Germany: Heart of Berlin
The struggle to save an East German landmark
BY Jason Spingarn-Koff
June 15, 2006
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Germany's political history since World War II, and link to German sites about Berlin, including a virtual scrapbook of stories about the city.
Jason Spingarn-Koff is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker. He recently coproduced NOVA's "The Great Robot Race," following a dramatic competition to build robotic vehicles and race them across the Mojave Desert for a $2 million prize. His short film "Robofly," about the quest to build the world's first robotic fly, aired on PBS and won a national Student Emmy. He is a graduate of Brown University and the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
The biggest news coming out of Berlin at the moment is World Cup soccer scores as Germany hosts the largest sporting event in the world. The event has been heralded by some as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on what a modern Germany has to offer rather than to dwell on its troubled past.
In this week's Rough Cut, "Heart of Berlin," a parallel struggle to leave the past behind is playing out. Filmmaker Jason Spingarn-Koff, who lived in Berlin 10 years ago, travels back to the city to look at a movement to save the Palace of the Republic -- a landmark building that has alternately been called a national treasure and a national eyesore.
Since reunification, the German government has focused on integrating the two halves of Berlin, and the city has come a long way. When the wall came down in 1989, there was one telephone in East Berlin for every 10 people; today the city boasts the latest in fiber optics and digital networks. But the reunited city is still divided by architectural styles from the past, and as Spingarn-Koff discovers, the motivation to destroy the palace has as much to do with politics as it does with aesthetics.
Once home to the East German government, the Palace of the Republic has engendered a movement centered on reclaiming certain aspects of its architecture and what it housed. The bronze-mirrored building was home not only to parliamentary sessions, but also to art exhibits, restaurants, theater performances, a shopping gallery and a disco. It holds strong memories for many East Berliners.
As Professor Simone Hain, from Weimar University, tells Spingarn-Koff, "I went there twice a week -- and let's say once or twice a month with the whole family -- just to look at what was happening because there were always concerts or something surprising going on."
The multipurpose palace was one of the most modern cultural centers of its time. "The most beautiful thing was the huge window," recalls Hain. "One came there just to sit down and look out... It was such a beautiful panorama of the new, modern Berlin."
In recent years, a younger generation of Germans attempted to give the building a second life. As the film shows, it became a unique "People's Palace" with hundreds of cultural events, from art exhibits to rock concerts.
Spingarn-Koff says, "Berlin has a vibrant arts scene, and there's a strong tradition since the fall of the Wall of transforming old buildings -- powerplants, bombed out department stores, even Nazi bunkers -- and reinterpreting them. So why not transform the biggest symbol of Communism? In Berlin there was an idealism that anything was possible."
In reporting this story, Spingarn-Koff says he heard a widespread concern that German reunification was heavily lopsided. "Instead of an equal 'marriage' of nations, there's a feeling among many East Germans that the Western system overtook the East and has been steadily erasing its legacy. The Palace of the Republic became a front line in this battle. Some wanted to keep the building as a symbol of reunification, but others were fixated on its troubled past."
As the film reveals, among conservatives there's growing popularity for a proposal to replace the palace with a re-creation of a Prussian castle that occupied the spot before East Germany came into existence. Hamburg businessman Wilhem von Boddien, who has been lobbying for replacing the palace, believes the Prussian castle is the right vision for this contested site: "The Nazi era was one of the most criminal times in German history, but why shall we not be proud of times when Germany was bigger, was greater in mind?"
Those rooting for the replacement castle say it could become Berlin's version of the Louvre, housing art galleries, a modern conference center, restaurants and possibly even a hotel. They often defend the project by comparing it with the recent rebuilding of Dresden's Frauenkirche cathedral.
Both the castle and the cathedral were badly damaged in World War II, and Dresden's reconstruction has been a huge success. But critics of the movement to replace the palace with the castle point out the obvious difference: The cathedral was a beloved and shared religious center, the Prussian castle was exclusively a royal residence.
Spingarn-Koff talks to passionate Berliners on both sides of a dispute that went all the way to the Bundestag, the German parliament. There's also some splendid footage of the parliamentary debate that eventually decides the building's future. You'll have to watch the video to see which side wins the day.
