Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, was subjected to one of the longest bombing campaigns in history. From 1940 through 1945, 363 air raids by the British RAF and the American Air Force devastated the city and its inhabitants. The death toll lay between 20,000 and 50,000, probably more than were killed in the fire-bombing of Dresden. Much of the city was reduced to rubble.
As in other European cities where wartime destruction was nearly total, some people suggested in 1945 that Berlin be abandoned. Behind that idea lay a particular architectural and political ideology: old buildings and old cityscapes were outdated and should be replaced with modern architecture and more efficient urban designs.Those who valued locality, who connected their identity with built history, favored recovery of the old. No former cities were abandoned, but the modernizers and the reconstructionists argued for decades, both influencing the eventual rebuilding of European cities.
Discussions about demolition and reconstruction inevitably touched political ideologies of all kinds. Two Berlin sites, one east and one west, show the variety of architectural politics which determined the process of rebuilding.
The City Palace,built in the 15th century, rebuilt and expanded many times for the rulers of Prussia, became the home of the German Emperors after 1871. In February 1945, Allied bombers damaged the walls and burned out the whole interior. When Berlin was divided, the site ended up in the Russian zone, then in East Germany.
Although the Stadtschloss could have been saved, the East German government declared that the building represented hated values of Prussian militarism and monarchical rule, and decided in 1950 to get rid of it. 19 tons of dynamite leveled the walls and created an open space named Marx-Engels-Platz. During the 1970s, the Palace of the Republic was erected in its place, a new modernist building with bronze-mirrored windows, which served as the seat of the East German parliament, but also contained a bowling alley, a discotheque, and 13 restaurants, symbolic of the alleged connection between citizens and their government.
One of the final acts of the East German government after the fall of the Berlin Wall was the closing of the building to the public because of asbestos contamination. Removing the asbestos took more than decade. By that time, a new debate had broken out about whether this symbol of communism should be replaced by a rebuilt Stadtschloss.
Both sides argued that history should not be erased, but disagreed about which history ought to be respected: the more recent and still existing Palace of the Republic or the more distant and now only imaginary City Palace. In 2003, the German parliament decided to tear down the Palace of the Republic and rebuild the outer walls of the City Palace to house a new cultural center. Today construction is underway.
A different kind of symbolism is attached to a church in the center of former West Berlin. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kirche was built in the 1890s by Emperor Wilhelm II in honor of his grandfather, Wilhelm I, the first emperor of the newly united Germany.
Gerhard Justus Eduard Jacobi, who had earned two Iron Crosses in World War I and spent a year as a prisoner of war, became the Lutheran pastor of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kirche in 1930. He gathered a circle of young pastors around him, which after 1933 became a center of opposition to the Nazi efforts to assert control over the German church and to propagate their racist ideology. Jacobi became the Berlin leader of the newly founded Confessing Church, working closely with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. He was beaten up and hounded by the Nazis, but continued his opposition.
On November 23, 1943, the church was badly damaged during a British air raid, and further devastated by raids in 1945. After the war’s end, little was done to keep the ruins from further collapse. The church represented to some the German nationalism which had ended so badly in the 20th century. The modernist architect Egon Eiermann won the competition to rebuild a church on the site, and decided to tear the remains down and start again. That plan sparked public outrage, which resulted in a compromise: the ruins would remain as a monument for peace, and Eiermann would build the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church next to them.
The very modern Gedächtniskirche was consecrated the same day as the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been burned out in the German air raid of November 14, 1940. Coventry Cathedral is also a combination of a destroyed and a new building. Three medieval nails from the ruins, fashioned into a cross, have become an international symbol of peace and reconciliation, which is prominently displayed at the Gedächtniskirche. Its prewar and postwar pastor Jacobi was discussed as a candidate for President of West Germany, but declined.
The Gedächtniskirche is an emotionally powerful reminder of the senseless material destruction caused by war. Its pastor Jacobi personifies courageous opposition to evil authority.The Stadtschloss is a monumental reminder of the historic power of German monarchs. These contrasting symbols coexist in modern rebuilt Berlin, representations of its complicated history and its potential lessons.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 6, 2016