Zamek dla Berlina

The city and the museum

The Castle for Berlin, or Berlin for the Castle?

Publication:17 August 2021

NR 3 2011

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Can a reconstruction of a long-destroyed historic building be regarded as authentic and continuous with the past that inspired its construction, or is it in fact a mere token, talisman, or, worse, an unimaginative production of historic kitsch that forecloses opportunities to erect monuments expressive of the present age and its unique aspirations?

On September 3, 2008, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper recounted an event in Long Island, New York, of considerable significance to Berliners: 150 donors, guests, and “deutschlandfreundliche Millionäre” interested in supporting the reconstruction of the Berlin castle had assembled for a gala benefit at the estate of New York businessman and antique porcelain collector Richard Baron Cohen. Among the guests admiring Baron Cohen’s collection (which included porcelain models of the castle from the Königliche Porzellanmanufaktur of Berlin) were George Bush senior, cosmetics mogul and art collector Ronald Lauder, and former secretary of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger.

In his introductory address to the group, Kissinger observed that the rebuilding of the Berlin castle (Stadtschloss) represented “the reconstruction of an important part of the heritage of Berlin and of Europe, a heritage that transcends geographical and ideological boundaries.”[1] Kissinger’s reference to a geographically and ideologically transcendent “heritage,” with its pan-European flavor, framed the historic Berlin castle as many “pro-Schloss” historians have: as a contribution to northern baroque architecture and as the oldest symbol of the city. Historic Berlin’s first family, the Hohenzollerns, after all, had commissioned the palace in 1450 following their promotion in the Holy Roman Empire to the rank of Elector in Berlin-Brandenburg. After relocating from their ancestral home in northern Bavaria, the Hohenzollerns built and expanded the castle numerous times over the next four centuries. The building’s increasing scale and architectural grandeur across centuries essentially followed the Hohenzollerns’ elevation from Elector and grand ducal status to that of King of Prussia and, eventually, Emperor of Germany. Heavy wartime damage in 1945 destroyed some 75 percent of the building, while GDR president leader Walter Ulbricht sealed the castle’s fate by ordering its demolition in the fall of 1950, one year short of the building’s 500th anniversary.

Occupying the oldest portion of the Berlin castle site from 1976 to 1990 was, of course, the GDR’s Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik), widely acknowledged as one of the most significant buildings in the entire GDR. The Berlin authorities shuttered the GDR palace in 1990 and, following years of protest, discussion, and debate, completed a politically charged demolition of the building between 2006 and 2009 through a gradual, highly publicized process dubbed “dismantling” (Rückbau). Early in the dismantling process, during the spring and summer of 2007, the government placed banners at different points on the construction fence around the demolition site. Intended to steer the public reception of the decision to dismantle the GDR palace and re-erect the Berlin castle, one banner proclaimed the palace demolition “A Democratic Decision” (Eine Demokratische Entscheidung), while another, featuring a shadowy image of the GDR palace, read “A Project of Prestige – East Germany Asserts Its Legitimacy” (Das Prestigeprojekt – Die DDR macht Staat). As part of the larger universe of “Germans’ things,” or objects of material culture that in this case were government-issued, glossy color vinyl productions of text and images, the banners reflected official positions being communicated to the public and visiting tourists. Yet these publicly displayed texts themselves became templates for protest and reinterpretation during the season in which they were on display. One graffiti artist scrawled a large question mark on the first banner so that it appeared to read, “A Democratic Decision?” (Eine Demokratische Entscheidung?), while beside it graffiti listed, in English, the damning assessments of “Western Revisionism,” “Den[ial] of History,” and “Propaganda of a Repeating Waste.”

If the official state point of view now reflects the efforts of the leading private, non-profit group, Wilhelm von Boddien’s “Förderverein Berlin Schloss e.V.,” to reconstruct the Berlin castle, then graffiti writers’ responses reflect objections of the type common among former GDR residents and East Berliners – a significant percentage of whom live near the castle site and continue to return the largest numbers of votes for a minority successor communist party, the PDS. Those accepting Kissinger’s language at face value are, in the eyes of those sympathetic to the half century of the GDR’s existence, completely obliterating key monuments and moments of GDR history, along with the history of acrimonious post-Cold War debates over GDR palace preservation and castle reconstruction. Where the post-reunification government ruled the GDR palace an object of the “socialist dictatorship” (SED-Diktatur) and deemed it unworthy of landmark status and consequent legal protections, former GDR citizen-supporters saw its demolition as the denial of a way of life they experienced for more than four decades.

