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.
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.
In newspaper articles, Michael Bauer, the manager of Potsdam city centre’s Mercure hotel, has complained that Google and the city council are killing his business. By continuously floating plans to have the hotel torn down (for which the council neither has the money, nor the necessary majority), the first thing that travellers find when they google the hotel, apart from the usual booking engines, is lots of links about its imminent demolition. Which isn’t good for business.
So where does the political controversy come from? Of course, any planning initiative in Germany can count on a, let’s say, lively public debate. Especially where ex-GDR architecture is concerned. Let’s take a look at the Mercure’s surroundings.
The city centre of Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller neighbour but the capital of the Land of Brandenburg nonetheless, is a curious mix of spectacular original classicist, fake baroque, and authentic brutalist GDR architecture.
The Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church)
First, and the most original, is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche (1837) – which looks new but isn’t (at least not completely). Heavily damaged, like most of central Potsdam, in April 1945, it was first restored in the GDR era, and then again in 2010. Hence the bright sandstone colour, which combined with the giant copper-green dome mean that the church is visible from miles away.
The Stadtschloss (City Palace)
Second is the Landtag – or State Parliament. It’s a reconstruction (completed in 2014) of Potsdam’s former City Palace – the Potsdam winter residence of the Hohenzollern kings. Exactly like its counterpart Stadtschloss in Berlin, it was heavily damaged in the last stages of the Second World War, and then torn down by the communist regime. Also like Berlin’s city palace, it was reconstructed to the outside looks of the old palace, but with a modern interior. On weekdays, you can walk in to see the businesslike insides – and even have lunch in the parliamentary canteen.
The Fachhochschule (Polytechnic)
Third, authentic GDR architecture. A prime example in the centre is the Fachhochschule, which rubs shoulders with both parliament and church.
The Fachhochschule was a teachers’ training college in the GDR years and now teaches sociology, architecture and city planning (sic). Three storeys high, it was completed in the early 1970s, and has a rectangular shape with three courtyards. (Bizarrely, the polytechnic’s other Potsdam site is the former “Adolf Hitler” military barracks.)
The ramshackle building is one more obstacle to the plans of the city council (and the Land government) to recreate the classical look of Potsdam’s city centre. Last news is that it will be torn down in 2017. Not because the building itself is considered to be ugly (probably a sop to the “Ewiggestrigen”, GDR nostalgists) but simply “because it is in the wrong place”.
The Mercure, a 17-story Plattenbau prefab building, was built as an Interhotel on direct orders of then GDR president Walter Ulbricht, to represent the ‘socialist crown of the city’. It opened in 1969 and also has its Berlin counterpart – the current Park Inn at Alexanderplatz (which was completed in 1970, also as an Interhotel). The hotel was completely refurbished after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and today is pleasant enough – certainly on the inside, where some corridors have a wonderful view of the new Landtag and the Nikolaikirche. If you ask nicely at reception, you can take a lift up to one of the hotel floors and take some pictures.
Meanwhile, the discussion about the hotel’s future continues. Prominent Potsdam residents, such as fashionista Wolfgang Joop and talkshow host Günter Jauch, have been running a campaign for its demise. Plans to replace it range from an art gallery (since withdrawn) to a recreation of the former Lustgarten (palace park) that used to occupy the site.
But, as stated above, objections are fierce. There’s the large representation of ex-communists on the city council, who view the hotel’s demolition as another affront to the GDR’s cultural heritage (to which one prominent Potsdamer answered: “It’s nothing to do with the GDR. Anyone can see it’s just ugly”). But there are also financial reasons why an attempt for the city to acquire and destroy the hotel could end in tears. Buying and demolishing it could cost some 15 million Euros, and the city would lose its only large central hotel – leading to a loss of tourist income.
And, finally, there’s the hotel manager, who has just signed another ten year franchise deal with the Mercure chain, and assures anyone who wants to hear that he intends to fully complete the course.
Celebrating ‘Richtfest’, reaching a building’s highest point, is a German tradition. In the case of Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum, which we’re not supposed to call City Palace, the party arrived sooner than everyone thought, as the project is, shall we say, controversial. Many ostalgians prefer its predecessor, the GDR’s Palace of the Republic, ‘an architectural atrocity with orange windows and asbestos inside’, to quote The Economist. It was razed to the ground in 2008 to make way for the new City Palace Humboldt Forum.
