On a windswept square beside the river Spree, across the road from Berlin’s Museum Island, there is a brand new building which epitomises Germany’s shifting attitude to its imperial past. For 500 years this was the site of the Berliner Schloss, seat of Prussia’s royal family. After the second world war it was demolished, and now it’s being rebuilt from scratch.
The Berliner Schloss has always been a barometer of German history. It was the residence of Frederick the Great, that daft enlightened despot who put Prussia on the map. In 1914, Kaiser Bill addressed his loyal subjects from its balcony. In 1918, Karl Liebknecht stood on this balcony to proclaim his ‘Free Socialist-Republic’. That balcony has been preserved, cemented into an adjacent building. Of the original structure, nothing else remains.
The Nazis didn’t quite know what to do with this bombastic landmark. They festooned the exterior with swastikas but left the interior alone. It was bombed by the RAF, but when the war ended it was still standing. When Berlin was divided it fell within the Soviet sector, and in 1950 it was torn down by the victorious Communists in a fit of anti-imperialistic pique. They erected a brutalist eyesore in its place called the Palast der Republik. Built to house the parliament of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic, this modernist monstrosity was demolished in 2006 by the victorious Bundesrepublik. As Marx said, history repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce.
The skeletal shell you see here today is an awkward attempt to combine two conflicting concepts: imperial nostalgia and political correctness. The building has been financed by the German state to house the Humboldt Forum — an ethnological museum named after the explorer-Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm, founder of Berlin’s eponymous university. Conversely, the faux baroque façade is entirely funded by private donations. It’s a classic Teutonic compromise, enshrined in brick and concrete. While the government constructs yet another right-on museum to bolster its liberal credentials, its citizens are rebuilding the ancestral home of the Hohenzollerns, a dynasty which once ruled an empire that stretched from Lithuania to Lorraine.
So what does this nostalgic enterprise reveal about modern-Germany? Is it a sign that Deutschland is on the march again? I doubt it. During the past 25 years I’ve travelled here more times than I can count, yet I’ve never met a Berliner who seemed even remotely militaristic. However, speaking as a closet kraut (my German grandparents lived in Berlin in the 1930s), I do believe this bizarre building is a sign that Germany is changing. Before reunification this project would have been inconceivable, on either side of the Berlin Wall.
Since the war, Germany has tried to submerge its national identity within the multinational hotchpotch of the European Union, but now that passive stance is morphing into something less submissive. Architectural purists dismiss this ersatz schloss as kitsch, but its-reconstruction shows Germany is rediscovering its sense of nationhood. When I first came to Berlin in 1991, German patriotism was still verboten. As they drop their euros into the collection boxes beside this surreal construction site, Berliners are demonstrating, for the first time in my lifetime, that Germans are feeling proud of being Germans once again.