Viewed from the perspective of “things,” and in this case of course “Germans’ Things,” the material culture associated with controversies over Berlin castle reconstruction/GDR palace destruction speaks volumes. Indeed, it does so whether one chooses to examine objects at a small scale – historic porcelain displays of the Berlin castle, or government banners with accompanying graffiti, for example – or at the very large scale – say, decisions over which monumental buildings will be destroyed, and which will be revived or reinserted into the cityscape from scratch. One side’s resources permit the projection of government establishment views in colorful, professionally designed and manufactured vinyl banners; the other side relies on Scripto permanent markers to question or deface the official position. One side publishes lavish full-color brochures, public display boards, and sympathetic history books with top quality publishers in support of Berlin castle reconstruction; the other side self-publishes or uses small-scale, one-color vanity presses to promote preservation of the GDR palace. In the final days of the GDR palace, concessions to youthful, self-styled avant-garde artists led to a series of impromptu art installations, organised exhibits, and parties that fed a post-unification Berlin “mystique” as a city of exuberance and spontaneity. But by 2006, the government demolition equipment had taken sole possession of the palace site for a more purposeful display of dismantling and permanent site redefinition.

At the scale of the city, Berlin castle reconstruction must be understood in the context of the government’s orchestration of the hugely expensive, comprehensive recreation of the entire historic core of “glorious Prussia” circa 1850 in and around the Berlin castle site. Through a synthesis of public and private funds, the city has removed objects like Josef Kaiser’s GDR Foreign Office (completed 1964; demolished 1996) and Heinz Graffunder’s Palace of the Republic (1976; 2009). Such large-scale “editing” of the cityscape effectively rewrites history in material form, and represents the kind of monumental urbanism that accompanies any kind of momentous regime change and redefinition of national identities.

Much as the government’s banners, as designed, meaningful “things,” project a certain understanding and view of history in the cityscape. Decisions concerning architecture in and around the site of the former Berlin castle result in the inscription of a new, post-unification identity in the heart of Berlin. The new construction of “old” monumental buildings is a fundamentally political act that projects a certain vision of identity and legitimacy on the part of those decision-makers who have exercised their will on the charged symbolic soil of Berlin’s built environment. As at other contested sites in post-unification Berlin, the site of the Schlossplatz has tended, as Dirk Verheyen has recently written, to “trigger underlying tensions between Ossis (usually the local activists) and Wessis (authorities on the city or federal level) that were but a reflection of the broader challenges facing western and eastern Germans on a political, intellectual, and psycho-cultural level since 1990.”[2] Numbers and the deployment of resources, however, do not always explain the outcomes of Berlin controversies: Adrian von Buttlar, an art historian at the Berlin Technical University and prominent preservation activist, writes that in the mid-1990s some 80,000 signatures had been obtained in a petition for the preservation of the GDR palace, at a time when the  membership of von Boddien’s Association for the Berlin Castle, formed in 1993, numbered well under 1,000.[3]

The pace of developments surrounding reconstruction of the castle and many of its neighbouring historic structures raises difficult questions about monumental historic buildings as “things,” or key symbolic “objects,”at the historic center of Berlin. For example, many people (this author included) experienced an initially powerful, negative knee-jerk reaction to the decision to reconstruct buildings like the Berlin castle, Karl Schinkel’s building academy, and Johann Memhardt’s Army Command Headquarters on Unter den Linden (This assertion is not based on any social scientific evidence, but rather on the author’s own experience and conversations in a totally unscientific, ongoing poll of Berliners and others over the course of having lived in Berlin). Does this negative reaction represent any sort of indictment (real or implied) of the Berlin leadership for selecting to replace GDR buildings with replicas of historic structures that had been completely destroyed for decades? Put another way, does widespread doubt and skepticism at the prospect of reconstructing the Berlin castle imply the belief that Berlin authorities should have chosen to erect a brand new building on this site? Connected to these questions is another uncomfortable question: Can a reconstruction of a long-destroyed historic building be regarded as authentic and continuous with the past that inspired its construction, or is it in fact a mere token, talisman, or, worse, an unimaginative production of historic kitsch that forecloses opportunities to erect monuments expressive of the present age and its unique aspirations?

