Architecture, Politics, and Identity in the Berlin Republic

The Stadtschloss vs. Palast der Republik

Berlin Cathedral
Architecture, Politics, and Identity in the Berlin Republic : The Stadtschloss vs. Palast der Republik - Mathias Grude Eikseth

The fervent debate in Berlin on the future of the Palast der Republik and the reconstruction of the royal Hohenzollern castle (Stadtschloss) has raised the issue of the role of architecture in German politics and in the shaping of German identity after unification.1 The Stadtschloss-Debatte emerges out of a fascinating story: in 1950 the East German Communists decided to destroy the monumental Prussian Stadtschloss situated in the heart of Berlin, as the GDR leadership regarded the structure as a prime symbol of Prussian militarism and decadent culture. In 1976 they constructed a modern multifunctional building that became a popular attrac­tion among GDR citizens. After unification in 1990, the Palast der Republik was closed due to contaminating asbestos in the building. Shortly after this, the cam­paign for the reconstruction of the demolished Stadtschloss began and, at the same time, made the fate of the Palast der Republik highly uncertain.

As both buildings represent important symbols of two different societies, the debate has sometimes involved ideologically tinted arguments and evoked strong emotions. SPD politician Hermann Borghorst's comments about the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss are an example of the importance of ideology in the debate:

The Schloss site is part of a unique formation of the historical center. The Stadtschloss belongs historically to the identity of the city. In Paris nobody would get the idea to demonize [it] as the symbol of absolutism.2

Such statements raise many questions: Should the ruptures in German his­tory be reflected in ruptures in the urban structure? Or would it be more natural to "heal the scars" of Berlin by reconstructing the old order in the capital and the original Stadtschloss?

Other central issues revolve around the symbolic and political values attached to different architectural policies. The acceptance of Norman Foster's cupola of glass at the top of the old Reichstag building clearly shows that political messages, or symbols of identity can be read in architecture.3 Yet, how is it that transparent materials of glass become attributed to abstract social phenomena like open democ­racies and old castles associated with the anti-democratic past?

The now ten-year debate has offered an interesting lens through which one can follow the unification of East and West. In order to better understand the actual relationship between architecture and politics and to grasp how ideology can be attached to different aesthetic programs, it is necessary to examine twentieth cen­tury German history, searching for the roots of the politization of architecture. As a framework for understanding the debate on the Stadtschloss vs. Palast der Republik, I will present a historical overview of the relationship between architecture and politics from the Weimar to the Berlin Republic. An examination of the background of the current architectural controversy will follow, leading to a final discussion on two important questions: Does this debate indicate changes in how the political elite wants to present the German capital and, given such changes, what factors can explain the transformation?

Architecture and Politics in Weimar Germany

The roots of the politicization of architecture in Germany and the answer to why Berlin today is different from other European capitals, such as Paris, are to be found in the Weimar Republic after the First World War. A group led by Walter Gropius created a radically new style in architecture, which appeared to be wholly without roots in the past. This style was to become famous under the label "Bau­haus," and its rejections of traditional styles in architecture represented a total break with the established, traditional order that they believed had led to the Great War. These architects, in Germany as well as in France, Switzerland, and Holland, shared the belief that the First World War spelled the end of an outmoded system of values.

The Bauhaus style was radical not only in its extensive use of new industrial materials, such as glass, steel, and reinforced concrete, but also in the way that it employed radically simplified cubic masses, assembled asymmetrically and with­out adornments. The stripping of traditional ornaments meant, for example, that Bauhaus buildings had no sloped or visible roofs, no foundations, and hardly any window frames. The architecture was strictly functional and with its emphasis on abstract and geometric forms, there were no references to the past. The new archi­tecture was to be universal, not bounded to particular historical and national tradi­tions.

The reason why this movement became so controversial politically was the claim by Gropius that the Bauhaus presented a new, socially conscious architec­ture, which would play a part in the political revolution then occurring in Ger­many.4 The link between radical design and radical politics was further strength­ened as the movement received commissions from liberal and left-wing municipal governments to support new mass-housing projects in major German cities. The famous Bauhaus School of Architecture in Weimar, founded by Gropius, was itself the result of this kind of government patronage.

