The reliquary of the GDR. A palace, a balcony and another palace.

View of the building of the former State Council of the GDR.

I feel quite tired lately of pointing out the apparent tastelessness of the new Berlin City Palace (future Humboldt Forum). I am tired of speaking about the unbelievable brutishness that can be seen from anywhere in the Pleasure Garden or when approaching from Breite Straße, trying to explain how it is possible that a group of people advocated a contemporary functional building with baroque facades glued to it and how a majority of decision-makers then followed that phantasm.

A toy-like house, similar to the specimen that can be found in Potsdam since 2014, this newest of acquisitions of Berlin’s History Disneyland will be a unique attraction opposite to the UNESCO World Heritage Museum Island. An attraction that will look like heritage – that will look like what it used to be: a unique example of a northern baroque style. A new photo background for those in love with a royal ambience.

Image of the balcony of Karl Liebeknecht of the former State Council in Berlin.
The balcony of Karl Liebeknecht, seen from inside. Curiously now looking onto the new toy-Palace …

A silent witness

A small anecdote remains to be told, which is going to be the main topic of this article: original parts of the former City Palace still exist and are on display (and have been for the past 52 years). These remains are standing quite unnoticed opposite today’s bilding site. They are part of the building which represented the very political power that was responsible for deleting the old City Palace in the first place: The building of the former State Council of the GDR still shows parts of the old portal number IV of the Berlin home to the Hohenzollern rulers. A building which today ironically is a school for future managers, the European School of Management and Technology.

Front view of the reconstructed gate IV of the Berlin City Palace..
Front view of the reconstructed gate IV. It is from the smaller balcony on the first floor that Karl Liebknecht delivered his speech to the masses on November 9th, 1918.

How could it be that socialist government architecture was so radically blended with a palatial entry portal? The connection goes back to the end of World War I.

November Revolution

On November 9th, 1918 the century-long ruling of the Hohenzollern family came to an end. Germany and Berlin were going all haywire. The end of World War I is near. Calls for the abdication of the emperor were growing louder and louder. Various ships of the German fleet had refused to attack English ships in what they regarded as a futile act of sacrifice. What had started at sea developed into a general strike with more and more workers participating all over the nation. The Kingdom of Bavaria had already ceased to exist with the declaration of the Free State. And in Berlin people were marching towards the centre of town on that very day. There was trouble ahead.

The Chancellor of the Reich, Max von Baden, declared the emperor William II abdicated. Rumor had it, that the left-wing socialists, led by the lawyer Karl Liebknecht, were planning to read a declaration to the people. The more moderate Philipp Scheidemann, member of Parliament himself and eager to go first, steps onto one of the windows of the Reichstag building and proclaims the Republic as the new form of state at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Karl Liebknecht refuses to be silenced and two hours later he is standing on a car in front of the City Palace, facing the Pleasure Gardens, speaking to the masses. He proclaims a socialist republic in the Russian tradition. While he is speaking, the palace behind him is taken by storm and as a consequence is lead to the balcony on the first floor (remember, in Germany we have a ground floor, followed by a first floor) of portal IV, where he continues to address the people. It is just the same balcony that William II used to declare the mobilization in 1914.

Image of the Berlin City Palace before the destruction.
The Berlin City Palace in its full splendour before the destruction of World War II. To the right underneath the dome is the so-called gate of Eosander, the second gate from the left is gate IV (Liebknecht).

Following the two speeches on that day, it seems that the newspapers talk a lot more about Karl Liebknecht’s proclamation than the one of his moderate colleague Scheidemann. Being less popular though than the representatives of the moderate wing of the party, it is the bourgeois version of a republic that in the end becomes reality, leading Germany into the so-called Weimar Republic. The Marxists need to wait for another 31 years and another World War before they can bring their own version of a state to life in the form of the GDR.

Although it was the speech of Philipp Scheidemann that had been more influential in 1918, it is the one of Karl Liebknecht wich is not forgotten in 1949 when the instance is to be transformed into the myth of origin of the new socialist Germany. Similar to the cult of saints in some churches, the balcony from which Liebknecht spoke is rescued from destruction and kept for further veneration … sorry, for further use. But I’ll come to that later.

What happened to the City Palace after the events of 1918? Following the revolution, the palace is eviscerated in various rounds. The more or less emptied rooms were then used by museum administrations, parts were opened to the public and concerts were held in the famous Schlüter courtyard (named after one of the later architects of the building).


The next episode in the history of the palace is shaped by World War II. During a raid on 3 February 1945, large parts perish in the fire. The inside of the palace is considerably damaged, whereas the facades withstand the fighting in a promising condition.

Image of the damaged Berlin City Palace in 1950.
The Berlin City Palace in 1950, five years after the air raid. 32 Million Marks would have saved it, 10 Million Marks cost the complete destruction.