At times during the debates over castle reconstruction in the 1990s, it appeared that perhaps those intellectuals who are more accustomed to debating the finer points of identity politics were simply more at ease with the idea of some sort of “hybrid” building on this site – that is, a building that could, as some architects’s drawings projected, incorporate elements of both the former Berlin castle and the East German Palace of the Republic. Might such a hybrid architectural work somehow have better expressed a forward-looking spirit on the part of a new, reunited Germany while acknowledging in a more honest, realistic manner the complicated history of the formerly divided city? These questions touch upon issues of authenticity, modernity, and historical memory that have preoccupied scholars of Berlin from fields as diverse as architectural history, literary studies, and cultural studies.  German studies scholars Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul summarize these debates well with their observation: “What the debates reveal above all else is the dilemma of attempting to express a unified cultural identity in public buildings which are manifestations of a history of political discontinuity and ideological antagonism.” [4]

Locals in support of castle reconstruction have long insisted that a hybrid solution of a Berlin castle façade adjoining a portion of the GDR palace is out of the question. Under the leadership of Wilhelm von Boddien, supporters formed the Association for the Berlin Castle (Förderverein Berlin Schloss e.V.) in 1993 to lobby for reconstruction of the original royal residence, and displayed a model of the castle in a diorama of historic Berlin. They commonly tout the Castle as “the most significant baroque building north of the Alps,” and one of its principal architects, Andreas Schlüter, as “the Michelangelo of Northern Europe.” Yet, these obvious exaggerations aside, we should make no mistake: the Berlin castle, locally if selectively celebrated, is a virtual unknown in the global canons of architectural history – as compared to, say, the Louvre or Versailles in Paris, or Buckingham Palace or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Yet the story of how the canvas façade project of 1993 generated early momentum for Wilhelm von Boddien’s nonprofit association, the “Supporters of the Berlin Castle,” has become quite well known, and is publicized in numerous historical and journalistic publications. Also, well known is the gradual accumulation of city and state support over the past decade for this private group’s initiative for castle reconstruction. The private initiative of Wilhelm von Boddien and his supporters in effect carried the ball on behalf of castle reconstruction during the 1990s; government authorities at that time appear to have wrestled with questions of how to tear down the GDR palace without incurring too much organized political opposition or poor publicity.

The physical treatment and fate of the Palace of the Republic during the 1990s seems to support this. While the city wrapped such monuments as the Brandenburg Gate or the Berlin City Hall behind protective canvas-covered scaffolding to complete renovations, the Palace of the Republic was left exposed to the elements for years while the building was gutted through an asbestos removal process conducted on the cheap. Architectural historian Johann Friedrich Geist of West Berlin lambasts the government’s widely accepted claim that asbestos contamination required the Palace of the Republic’s destruction: the International Congress Center in West Berlin, similarly plagued by asbestos contamination as a result of broadly similar construction techniques used in the 1970s, was never torn down; its asbestos abatement program, unlike that of the GDR palace, simply found a ready budget appropriation.[5]

After nearly a dozen years campaigning by von Boddien in favour of the Castle, and the neglect and partial destruction of the GDR Palace during the same period, the government stepped up its resolve. It followed the conclusions of a specially appointed commission in 2002 that recommended destruction of the GDR Palace and reconstruction of the Castle. This report fuelled a vote on July 4, 2002, in the Reichstag, by 380 to 133, to dismantle the Palace of the Republic, a process that would take place with much fanfare and environmentally correct propaganda from the period beginning in June 2006 and ending in February 2009.             What we have here, from an architectural historical perspective, is a rather unique situation: an historical royal palace structure, largely shunned by the rulers who built it in favour of their palace retreats in Potsdam, which nevertheless occupied a site of overwhelming historical, geographical, symbolic, and urbanistic significance. The symbolic reoccupation of the GDR palace site and the former Marx Engels Plaza site with the ideologically “right” kind of architecture is every bit as important as the West’s perceived elimination of GDR structures which, like the Palace of the Republic, were in use for less than two decades. These could therefore be regarded as temporary, illegitimate defacements by the communist bloc of a historic Berlin in need of restoration.

Central to the planning and reconstruction of the Castle site has been the fact that while German reunification in 1991 is touted as “reunification,” it was, of course, the capitulation of East Germany to West Germany, with the subsequent absorption of the East German territory, economy, and society into a completely West German democratic capitalist system. The West’s system, having been “the enemy” to the East German state for some four decades of the Cold War, was now, for better or worse, the new master of East Germans’ fate. Why is this important? Because this political dynamic underlying the otherwise reassuring and peaceable term “reunification” has also determined the course of decisions taken in the parliament, or Reichstag, and elsewhere, concerning planning, demolition, and reconstruction at the castle square. Virtually from the end of the Cold War, there has existed a tension between what is discussed as being possible for the site of the former castle, on the one hand, and what is actually done to determine the final fate of GDR buildings and, ultimately, to prompt the reconstruction of the main facades of the historic Berlin castle itself.

