Berlin’s State Opera House started life in the 1740s as Frederick the Great’s Court Theatre. It was special in the sense that it was the first European court theatre to have a standalone building that was not part of a royal palace. Frederick’s architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753) also made this building one of the first works of German Classicism: a neo-Palladian temple front on the Unter den Linden side, possibly inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda outside Vicenza, but also influenced by English Palladianism, and a “a radically new architecture consisting of load-bearing elements with all unnecessary elements eliminated” (Watkin/Mellinghoff 1987, p. 19).
The opera house has gone through a lot of reconstruction since then. Some of it was intended to improve it, such as the remodelling of the interior by Carl Friedrich Langhans (who also built the Brandenburg Gate) in the 1780s, or the controversial addition of a stage tower to handle large stage scenery in the 1920s. But just as many restoration efforts were required to repair the effects of fire, or of war. In the 1840s, Langhans Jr. rebuilt the opera house after a devastating fire, in 1941 it was one of the first Berlin victims of an aerial bombing raid, and it was reconstructed by none other than Nazi top architect Albert Speer, only to be bombed again in 1945.
This time, restoration efforts did not get underway until the 1950s, but Richard Paulick (1903-1979) decided to return, as much as possible, to Knobelsdorff’s original designs. The interior regained its original baroque atmosphere, but in a sparse, stripped manner. The only exception is the Apollo Hall, the room that Frederick planned as a dining room that sits right at the piano nobile of the building. Paulick remodelled this hall, in a mixture of classicist and baroque glory, based on the designs of the “Parole” room at Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam, another Knobelsdorff job for Frederick. Another improvement that Paulick made in the 1950s was the addition of a huge complex of scenery building workshops, rehearsal halls and dressmaking ateliers, across the street behind the opera building itself.
In the current restoration, which started in 2010 and is due to finish in the summer of 2017, the baseline is Paulick’s work of the 1950s, just like Paulick himself went back to Knobelsdorff.
The public areas are faithfully restored and redecorated to Paulick’s designs, with one huge difference: the roof over the main opera hall and stage has been raised by about 2 metres. This means patrons on the third balcony level have more breathing space, and, more importantly, the acoustics will improve a lot.
Backstage, noone talks of restoration and monument preservation. Here, everything has been ripped out and replaced by the latest high tech stage technology.
But where star architects HG Merz, who also reconstructed the State Library, have really gone overboard is in the backstage building, Paulick’s project from the 1950s. Because an opera company usually needs to change stage backdrops several times a week, anything to make life easier for the technical staff is welcome. Here a James Bond-like subterranean empire has been created with a tunnel, wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, that links the opera house to the back stage building. This means whole opera sets can be exchanged using a system of huge lifts and trolleys in a matter of hours.
The back stage building has a complete duplicate of the stage in the opera house for rehearsals. There are also state of the art choir rehearsal rooms, orchestra rehearsal rooms, and ballet studios. It is an artists’ paradise, just like, in a sense, the whole of Germany is an artists’ paradise – here, the state is willing, as well as able, to invest in culture! The only regret that I have, is that by the time the opera will be open for business (concert hall rehearsals and final acoustic fine-tuning are now planned to start in July 2017) I will have left Berlin…
As my time in Berlin is coming to an end, I’d like to share a series of portraits of Favourite Berliners that I wrote over the past few years on request of Slow Travel Berlin editors Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican. Here’s the first: Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The name “Humboldt” to most people brings up images of South American jungle expeditions and scientific breakthroughs in geography, botany and zoology. But that was Alexander. His brother Wilhelm, two years his senior, may have led a less spectacular life, but probably had a greater overall impact on scholarship, and universities in particular, than his more famous younger brother.
The Humboldt brothers grew up on their parents’ estate at Schloss Tegel outside Berlin. Their father died when Wilhelm was twelve, and the boys were brought up in relative isolation by their mother. They were home-schooled by a succession of tutors, who did a great job intellectually. However, both Humboldts later described the atmosphere as oppressive. To escape, extroverted Alexander explored the Tegel woods, but Wilhelm, who was quite an introvert, dug himself ever deeper in books, especially Greek Classics.
When Wilhelm was 18, their tutor ended the brothers’ boredom by introducing them to the main characters of Berlin’s Age of Enlightenment. They met Henriette and Marcus Herz, and were immediately accepted into their philosophical and literary salons. Wilhelm probably had a crush on Henriette, but it was she who introduced Wilhelm, very much a womanizer, to the love of his life, Caroline von Dacheröden.