The historical to-and-fro on this site is ironic: first there was the old City Palace, built by Andreas Schlüter and Eosander von Göthe around 1700. Last monarch to occupy it was Wilhelm II, who fled into Dutch exile in 1918. Heavily bombed in World War II (but not unsalvageable), the government of the GDR considered the palace such a poignant symbol of Prussian tyranny that they blew it up in 1950 – keeping only one part: the ‘Liebknecht portal’ which contains the balcony from which Communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the German Soviet Republic on 9 November 1918. The portal was integrated in the Staatsrat building, Erich Honecker’s office, just across the road from where the palace had been. Then, in the 1970s, the GDR’s bronze glass and asbestos Palace of the Republic was built on the site previously occupied by the City Palace. As the GDR itself got confined to history, so did the Palace of the Republic, and things went full circle as construction of the new Humboldt Forum, a replica of the old City Palace, is now halfway completed.
Funding of the Humboldt Forum project has always been precarious. In the end, the German federal government agreed to foot the bill for the new ethnology museum that the palace will house and which had to be built anyway. But the cost of the baroque stonemasonry that will make the building look like its 1702 predecessor has to come from private funds, and the money isn’t fully there yet – hence the hearts and minds (and money) exercise organised over the weekend of 12 to 14 June 2015. If all goes well, ironically, Berlin will have two Liebknecht portals (one on the Staatsrat, one on the Humboldt Forum), but no more communism.
Most of the thousands of visitors to this weekend’s open house looked like Berliners – they certainly were different from the hordes of tourists in shorts and sunglasses hanging out in Lustgarten outside. Most people were over 50, conservatively dressed – West or East Berlin, or from outside the city? Hard to tell.
The fundraisers for the palace’s completion got ample exhibition space, but the open house wasn’t a begging exercise – access was free, and the collection boxes weren’t that conspicuous. If anything, the Humboldt Forum’s partners got pride of place. On each corner of the building, the neighbours got the opportunity to present themselves – the German Historical Museum across the road on Unter den Linden, the project to reconstruct Schinkel’s red-brick Academy of Architecture, the Foreign Office, the management institute that occupies the GDR’s former Council of State, and so on.
Students from the Hanns Eisler music academy, which is housed in the Marstall, the stables and service building of the old City Palace, played jazzy big band tunes which fitted right in with the visitors’ demographics.
Although touring the second floor would find you some non-standard catering, including an Israeli falafel stand, the main entrance hall of course contained the staple of any German festival: a bratwurst stand and a beer wagon. So far, so traditional.
Hard to say when the next time will be Joe Public can go see the City Palace. Maybe it will only be by the time the Humboldt Forum actually opens – and Neil McGregor, current director of the British Museum, connoisseur of all things German and curator of the excellent ‘Memories of a Nation’ exhibition, will have woven his magic wand over the Forum’s concept and content.
Most people who catch the S-Bahn for a day trip to Potsdam or Oranienburg are on their way to UNESCO-listed Sans-Souci, or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But if you have a little more time, there is a strong Dutch influence in these erstwhile royal residences that dates over three centuries back, but is still, or rather again, very visible today. Sit down and relax for a story of Brandenburg’s relationship with Holland, and a quick history of the ruling Hohenzollerns thrown in.
The Thirty Years’ War
To get started, we need to dig up some 17th century history. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), a rather complicated geo-political-religious fracas in which various German, Austrian, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Baltic forces were involved, ravaged most of modern-day Germany, but was especially hard on the Mark of Brandenburg. An area with no natural borders but lying at the crossroads between all the above countries, it was extremely hard to defend against competing bands of marauding soldiers, even if the Elector at the time, George William, had not been such a shilly-shallying procrastinator. But this Hohenzollern ruler was competent enough to realise that his son and successor, Frederick William (1620-1688), would not be safe from enemy soldiers and rampant disease in Brandenburg. The son, who would later be known as ‘The Great Elector’, was packed off to his relatives in the House of Orange in the relative safety of the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were then known.