Witness, for example, the ambitions displayed by West German government departments in moving from Bonn to Berlin: a kind of agency land grab ensued as, for example, the Foreign Office showed great interest in constructing its new headquarters on the site of the former Berlin castle. As Michael Wise argues in his book, Capital Dilemma, the Foreign Office nearly succeeded. It certainly did succeed when it came to setting the wheels in motion for the destruction of the old East German Foreign Office building, a long, obtrusive “bar”-shaped structure that framed the western edge of the Marx Engels Platz from Unter den Linden down to Werderstraße, along the western side of the Spree River Canal. Compared to the furor generated by discussions over whether to destroy Heinz Graffunder’s Palace of the Republic, which ran parallel to the Foreign Office on the opposite side of the “Marx Engels Platz,” there was relative calm in the public sphere when, in the fall of 1995, demolition equipment tore through the repetitive vertical windows and aluminium panels of the Josef Kaiser Architectural Collective’s 1966 GDR Foreign Office building.[6]

The dynamics behind the decision to reconstruct the Berlin castle have been driven most by appeals made from four points of view: the historical, geographical, symbolic, and urbanistic significance of the castle. Specifically, maximum momentum has been gained by proponents of castle reconstruction by pointing to the simple fact that it is the Hohenzollern family’s elevation to Elector status in the fifteenth century Holy Roman Empire, and their subsequent move to this relatively small town on the Spree River from Bavaria, that gave rise to the castle and the rapid growth of the town in the centuries that followed. The sound bite used most frequently in the post-Cold War castle reconstruction debates has been, “The Castle was not in Berlin – the castle WAS Berlin” (“Das Schloss lag nicht in Berlin – Berlin war das Schloss”). This phrase was coined in 1992 by the Berlin historian Wolf Jobst Siedler and has become something of a slogan for pro-reconstruction forces. By invoking the castle as the beating historical heart of the city almost from its inception, the claims of would-be reconstructionists sidestep debates over aesthetic merit and the questionable authenticity of a 21st century façade in the baroque style. They instead invoke simply the awesome significance of the site and the role that the building and its occupants played in the evolution of the city over 500 years. The 14-year period during which the offending Palace of the Republic served as a showcase for the “Socialist Party Dictatorship,” which is how the Federal Republic still refers to an East German state that dynamited the Castle ruins in 1950, is judged to represent insufficient cause for the preservation of a socialist “palace” over a reconstructed “Berlin palace.”

This argument feeds into several others. Geographical and historical essentialism justify the reconstruction of a replica. This replica is then taken, paradoxically, as an authentic expression of Berlin’s history and a sense of loyalty on the part of leading constituencies to institutions like the monarchy that helped shape Berlin, Prussia, and Germany over centuries. Simultaneously, castle reconstruction is seen as necessary to reaffirm the key role the building played in the urban development of the city district around it. And to be sure, much of the urban fabric surrounding the castle was laid out in response to the castle and its domineering presence – Schinkel’s grand façade for the Old Museum (Altes Museum) is a well-documented, archetypal example of such a response. This fact strengthens the justifications for reconstructing the castle “as it was,” even if only for the urban scenography of the historic facades. Streets like Unter den Linden, along with buildings like the Prussian Armory, the Marstall building, and the Old Museum are all widely acknowledged to have been designed in large part as responses to the castle and its prominence.

The destruction of the GDR Foreign Office exposed the site of Memhardt’s Army Headquarters on Unter den Linden, which was reconstructed to house the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2005. Foreign Office demolition has also exposed the site of the former Building Academy and the Schinkelplatz, whose post-war ruins were cleared in 1961. Both are now undergoing reconstruction with support from corporations like Daimler-Benz and a separate non-profit, the Association for the Support of the Building Academy. Finally, the removal of the last of the Palace of the Republic in February 2009 has opened the way for the scheduled reconstruction of the Castle facades in anticipation of the new “Humboldt Forum.”            Construction was originally to last from 2010 through 2014 to the designs of the Italian architect Franco Stella, winner of a 2008 competition for the three facades, although exact design details for the building interiors behind the facades have yet to be worked out.