After finishing university at Göttingen, Wilhelm wrote to Alexander how much he was looking forward to a simple, bourgeois life with Caroline in Berlin. But Alexander, who may have been gay, was abhorred by such a boring existence. Both brothers recognized the way in which their characters contradicted and complemented each other. Alexander wrote about Wilhelm: “He is a wonderful person. But it’s easy to get him wrong. He can be very offensive, like Goethe, repelling, or forcibly civil. It all happens inside him, he’s too esoteric. And his marriage reinforces that apparent aloofness and coldness. Apparent, because it is not really what he is like … He is the strangest being I’ve encountered”.
Wilhelm and Caroline moved to Thuringia, where he continued his writing on the conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. Mankind’s objective was to achieve the Great and the Whole, and the individual should edify and educate himself. Only then would he be able to exercise any wider impact on the outside world. In Jena, Wilhelm was introduced to poet Friedrich Schiller. In 1794, Wilhelm (and Alexander, who was visiting), finally managed to get to meet famous writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The meeting of Goethe, Schiller, and the Humboldts is now seen as the kickoff of the Weimar Classics literary movement.
In 1802, Wilhelm became the Prussian King’s ambassador to the Vatican. Alexander, who had just returned from his South American expedition, had vowed ‘never to set eyes on the towers of Berlin again’ and set up house in Paris, but Wilhelm implored him to not relinquish his “Germanness”, return to the city, “even if it is a sandy waste”, and report to the King on his travels. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had not only lost a great deal of territory, but also the universities that were located there. King Frederic William III had vowed “to replace lost territory with intellectual prowess”, and in 1808, he appointed Wilhelm, who didn’t want to leave Rome, as education secretary and asked him to reform the education system.
The system that Humboldt designed was true to his convictions and put the human spirit at center stage – not the needs of the state, or any specific profession. It consisted of elementary education, where the student learns how to express and understand thoughts, secondary education, where pupils gather linguistic, mathematical and historical knowledge, and at the same time learn to learn. At university, the third stage, students should conduct their own studies, guided and supported by professors. Wilhelm’s educational theory projected his own intellectual development on Prussia’s schools.
The only thing missing in Berlin was a university. In 1809, Frederick William allowed Wilhelm von Humboldt to create one. Berlin University started operating only a year later, at the palace on Unter den Linden that is still its headquarters today. It was named after the King in 1828, and then after the Humboldt brothers in 1949. The combination of teaching and research, which made sure that students would always be taught cutting-edge insights, was a unique tenet of the Humboldtian education ideal. Berlin’s university may be relatively young, but it was so ground-breaking that its teaching system has made a major impact on universities worldwide.
After several stints as ambassador and minister, Wilhelm got disappointed with Prussian politics, discovering that, post-Napoleon, he couldn’t implement his Enlightenment ideals and his passion for a unified German nation. From 1818, he returned to life as an independent writer and scholar. He spent the rest of his life at Tegel, where he asked Karl Friedrich Schinkel to redesign his parents’ manor house, studying exotic languages but never travelling far from home again. His theories on languages and their “world views” (Weltansichten) still have their followers today.
Caroline’s death in 1829 caused Wilhelm immeasurable sadness. Fearing Humboldt would end up a total recluse at his Tegel retreat, the King called upon him to set up the collection of the new museum in Lustgarten (known as Altes Museum today), which would at least get him to travel to Berlin several days per week.
Wilhelm von Humboldt died at 68, at his home in Tegel. He lies buried there, together with Caroline and Alexander. The country house, with its memorial, is still the private residence of descendants of the Humboldts, but there is a small museum that opens on Mondays from May to September.
Further reading: Manfred Geier: Die Brüder Humboldt. Eine Biographie, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2009.
Somewhat like the October Revolution actually taking place November, Russia’s Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th, not 8th, as in most of Europe. The reason is simple – Soviet commanders countersigned the Nazis’ surrender document late at night on May 8th 1945 at Berlin-Karlshorst, but by that time it was past midnight in Moscow and hence May 9th. Even Russians abroad engage very much with this national holiday, which showed when I visited Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park on Sunday, May 7th. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and Russian-speaking visitors galore.
In recent years, tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the war in Eastern Ukraine, the attack on Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, Russia’s support to Syria’s Assad, and Russian interference in Western elections. As a countermove, “Moscow” is framing the celebrations of the 9th of May ever more strongly as a show of Russian military force and anti-Western propaganda.
This is a pity, because it tarnishes the memory of the Red Army’s heroics and the suffering of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War. It may be a truism, but just like you cannot compare today’s Germany to the Nazi Germany that tried to force Slav Eastern Europe into slavery, there is also no comparison between today’s Russian regime and the Soviet Union that vanquished the Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I wandered among the Russian speakers at the Soviet memorial.
This war memorial, built in 1949, is also a military cemetery, just like the Soviet monument with the two tanks near the Brandenburg Gate that is probably more familiar to most Berlin visitors. Indeed, the Red Army had 80,000 dead to bury after the Battle of Berlin, so, sadly, they needed all the burial space they could get. But the Treptow memorial is something different.