Calvinist Holland at that moment was experiencing its Golden Age – despite being tied up in a religious and political revolt against Catholic Spain, which technically still owned it. This Golden Age, remembered today by the splendid paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen, impressed in those days by a maritime empire that spread from current New York, via the Carribean, bits of Brazil, Ghana, the Cape, Goa, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
There was also a less spectacular, but even more lucrative fleet trading wood, herring and grain with the Baltics. To top it all, Dutch military forces were well-trained, efficiently managed, and more or less well-behaved. Frederick William observed how his relative, Viceroy Frederick Henry of Orange, besieged the city of Breda in 1637 and eventually beat the Spanish troops occupying it. He attended Leyden University, which at the time was the leading centre of international law, featuring professors such as Hugo Grotius, who had a profound influence on his sense of legal propriety and the relationship between rulers and the governed. And, finally coming to the point of this story, in 1647 Frederick Wilhelm acquired a Dutch wife, Princess Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), daughter of Frederick Henry.
It is clear that when Frederick William ascended the throne of his ravaged country in 1640, his ideas on how to run it were very much influenced by what he had seen in the Netherlands. He set about creating a standing army, which steadily grew during his 48 year reign. Having his own army, he was not dependent, like his father, on a system of unreliable alliances but rather could steer his own course and choose his own coalition partners. The nascent military bureaucracy also served as the foundation of an efficient Prussian state, and helped curtail the power of the landed gentry. Frederick William put his army to good use when he chased the Swedes (who had continued pestering Northern Germany even after the Thirty Years’ War) away for good at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) – the feat which earned him the lasting epithet ‘The Great Elector’.
The first years of their marriage, with war still raging in Brandenburg, Frederick William and Louise Henriette spent in the comparative calm and civilisation of Cleves (a Hohenzollern possession near the Dutch border), but by 1648, when the Peace Treaty of Westphalia had been signed, the couple moved to Berlin. Frederick William presented his wife with a hunting lodge in the hamlet of Bötzow, and she soon set to work remodelling it into a palace. She called it Oranienburg, and the town was so pleased with the additional status that the palace conferred that they dropped the Bötzow name and adopted the name of the palace. Louise Henriette’s Dutch background showed in the paintings she brought to the palace, and the porcelain collection that she put on display there. She also made her mark by introducing Dutch methods of animal husbandry, brewing and brick manufacturing, which helped Brandenburg overcome the depressed state of its economy following the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War.
When Louise Henriette died in 1667, her son, Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I), continued embellishing and expanding Oranienburg in his mother’s honour, until, around 1700, it was said to be the most impressive Hohenzollern palace of all. But soon after, it was overtaken in grandeur by Schlüter’s Berlin City Palace, and when Frederick’s wife Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, he started using her former palace, renamed to Charlottenburg, as a summer retreat instead. You can see the white stucco of Oranienburg’s palace on the banks of the Havel river from far away, and it completely dominates the centre of the town – which otherwise still very much bears the mark of the GDR years. In the years since it lost importance as a royal residence, the palace has served all sorts of purposes, from housing a chemical factory (the fumes of which destroyed all the frescos on the ceilings), to military and police barracks for Imperial, Nazi, Russian and GDR troops. It was renovated and turned into a museum as recently as 2001 – and what a lovely place it has become. Besides the paintings and the porcelain, there is a good overview of the reign of the Great Elector, and the museum guides (the palace can only be visited by guided tour) are friendly and knowledgeable.
At the back of the palace, there is a rather innocent, even elegant looking extension – until you read that it was built in 1938 by Himmler as a training centre for SS officers. Oh well – German history is never entirely idyllic.
S1 to Oranienburg, then bus 824 or walk 1 km. Approx. 1 hour.
Potsdam – the Dutch Quarter
Moving on to Potsdam to visit its Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), we find ourselves in the period of one Hohenzollern ruler later – by this time, King Frederick William (called the “Soldier King”, for his military focus, simple tastes and parsimonious nature) had ascended the throne. Whereas his father’s lavish outlays on palaces, the arts, and especially his own crowning ceremony (1701) had put a severe financial burden on his territories, the Soldier King cut back spending on such non-essentials immediately and focused on the army and state bureaucracy.
Like his grandfather the Great Elector before him, Frederick William had visited the Netherlands. He went on a prolonged study trip to Amsterdam and the Hague in 1704/05, and came back impressed with the advanced state of its economy and the efficiency of its architecture. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Amsterdam carpenter Jan Bouman to build a neighbourhood of 136 Dutch-style houses in Potsdam, hoping this might attract Dutch artisans and merchants to Brandenburg. Bouman duly built the Dutch Quarter in the years from 1733 to 1740, but the hoped-for immigrants never arrived, and the houses were mainly used by French and Prussian merchants and artists.