In light of the fallout from the global financial downturn in 2008, however, federal appropriations have been suspended, and it is unclear if and exactly when this vital financial support will re-materialize. Once reconstructed, the castle facades of the new Humboldt Forum will, in any event, house educational, cultural, and scientific facilities.

To understand the decisions behind the castle reconstruction requires us to understand that there may be elements of revenge as well as repression, which I mean in the sense of repressing, or eliminating, key elements of GDR history in the form of the architecture that stood on this site. This may be combined with a desire to resurrect historical buildings created at a time when Berlin, and Germany as a whole, had not yet plunged into the catastrophic experience of two world wars, followed, obviously, by two opposed Cold War regimes. By approximately 2019, if all goes as planned, a rebuilt royal castle surrounded by a reconstructed ensemble of mostly 19th-century buildings will comprise the heart of a new, tourist-dominated quarter. The historic heart of the city will be composed of structures that evoke Berlin as the capital of a state that unified Germany in 1871, rather than a socialist state and East bloc Soviet colony, or, before that, a command post for the military campaigns and worst genocidal horrors perpetrated during the Second World War.

The participation of American politicians and philanthropists in funding the reconstruction of the Berlin castle points out another feature of the entire castle debate: its link with larger geopolitical realities that shaped the city since the end of the Second World War. American conservative politicians’ support for the castle’s reconstruction is entirely consistent with those quarters in American politics that most favored aggressive responses by Western occupation forces to real and perceived threats from the East bloc, beginning with the Berlin airlift, extending through opposition to the Berlin Wall and right up to the events that precipitated the end of the Cold War. To that extent American support for a project predicated on the removal of the GDR Palace of the Republic and its replacement by the Berlin castle and Humboldt Forum represent, in part, a further “nail in the coffin” of an East Bloc power, at the same time reconstructing an element of German and Prussian heritage of value to the West German government forces whom Americans had supported since the late 1940s.

As much as the American Friends of Dresden would support the reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche and, later, the reconstruction of the Berlin castle, other Americans sensitive to the GDR history being expunged stepped in to salvage and preserve what they could. As a result, East German material artifacts that were often being discarded or destroyed in the general post-reunification fever ended up in such American collections as the Wende Museum and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. These two institutions, for example, hold among the finest examples of architectural plans, models, and actual flatware and stationary from the Palace of the Republic which otherwise may not have survived had they remained in Germany. Such artifacts have recently been lent back to German and European institutions on the occasion of exhibitions seeking to represent the Cold War material culture and the historical realities of that time.

As plans to reconstruct the Berlin castle proceed at a pace dictated by fluctuating political and economic realities, visitors to Berlin will encounter both a modern cityscape and a historical fabric reconstructed atop the “edited” urban core – a core dominated until the first decade of the 21st century by a GDR ensemble. If, as pro-Castle forces in the parliament and elsewhere have repeated, modernism has been the architectural language of choice at Potsdamer Platz, the Sony Center, the Jewish Museum, the Reichstag Dome, and the Holocaust Memorial, then perhaps the historic heart of Berlin is one location that has been granted a special pass to re-erect historical architecture as part homage, part heritage, and, to be sure, part victory monument.

A version of this article is appearing in the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute special issue, “Germans’ Things: Material Culture and Daily Life in East and West, 1949-2009,” Winter 2010/Spring 2011

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[1] “Reiche Amerikaner sammeln für Berliner Schloss,” Berliner Morgenpost, 3 September 2008, online edition www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article872187/Reiche_Amerikaner_sammeln_fuer_Berliner_Schloss.html (27 September 2008). Unless noted otherwise, all translations are by the author.

[2] Dirk Verheyen, United City, Divided Memories? Cold War Legacies in Contemporary Berlin, New York–Toronto 2008, p. 184.

[3] Adrian Adrian von Buttlar, “Berlin’s Castle versus Palace,” Future Anterior 4 Nr.1 Summer 2007, pp. 13-30.

[4] Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul, “Unification and its Aftermath: The Challenge of History”, in: Rob Burns, ed., German Cultural Studies: An Introduction, Oxford 1995, p. 338.

[5] Johann Friedrich Geist, „Der Palast der Republik aus westlicher Sicht,“ in: Rudolf Ellereit and Horst Wellner eds., Kampf um den Palast, Berlin 1996, 34-36.

[6] Michael Z. Wise, Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy, New York 1998, pp. 49-50, 113-116.

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