You enter through a simple triumphal arch, and then arrive at a grey granite sculpture (at a still normal, albeit larger than life size scale), of a woman who might be “Mother Russia”. But if you then look south, down the main axis of the monument, your jaw will drop. The monument stretches over a distance of about half a kilometer.
Along a slowly rising avenue, framed by weeping willows, you reach two colossal, red stone triangles that symbolise Russian flags, each flanked by a statue of a Russian soldier, one old, one young, both already lavishly decorated with flowers on May 7th.
Passing the red flags, you reach a kind of balcony from which the vista of the main monument unfolds itself, with at its end, on an artificial mound, the huge statue of a Russian soldier, holding a small child on his left arm, crushing a swastika with his boot. Statue and mound together are some 30 m, or 100 ft, high.
Between the balcony and the statue, spread along a large expanse of stone and grass, are four large fire dishes. On the left and right hand sides are two symmetrical rows of seven, white chalk sarcophagi, decorated with socialist realist reliefs which express the suffering of the Soviet population and the heroism of the Red Army.
On their short sides are quotes from Joseph Stalin on the war, on the left in Russian, on the right in German translation. These inscriptions survived getting destalinised after 1956, possibly because Stalin’s words on sacrifice, suffering and heroism of the Soviet population during World War II still largely ring true.
At the base of the monument, there is a cupola-shaped room that you can look into, but not enter, with a socialist-realist mosaic with Russian and German inscriptions.
Visiting such a monument as a jaundiced Western European, born in freedom, never having experienced war, it is easy to scoff at all the ideology and propaganda behind everything you see. But it’s important to try and find the key to the background of the propaganda – the unspeakable suffering of the Soviet population at the hand of the Nazis in World War Two, for example, and the fact that the Soviet authorities were able to build this memorial right in the capital of their arch enemy.
I’m still struggling, however, to find the key to today’s Russian propaganda on RT and Sputnik. Somehow I hope there’s more than just a corrupt country struggling to establish a place for itself in the post-Cold War world that allows it to pursue its variety of illiberal crony capitalism, a country that would rather destroy the successful example of western democracy than reform and adapt.
But the little green men in the pictures? Those are my sons.
“Des Herrn Wort bleibt in Ewigkeit”.This text, 1 Peter 1:25, was on the frieze of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Elisabethkirche in Berlin from 1834, when it was built, through its destruction in World War II, until well into the 1990s, when it sat as a ruin.
But although the church exterior has been beautifully restored since, the epigraph signifying eternity hasn’t returned. Berlin artist Riku Ikegaya created a temporary installation based on this story of destruction and reconstruction of architecture: a model of Schinkel’s church, made out of scaffolding pipes for the frame and construction timber for the benches, inside the actual church – hence the project’s name: Nested churches. He fronted the church’s model with Saint Peter’s words, in neon.
During opening hours, the words are partially visible from outside, creating a compelling desire to enter. Meanwhile, the artist would like us to consider our expectations of eternity, in a digital age where change seems to be the only constant.
On the altar, which is not part of St. Elisabeth’s standard equipment (it is no longer used for religious services), there is a dish containing communion wafers inviting you to explore the background of Ikegaya’s work. If you’re lucky, you can catch the artist wandering around the church!
Heute ist 9. November – ein Tag der in Berlin vor Allem mit dem Mauerfall verbunden ist. Und das ist gut so – auch wenn es an diesem deutschen Schicksalstag noch vieles anderes zu gedenken gibt. Neben der Hinrichtung Robert Blums am 9.11.1848, der Abdankung des Kaisers am 9.11.1918 und dem Hitlerputsch am 9.11.1923, ist das vor Allem die Reichskristallnacht am 9.11.1938. An dieser Nacht (und an der Nacht des 10.11) überfielen die Nazihorden und ihre Mitläufer Jüdische Geschäfte, Synagogen und andere Eigentümer. Die Aktionen trieben etwa 400 Juden in den Tod; viele mehr wurden verhaftet und in Konzentrationslager überführt.
Zum Gedenken der Reichskristallnacht 1938 finden an viele deutschen Orten von Freiwillige veranstaltete Putzaktionen für Stolpersteine statt – jene kleine im Bürgersteig eingelassenen Gedenktafeln aus Messing, die seit 1992 vom Künstler Gunter Demnig überall in Europa vor den letzten frei gewählten Wohnungen ermordeter Juden angebracht werden.