Right-wing newspapers and politicians began to charge the school with pro­moting "Bolshevist architecture." The controversy and public debate around Bau­haus in the 1920s made the movement a well-known exponent of radical, left-wing ideas, and after 1928 the Nazi Party, started attacking Bauhaus in order to expand the Party's national appeal. Shortly after coming to power in 1933, Hitler shut down the Bauhaus in Berlin and soon started promoting a new architecture that expressed national authority, strength, and power.

But, as Barbara Miller Lane points out, Nazi architecture consisted not of a clear and unified architectural program, but of different, and sometimes contradic­tory tendencies, as the modern and anti-modern elements coexisted side by side. The diversity included both a modernized neo-classical Greek-inspired architec­ture, a more rustic folk-inspired style, related to the Nazi romanticization of peas­ant country life, as well as buildings not particularly different from the new archi­tecture of the 1920s. Yet, however diverse the manifestations of Nazi architecture were, one point was by Hitler stated unequivocally: Nazi architecture had to be heroic. For the Nazi dictator: "Such visible demonstrations of the higher qualities of a people will, as the experience of history proves, remain for thousands of years as an unquestionable testimony not only to the greatness of a people, but also to their moral right to exist."5

At the end of the Second World War, when the Federal Republic leadership decided to move the West German capital to Bonn, the political elite needed to mark a sharp break with the Nazi regime. This policy also became manifest in the style and presentation of public life. Michael Wise writes that after moving the new German government to Bonn the politicians "located the new national legislature, the Bundestag, inside a prime example of the Bauhaus architecture reviled by the Nazis."6 The Bauhaus functional constructions of glass and steel had become sym­bols of a more "democratic" and anti-authoritarian system. Altogether, "West Germany's rehabilitation of Bauhaus design helped create a palatable new national cultural identity since so many other areas of the German artistic legacy were tainted by association with Nazism."7

With the decision after unification to transfer the capital from Bonn to Ber­lin it was clear that the governing politicians would again be confronted with the past, not least through the city's architecture. German politicians and citizens knew that their steps in the unification process were closely observed from abroad and that the official architecture and urban planning for the capital would be read as symbols of a revised national identity.

Histories of the Stadtschloss and the Palast der Republik

The site of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss lies in the historical center of Ber­lin-Mitte and is surrounded by Berlin's old Opera, the Cathedral, Humboldt Uni­versity, and the "Altes Museum," all buildings central to the history of Berlin and Prussia. The Berlin Stadtschloss was constructed, re-designed and enlarged over a span of 500 years. A modest version was built in 1443 and later, in 1538, it was transformed into a renaissance castle. It acquired its monumentafcstatus as the largest baroque building north of the Alps only in the beginning of the eighteenth century when the Wa rschawer architect Andreas Schluter magnified the Stadtschloss as a sign of the importance of the young Prussian kingdom under Frederick I. The Stadtschloss was clearly the most monumental building in Berlin and the dimen­sions were indeed impressive: the four story high quadrangle of 12,000 rooms cov­ered an area of 37,000 square meters.8 Thereafter, the Stadtschloss was home to all subsequent Hohenzollern kings. Emperor William II, the last Hohenzollern resi­dent, announced the start of the First World War from the balcony of the Stadtschloss, a fact that makes the Stadtschloss connote both horror and glamour.

In the final Allied attacks on Berlin during the WWII the Stadtschloss was severely damaged, though not destroyed. After the war, the East German Commu­nists regarded the Stadtschloss as a hated reminder of Prussian militarism and capitalist rule. In September 1950 the Communists, under the leadership of Walter Ulbricht, started the demolition of the Stadtschloss, despite loud protests by promi­nent art historians. The resulting void was difficult to fill, partly due to economic difficulties, and the space remained empty for about 25 years. But after years of homogeneous and cheap architecture construction in East Berlin, in 1976 a reac­tion came that paved the way for the building of the Palast der Republik designed by chief architect Heinz Graffunder.9 Using materials like copper-tinted reflective glass and white marble, the architect strove for a "bright, festive elegance."10 It occupied the area equal to the inner courtyard of the Hohenzollern palace and be­came a central landmark in the GDR. This multifunctional building housed the Volkskammer, or the Peoples' Chamber, an auditorium for theater and concerts, numerous restaurants, cafes and bars and a bowling alley. Open to the public for cultural events and leisure activities, the Palast became a public attraction. Ac­cording to the Verein zur Erhaltung des Palastes der Republik, the building has been visited by 70 million people since its opening. 11

In 1990, the same year that the Volkskammer approved the unification of the two German states, the government decided to shut down the building after finding it contaminated by large amount of asbestos fireproofing. East Germans protested immediately against the decision, as other similar buildings like the International Congress Centrum in West Berlin had used the same asbestos material and contin­ued to operate.

