“The Humboldt Forum within the reconstructed Baroque facades of Berlin Palace is Germany´s most significant cultural building project of the early 21st century. In regaining the palace facades, historic Berlin will be getting back its structural and architectural centre.”1
A big placard next to Unter den Linden at the Museuminsel in Berlin informs about the large reconstruction project taking place in the big open space next to the boulevard. Standing on the Museuminsel you can look upon several old stone buildings, signaling ambitions and values from the past. But you can also notice traces of daily life requirements and the commercial world conditions. Not the least, in a short distant to the east you can see the futuristic TV-tower dominating the skyline. This is where you find the Schlossplatz.
The Berlin Palace
The palace which for a long time came to be the dominant building in Berlin was to the most part complete in 1713. The palace that stood on the site for over two hundred years came to have about the same appearance throughout the period. Some important additions were added, however. These include the dome over the west gate, completed in 1845-53.2
In 1918 the German emperor abdicated and left to Holland. The palace was thus left empty. And empty it would remain for several years. Neither the democrats of the Weimar Republic nor the chauvinists of the Third Reich found any specific use of it, but they shunned both association to and conflict with the buildings symbolical and historical deadweight. After world war two the situation had changed. The palace now heavily bombed and in great need of reparations, happened to be within what came to be the Soviet district of Berlin, and thus a part of the GDR. Since the ruins of the castle where demolished in the early 1950´s and replaced by the Palace of the Republic in 1960, many critics have blamed the communistic regime of GDR to be irresponsible with historical remnants. This need not be a completely unfair rating, but the demolition of the castle rather seems to be an exception, than a rule for how old buildings were handled in the GDR. What seems to be characteristic to the reconstructive solutions in the GDR compared with the BRD is how to handle conflicts arising when needs for modernization collided with ambitions to spare historical sites. When the opinion in the West leaned towards letting history stand and modernity take a detour, the eastern solution often included moving of historical buildings to new places where they didn´t interfere with new roads, houses or bridges.
Palace of the Republic
If you made a visit to Berlin in 1993 you probably would have seen the royal castle in its original splendour. Some private investors and a group of enthusiasts had produced a big canvas showing the façade of the old castle. Everybody watching that picture knew that behind that canvas, there was another façade. The façade of the Palace of the Republic. The parliamentary building of the GDR was by then taken out of use, both due to political changes, but also due to asbestos problems in the building. The palace enthusiasts considered this present building an obstacle easy to handle. Why should the reunited democratic Germany maintain an unsound building, representing a dictatorial system? To many former citizens of GDR, this description weren´t quite that clear cut. First of all some (from both east and west) asked how a royal castle differs from the Palace of the Republic looking at it with democratic glasses? Secondly, many Berliners found the Palace of the Republic as a building representing what was good within GDR. This building were a public space, the typical meeting place in the centre of Berlin, more associated with the informal straights of society than official politics, in many ways due to the sheep restaurants that resided in the building.4
Despite a heated debate and many obstacles, not the least financial, the Palace of the Republic where demolished. This does not however seem to stop people from questioning the point in reconstruct the royal palace.5 Principal, economical, and historical arguments have this far kept the reconstruction from being realized, although practical preparations has been done for years. In January 2013 The Berliner Zeitung reported that the building of the palace will begin in May 2013, despite demands of financial cutbacks in government spending. Yet the newspaper added a feeble `vermutlich´ to its reporting.6
In memory of what?
Discussing holocaust memorials James E. Young makes a distinction between collective- and collected memory. Young questions the value of the term collective memory, since he regards a society´s memory as a bricolage of all the potential memories hidden in remnants or monuments from the past. When constructing a memorial, Young says, you can´t prescribe what and how the whole of society shall remember. You rather collect and gather several discrete memories into a common frame, somewhat guiding the future lines of memory, but also reproducing potentially competitive strains of recollection.7 In the case of the Palace of Berlin, this potential of internal tensions seems very clear. On the one hand, we see how the reconstruction of an old distinguished building was motivated by a sense of continuity. The opening quotation above on how the reconstruction of the Palace restores the center of Berlin is notable. This thought however, is a stumbling block to some. How can you restore something that is part of a constant change? The thing with these tensions is not that they pose for the correct answers. Rather they pinpoint the problem or challenge embedded in historical remembrance. What is to be remembered, and why?