Vor unserem Wohnhaus in Berlin-Mitte befinden sich zwei Stolpersteine, für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner. Die Steine gab es schon als wir Anfang 2014 einzogen, und uns war von der Familie Goldbrenner nicht mehr bekannt, als was wir auf die Steine lesen konnten: Josef wurde 1890 geboren, 1939 verhaftet und nach dem KZ Sachsenhausen gebracht, und wurde dann 1942 nach verschiedenen Verlegungen (über Dachau und Buchenwald) in der Tötungsanstalt in Bernburg/Saale ermordet. Lea Goldbrenner wurde 1888 geboren und 1942 nach Riga deportiert, wo sie ermordet wurde.
Aber im Juni 2016 erfuhren wir mehr: vor unserer Haustür traf ich zwei geknielten Personen, die die Stolpersteine putzten. Es waren Günter Wongel (geb. 1941) und seine Frau Gisela. Sie waren, zusammen mit den Enkelkindern der Familie Goldbrenner 2013 für die Initiative zuständig, Stolpersteine für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner anbringen zu lassen. Günter Wongel ist im Haus Invalidenstr. 2 aufgewachsen; er wohnte mit seinen Eltern in der Wohnung am 5. Stock. (Durch Kriegsschäden gibt es diese Wohnung nicht mehr; das Haus ist heute oben des 4. Stockwerks mit einem flachen Satteldach ausgestattet.)
Günter war zu jung um die Deportation 1942 Lea Goldbrenners bewusst zu erfahren, und zur Zeit der Verhaftung Josef Goldbrenners 1939 war er noch nicht geboren. Trotzdem hat seine Mutter Emilie, die im Haus die Hauswartsstelle inne hatte, ihm viel über die Familie Goldbrenner, die im 1. Stock wohnten, erzählt – wie Lea geweint hat, als Josef von der Gestapo weggeführt wurde, und wie sie damals für die Goldbrenners am Sabbat Feuer gemacht hat. Als es Juden schon nicht mehr erlaubt war, einkaufen zu gehen, hielf Emilie Wongel die Nachbarin indem sie für sie einkaufen ging. Emilie Wongel wurde beschimpft dass sie ‘wohl wieder für die Juden einkäufe’, weil die von ihr gekauften Waren, zum Beispiel frische Gurken, für die Familie Wongel wohl zu teuer waren.
In den siebziger Jahren haben Günter und Gisela Wongel selber noch einige Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse 2 gewohnt, und immer wieder an den weggeführten Nachbarn gedacht. Seitdem sind die beiden nach Pankow umgezogen, aber ein Kunstwerk von der Hand von Günter, gelerntem Grafiker, erinnert noch an die Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse.
Mindestens einer der Kinder der Familie Goldbrenner, Willy, hat den Krieg und die Konzentrationslager überlebt. Willy weichte nach Frankreich aus. Er und seine Frau Estera bekamen 1943 einen Sohn, Jean-Claude. Estera wurde kurz nachdem verhaftet und in Auschwitz ermordet. Jean-Claude Goldbrenner überlebte den Krieg geschützt von seinen französischen Grosseltern und lebt heute in den USA. Über seine Lebensgeschichte erfährt man mehr unter http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700168866/Holocaust-survivor-treasures-mothers-last-letters.html?pg=all.
Günter und Gisela Wongel haben ihre Erinnerungen an und Spurensuche nach Josef und Lea Goldbrenner in zwei Dokumente erfasst, die ich gerne empfehle:
November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).
In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my articles on this blog. (Check here for the 1848 story on the execution of Robert Blum).
Nov. 9, 1918 – the Abdication of the Kaiser
In early November 1918, Germany was in chaos. Even though the country no longer needed to fight on two fronts (the Russian revolution of 1917 had led to Moscow’s unconditional surrender), the arrival of United States on the Western Front, with its almost unlimited reinforcements, was the beginning of the end for the German Imperial Army.
From August 1918 onwards the Allies were on the offensive, and German Supreme Army Command realised that total military collapse was near. The population was grieving for the men lost in the war, food was severely rationed, and, since the example of the Russian surrender of 1917, both the Social Democratic and Communist parties were clamouring for peace.
The ultimate trigger for the events that occurred on 9 November 1918 was a last attempt by the Imperial Navy to turn the military tables in Germany’s favour. On 24 October of that same year, battle cruisers stationed at Kiel were ordered to make their way to the North Sea for a final showdown with the British Royal Navy. But the sailors refused to sail, and before long, their mutiny had spread from the ships to the town of Kiel itself.
The first Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council was proclaimed there on 4 November, and representatives of the Council spread throughout Germany to urge workers and soldiers to form revolutionary councils of their own. At the same time, on the home political front, Friedrich Ebert, leader of the moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD), had already secured concessions from the Kaiser and Supreme Army Command that effectively turned Germany into a parliamentary democracy. Ebert and his number two, Philipp Scheidemann, considered these concessions sufficient and certainly wanted to avoid a full-blown revolution.
Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had left – some say fled – Berlin on October 28 for German Military Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, was slowly coming to terms with the fact that support for the monarchy was slipping away. When he suggested he return to Berlin to restore order with the help of the Imperial army, he was told by military commanders that the army was no longer his to command, and in fact might turn against him.
On November 9th, Wilhelm, still in Spa, had started to consider relinquishing the title of German Kaiser but staying on as King of Prussia. Developments in Berlin, however, had long passed the point of no return, and the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, had by that time already announced the Kaiser’s abdication.
Finally facing up to reality, Wilhelm took the royal train to the Dutch border, where he was granted political asylum in the early morning of 10 November. He wasn’t the only one to lose his throne of course. King Ludwig III of Bavaria had been forced to abdicate on 7 November by radical Socialists, and between 9 and 30 November, the twenty remaining German Kings, Archdukes, Dukes and Princes followed suit.
Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II spent the last 23 years of his life at a country estate in the Netherlands, Huis Doorn, now a fascinating museum. He maintained a make-believe Imperial Court, with the aid of 59 railway carriages full of Royal furniture, treasures and uniforms that the Weimar regime had allowed him to transport out of his three Berlin palaces. He spent his days chopping wood in the surrounding forest, and his evenings debating astrology and archeology with any scientist willing to come over and agree with the Kaiser’s views.
As the Dutch government was quite embarrassed at having to host the Kaiser (he was after all wanted as a war criminal by the Allied governments of the UK, USA, and especially France), he was under a kind of house arrest. He could go for drives in the vicinity of his country house, but only within a radius of some 10 kilometres. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands famously wanted nothing to do with her distant relative – in the 23 years of Wilhelm’s exile, she never received him. Until his death in 1941, the Kaiser never gave up hopes of resuming his role in Germany – he even wrote to Hitler offering his services, which understandably didn’t improve his standing with the Dutch government either.
Back in Berlin on the afternoon of the 9th of November 1918, rumours had reached the SPD’s Philipp Scheidemann, lunching with Ebert at the Reichstag, that Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Spartacus League (the precursor of the German Communist Party) was about to declare a Soviet Republic. To steal Liebknecht’s thunder, Scheidemann stepped onto one of the balconies of the Reichstag to give a spontaneous speech, in which he declared “The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!”
Ebert, the SPD’s chairman, was furious and told Scheidemann he had no right to declare a republic – the political form of the new German state should be for the Constitutional Assembly to decide. But the rumour about Liebknecht had been true enough; gaining a balcony of the Stadtschloss (City Palace) on Lustgarten, two hours after Scheidemann had made his own proclamation from the Reichstag, and fuelled by the momentum originating from the sailors’ mutiny at Kiel, Liebknecht indeed declared a Communist (Soviet) Republic.
Liebknecht’s action resulted in the creation of a revolutionary Council of People’s Deputies. In a classic “if you can’t beat them, join them” spiel, the SPD’s Ebert and Scheidemann, who wanted to stay on the parliamentary track, got themselves elected to the revolutionary Council to prevent the most radical elements taking control. The SPD gradually gained control of the Council, and dissolved it in favour of the democratically elected Weimar National Assembly in February 1919.
The Stadtschloss, the centrepiece of these momentous events, was blown up by the GDR regime in 1950, though it made sure to save one piece: the portal from which Liebknecht had declared the revolution. Carefully restored, it was integrated into the new building for the GDR Council of State on the other side of Schlossplatz, where it remains today – and is now part of the management institute that currently occupies the building. By the time the new Stadtschloss will be finished, possibly by the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in 2019, there will actually be two Liebknecht Portals – one in the recreated City Palace, the other in the ex-GDR building across the square – but very little will be left of Communist Germany otherwise.
It is hard to say which of the many fateful “ninth of Novembers” dotting German history had the most long term impact. Ironically, the events of November 1918, which could have done so much good for the country – the dismissal of a totally outdated, autocratic monarchy in favour of a modern, liberal democracy – ultimately caused such a violent backlash both on the populist as well as the conservative sides of society that it paved the way for the Nazis to take over.
November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).
In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my stories on this blog. (Check here for the 1918 story on the Kaiser’s abdication).
November 9th, 1848: the Execution of Robert Blum
Germany may not have escaped Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable armies – but it did, for a long time, manage to avoid the liberal, bourgeois revolution that had allowed Napoleon to come to power in France in the first place. When the dust from the Napoleonic wars had settled, Germany was still as Ancien Régime as ever, a very loose federation of 38 independent states (including four “free cities”), each of which had their own form of usually monarchic and absolutist government.
