The World’s Fairs used to capture the public’s imagination. From the millions who attended such iconic Fairs as the ones held in New York in 1939-40 and 1964-65, to the nostalgia they’re viewed with today, the World’s Fairs were where people could catch glimpses of a better world; seeing such technological marvels as robots, air conditioning and colour television sets for the first time.
But not many people know that behind the Iron Curtain, the Warsaw Pact countries were holding their own version of the World’s Fair, the Leipzig Trade Fair. Held every spring and autumn in Leipzig, in what was then the DDR, it was a futuristic looking expo, showcasing the Eastern Bloc as being at the forefront of technology, industry and design. Today however, many of the grand old pavilions lie empty and in ruins. We went to explore what was once East Germany’s shining moment.
We’re headed south east out of Central Leipzig on foot, headed roughly in the direction of the largest monument in all of Europe: the Monument to the Battle of the Nations – a vast 300 foot high stone monolith commemorating Napoleon’s decisive defeat near here in 1813.
Walking down Straße des 18. Oktober, the old Baroque beauty of Bach & Goethe’s Leipzig soon gives way to the concrete drabness of the old DDR; rows of prefabricated, monotonous apartment blocks line the streets, lying side by side with abandoned warehouses and industrial plants. The street, named for the decisive day in the battle with Napoleon, was the main thoroughfare connecting the city centre with the Trade Fair grounds.
Our first glimpse of the old Trade Fair are the giant twin domes of the Grossmarkthalle, built between 1927 and 1929. There were once twenty show pavilions in the Fair grounds, rescued here from the rubble of World War II and renovated with futuristic, gleaming designs.
The DDR optimistically called the revamped Muster-Messe, ‘the Peace Fair’; giant robots clanked and whirred next to rows of the latest innovations in East Germany tractor design.
Fashion parades featured ultra-modern synthetic polyesters, whilst streets like Neumarkt were decorated with wreaths and banners of manufacturers emblems.
The Fair had its own mascot: the Leipziger Messemän-chen, designed in 1964 by Gerhard Behrendt, and modelled after a traveling salesman, complete with a sample case, pipe, and a world globe for a head.
Huge pavilions, or Halles, were filled with groundbreaking DDR innovations in personal computers, automotive technology and food production. But today, the giant halls lie empty, the once proud grounds strewn with broken bottles and weeds.
One of the most popular pavilions at the Fair was Messehalle 12. Today, as in the heyday of the Fair, it was instantly recognisable: an enormous spire clad in gold, soared over the fairgrounds, topped with a shining Red Star. Originally built in 1923, and renovated in 1950, this concrete monolith was the Soviet Pavilion, the Sowjetischer Pavillon. As impressive and oppressive as Russia’s standing in the Eastern Block, Messehalle 12 was where visitors could marvel at the first space rockets or the long distance locomotives that reached Vladivostok.
Just past the old Soviet Pavilion, turning left on Alte Messe is one of Leipzig’s most iconic landmarks, a giant double M sculpture. Designed in 1917 for the fair by Erich Gruner, the M-M stands for Muster-Messe, a ‘samples show,’ and could be found all over the city, used in all the promotional leaflets and posters to advertise the Fair. But today it stands as a relic of the old DDR, dominating the concrete apartments surrounding it.
But the Leipzig Trade Fair wasn’t just a Communist propaganda exercise: the Fair itself actually dates back as far as 1165, and was once one of Europe’s most venerable traditions. Merchants, bankers and tradesmen would flock to the old medieval city, displaying their commercial samples such as cloth, herrings, wine and peppers. Interrupted by World War II, the old ‘Alte Messe’ was revived with the formation of the DDR in 1949.
But the technological wonders on display weren’t just for the benefit of other Comecon nations; unusually for East Germany, foreign visitors were welcomed behind the Iron Curtain and encouraged to see the Fair. The propaganda message was clear : Western businessmen, inventors, diplomats and investors would be hopefully overawed by the gleaming Technische Messe on display, and come away with the impression that future was Communist.
Undoubtedly the Stasi were on full alert: the infamously paranoid secret police infiltrated every corner of the Fair, planting listening devices in the Pavilions, and shadowing foreign trade delegates as they met with their East German counter parts.
The fall of the USSR saw the end of the Muster-Messe in its Cold War location. But as Germany reunified, the Leipzig Trade Fair was reborn in 1996. Today, the centuries old, traditional fair still takes place ever year, at a gleaming new fairground, four miles north of the city, that features the world’s largest, elevated glass hall.
But many of the remnants of the old Trade Fair still remain. Some of the old pavilions are empty others have been repurposed into supermarkets, band rehearsal spaces, and even an outdoor beach club, complete with sand and a bar. Like its 1964, New York counterpart, rusted relics can still be found by the intrepid explorer, where once huge crowds came to marvel at the wonders of tomorrow.