What to do with the damaged building after the end of war? For quite some time it was unclear what the future of the palace would look like. Following the liberation of Germany, the City Palace remained in the Soviet zone. As early as 1946 the head of municipal planning, Hans Scharoun (future architect of the building of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the new State Library, both behind Potsdamer Platz), arranged for the first measures of preservation. In 1949, after the separation of Germany into two different states, the building finds itself on the new ground of the GDR.

Experts agreed on the fact that even five years after the war damages took place, the building could have been rescued with a moderate amount of money. The communist regime however regarded the palace as a symbol of Prussian absolutism. Since the founding of the GDR in 1949, the heads of planning in east Berlin were incorporating principles of Russian origin in their own considerations. After various visits to the Soviet Union, socialist planners presented the „16 Principles for the Reconstruction of Towns“, which were subsequently incorporated into the new 1950 Statute of Reconstruction.

It is open to question which of the 16 principles were seen as a guideline for the relevant decisions regarding the palace. The articles are rather vague and theoretic. Principle number 5 though can be read with some sarcasm when it comes to the question of demolition:

«When discussing urban planning, organic principles and the consideration of historic structures need to be the foundation of the elimination of damages. It is to be noted that this axiom requires the analysis of historic structures and not the blind duplication of them. The town planner needs to work on the elimination of shortcomings within the historically grown structures. For this end he needs to rigorously assess what is to be seen as a shortcoming, how it is to be eliminated, with what means, at what cost and in what time. Of course a consideration of economic efficiency plays a vital role and we were shown buildings in Moscow that were destined for elimination, whose destruction however had been postponed for economic reasons as well as such of amortization.»

Costs were thought to be the strongest argument and a study was conducted as to how much the restoration of the whole palace would amount to. The study was initiated by the Ministry of Reconstruction of the GDR, but soon after put aside without any comment as the result showed a lower figure than expected: A mere 32 Million GDR-Marks would have been needed to restore the palace. Later on, the elimination of what was left of the palace cost the state some 10 millions in total …

The decision which was finally put into action can be found ahead of time in a note for a file of the department of construction and housing of the Magistrate of Berlin dating from 5 September 1949:

«The meeting of the planning collective discussed the question of the City Palace and came to the agreement that the courtyard of Schlüter („Schlüterhof“) is to be kept in its current form and to be re-erected in later times, and that the front of the palace itself be eliminated due to its deterioration.»

It is in terms of those guidelines that Walter Ulbricht, then first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party at the time, declared on the party’s third convention in 1950:

«The centre of our capital, namely the Pleasure Garden and the area of the current ruin of the palace, must become the grand venue for demonstrations, on which the will of our people to fight and build can express itself.»

On 15 August 1950 the politburo decreed the demolition of the City Palace, which was approved of by government on August 23rd and accepted by the Magistrate on August 31st. The decision was announced to the public and a multitude of protest ensued, amongst which many architects, preservationists and scientists presented their rational arguments against such act of vandalism.

The official government position, compliant with Soviet perspective, stated that the palace had been built by subjects on piece rates under slave-like conditions. It was a monument to feudalism and the paradigm of imperial decline.

The former director of the State Palaces, Professor Gall, wrote a wonderful reply in an article that was published in the journal „Kunstchronik“ of the same year:

«It seems that the intention is to eradicate a monarchic and aristocratic tradition. What a naive and unskilled misunderstanding of artistic content and circumstances! Surely every old building served some objective purpose, but no grand artist constructs for their time exclusively, they always look at eternity. The Berlin Palace not only represents the striving for power as well as the dignity of the young Prussian royalty from its very beginning, its form also bears witness to the high-spirited willingness and the powerful being per se. The Egyptian pyramid, the Greek temple, the Roman Pantheon, the gothic cathedral – they are all monuments of limited thought patterns, but as pieces of art they are so much more than that. They did long ago fulfill their commitment as envisaged by their creators. What remains is their enigmatic life as a shaped form, radiating a creative wealth that keeps reflecting itself in the ever-changing context.»


However, the battle was lost. The demolition began on September 7th of 1950 and destroyed one of the most remarkable baroque monuments of northern Europe. The oldest part of the entire complex, the pharmacy, was demolished with two detonations at 10.28 a.m. and 1 p.m. 90 kilograms of exploder had been distributed into some 500 blast holes. After various other detonations it was on December 30th that the destruction of the so-called gate of Eosander (named after its builder Johann Friedrich Eosander von Göthe) deleted the last famous structure. Smaller explosions happened until March of 1951 to shred larger parts of debris. In April of that year, the area that had been the location of the City Palace for the past 500 years was finally empty.

What happened to the debris and which parts were kept? Most rubble was searched for reusable materials such as metals and bricks. The majority of the remains was transported with trains, some trucks as well as ships to the east of Berlin. Some of it piled up in the form of the mountain of rubble that lies east of the zoo in Friedrichsfelde. Some was dumped in Berlin’s forests. Another large portion of it was incorporated into the growing mountain of Volkspark Friedrichshain. Some sandstone was transformed into ashlar stones that today constitute the stairs on the hill as well as the walls on the way up the hill. A walk in that park will literally bring you in touch with the former palace.