The revolution of 1848 initially changed all that. Remembered both as a bourgeois, liberal uprising as well as the first expression of the socialist or communist movement (the terms were still used interchangeably at the time), the event came about via an emphatically diverse set of players: lawyers, historians, professors of German linguistics, socialist thinkers…even the German gymnastics league. Each group’s purposes and goals were equally diverse. Some wanted liberal reforms such as freedom of expression and an end to censorship, others wanted social reforms or greater political and national unity throughout the German speaking parts of Europe.
The revolution itself was triggered by events elsewhere in Europe but in Germany it began in the Grand-Duchy of Baden and rapidly spread throughout present Germany and Austria. The revolutionaries, much to their own surprise, were often initially successful in forcing their absolute monarchs into accepting new, liberal cabinets. Within a short time, they had in many places managed to abolish press censorship, liberate crofters from serfdom and initiate the first steps towards greater national cooperation by holding elections for a constituent National Assembly (which held its sessions in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s church).
However, by mid-1848 it started to become clear to the ruling classes that the “Liberal” (right-wing, bourgeois) and “Democrat” (left-wing, socialist) strains of the revolution were hopelessly divided on many issues. A counter-revolutionary movement began, in which monarchs and the aristocracy joined forces with the Liberals in order to defeat the Democrats.
Enter Robert Blum (1807-1848). The son of a cooper from Cologne, Blum tried his hand at many trades before starting a career as a writer. Moving to Leipzig, he started a newspaper that promoted democracy. Working as a journalist helped feed his conviction that the Kingdom of Saxony’s political oppression and heavy hand of censorship should be replaced with a republic. Despite his controversial views, the authorities allowed him to be elected as a Leipzig city councillor in 1847.
In 1848, Blum was a key player during the March revolution in Saxony, where, through his rousing speeches in Leipzig and Dresden, he managed to get the King to replace his government with a more liberal set of ministers. He was elected to the Frankfurt Parliament, and joined its Constitutional Committee. But as the rifts grew in the Frankfurt Parliament between Liberals and Democrats, Blum accused the Liberals of being too cosy with the old clique of monarchs and aristocrats.
Things came to a head in September 1848 after a number of failed parliamentary votes. The Liberals finally won the vote, the Democrats staged demonstrations in protest, and the Liberals proved Blum’s earlier point by asking the Prussian and Austrian armies to crush the Democrats’ protests.
In Vienna, developments had turned to violence too. Revolutionaries had occupied the city and ousted the Habsburg Kaiser and his army. Blum travelled to Vienna to convey the sympathy of the Frankfurt Democrats, joining the insurgents as a commander on the barricades. The Imperial Army retook Vienna after heavy fighting on 1 November, and Blum was arrested. Despite diplomatic efforts both from the Frankfurt Parliament (who claimed Blum’s immunity from prosecution as a deputy) and from the Saxon authorities, the Imperial military command, who considered Blum a most dangerous anarchist, condemned him to death in a two hour trial on the night of 8 November. He was shot at 9 in the morning of November 9th, 1848.
The Frankfurt Parliament protested at the death of one of their most prominent deputies, and decreed that those guilty of Blum’s death should be punished – but no action was ever taken. The shocked reaction among the German people upon learning of Blum’s death initially strengthened the revolutionary movement, but the reactionary forces had by then already regained the upper hand and the revolution of 1848 lost its momentum.
Blum became something of a martyr for democracy throughout the nineteenth century, and interest in him was renewed in the centenary of his death in 1948 – when both Germanies needed new national examples. However, although the German revolution of 1848 fit the socialist narrative of being a crucial stepping stone in Marx and Engels’ dialectics (not entirely coincidentally, it was also the year that Marx and Engels published their ‘Communist Manifesto’) – Blum’s emphasis on democracy and freedom of speech meant he could not initially be positioned as a hero by the incoming Communist regime of East Germany. However, there are many monuments to the revolution of 1848 in East Berlin, such as the one on Sredzkistrasse near Kollwitzplatz.
There’s also the Cemetery for the Fallen of the March Revolution hidden away in Volkspark Friedrichshain (the monument there also remembers the fallen of the November revolution of 1918 – more on which we’ll cover in another story in this series). The Friedrichshain monument has an excellent, bilingual indoor and outdoor exhibition on the significance of 1848’s revolt – admission is free.
Looking back at importance today of the first fateful ninth of November in German history, the murder of Robert Blum on that date is a symbol of all that the Revolution of 1848 failed to achieve – had the initial promise of progress on liberalization, democracy, unification and a representative national parliament been fulfilled, then there possibly might have been no war with France in 1870, no Kaisers, no World War I, no Versailles, no Nazis and World War II, and probably no GDR either.