The Stadtschloss-Debatte

Michael Wise describes how the campaign for replacing the Palast der Republik with a replica of the original royal Hohenzollern residence started soon after the closure of the building. A stream of books showing photographs and drawings of old Berlin found a market in the euphoria after the unification, and thus emerged the idea that the monarchical age of pre-WWI was the time of the city's greatest splen­dor. Another major event that triggered the enthusiasm for pre-war Berlin was the decision of a group of French artists led by Catharina Feff to cover the Palast der Republik with a large canvas depicting the old royal palace facade. After a year, the canvas illusion had given the Berliners a lasting impression and had shown the importance of the site in determining the city's identity.12 From then on the debate about the site's future exploded.

While some advocates for the preservation of the Palast der Republih view it as ideologically neutral, referring to it as a "peoples' palace" open to all, an exami­nation of some of the cultural events held there reveals that this is not necessarily the case. For example, the Palast der Republik hosted a three-day "Rock for Peace" program that presented assaults on NATO and its European commander.13 Thus, to regard the Palast der Republik as a head quarters for communist propaganda seems plausible.

Since the work with the reconstruction of Berlin as Germany's new old capital started ten years ago, there have been countless arguments printed and uttered about the Stadtschloss site. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all of the nuances of the debate, a hint of what is at stake can be understood in the following outline of the more common positions and arguments, including the opin­ions of three famous world architects:


"Without the castle the heart of old Berlin won't beat." Philip Johnson, New York. 14

• The Prussian Stadtschloss was the center of gravity in the old center of Berlin, whose importance for the surroundings can be compared with the sun, around which the other "planets" like the Cathedral, the Opera, etc. were positioned.

• The Stadtschloss site was crucial in defining Berlin as the capital of Prussia and later of Germany. The present void, with the ruin-like appearance of the Palast der Republik, is a reminder of a united German state with a still divided nation.

• As the historian Joachim Fest has suggested, if the destruction of the royal palace was to be the symbol of the victory of communist ideology, then recon­struction would be the symbol of its failure.15

• The demolition of the old Prussian Stadtschloss was a tragedy for the city, and it is both necessary and natural to reconstruct the monumental building to make the capital whole again.

Pro-Palast der Republik:

"Germany has neither a Knig nor a Kaiser ... The building has therefore no sense, and there is a great danger that it will be a ghost building." Sverre Fehn, Oslo.16

• The Stadtschloss was built to host the Prussian royal family a:O:d to show the strength of its kingdom. Reconstructing it would be an architectonical anachro­nism, not reflecting the German democracy and society of today. The site there­fore requires a new building to be constructed according to its future use, and demands a contemporary solution.

• A feature of the Prussian state was its militarist rule, culminating in the First World War under Emperor William II, and to reconstruct the Stadtschloss of the Hohenzollern monarchy would imply to glorify a dark part of German his­tory.

• To demolish the Palast der Republik for the sake of the royal Stadtschloss would mean to ignore the feelings of thousands of Germans in the East and their positive memories attached to the building and past events there.

• The Palast der Republik was where East Germans gave their consent to the unification of the two German states. The building should therefore be respected as a valuable document of history.

Other central questions have also included: What should the Stadtschloss con­tain? What purpose and function should it serve? During the ten-year debate, there have been just as many proposals for possible functions of the new building as there have been arguments about the future of the site. Making the Stadtschloss into a congress center, a gallery, or a library have been common suggestions, but the idea of the president of Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Klaus-Dieter Lehman, has recently won broad support in the public. He suggests moving the ethnographic museum from the Western suburb of Dahlem into the future building. Thus the argument that hosting a museum for other cultures would negate criticism over Prussian nostalgia and nationalism has been seen as a clever move from the Stadtschloss supporters.