Clay - Brooklyn, New York
Very nice piece. On my first trip down Unter den Linden, my mouth dropped open as I passed the Palast, and I blurted, "What the hell is that doing here?" It looked like something from an office park in the US, but after a virulent plague had wiped out half the population. Absolutely hideous. It's historical value is not sufficient to merit leaving it up. Consider that it stood only 15 years before the GDR dissolved. I find it difficult to believe that in so short a time East Berliners became so attached to it that a majority would be troubled to see it go. And when that's gone, how about the brutalistic concrete apartment towers that blight the residential areas of East Berlin? They're inhuman.
This building marks a major part of Berlin's history whether the people desire to forget those days or not. Although it was constructed by destroying another building, it is still possible to keep the building and just redesign the outside to symbolize a change rather then require the destruction of a building and then the slow process of building another building in its place to show the change some people desire. The event of the Berlin wall should not be viewed as a destroying influence but as a lesson that the world learned over its many years as it grew to the current world we have today. If all the landmarks that could be considered to be related to bad events were destroyed, the world would most likely never have a public building that survived a century. The history has passed, it is now our chance to choose what to do with the history we know.
Tearing down this old building will go a long way in healing the wounds of a divided Germany. Keeping it in place will make the former communist dictatorship a martyr in the eyes of those who still support the old regime.
I was saddened by this video. Sweeping one's past history under the carpet does not make it go away. To have the courage to keep this icon of darker times and remake its history would have been wonderful. To be able to say: This is what we were but look at what we are now! That would have been progress.
Brad Alexander - Calgary, Alberta, Canada
I can't believe that any German would want this ugly symbol of socialist dictatorship in the middle of the capital city. Comparing the demolition of a beautiful historic Prussian palace with the removal of this eye-sore is ridiculous. A better comparison would be to compare the removal of the 'hammer and compass' crest on the East German with the obliteration of this dubious building. A way for Germans to move forward.
Anonymous - Boston, MA
I lived in Berlin for 2 years and enjoyed looking at this odd building on my strolls through the center of Berlin. However, the German Democratic Republic is history. The Palast der Republik is also just a gutted-out building now. Berlin really doesn't need yet another spot for bad contemporary art. There are much more important problems in Berlin and the eastern German states than an old, ugly building. Unemployment is painfully high and the morale across the eastern states is low. Neither the old Palast nor the new castle will solve the problems of the new Germany. Well done piece, but this building's time is over.
Kenny - Phoenix, AZ
I believe the German Government is making a huge mistake in demolishing this building. True, it is a symbol of the East, but it is also a historical relic; a testimony of what was, and what became of, East Germany. The building is ugly, but it does have history. It should be kept there, and have the City Palace built elsewhere.
Thank you Jason, for your wonderful piece. I have spent about a year and a half of my life living and studying in Germany, and 6 of those months were spent in Berlin. Over the past 8 years, I have made a number of trips to Berlin and have seen the change in the appearance of the Palast. The last time I was in Berlin, in 2004, I was so surprised at how much more run down it appeared than just 2 years before that. I am in love with Berlin and it will always be my second home.
It makes me so sad to see that this building will be demolished. I have been watching the progress online, although I must admit it makes me very sad to see it day by day. The link can be found here: http://www.dhm.de/webcams/VID1.htmlI guess the demolition can be compared to when the Stadtschloss was destroyed, so let's realize the past is the past...and it's too bad that we couldn't change things for the better and have everyone agree that it is best for the collective consciousness of Germany to allow the Palast to remain standing. I liked the idea of renovating it - whereas no one even knows if the new Stadtschloss will ever be built.
I wonder how much of this debate serves as a distraction from other forces? I have a hunch that if you were to scratch the surface of this story you'd find it has more to do with powers of land development on a prime piece of real estate than with history.
This subject should be aired on TV. It was both compelling and beautifully depicted.The subject is one not often seen on American TV. More internationl programs should be seen, especially about Germany and its great changing city of Berlin.
