It’s March 1848, and a huge crowd has gathered in the center of Berlin. They’re demanding democratic reforms in Prussia, and they want the King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, to hear their demands. When Friedrich Wilhelm appears on a balcony above the crowd, he’s greeted with cheers of jubilation. Indeed, an official announces the King’s intention to implement the reforms that the protestors wanted.
Moments later, a shot rings out. Then another. Soldiers start clearing the protestors from the square. All hell breaks loose, and Berlin is plunged into violent street fights.
For me, the events of that day are interesting not only because of what happened, but because of where they happened: directly in front of the Berlin Palace, the official residence of the Prussian royal family. The demonstrators knew exactly what they were doing by confronting the King at his residence, and the King knew (or should have known) exactly what he was doing by violently dispersing them.
The example from 1848 is just one of many that demonstrate the symbolic and practical importance of the Berlin Palace. For centuries, ever since it first appeared in the 15th century, it’s been influencing - and influenced by - Berlin, German, and world events.
Berliner Schloss: the Early Years
Construction on what would become the Berliner Schloss was begun in 1443. For the first decade or so of its existence, the building served as both a fortress and residence.
In the 16th century (sorry, couldn’t find a more precise date), the original palace was nearly completely replaced with a Renaissance-style building. Throughout the 1500s, the building complex was repeatedy expanded.
In 1699, Andreas Schlüter received the assignment to undertake extensive renovations. The Schloss morphed once again, this time into a representative Baroque-style building. Schlüter underook not only external renovations, but also worked extensively on the interior.
The Berliner Schloss is home to Prussian Royalty
In 1712, the baby who would eventually become Frederick the Great was born within the walls of the Berliner Schloss. Frederick would become one of Prussia’s greatest soldier-kings, massively increasing Prussia in size, wealth, and power. He was buddies with Voltaire, and eventually became a a key role model for Adolf Hitler, who saw much to admire in the soldier-king.
In 1806, the Schloss was witness to one of the lowest points in all of Prussian history. Having lost a series of battles to Napoleon, the King Friedrich Wilhelm III was forced to flee from the Schloss and Berlin itself. Napoleon’s victory march took him through the Brandenburg Gate, and all the way down Unter den Linden and past the Palace itself. Friedrich Wilhelm didn’t return to his capitol until after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812-1813.
In 1853, a dome was (randomly) added to the ensemble. Why? To make it more palace-ish, I guess.
The Seat of Empire
In 1871, with the creation of the German Empire, the Schloss got an upgrade from Royal to Imperial Residence. No longer the the capitol of a mere kingdom, the Berliner Schloss became the symbolic heart of an empire that stretched from Königsberg in the east (modern day Kaliningrad), all the way into modern-day France in the west. The Schloss would be the residence of the only two German Emperors: Wilhelm I and his son, Wilhelm II.
The Schloss’s role as imperial residence was relatively short-lived. In the aftermath of the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm was forced to abdicate and fled into exile in 1919, never to return. In the inter-war years, the palace was kind of just…there: a huge building in the center of a chaotic, violent, and poor city. It wasn’t until after the second world war that the Palace moved to the center of German politics once again.
The Palace of the Republic
Like most other buildings in Berlin’s city center, the Schloss was heavily damaged during the second world war.
Unlike many other buildings in Berlin, the Schloss was a symbol of Prussian and German military and imperial history, at the literal epicenter of the German capital city. A capital city that had just unleashed a war of annihilation across the globe.
To add another wrinkle, the Schloss was located in the Soviet Zone of occupation, meaning that a potent symbol of German fascism was under the control of those who sought to erase all traces of fascism. So the Soviets and their East German cronies decided to tear it down.
Demolition work was completed in early 1951. For two decades, the address on Unter den Linden where the Berliner Schloss had stood for 500 years was empty. But in the 1970s, the leaders of East Germany decided to replace the memory of the Palace with a monument to Socialism.
They built what became known as the Palace of the Republic. Among other uses, it was the official seat of the “People’s Chamber,” (Volkskammer), the nominal representative body in the DDR government, but in reality a mere rubber stamp for official government policy, and not in any way representative of the people’s actual interests.
The Palace of the Republic didn’t have a very long shelf-life, though. The Berlin Wall would fall just 13 years after it was completed, and the site found itself yet again at the center of a debate about politics, history, and architectural heritage. This time, the question was what to do with a building that symbolized socialist dictatorship in a newly unified liberal democracy.
The answer, for the second time in a half century, was simple: tear it down!
The Humboldt Forum in the new Berliner Schloss
Berlin again faced the the dilemma of what to do with an empty, giant piece of ground directly in the city center. When I arrived in Berlin in the summer of 2012, the site was actually a well-maintained piece of grass, a pleasantly surprising public park with a great view of the Berliner Dome across the street. Some people argued to just leave it that way: replace the historical symbology with a public park.
Realistically, the site is too big, too central, and too important to have simply left it empty. So the decision was made, after a lengthy debate, to “restore the historical urban landscape” of central Berlin and reconstruct the palace.
“Reconstruct” is not exactly the right word, though. The inside of the building has been designed from scratch. Only certain sections of the exterior facade and the dome are being made to resemble the Schloss as it existed in the early 20th century. The reconstruction, so to say, is skin deep.
For me, what will go inside the building is actually much more interesting than the faux-exterior. The Berliner Schloss will become the official home of the Humboldt Forum. The Forum will house two museums, each focused on global culture and art.
In addition, a Berlin-specific exhibition will seek “to trace the developments and relationships, both past and present, that connect Berlin and the world.” And finally, the Humboldt Lab will be focused on making scientific achievements tangible for a broader audience.
In sum, we’ll soon have a building celebrating non-German culture on the site of a monument to dictatorship, which itself was built on the site of a monument to imperial expansionism, which was an expansion of a centuries-old royal residence. It’s not simple, but it’s very Berlin.
I think the new concept is, in a word, awesome. It recognizes Berlin and German history, but seeks to place that history in a broader context. It’s the antitheses of an inward-looking nationalist mentality. Can you imagine a similar museum opening in any other capitol city?
I can’t, and it’s one reason why I love living in the city so much. There’s a willingness to engage with uncomfortable history, to wrestle with its implications, and to end up with a lovely new piece of the urban fabric. A brand new Berlin Layer, if you like.