The Stadtschloss and Public Opinion

The opinion of Berliners and the other German citizens has been difficult to discern, and information from various newspapers often seems contradictory. Wolfgang Siedler, a well-known participant in the debate, writes in Die Welt that "the West-Berliners were early in favor of building the royal Stadtschloss... For the past two years there has also been a supporting majority in East Berlin."71 Die Zeit has recently cited this notion as false. The newspaper first refers to a similar statement, this time from Antje Vollmer: "Berliners will have their Schloss back. Sooner or later they will get it." Die Zeit then cites an opinion poll from September 2000, commissioned by the pro-Stadtschloss newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, which reveals just the opposite: just 30 percent said they favored the Stadtschloss project, 22 percent in the East and 35 percent in the West. According to the same opinion poll those in favor of the castle are mainly Christian-Democratic voters over 60 years old.18

A more general opinion poll with respondents from the whole of Germany, commissioned by the Hamburg newspaper Die Woche in February 2001, also re­veals a wide negative opinions about the Stadtschloss: 54 percent of the respon­dents were against and only 23 percent supported the eventual reconstruction.91

Political Leadership and The Stadtschloss-Debatte

If architects, art historians, and journalists are among the loudest in the de­bate, the main indicator for the final outcome is of course dependent upon what German politicians, interested in gaining votes, are saying about the future of the Stadtschloss. This group is also well aware of its responsibility in defining the im­age of Berlin as the capital of the unified Germany. Apparently, the political estab­lishment seems to be reaching consensus in favor of the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, although dissenting voices within some parties exist. Social Demo­cratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroder expressed his enthusiasm for the total recon­struction of the castle in an interview with Die Zeit two years ago:

From my office in the former Staatratsgebaude I always have to look at the Palast der Republik. It is so monstrous that I would rather have a Schloss there ... A facade would not be enough because then I would feel disappointed. It's all or noth­ing ... If I could express a wish then I am in favor of the Stadtschloss. And that is simply because it is beautiful.20

In the city of Berlin, however, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is split on the issue.21 According to Der Tagesspiegel the resistance against the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss is due to an attempt to win votes from East Berliners and mem­bers of the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism. The new SPD Minister of Culture, Julian Nida-Rfunelin, is also critical of the idea of a true reconstruction and has expressed fear of a certain Americanization.22

The SPD's coalition partner in government, the Green Party, expressed in the spring of 2000 that it wanted the royal Stadtschloss reconstructed. The Greens wanted at the same time to modernize part of the Palast der Republik, at least the People's Chamber, as an important part of East German history.23 The. Christian Democrat I Christian Socialist (CDU/CSU) fraction in the Bundestag has also ex­pressed their wish to see the Stadtschloss rebuilt, or at least the facades, an opinion which is consistent with the CDU party in Berlin.24 The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) has joined the consensus on the political top level.25

The importance as well as the delicacy of the debate induced the Bundestag to employ an international and inter-disciplinary commission of experts with the pur­pose of finding a final concept and a concrete solution for the historical site by the end of this year. The commission, Historische Mitte Berlin, was appointed by the politicians last autumn and has been operating since January 2001.26

The Stadtschloss-Debatte, Politics, and Identity

Given the apparent consensus among the political elite on the reconstruction of the castle, do we now see a change in how German politicians view traditional buildings versus modern ones, in comparison with the Bonn era? If so, what can the reasons for the eventual shift be? The first question is answered with a re­sounding "yes." Politicians in Bonn acted with extreme caution when choosing the design of public architecture.

When a 1970s landscaping plan for the Chancellery involved placing a large globelike sculpture in the forecourt, then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt vetoed the scheme for fear that the work might be misinterpreted as a sign of renewed German interna­tional aspirations.27

As already noted, the policy was to embrace the international functionalist archi­tecture with its roots from Bauhaus to demonstrate a rejection of the patriotic and powerful building style of the Nazi regime. The universal, rational and, at the same time, "low-key" style of the post-War architecture in Bonn was both intended and read as an expression of West German identity embedded in international co-op­eration and rationality. Official buildings connoting patriotism for German tradi­tions were seen as troublesome.

Where the Stadtschloss-Debatte is concerned, it is evident that politicians in general now exhibit a more relaxed attitude towards monumental architecture that refers to past traditions, as is the case with the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss. In an article in Die Welt this year, Wolfgang Siedler supports the view of a general change in public opinion:

Ten years ago, when the proposal of a reconstruction of the demolished building came up, the project was at best regarded as hopeless romanticism. Today, a person who in the name of modernity argues against the Schloss is almost an outsider. 28

However mixed the picture of public opinion remains, as exemplified by the split within the Berlin fraction of the SPD, a rebuilt royal Stadtschloss in the center of the German capital, designed for public purposes, is a possible future outcome.