The House of the Wannsee Conference, a lakeside villa located roughly halfway between Central Berlin and Potsdam, is a place that is important and interesting for several reasons. First of all because it is the location where a group of senior Nazis and government officials on 20 January 1942 cemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the euphemism they used for the mass deportations of all European Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe.
Secondly, the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, to give it its full name in English, can also be seen as a piece of “meta-history” – a symbol of the way our society deals with history and remembrance. And finally, the villa’s lovely lakeside setting on the Wannsee just makes it a very pleasant place to spend some time – possibly combined with the Max Liebermann Villa just up the road – although that also has a bleak part to its history.
But back to the House, and the Wannsee Conference itself. The SS had purchased the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier, as it was originally known, as a conference centre and a guest house in 1940. On the occasion of the infamous Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD, had booked it for a 90 minute meeting that was to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in the ghastly project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.
I must say I was disappointed with the exhibition at the House. It’s very text-based, which makes it look old-fashioned – a problem, as one of the purposes of the memorial is to reach out to young people and educate them on the Holocaust. I don’t think it connects anymore with the visual and interactive culture that today’s school-going generation is used to. Content-wise however, it does a good job of explaining of how Nazi anti-semitism and racism finally led to the plan to murder all European Jews (up until 1941, the Nazi leadership still toyed with the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar, but not necessarily kill them).
We spoke to Stefanie Fischer PhD, postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and a freelance tour guide at the House. “Visitor reactions to tours of the House can vary a lot – depending on the background of the group”, she says. “There often is genuine anger in the group at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans.”
The story of the tour also needs to be adapted to where the group comes from, and how much the participants already know about the Holocaust. Dr Fischer: “I recently showed round a group of school children from Norway. Even though Norway did suffer from the Nazi occupation, there wasn’t a Jewish population of significant size, and this may be why schools there don’t pay much attention to the Holocaust in their teaching”. Another interesting demographic for tours are groups from the Middle East: “Groups from countries like Egypt can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era”.
Dr. Fischer keeps her tours limited to a few a month – she says “the less of them I do, the better they are”. I observed her doing a tour with a group of Bundeswehr officers, where she was very direct on the execution methods used during the Holocaust.
“The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around 2 million may have been killed by poison gas, but 2.5 to 3 million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this. The clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened.”
Dr. Fischer admits that going to this level of detail sometimes can lead to emotional reactions in some visitor groups – for example, in case of Bundeswehr groups, if they have seen military action in Afghanistan, and she has to walk a fine line of gauging how much a group can take.
History of remembrance
The House of the Wannsee Conference is also a symbol of the history of remembrance or memorialisation. When in Berlin today (or in other places in modern Germany), I am always impressed by the Germans’ talent for it. There are monuments, memorial plaques, and museums everywhere that try to do justice to the horrors of the past – the Nazi period or more recently, the East-German communist dictatorship. In fact, modern Germany is so good at showing contrition for the darker periods of its history, and does this with so much respect for all parties involved, that it is widely seen as a role model by other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict.
However, the sensitivity displayed towards difficult periods from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR, for example, didn’t consider itself at all responsible for its Nazi inheritance. It consistently labeled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, only focused on the persecution of communists and socialists – certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.
But also in West Germany, as well as in West Berlin, there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible, and the House of the Wannsee Conference is one of them.
The history of the House as a memorial is closely linked to Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. He was very outspoken, and his message was not a welcome one in post-War West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, even if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.
From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on his initiative to turn the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa which by that time had become a children’s holiday hostel for Neukölln, one of West-Berlin’s municipalities, into a documentation centre on the Holocaust. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included famous names such as writers Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.
However, the committee’s attempts to get the Berlin Senate to release the building as a Holocaust documentation centre all fell on deaf ears. “Why should Neukölln children pay for the sins of a past generation?” was one of the excuses. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.
In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment, soon after his wife’s death. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, has never become really clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:
“I have published 18 books here on the Third Reich and all without effect. You can document yourself to death with the Germans, they may have the most democratic government in Bonn – but the mass murderers walk around free, have their little houses and grow flowers (the small SS people, who only followed orders, do get convicted but are released later on because of vague health complaints)” (my translation, letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, copy at the House of the Wannsee Conference)
Only by the 1980s, attitudes began to change sufficiently for the children’s hostel to move out and the current memorial and educational site to open (in 1992, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference).
Changing attitudes to Holocaust memorials
But why did it take so long for authorities’ attitudes to change sufficiently to allow the creation of a memorial?
