One German Building And Two Ideologies

Protesters' signs read,
Protesters' signs read, "You build castles, we become impoverished" and "Bread instead of cake" in front of Berlin's Palace of the Republic, soon to be razed. (By Shannon Smiley For The Washington Post)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 19, 2005

BERLIN -- In a few weeks, demolition crews will descend on a grand monstrosity that has sat empty in the German capital for 15 years: the Palace of the Republic, former home of the East German parliament and one of the few Communist relics left in the city.

The palace's destruction is eagerly awaited by many Berliners who view the rust-colored structure as a shameful eyesore. And it won't be the first time that Germans have used the wrecking ball to rewrite history on this swampy plot of land in the heart of Berlin.

In 1950, East German Communists blew up another palace that stood on the site for 500 years: the Berliner Schloss, a baroque castle on the Spree River and an architectural showpiece of the historic German capital.

Officially, the castle was razed because of damage incurred at the end of World War II. But that was largely a pretext to get rid of the castle for ideological reasons; the Communists derided it as a symbol of Prussian imperialism.

Today, the Communists are the ones who stand ideologically disgraced, while memories of Prussian times are growing fonder: The present German government has given approval to plans to replace the East German parliament not with a modern addition to the city skyline but an $800 million replica of the long-gone Berliner Schloss.

Officially, German lawmakers and bureaucrats condemned the Palace of the Republic, created by dictator Erich Honecker, because it was infested with asbestos. But like the Communists half a century ago, many are driven by an ideological aversion. "In the West," said Uwe Hacker, a German government official in charge of the demolition, "they think of it as evil, as a home for Honecker and his parliament."

The campaign to rebuild the castle is emblematic of how many Germans want to celebrate honorable chapters in their nation's troubled history. While not discounting the 20th century horrors of World War I, the Third Reich or the Cold War, these people say they'd like to recall parts of their past without feeling guilty.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, that sentiment has helped restore the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag parliament building and the 19th century neo-classicist museums in the city center. But some Germans wonder whether the zeal to erase all remnants of the Communist era is tantamount to pretending it never happened.

"You can't wipe out history just by tearing down a building," said Lothar de Maiziere, the first and last democratically elected leader of East Germany, who presided over the final legislative moments of the palace in 1990. "The people who want to rebuild the castle see it as a way to reverse what happened in 1950 and go back to Prussian history."

The decision to tear down the Communist palace has stirred a protest movement among citizens of the former East Germany who feel shortchanged by the promises of reunification 15 years ago. Disillusioned by unemployment rates that remain twice as high in the eastern states, they have become sensitive to efforts to rub out East German symbols. On a recent weekend, about 500 people demonstrated outside the vacant Palace of the Republic, demanding a last-minute reprieve for the decrepit building. "They can't tear it down. They can't take it away," said Lieseotte Schulz, 74, a retired postal worker and resident of East Berlin. "It's one of the only things we have left!"

"It is a cultural memorial, and it should be preserved," added Marie Luise Musiol, a 19-year-old college student. "It is a historical symbol in Berlin, and in general for Germany. This idea with the castle is crazy, and it's a senseless waste of money."

But easterners are a distinct minority in Berlin, as well as in Germany as a whole.

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