Monday, January 15, 2007

Trading a Palace for a Castle

“Thanks a lot, Schlossverein, for making it ever clearer, that Ossis [those from former East Berlin] have nothing to add!”[1] proclaimed an angry letter published in the liberal biweekly magazine Zitty in Winter 2005. Even two years ago, invoking the Us vs. Them, East vs. West rhetoric in the Berliner Schloss debate was beginning to sound a little old since the Palast der Republik’s tear-down was a foregone conclusion for years (see Posts Nov. 19, Nov .26, Dec. 17). It was, however, logical: a survey by the Berliner Morgenpost at that time showed that 55% of West-Berliners clearly supported the Schloss’ reconstruction, while only 34% of East-Berliners could say the same.[2]

Now that the federal government has announced it will not fund Schloss reconstruction and financial dire straits have caused whispers that it may never be rebuilt, it is worth examining the symbolism of the Palast der Republik to understand why some are so upset about its removal. That no ersatz architectural showpiece is arriving any time soon makes grieving and resentment for what will obviously be missing even more compelling. So what is being mourned? As historians Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul write, “It was here the citizens of East Berlin were married, celebrated birthdays, and took part in a range of leisure pursuits, all at very little cost. It was open and affordable to all. As such, it represented a much appreciated facility for urban cultural and social life unparalleled in the west of the country.”[3]

However, if the Palast’s central, community feel was unparalleled in the West, its openness was also unparalleled in the East. That is, its cultural offerings came as close to permissible western-ness as possible; it was here that the government finally caved to pressure and let musicians perform “degenerate western music,” that is, rock and roll (as long as lyrics were previously submitted for review). Although post-reunification Westerners have tended to see the building as a symbol of an oppressive Communist regime, they may have missed the irony that under the German Democratic Republic the building also stood for a certain sort of Western influence.

Nevermind that the Palast was originally supposed to be part of a huge building complex, including an enormous tower of rising 130 meters above the Palast’s roof, and a manicured parade ground for 400,000 people—a project for which the GDR did not have enough money and curtailed in the 1960s.[4] Although the Palast stood alone, a golden cigarette carton fronting a sprawling, wind-raked parking lot, it still represented a sort of comfort, pleasantness, and ease atypical for life in the GDR. A tale from a former Wessi elaborates this claim:

“Coming from the West, my first stop would often be Palast der Republik, because after such a long wait at the border, one often had to use the bathroom, or get a coffee, and here was one of the only known places to do this. There were lights, and mirrors, and music from the cafes. Abba, in fact! There were comfortable chairs, and attractive places to eat. You have to understand what the GDR was like: The overwhelming first impression was grey. Everything was this depressing grey. And the Palast der Republik was an island in the grey,” she explains. “An island of color and music in the grey.”[5]

The second great irony of Eastern resentment about what is perceived as largely Western embrace of the Prussian aesthetic is that at the root of many citizens’ connectedness to the structure lay aesthetic reasons: a relationship to the place was developed because it was pretty and nice. By ripping down the Palast, one of the few symbols of the GDR that can be thought of as pretty and nice is also obliterated. In the spirit of reconciliation for those who deeply perceive the East-West tension as marking the Palast issue, those at whom resentment and ire is directed should at least be comforted by knowing that the resentful and wrathful share a central concern for aesthetics, and that what they struggle to preserve was once nearly symbolic for what they now reject: excess Western influence.

[1] “Jetzt fehlt nur noch Koenig: Ein Brief an die Freunde der Schloss-Rekonstruktion.” Giuseppe Pitronaci. Zitty feb 21?
[2] “Stadtschloss: Jeder zweite Berliner fuer wiederaufbau,” von Stefan Schulz. Berliner Morgenpost 21 January 2005, p 13.
[3] “Unification and its Aftermath” Godfrey Carr and Georgina Paul, in German Cultural Studies: An Introduction Rob Burns, ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[4] “So haette as DDR gebaut…wenn genug Geld dagewesen waere.” Von Hildburg Bruns. BILD Berlin, 22 January 2005, p. 6
[5] Dr. Christine Wolf, Landesdenkmalamt, Senatsverwaltung fuer Stadtentwicklung, Interview with author, Berlin, Germany, 4 February 2005.

Schloss image courtesy

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