Berlin wind-conditions permitting, a crane was due Friday to host the 17-ton dome reminiscent of Prussian imperialism to top off the reconstructed Royal Palace in Berlin.
The building houses the Humboldt Forum, a large museum project actually intended to transcend religious and national boundaries.
At issue is not only a cross that will atop Berlin’s latest skyline eye-catcher but also a band of text compiled by 19th-century King Friedrich Wilhelm IV calling on all peoples to submit to Christianity when he had the dome added in the 1840s.
Restorative advocates, via a donors association, argue the palace’s reconstruction, but with a very different modern interior, will restore Berlin’s visual axis starting at the Brandenburg Gate and reflect reconciliation also contained in Christianity.
The Humboldt Forum, costing €644 million ($711 million) and approved by the Bundestag parliament in 2002, will feature artefacts from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania and Berlin’s history as well as spaces for study and conferences.
The original, dating back to the 18th century, survived World War II only as a shell; located post-war in walled off East Berlin. Communist authorities tore down those remains, erected a 1970s Palace of the Republic, which, after German unification in 1990 was demolished, also amid debate.
The dome of the reconstructed Berlin Palace
Things ‘stolen and destroyed’
The cross-crowned dome drew criticism Friday from Frankfurt-based museum curator Mahret Kupka, with family links to Nigeria and the Berlin-based Initiative of Black People in Germany (“Initiative Schwarze Menschen”).
“Christianity has been a channel through which colonialism also functioned and was strengthened. It happened quasi in the name of Christianity, that things were stolen or destroyed,” Kupka said, referring to Friedrich Wilhelm’s inscription.
The original text reads: “There is no other salvation, there is no other name given to men, but the name of Jesus, in honor of the Father, that in the name of Jesus all of them that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth should bow down on their knees.”
Since World War II however, Germany had become a “very heterogeneous” society, Kupka said.
“This is simply a very blatant statement that actually undermines everything that the Humboldt Forum claims to want to be.”
Germany colonialism in Africa and the Pacific ended abruptly in 1914 with seizures by Britain and its allies at the end of World War I.
Remove inscription urges rabbi
On a commentary Thursday in the Berlin-based Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper, Rabbi Andreas Nachama urged Berlin’s Catholic and Protestant bishops to take a lead in getting the Prussian king’s quote removed from the new dome.
Frederick William IV had made “a name for himself in the bloody suppression of [then-imperial Germany’s] revolution of 1848”, said Nachama.
“I am curious to see how the Berlin bishops will react to the appropriation of their faith, for they are certainly promoters of religious cooperation and respect,” added Nachama, who heads the German council for Christian-Jewish cooperation.
The original cornerstone was laid in 1443, but the royal residence only began to take on its final form in 1701. Architect Andreas Schlüter designed the palace facades in the Italian style. With its 1,210 rooms, the City Palace subsequently became known as the biggest Baroque building north of the Alps.
During the Second World War the palace caught fire during an air raid. The fire destroyed virtually all of the state rooms in the north and south wing. Other parts of the building survived, including the outer walls with their sculptured decorations, the supporting walls, and the main stairwells.
Exhibitions were held in the post-war years in the surviving parts of the building. In 1950, however, the communist East German government decided it wasn’t part of German cultural heritage and gave the order for it to be destroyed, despite many protests. In its place the Marx-Engels-Square was created as a location for mass rallies.
In the 1970s, East German leader Erich Honecker had the Palast der Republik built on the site. It became the seat of the East German parliament, but the building also served various cultural purposes as well as being home to numerous bars and restaurants. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the building was closed because of its asbestos content, and later torn down.
After German reunification, there was a passionate discussion about the possible reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace. In 1993, a pro-construction lobby group landed a coup by erecting a scaffold with a life-size canvas mock-up based on historical pictures of the City Palace façade. In 2002, the German parliament voted to have the palace reconstructed.
In 2008, the design by Italian Franco Stella won the architectural competition to rebuild the palace. His design combines the Baroque exterior with a more modern interior. The reconstructed Berlin City Palace is to house an international art and cultural center known as the “Humboldt Forum.”
The “Humboldt Box” has become a temporary Berlin landmark – since 2011 it serves as an information center on the past and future of the City Palace. It attracted 100,000 visitors in the first 50 days alone. Visitors can also enjoy a panoramic look at how the reconstruction work is progressing from the viewing platform.
On June 12, 2013, German President Joachim Gauck laid the cornerstone, which has two numbers engraved on it: 1443 and 2013, the date when the cornerstone for the historical palace was originally laid and, of course, the date the reconstruction began.
While the walls are being constructed the Schlossbauhütte palace builders’ shed, is making Baroque façade decorations. Using historic designs, sculptors are creating some 3,000 original pieces. The palace façade cost about 80 million euros ($90 million), most of which will be financed with donations. The finished palace will cost some 590 million euros, most of which will be financed by the state.