Michael Halberstadt - Vallejo, CA
It is really disappointing that the Germans are so quick to rid themselves of their history. Back in the mid-1980's I was an exchange student in the South-western part of the Federal Republic. A classmate of mine invited me to come and stay at his sister's place in West Berlin in 1987. At one point we made a day trip into the East Berlin-Capital of the GDR as they called it.Obviously East Berlin was no utopia back in the GDR days. But there were many pleasant surprises on that day. I ate some of the best ice cream I've ever tasted. I briefly chatted with a nice border guard intrigued with my name (which comes from a city in Eastern Germany.) I drank good beer for $.50/glass.... And after years of hearing how awful life in the East was, I saw some clear benefits. For one, serious crime didn't appear to be an issue at all. In fact, when we stopped for lunch, I left my camera bag (medium format camera with three lenses) on the seat of my friend's sisters car with the door ajar, only to come back and find it sitting there untouched. Perhaps that was in part because big brother might be watching. But big brother watching can have some benefits too. We also witnessed a motorcycle accident, and police and an ambulance arrived in record time.In any case, my impressions of the Palast der Republik, at least as an 18yr old, was that the place looked really cool. There you could see the reflection of the Berlin Cathedral, which made for some nice photos. At the time I didn't know much more about it than it was the seat of government. But in my "Ostalgie" I've done some reading since, and find it really impressive that a capital building could serve the people in other ways, ways that are at least in some sense much more democratic than in the Western democracies. Nowadays you can't even get close enough to President Bush (jr) for him to see the tens of thousands of protesters waving their banners.Obviously the GDR failed on several critical levels... But I'd like to chide the Federal Republic for once again going out of its way to sweep history under the rug. And thanks to Frontline World for bringing this to light for the English speaking world.
From the Brandenburg Gate one can just barely glimpse the so-called Palast der Republik, the grotesque 1970s-era glass-steel mass now destined for demolition. For several months in early 2005 an art installation, lit up by light, was perched atop the building displaying in bold white letters a single word: ZWEIFEL ... in English, DOUBT. Fitting: Upon leaving Berlin in late January I hadn't been able to determine with any certainty the fate of what I came to know as the ZWEIFEL building. This documentary clarifies matters. Thanks. P.S. When I return to Berlin (early next year I hope) I'll be glad to see this horrid building on its last legs (or gone).
Kevin - Minneapolis, Minnesota
I have always been very interested in the history of the former DDR [East Germany]. Last year, I got a chance to visit Berlin and to me, the Palast doesn't really detract from the splendor of the heart of the city, it just needs to be restored. While it may not be my place to say what should or should not be done, every part of me screams out that the German government is making a huge mistake in tearing down the Palast. I thought that a very good point was made in the film that the current government's actions in tearing the building down are no different than the SED's actions in tearing down the Prussian castle during communist times. An acquaintance in Germany told me that he felt that the government was spending too much money on replacing communist buildings and ignoring the social and economic problems of the east (out of sight, out of mind). To me it's like the conservatives are trying forget that the cold war ever happened and that is a huge mistake!
I think the Germans should have kept the Palace of the Republic as a museum to what the times were like in East Germany. Something so that no one would forget like they kept the death camps as museums so we may never forget.
I enjoyed watching the film, thank you Jason! I realized afterwards how upset the whole debate and finally the decision to tear it down made me again. I think it is a shame that some people think you can rid your past so easily. I always "liked" the Palast in a weird way, being aware of its terrible but nevertheless highly interesting history, which is an important part of the city. Now, that the Palast is being dismantled, I am afraid that with it, much more than just the mirroring facade of a building will be destroyed. I remember the discussion after the wall fell - so many people wanted to get rid of the stone wall, and I can understand that completely, as it represents the terror of that time. Still, I think it is important that there are parts left that remind us of the troubled past, e.g. the East Side Gallery, and a part at the Mauermuseum, Brunnenstrasse. Every time I see the leftovers of the wall, I can feel its weight and importance and I am glad that it doesn't make me forget.I agree with Jason that mostly young people wanted to keep the Palast and use this great space for art-projects. I have seen some exhitbions there and they were great. I loved the plans of the curators of the "White cube," who wanted to turn the Palast into a center for contemporary, modern art. A center like this is still missing in Berlin. Instead, the city will now have a huge construction cite, probably for the next couple of years. Then, because it will take very long to raise enough money to build that absurd idea of a castle, they want to do the so-called "Zwischennutzung" - probably beach volleyball-courts.