In Young’s further discussion, one can at least distinguish three approaches to how the past can or should be portrayed in monuments or sites. Firstly we can consider the impact of displaying historical remnants. This could be done in many ways from maintaining ruins to displaying artifacts in a museum. In Poland you can visit several sites with monumentally arranged tombstones, from pre-war Jewish sanctuaries. Young points out an ambiguous function of these monuments. On the one hand, they show respect and compassion for the Jews who suffered persecution during the Nazi occupation. They also recognize that Poland is a country with a Jewish history by displaying relics from the same. On the other hand, these monuments become parts of the Poles’ self-understanding. By recognizing the Jews as Poles, the persecution of Jews turns into a variety of oppression of Poles. Jewish history in Poland today is broken. The remains of that history are maintained by Poles, who may see them as relics of a joint Polish past. In this way, remembering easily obscures the differences and conflicts that also are historical.8 Looking at this example you can see that the displaying of remnants could be a way of recognizing true historical processes. But the interpretation, the collected memory, is due to several aspects of the display, both regarding visitors and displayers purposes and interpretations.
Secondly we can turn to affinity or identity. American monuments of World War II and the Holocaust can´t rely on the authenticity of places or things. This have turned in to several attempts of representations where shared identity, historically or contemporary, are to be presented. On the one hand you can consider the example of Nathan Rapoports statue Liberation or The U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC. Both of these sites are linked to identity. We can see that at least three different identities are at stake here. We´ve got the Americans as liberators, America as the safe haven for persecuted and thus Americans as post-persecuted. Finally we´ve got the identity of the Jews of America, taking Holocaust as a defining node of what it means to be a Jew. Rapoports statue mainly supports the first of these identities, and the Holocaust museum supports the two others.9 In both these examples, the historical content of the memorial sites are important, but the most important thing is the intended result, within the visitors’ identity. This means that these memorials can use art and creative constructions in a very deliberate way, and are not restricted to mirror history in a direct manner.
Thirdly, you can have the ambition to show history so that the visitor feels it as real. This form of constructed authenticity can be observed in the German city of Dachau. It would be unfair to say that the camp Dachau doesn´t have historical significance, but Young asserts that it´s more significant as a memorial of Holocaust than as an important historical site. The proximity to Munich and its ambitious museum and memorial grounds makes it an accessible site for tourists.
What gets visible here is the unclear importance of authenticity when it comes to communicate history. This goes for each and every mode that Young recognizes. It is not sure that an authentic
Computer made view of the reconstructed Berlin Palace from the northwest side. © Berlin Palace–Humboldtforum Foundation /Franco Stella, http://sbs-humboldtforum.de/en/Service/Press/Images-for-Media-Use/
historical site gives a more clear, intelligible or accurate description of historical processes than a work of art or a reconstructed replica. This goes back to the term collected memory. Since every historical representation collects or recollects multiple ways of regarding historical processes.
Is it all about the future?
This article is written from the point of view that it´s quite astonishing that the facades of the royal place of Berlin is to be reconstructed. The striking aspects of this project both consist of its inherent economic scale, but not the least it´s about history. In the debate that led to the castle now being built, historical arguments have been highly viable. The castle is to restore something in Berlin. My analysis of issues relating to historic memorials leads me to the conclusion that the historical arguments are ways to dress visions for the future in a legitimate and convincing costume. The castle facade built in Berlin will certainly be fascinating. The project owners promise a richness of details and fidelity to the original that will be remarkable. This truthfulness will though not be historically fair since it hides as much as it shows. It hides something from the time of GDR, the democratic potential of the Palace of the Republic, and 20th century ideas of functionalism, futurism and rationality which the TV tower still signals across central Berlin. It also hides something from the days of the Prussian kings, a regime that the Germans found very illegitimate when it finally was replaced.
But what then is the facade? First, it shows not just one thing, it will be a collected memory. The facade has a great potential to show what decision makers of Berliner wants the city to become in the future. We can see the ideas of an international cultural center; we can see the ideals of the high cultural supremacy over popular cultural expressions. Above all, we can see the vision of Berlin as a unified harmonious city. The tracks of a splintered fragmented city may be seen, but they should only be detectable. We will see the opinion that a place like this, which could be a symbol of a competing power, cannot stand. It must be discharged and get a harmless value that may be linked to already completed historical processes and partly associated with a new content that is decoupled from historical discussions of the significance and meaning of the site.
Berliner Zeitung, Baubeginn für Berliner Schloss schon 2013, publ. 1/1 2013, http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/neumann–baubeginn-fuer-berliner-schloss-schon-2013,10809148,21327020.html (Downloaded 2013-02-07)
The Local, Protest tries to bounce reconstruction of Berlin city palace, publ 17/10 2009, http://www.thelocal.de/society/20091017-22643.html (Downloaded 2013-02-07)
Ladd, Brian, The ghosts of Berlin : confronting German history in the urban landscape, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997
Young, James Edward, The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University
Press, New Haven, 1993