In 2016, gray concrete dominated the site – but this will change when the Humboldt Forum is opened. Then, Berlin Museums will exhibit their non-European cultural treasures here, while the Humboldt University begins holding international conferences. The Palace courtyard will serve as a backdrop for music and theater performances.
Forum’s message negated
Berlin city-state’s Culture Senator Klaus Lederer of the post-communist Left Party said the mounting of the cross was , “a clearly religious sign” that counteracted “almost everything we want with the Humboldt Forum: To show how ambiguous, diverse, intricate, broader and deeper our roots really are.”
Federal States Minister for Culture Monika Grütters of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) described the dome’s cross as a Christian symbol “for charity, freedom, cosmopolitanism and tolerance,” reflected in the new Humboldt center’s task of being a “Forum of Understanding” among world cultures.
She added that the chair of the Association of Muslims in Germany had encouraged her to stand by the country’s Christian roots.
‘A bit pregnant,’ not possible
Wilhelm von Boddien, veteran director of the palace reconstruction’s fund-raising association said leaving out the cross would have been contrary to the “reconstruction of a lost monument.”
“That does not work for such a project. One then immediately opens the door to other omissions, and one becomes easily criticized. Here the principle applies: Pregnant or not pregnant, a bit pregnant is not possible.”
The cross, “the most brutal death penalty in antiquity,” used to murder Jesus of Nazareth, said von Boddien, had since been misused in more modern times to “send people into murderous battles.”
On the dome of the Humboldt Forum it could “also be understood as an exhortation to all peoples to more peace and charity,” he said.
Alexander von Humboldt is Germany’s most renowned naturalist. To measure the world, he climbed the highest mountains in the Andes and crossed remote primeval forests along the Orinoco River in South America (picture). As an explorer, he was already a legend in his own time. This famous portrait of the young Humboldt is now in Berlin’s Old National Gallery.
Alexander von Humboldt was born 250 years ago, on September 14th, 1769. He spent his childhood in Schloss Tegel, or Tegel Palace. Even as a child he loved to collect insects and stones in its huge garden. He and his brother Wilhelm were privately educated by the best tutors available; books whetted his appetite for scientific exploration. Nowadays there are guided tours through the palace.
Humboldt studied at the Mining Academy in Freiberg, the world’s oldest university of mining and metallurgy. In eight months, he completed a course that took others three years. Every day he went underground with the miners to search for plants and minerals. Tourists can now also go down into the shaft. Freiberg has been part of the Erzgebirge Mining Region UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019.
In Weimar, Humboldt met the great minds of his time, among them the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the writers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pictured center). Humboldt was especially impressed by Goethe’s views on nature. The encounter led him to a holistic view of the world, linking botany, chemistry, medicine, geology and physics.
In 1799 Humboldt set out on his exploratory expedition to the Americas. He boarded ship at La Coruña in Spain. His first stop was the Canary Island of Tenerife. Humboldt climbed Mount Teide (picture), Tenerife’s highest peak, measured the blue of the sky and classified plants. In letters he raved about the air, delightful location and exotic vegetation. It was his last stop in Europe.
Humboldt journeyed through Latin America for five years with his assistant Aimé Bonpland. On June 22nd, 1802, he climbed Mount Chimbarazo in the Andes (picture), at 6,310 meters (20,702 ft) above sea level, considered at the time to be the world’s highest mountain. In a way, his precise geographical measurements and classification of flora made him — after Columbus — America’s second discoverer.
After his travels in the Americas, Humboldt returned to the city that had won his heart, Paris. He collated his findings, gave lectures, rushed from one party to the next and maintained a lavish lifestyle. From his apartment on the Quai Voltaire, he had a direct view of the Louvre (picture).
In early 1827 Humboldt was 57 years old, world-famous — and broke. He had to return to Berlin. The Prussian king approved just one more expedition: to Russia. Hundreds of rock samples and finds from that expedition are now in Berlin’s Museum of Natural History. Humboldt’s pet, a vasa parrot, now stuffed, has also found its final resting place there.
Humboldt died at the ripe old age of 89 in Berlin. He was interred in the family burial plot in the garden of Tegel Palace. Ten years after his death, when he would have been a hundred, people around the world had not forgotten the famous naturalist and explorer. From Buenos Aires to Mexico City, from New York to Moscow, tens of thousands celebrated his hundredth birthday.
In Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt (picture), like his brother Wilhelm, the linguist and founder of the university, has a place of honor in front of its main building. Like no other pair of brothers in German history, the naturalist and the philosopher represent the close kinship between the sciences and the humanities.
ipj/rt (KNA, epd, dpa)
Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW’s editors send out a selection of the day’s hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.