Berlin's palace coupThe struggle over controlling Berlin's history

21st October 2005, Comments 0 comments

Plans are afoot in Berlin to demolish the former seat of the East German government, the Palast der Republik, and rebuild the Stadtschloss which once occupied the site—angering those who argue the GDR-era building should remain. We look at the struggle over who controls Berlin's history.

A battle is underway in Berlin over who controls its historic buildings and hence its history. The scene is Schloßplatz (formerly Marx-Engels-Platz) in the centre of Berlin's Mitte district, at the end of Berlin's most famous street, Unter den Linden. The question is the fate of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the former seat of the East German government, and the planned reconstruction of the Berlin Stadtschloss (City Palace). 

Built mainly in the 18th century, the baroque Stadtschloss occupied the site where the Palast der Republik now stands, until, partially destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, it was blown up by the East German authorities in 1950 for being a 'symbol of Prussian militarism'--an act which was widely condemned as the regime rewriting history. Even since the fall of the Berlin Wall, plans have been afoot to demolish the Palast der Republik and reconstruct the vanished Schloss.

The Palast der Republik in 2003 (photo: Wikipedia)

At first glance it is easy to see why many Berliners are keen to get rid of the Palast der Republik. Built between 1973 and 1976 in what was then communist East Berlin, it is a prime example of the widely-detested architecture of that period and could easily be mistaken for a council office complex in a decaying provincial British town. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has described it as 'monstrous'.

The huge box-shaped building with its bronze mirrored windows stands out from its neighbours, the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), built in 1905, and the 19th century Altes Museum (although looking from Unter den Linden, the Palast's contemporaneous structure, the TV Tower, looms harmoniously in the background). Supporters of the project to rebuild the Stadtschloss argue that it would (re)create the kind of unified urban landscape sure to appeal to the tourists that make up one pillar of the cash-strapped city's plans for income.

Unlikely supporters

The doomed Palast der Republik has received support from a perhaps unlikely source: Berlin's flourishing artistic community, who ironically provide the city with the kind of dynamism which its tourist office loves to flog to visitors. Since the death sentence was effectively pronounced on the Palast by a 2003 parliamentary decision to demolish the building to make way for a rebuilt Stadtschloss, a variety of organisations have tried to postpone the building's final demise by coming up with alternative concepts for the site's regeneration.

A series of artistic events have been mounted in the empty shell of the building, whose interior were largely ripped out after reunification due to the carcinogenic presence of that favourite 1970s building material, asbestos (although supporters of the Palast argue that this was just an excuse on the part of the authorities to close the building).

The Palast has featured shows as diverse as the world breakdancing championships, a concert by legendary Berlin industrial rockers Einstuerzende Neubauten (whose name, appropriately, translates as 'collapsing new buildings'), a 44-metre high 'mountain' exhibit, and an event where the interior was partially flooded and visitors paddled around in small boats. The building is now a popular venue with hundreds of hipsters too young to remember the building in its original incarnation.

Pangs of nostalgia

Those old enough to remember the Palast in its heyday can be forgiven for feeling a pang of (n)ostalgia on visiting its shell today. Many would argue its soul has been ripped out along with its interior. In its decade and a half working life, it was one of the GDR's showcase buildings, combining parliamentary functions with leisure usages in a mixed-use 'Volkshaus' ('people's building')--an idea which seems foreign in our terrorism-haunted days, where government is hidden away behind metal detectors and security checks.

The foyer of the Palast der Republik in its glorious heyday

The building which was the seat of the GDR government also housed several bars and restaurants, a theatre, and even (most surreally) a bowling alley. The 1001 hanging lamps which decorated its spacious foyer led to it being irreverently nicknamed 'Erichs Lampenladen' ('Erich's lamp shop), a reference to then-GDR leader Erich Honecker.

A symbol of the past

However those advocating its destruction (scheduled to start in December 2005) have little nostalgia for its east German past. They long for the era when the Stadtschloss was a symbol of Prussian might (a period which detractors of the project argue is one that should not be glorified too much today), and argue that rebuilding the palace would fill the gap in the surrounding, largely 19th century, cityscape.

However it is not exactly clear who is going to pay for the project, predicted to cost around EUR 670 million--a figure which many believe is too low, as it does not take into account factors such as the demolition of the Palast der Republik. The model currently being touted involves a mixture of public and private funding. Detractors such as Gerd Appenzeller, editorial director of the newspaper Der Tagesspeigel, argue that the average Berliner cares more about the city's crumbling schools and closed public swimming pools than the reconstruction of historical buildings.

Disneyland kitsch

Others argue out that the rebuilt Stadtschloss will be a piece of historicist kitsch more suited to Disneyland than Berlin, and saying more about contemporary bourgeois attitudes to historical styles of architecture than about history. An accurate reconstruction of the original building is in fact impossible anyway, as no detailed plans of the original Schloss exist. Critics also point out that the Palast der Republik is historically at least as important as the Stadtschloss, and should be preserved for that reason.

The Berlin Stadtschloss in 1930

So why are the authorities persisting with the plans? The real reason is the fact that the Palast der Republik is such a glaring symbol of east Germany, an incarnation which today's Germany finds alternatively embarrassing, kitsch or anathema, none of which characteristics fits into the current establishment's view of itself.

The embarrassing ageing relative, with its tendency to remind Germany of its awkward past, should be made to quietly disappear through euthanasia. The irony that the authorities are re-writing history in the same way that the GDR government did when they destroyed the original Schloss seems to have escaped their notice.

October 2005

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Subject: Palast der Republik, Berlin Stadtschloss

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