Razing a dubious relic in Berlin

Wrecking ball rewrites history in Berlin

palace o/t rpblc 88.298 (photo credit: )
palace o/t rpblc 88.298
(photo credit: )
In a few weeks, demolition crews will descend on a grand monstrosity that has sat empty in the German capital for 15 years: the Palace of the Republic, former home of the East German parliament and one of the few Communist relics left in the city. The palace's destruction is eagerly awaited by many Berliners who view the rust-colored structure as a shameful eyesore. And it won't be the first time that Germans have used the wrecking ball to rewrite history on this swampy plot of land in the heart of Berlin. In 1950, East German Communists blew up another palace that stood on the site for 500 years: the Berliner Schloss, a baroque castle on the Spree River and an architectural showpiece of the historic German capital. Officially, the castle was razed because of damage incurred at the end of World War II. But that was largely a pretext to get rid of the castle for ideological reasons; the Communists derided it as a symbol of Prussian imperialism. Today, the Communists are the ones who stand ideologically disgraced, while memories of Prussian times are growing fonder: The present German government has given approval to plans to replace the East German parliament not with a modern addition to the city skyline but an $800 million replica of the long-gone Berliner Schloss. Officially, German lawmakers and bureaucrats condemned the Palace of the Republic, created by dictator Erich Honecker, because it was infested with asbestos. But like the Communists half a century ago, many are driven by an ideological aversion. "In the West," said Uwe Hacker, a German government official in charge of the demolition, "they think of it as evil, as a home for Honecker and his parliament." The campaign to rebuild the castle is emblematic of how many Germans want to celebrate honorable chapters in their nation's troubled history. While not discounting the 20th century horrors of World War I, the Third Reich or the Cold War, these people say they'd like to recall parts of their past without feeling guilty. Since the Berlin Wall came down, that sentiment has helped restore the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag parliament building and the 19th century neoclassicist museums in the city center. But some Germans wonder whether the zeal to erase all remnants of the Communist era is tantamount to pretending it never happened. "You can't wipe out history just by tearing down a building," said Lothar de Maiziere, the first and last democratically elected leader of East Germany, who presided over the final legislative moments of the palace in 1990. "The people who want to rebuild the castle see it as a way to reverse what happened in 1950 and go back to Prussian history." THE DECISION to tear down the Communist palace has stirred a protest movement among citizens of the former East Germany who feel shortchanged by the promises of reunification 15 years ago. Disillusioned by unemployment rates that remain twice as high in the eastern states, they have become sensitive to efforts to rub out East German symbols. On a recent weekend, about 500 people demonstrated outside the vacant Palace of the Republic, demanding a lastminute reprieve for the decrepit building. "They can't tear it down. They can't take it away," said Lieseotte Schulz, 74, a retired postal worker and resident of East Berlin. "It's one of the only things we have left!" "It is a cultural memorial, and it should be preserved," added Marie Luise Musiol, a 19-year-old college student. "... This idea with the castle is crazy, and it's a senseless waste of money." But easterners are a distinct minority in Berlin, as well as in Germany as a whole. Wilhelm von Boddien, a Hamburg businessman who has led a civic drive to rebuild the Prussian castle, dismisses the idea that easterners feel an emotional bond with the palace building. Protesters opposed to the forthcoming demolition, he said, are merely disgruntled with their place in society and looking for a cause. "The first four years after reunification, nobody was interested in the palace," he said. "Then after that, the East German leaders and business people, they lost faith in the reunification revolution. They were lonesome and they lost privileges and perhaps a little money. And so this chorus developed in which they felt like they were underdogs. They looked for a symbol, and the symbol turned out to be the palace." Von Boddien's plan would resurrect the facade of the castle with the intent of once again making it the architectural jewel of Berlin. He said surveys show that the proposal, which was approved by Parliament two years ago, is enormously popular in the West. It could take a long time before the royal Prussian seat returns to Berlin. Although the German government has committed the cash to tear down the Communist palace, it hasn't set aside any money to rebuild the castle. Van Boddien's nonprofit group has raised $14 million in private donations and pledges, but that's just a fraction of the estimated $800 million price tag. As a result, once the palace demolition is completed in a year or so, the parcel of land could, for the foreseeable future, become a giant vacant lot. In that, skeptics see the potential for another historical parallel: After the Communists blew up the old castle in 1950, they waited until 1973 to replace the castle with a grand monument to socialism. The Palace of the Republic was as big as an outdoor sports stadium, with enough floor space to contain 24 soccer fields. Although the palace served as the home of the one-party parliament, in other respects it truly was a home of the people. It had a big concert hall, with 5,000 seats, and movie theaters and subsidized restaurants. Admission to the Great Hall was free, and it soon became a popular meeting place for East Berliners. The building was also full of asbestos, a carcinogenic insulator and fire retardant. The Communists kept the hazard a secret until a few weeks before Germany officially reunified in October 1990. The palace was promptly vacated and has sat abandoned ever since. One thing that virtually all Germans agree on is that the building is ugly. But for many easterners, aesthetics are beside the point. De Maiziere said the palace should be preserved on its historical merits alone. He ticks off the date and time: On Aug. 23, 1990, at 2:57 a.m., the East German parliament voted to dissolve the nation and merge with its estranged western half. "If there was a building in West Germany with this kind of historical importance, you'd see it with golden placards inside, describing the significance of it," he said. "At a place where there was once a German dictatorship, you could really make clear that this is a place where democracy has taken hold." Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report. (The Washington Post)