost had its advantages. Vienna and West Berlin continued to enjoy special attention and became hubs of East-West exchange.

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