Dr. Fischer: “The main reason for that was purely generational. As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”
Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. Dr. Fischer: “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions: these originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”
A terrible story in a lovely setting
However beautiful the settings of the villa on the lake, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference is, like many journeys into Germany’s history, “not a pleasure trip” – by the time you leave you will be deeply impressed by the sheer callousness and the meticulous planning that led to the massacre of five to six million European Jews in as little as 24 months.To take your mind off these horrible facts, an antidote could be to combine your visit with the Liebermann Villa a few hundred meters up the road.
This lovely place, Berliner Sezession protagonist Max Liebermann’s summer retreat, also serves tea and cakes (no food or drinks are available at the House of the Wannsee Conference). The Liebermann Villa might restore your spirits with its beautiful paintings, drawings and garden – even though Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had professionally already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.
In 1916, the Austrian-Hungarian double monarchy, composed of many peoples speaking many different languages, had been in decline for a long time. The only symbol that still united it was, in fact, its “double monarch”, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. When he died in 1916, after an incredibly long reign that started in the revolutionary year of 1848, the last vestiges of unity disappeared from the nation and it was to no-one’s surprise that when World War I ended in an Allied victory, Austria-Hungary disintegrated into states that more or less mirrored their ethnic composition.
But in Austria, and especially in Vienna, you might be forgiven for thinking that Emperor Franz Joseph, and his incredibly popular consort Empress Elisabeth, better know as Sissi, passed away only recently. There are inscriptions in his memory everywhere, his statues dot the city’s avenues and Kaisersgeburtstag, “the Emperor’s Birthday” (August 18th) is still a thing. To draw a rough comparison – his German and British more-or-less contemporaries, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria, are definitely not as fondly and widely remembered as old Franz Joseph.
His likeness, with the martial moustache, was famous already during his reign (he widely used portraiture and later photography in an effort to spread some kind of presence through his vast empire) and is still instantly recognizable today.
This Kaiser’s Birthday, in the year that is also the 100th anniversary of his death, I happened to be in Vienna and visited the Kaisergruft (Imperial burial vault), and an exhibition at the Austrian National Library called ‘the Eternal Emperor’ (der ewige Kaiser). As you can imagine, for the Dead Emperor’s Society, things can’t get much better!
A temporary exhibition at one of my favourite Berlin museums, the Gemäldegalerie, introduced me to the Spanish Golden Age. The phrase “Siglo de Oro” didn’t ring any bells, even though as a Dutch history buff I know all about the Golden Age – the one in Holland, of course, not the Spanish one. It turns out that both countries’ Golden Ages coincided, both covering the late 1500s until the late 1600s.
Interestingly, during most of these two countries’ Golden Ages, they were actually fighting an (at times) bloody war: in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Protestant Northern Netherlands, under the aegis of the Orange-Nassau dynasty that still rules today, sought to gain independence from Roman Catholic Habsburg Spain.
Another parallel between the Dutch and the Spanish Golden Ages is how they manifested themselves in painting. The Dutch Gouden Eeuw gave us the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Spanish Siglo de Oro Velásquez and El Greco, to name a few important representatives. Here are some pictures that shed some light on the religious and political conflict between north and south, Protestant and Catholic, and republic and monarchy.
The Rembrandt picture, originally even larger than The Night Watch but later cut down by the artist, shows Claudius Civilis, a Germanic fighter of the Batavian tribe, who lived on the lower Rhine. He led an uprising against the occupying Romans in 69 CE. It is, of course, an allegory of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish.
Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism upon marriage, spent the last years of his life living next door to a clandestine Jesuit church in Delft. His story reinforces the fact that the northern Netherlands, to this day, never became fully protestant, but that large groups of Roman Catholics remained.
This picture, one of Velásquez’ most famous, shows one of Spain’s rare military victories in the second half of the Eighty Years’ War. General Spinola, a friend of the painter, conquered Breda, a frontier city between the Northern and Southern Netherlands and a Nassau stronghold, but is said to have shown mercy on the besieged.
Finally, El Greco, “the Greek”, who may have carried Byzantine influences to his Toledo workshop, worked almost exclusively on church commissions and did not include political themes in his works. However, he was probably the catalyst that triggered the Spanish Golden Age of painting.
El Siglo de Oro at the Gemäldegalerie
The Berlin exhibition, showing some famous masterpieces of the era, does give a fine impression of the importance of the arts in 17th century Spain. Many works, especially from Seville and Valencia, were commissioned by the Church, such as these statues of two Jesuits.
They show Ignatius de Loyola and Francisco de Borja, first and third Superior General respectively of the famous and powerful religious order at the heart of the Counter Reformation.
But my favourite picture must be “Mars resting”, created by Diego Velásquez while court painter to King Philip IV (1605-1665). Mars, the God of warfare, is shown in a rather despondent state. His weapons lie at his feet, and his drooping posture seems to say that he is weary of war. Would its assorted enemies, the Netherlands included, finally have gotten the better of Spain?