The Dutch Quarter today looks brand new – after a long period of neglect during the GDR years, its restauration was finished in 2014. Princess Beatrix, the Dutch ex-queen, has been spotted shopping in its streets, and it is rumoured the House of Orange contributed to its restoration. The neighbourhood is laid out along a grid of two crossing streets, Mittel- and Benkertstrasse, creating four large blocks of houses. As Bouman came from Amsterdam, it is assumed he modelled the houses on those in the “Jordaan” neighbourhood. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, fashion, flower and souvenir shops, but make sure you don’t miss the little Bouman-Museum – this is one of the best kept houses, complete with period furniture, interesting displays on the history of the quarter, and with original outbuildings towards the back and a pretty little garden.
For people from Holland who are familiar with this kind of house in, let’s say, Leiden, Delft or Gouda, visiting the Bouman house is a strange experience – everything looks familiar, but also slightly foreign. It’s only after a little while that you realise that the houses are actually much bigger than they would have been in Holland – the street fronts are probably 50% wider than a typical Dutch workers’ house would be.
Frederick William, the Soldier King, died just before the Dutch Quarter was finished, but his son, Frederick II (who later became known as Frederick the Great, or ‘Alter Fritz’) made sure the original plans were carried out.
S7 or DB to Potsdam, then tram 92 or 96 to Nauener Tor, 1 hour approx.
Jan Bouman, one of the greatest architects you’ve probably never heard of, was then honoured with the task of supervising construction of Frederick the Great’s beloved Sans-Souci palace (the designs were drawn by Frederick himself, together with Georg Knobelsdorff). He created further works in Potsdam (Berlin Gate, City Hall), but soon moved to Berlin, where he built the predecessor of the current Berliner Dom, worked on St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and, most famously, built Prince Henry’s palace, more familiar today as the main building of the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. His first son Michael Philipp, by then Germanized to the name of Boumann, continued the family tradition by building Schloss Bellevue (today the seat of Germany’s Federal President), while the second son, Georg Friedrich, built the Royal Library (now known to Berliners as the ‘Commode’), on August-Bebel-Platz. And so, after our day trips to Oranienburg and Potsdam, the Bouman(n) family has taken us back to central Berlin.
We visited Berlin’s Technology Museum for our son’s 6th birthday. We only had time for the aeronautics section and the trains – but I had my aha moment, and the boys loved the museum.
Travelling around Berlin today (on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Ostkreuz, and then on to Schönefeld airport for example), you see a lot of railway archeology – old shunting yards, signal boxes, engineering works – relics from a past where railways were even more important to the city’s life than they are today. In the museum, it suddenly dawned on me why Berlin, home to the revolutionary Borsig locomotive works, was such an early adopter of rail transport – not only was it a sprawling city in itself, it was (and is) so bloody far away from anywhere!
Look at places like the UK and the Netherlands – both used railways to their economic advantage (although the Netherlands was notoriously late) – but both had proven alternatives in the way of well-developed canal and stage coach transport links, and distances were small, anyway.
But in the case of Berlin, located in the midst of the East-Elbian steppe, there was no such alternative. Besides economic activity (freight) driving railway building, it must have been political and passenger demand that led to such a huge railway infrastructure radiating from the Prussian capital.
The legacy is here today: such was the rapid expansion of the railway system, and such was the continuous improvement technology and things like stations, that today there are lots of abandoned former railway stations turned into other interesting uses: parks (Nordbahnhof, Anhalter Bahnhof) or modern arts museum (Hamburger Bahnhof – built in the 1840s but already released from railway duty in 1884).
And after the railways, history repeated itself in the early days of air travel: lots of aviation pioneers performed their flying experiments at Tegel and Tempelhof – again, not coincidentally, because the authorities were keen on entrepreneurs finding ways of breaking down the distances that separated Berlin from the outlying corners of the empire.
I’m sure there’s nothing new in my ‘discovery’ of this – but for me at least it put Berlin’s five (at least) airports and heaps of current and abandoned railway stations into perspective. And it explains why Berlin has the material for such a great rail and air museum!