Carsten Labudda - Weinheim, Germany
Comparing the Palace of the Republic with the Frauenkirche? How can they do that? The Frauenkirche was left broken after the Dresden bombing in 1945 to serve as a monument against the destructions of war. After the reunification of Germany it was built up again to provide as a national symbol for the "real end" of World War II.But what was the Palace of the Republic instead? It was built in the place of the former Prussian Castle as a sign of East Germany, saying: hey, we're not in favour of the militaristic history of Prussia, but we're a country, where the government and the people belong together. (In 1989 the world learned, that the East German government and the people of East Germany didn't belong together. The government was overthrown by its people. But this is another chapter.)Can you imagine the Capitol in Washington entered by the American people for having a lunch? Or can you imagine the American people going out having a disco party right in the White House? I can't. The government would talk about national security and ugly terrorists, if someone would promote such an idea. The Palace of the Republic was the only seat of a government which was open for the people, too. This was at least one idea of the former East German leaders that should be spread around the world. And this is the part of the Palace's history, that makes it so important for me to keep it where it is and use it for culture and education.
strother marshall - Los osos, CA
I was in Berlin when Stalin died and have been back a few times since. I love that city. There should be a competition in Berlin for designs for a replacement by a unification structure modern and true to the times
Germany's conservative politicians, who throughout the Cold War advocated the unity of the country and wanted to rescue their eastern countrymen from Communism, now seem determined to insult and patronize the former East Germans -- "we know what's good for you better than you do." History isn't going to be banished so easily. The Communists themselves learned to their detriment in 1989 that destroying old symbolic buildings such as the Prussian Castle didn't eliminate the desire of Germans for national unity. The Bundestag has now repeated this exact error in destroying a symbol of the culture that developed in the East. I think that western Germans should look beyond ideology, and accept that the easterners developed their own cultural sphere between 1945 and 1989, much as Bavaria and the Rheinland did over the centuries. De-valuing that culture will only alienate the eastern Germans and impede real unity in a country that has known too much painful division.
I would prefer the old palace to be rebuilt.
Philip Roslin, BSc.(Hon.) - Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Historically the Allies dropped about 1,000 times more bombs on Germany than the Germans on them. That was also concentrated on destroying much of European heritage, which took centuries to build. Granted the Germans destroyed much of Rotterdam at the start of the war and did a lot of damage to London, but again, the reaction of the Allies was an overreaction and in some cases a war crime, such as in Dresden and Hamburg. People really are stupid in a lot of ways and allow ideology and hate to govern them, and I would include the British bomber General Harris in that fold. A lot of bums in charge in those days did not do enough work with their own hands to appreciate the hard work it takes to build anything of consequence. In general I prefer the old palace to be rebuilt.
Mike Schultz - Seattle, WA
I really enjoyed your piece on the Palast der Republik. I lived in Berlin in the late 80's just before the wall fell. What always impressed me about the building at that time was its mirrored windows that made you feel you were under surveillance. Although I never liked the building, it does seem a shame to tear it down so quickly only to let the land stand vacant for years. Thanks for giving us a glimpse inside the modern Berlin.
My initial thought was how quickly can this 1970's architectural disaster be torn down. The film managed to turn my thinking around (and around) in a very powerful way not with simplistic, manipulative emotional cues, but with journalistic integrity of the highest order. The debate at the end was gripping, and I experienced real emotion when I saw the building being dismantled. Given the fact that I could not have cared less about the fate of this glass box when I began watching, the presentation of what was at stake was so clear and deep that I was able to experience what was at the heart of this struggle (and so many similar ones) where the strong desire to hold onto something is met with an equally strong desire to destroy it. This piece is clearly a labor of love. I'm so glad it was made. Thanks!