What can explain the fact that Germans no longer ban traditional architec­ture when creating an image of their capital? Two general factors of importance are (1) the new context of politics after unification and (2) the distance in time from WWII. After the birth of the Berlin Republic, it became more natural to speak of national interests in politics and of national identity in the cultural arena. As WWII becomes more and more distant, it is no longer taboo to cultivate certain past tradi­tions. For several reasons, the process of uniting East and West also made the ques­tion of national identity highly relevant. Integrating the two German countries eco­nomically and socially proved very difficult and marked differences in worldviews have seemed hard to overcome. To find and to promote the symbols uniting the nation has therefore grown in importance.

The old Berlin Stadtschloss, though until now supported less among East than West Berliners, belongs to the common history of East and West and could there­fore be a symbol of a shared destiny, whereas the Palast der Republik is a reminder of the divided nation and the Cold War. If politicians indeed want to eliminate the symbols of the divided nation, then it seems quite reasonable to replace the Palast der Republik with the Stadtschloss.

This reasoning springs out of the particular circumstances of the Palast der Republik and the royal Stadtschloss and the buildings' historical contents. But what about form, the aesthetic aspects, and the "ornament-is-crime" logic? As noted be­fore, the history of Bauhaus in Weimar and the program of Albert Speer under Hitler explains why aesthetic programs have continued to be associated with views on power and politics in Bonn as well as in Berlin. But with the apparent consensus among the German political elite to reconstruct the Stadtschloss at the expense of the Palast der Republik, there seems to be a new policy at work, different from the one in Bonn in the decades after the Second World War. The Palast der Republik belongs to the international, modernistic mainstream architecture that won such broad acclaim by politicians in Bonn, while the Stadtschloss represents the clear opposite of the Bauhaus program. Interestingly, in the Stadtschloss-Debatte it is the modern, functionalist architecture that represents absolutism, rather than the older monumental style of the Stadtschloss. This is a complicating factor and alters the relationship between aesthetics and ideology in this debate, especially since it is also easy to view the Stadtschloss as yet another victim of the communist regime.

Another element that may explain some of the more startling political posi­tions in the Stadtschloss-Debatte is that the underlying program related to modern­ist architecture has been challenged. During the reaction of postmodern architecture in the 1980s, with its eclectic approach to history and tradition, the modernist Bauhaus tradition was blamed for becoming as rigid as the tradition it opposed in the 1920s. This may be a source of justification for a normally anti-bourgeois party like Die Grune, which supports the reconstruction of the royal Stadtschloss. In terms of realpolitik, however, the presence of Stadtschloss-advocate Gerhard Schroder in government is likely to be a more decisive factor in the debate than the new logic within the architectural community.


In summary, the development of the radical Bauhaus movement and the right­wing reactions against it served as the primary reason why architecture has been so strongly associated with politics and ideologies in Germany. In examining the current Stadtschloss-Debatte in Berlin, it seems that architecture continues to play an important role in German politics and in the shaping of German identity. At the same time, it appears that architecture in the Berlin Republic, when compared to the post-War Bonn era, has become less attached to fixed world views and political ideologies. Because of the particular historical contents of the Palast>der Republik and the royal Stadtschloss, the Bauhaus logic, regulating the relationship between aesthetical and political standpoints, seems to have been turned upside-down in this debate. To argue that the modern design of the Palast der Republik stands for a more open and democratic society than the monumental, baroque royal castle is obviously difficult. This can explain why traditional left-wing and anti-bourgeois parties like SPD and Die Grune are inclined to see a powerful national symbol like the royal Stadtschloss back in the heart of the German capital.

The outcome of the debate has yet to be determined, and the premises for a solution now lie in the hands of the international Historische Mitte Berlin commis­sion. It will by the end of this year decide whether the Stadtschloss shall be recon­structed completely, or only partially with its facades, and whether the Palast der Republic should be demolished or somehow integrated within the Stadtschloss. Or, it may recommend the construction of a completely new building of contemporary design. If the royal Stadtschloss is to be erected again, it will take four to six years to build, with construction beginning in 2003 and ending in 2009 just in time for the ten-year anniversary of Berlin as the capital of an again united Germany.