Some decorative parts of the facade were kept, amongst which was the known gate with the balcony of Karl Liebknecht’s unsuccessful proclamation of a socialist republic back in 1918. Owing to the extreme workload, those cherished parts could not be carefully dismantled though. They had partly been wrapped in straw and let to fall apart during the detonations. Naturally, quite some damage happened to the elements that were to be kept. They were subsequently transported to a provisional storing place in Pankow-Heinersdorf to the north of Berlin. The storing place was more of a dump and the rescued pieces were left in the outside for years, which caused further damage. Until then, nobody knew what do to with the remains which officially had the status of a relic.


It is only in 1960 that things move on. After the death of Wilhelm Pieck, the first president of the GDR, a collective State Council as Head of State is introduced. The plan was to house the new institution together with other organs of government in a central building that was to appear at Marx-Engels square, a bit to the west of today’s TV-tower. If you have been to Warsaw, then you have seen the Palace of Culture and Science and you have a good image of what the central building in Berlin would have looked like. It was mainly a lack of funding that prevented a similar statement from being erected in Berlin. The newly formed State Council had to look for an alternative.

The building that was later to become the permanent address for that organ was first devised as a provisional home. And it had to be ready for 1964, the year in which the GDR was going to celebrate its 15 years of existence. The idea to add the existing parts of Karl Liebknecht’s balcony to the new State Council was initially voiced by Hermann Henselmann, the main responsible architect for today’s Karl-Marx-Allee and former lead-planner of the Magistrate of Greater Berlin.

The new home to the State Council was the first governmental building to be constructed in central Berlin after the war. Implementing Henselmann’s initial idea, the structure of sandstone and red granite was conceived along the proportions of the former palace’s gate IV. The few remaining parts of the gate were rescued from the dump and incorporated into the new construction more than ten years after the demolition of their original context. The young republic could thus use the proclamation of 1918 as part of their own narrative. In the end only 49 pieces of the original were used in the reconstruction of the gate. Even the grille on the balcony of the second floor is from a different part of the palace.

View of the building of the former State Council of the GDR.
Only some 49 pieces of the original gate were incorporated into the reconstruction. You can see where it is original as the patches hint at the earlier damages from the war. The rest of the gate has been constructed using sandstone (unlike the original structure which was made out of bricks).

The government of the „first socialist republic on German ground“ thus presented itself as completing the work that Karl Liebknecht had begun in the November Revolution. The adoption of the gate’s main proportions as seen in the height of floors for the new building ironically led to palace-like dimensions on the inside. The GDR had caused the elimination of the old City Palace as it was a remnant of the monarchic empire, just to house its State Council in a building that by subordination acquired palatial dimensions itself. After all, the Socialists were back in a new palace.

Detail of gemmail glass work by Walter Womacka.
The entire staircase is decorated with a gemmail glass by Walter Womacka. Womacka, former head of the School of Art and Design Berlin-Weissensee, chose common socialist iconography to tell the history of the young republic. When in Berlin, you might have noticed his other prominent work, the large mosaic mural that decorates the House of the Teacher at Alexanderplatz.
Detail of the gemmail glass by Walter Womacka.
Detail of the gemmail glass by Walter Womacka.

Later on the history of the building witnesses a new, unexpected turn – or repetition in history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it is the home of the State Council of the GDR that is endangered by demolition. It became a listed building as early as 1990, but its elimination was openly discussed in 1992. It was finally saved and from 1999 to 2001 served as a provisional chancellery to Gerhard Schröder, until the new one near the old Reichstag building was finished.

Oh, History …

Every age tries to prove that it is right. When Karl Liebknecht’s gate was incorporated into the new building in the early 1960s, the Prussian eagle that was part of the decoration was eliminated. And with the German reunification it was the national coat of arms of the GDR that had to disappear from the place it had been assigned to in 1964. Systems change and thus symbols have to follow.

Image of the coat of arms of the GDR
The national coat of arms of the GDR. It had to disappear from the main entrance, but luckily it is an integral part of the main conference room, so it cannot be taken away. Only: notice the curtains … You may want to cover it if you rent the place and find it “inappropriate.”

In today’s context it is interesting to remember the two figures of 10 and 32 million Marks. A few years after the City Palace was taken away to establish a rather unattractive space for demonstrations, a new palace was built on the former site. It was known as the Palace of the Republic and official figures of the time priced it at 485 Million Marks – a figure that today is thought to be double as high. Today we are again building a new palace. It is going to be the old City Palace, modern on the inside with baroque facades glued to it. 600 Million Euros. Guess what: the Palace of the Republic had to go. Oh well.

Image of tiles of the interior of the former State Council in Berlin.
Parts of the entrance hall of the former State Council are decorated with wonderful tiles made in Meissen to the northwest of Dresden in Saxony.
The logo of Meissen porcelain.
The logo of Meissen porcelain that we normally know from china ware.
Image of curtains inside the former State Council.
Lots of long, brown curtains. Excellent!