Reflections on teaching about and in Berlin (Part 1/2)


Image: Protester in front of the Palace of the Republic “Why another palace?”

When I started my new job I was neither expecting to be on strike and ‘action short of a strike’ for months (we’re apparently off strike now, so Mutable Matter is back!), nor was I expecting that my first lecture would be on imperial Germany. Leicester Geography has a third year geopolitics themed field trip to Berlin, and I was going to be teaching on it. I was free to decide on a topic that would be translated into an introductory lecture as well as a theme day with visits to related sites. Since most non-German people think of the Cold War or Nazi Germany when they think of Berlin, I chose to focus on a more obvious choice for Germans: Prussia, the German Empire, and German colonial history. For many Germans, Berlin remains synonymous with Prussia, and also with Potsdam, Berlin’s ‘sister city’, and I wanted to show why this is so. For me, a focus on imperialism was more important than ever, since imperial nostalgia appears to be on the rise again – and with it, temporarily suppressed territorial and cultural claims. Due to significant support among the government and Germany’s old and new aristocracy (they are joined by other wealthy elites such as media personalities), the built environment is rapidly changing. In particular, I wanted to highlight the controveries surrounding the reconstruction of Prussian buildings and the continuing removal of “ugly” GDR (East German architecture. Why do people want to resuscitate Prussian Berlin after Reunification?

For the lecture and the field trip, I chose to illustrate these conflicts over German history through the ‘Stadtschloß’ debate: the reconstruction of Berlin Palace. Built and modified from the 15th century onwards, it was home to the Hohenzollern dynasty that governed the area for over 500 years across changing geopolitical boundaries and entities: Brandenburg, Prussia and Germany. The palace, and specifically its Baroque redesign, is associated with key moments in German history, including the March and November Revolutions, and thus attracts both nostalgia for empire and anger at feudalist oppression. Not long after Reunification, a lobby led by East Prussian born West German aristocrat and amateur historian Wilhelm von Boddien succeeded in raising funds and getting permission for the demolition of the communist palace and the rebuilding of the imperial one. Despite the majority of East Germans and many West Germans opposing the decision, the Palace of the Republic was razed due to ‘asbestos contamination’ and the recovered steel was shipped to Dubai for the construction of the Burj Khalifa. Its estimated completion is late 2018.


Image: Wilhelm von Boddien (third from left) and Neil MacGregor (fourth from left) at Berlin Palace building site. Source: Berliner Zeitung

Aggravating the controversy around Berlin Palace is the proposal of the Humboldt Forum, a permanent exhibition of “non-European” art and artefacts, the majority of which are of colonial origin (current founding director: former British Museum director Neil MacGregor). As the new Berlin Palace nears completion, the public and academic debate rages on, recently re-fuelled by art historian Bénédicte Savoy’s comparison of the Humboldt Forum with the radioactive waste containment in Chernobyl. Some argue that the debate has sparked an interest in German colonialism whose extent, until recently, was deemed too insignificant for the attention of historians. In turn, this interest has led to a much feared discussion of earlier genocides, future reparations and the on-going legacy of racism. But many find its politics and its celebration of the German empire inexcusable. The latest controversy surrounding the Palace is its association with Christian Democrat German Minister of Interior and champion of the newly founded (and so far entirely white male) ‘Heimatministerium’, Horst Seehofer (Bavarian Christian Democrats CSU), who recently proclaimed that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany’ .

The key thing I tried to get across in my teaching was that ‘Germany’ is an extremely amorphous entity. Over the last millennia, its territory and idea has been shaped by struggles between multiple tribes, religions, languages, aristocratic families, ideologies and  ideas of belonging (I have never used so many maps in a single lecture!). Even Germany’s flag existed as an idea way before Germany existed as a unified geopolitical entity. To spare the students total confusion by going further back in history, I decided to begin the lecture with the last days of the Holy Roman Empire and the division and rise of the Hohenzollern dynasty – basically to tell Berlin and German history through the history of Berlin Palace. I am currently wondering whether to go further back into history for next year’s general introductory lecture to Berlin, as some of the tribal and mythology stuff  also keeps coming up in recent debates on German identity (sadly usually appropriated by neo-Nazis and not multi-culturalists). This time, the lecture ended up something like this:

The first version of Berlin Palace came into existence in the 1440s as a castle of the Hohenzollerns. Originally a Swabian aristocratic family, the Hohenzollerns split in two, eventually taking over the Margraviate of Brandenburg and its capital of Berlin-Cölln (Berlin started off as a fusion of two settlements, Berlin and Cölln – its Slavic name refers to its swampy foundations). After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin proceeded to become the capital of Prussia, an entity that again moved across different geographical boundaries, due to numerous wars. I showed a few Prussian icons that Germans associate with (late) Prussia, such as the ‘Pickelhaube’ and the ‘Iron Cross’, and how they represented conflicting ideals, perhaps best summed up in the words ‘absolutist Enlightenment’. The (in)famous ‘Prussian virtues’ combine militarism, conservatism and total discipline with cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism and intellectual curiosity. Potsdam, for instance, became home to the first German Muslim places of worship (in the 1730s), because the king promised anyone who joined his ‘Potsdam Giants‘ (special regiment) to be granted a place of worship. The iron cross, and the Prussian aristocrats’ swapping of expensive jewellery for iron, symbolised both war effort and egalitarianism.


Image: Germany’s united future under Prussian domination, as predicted by Austrian satire magazine Kikeriki in 1870 (German unification took place in 1871). Source: Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.

The students were surprised to hear that the official Prussian language was originally French, since German was seen as the primitive tongue of peasants. Even after Martin Luther’s construction of a German language from a fusion of high and low German, it still took a long time until the influence of trade (e.g. the Hanseatic League), and the development of a ‘trendy’ German high culture in cities now outside of Germany (Prague, home of Kafka; Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, home of Kant) led to the adoption of German as an official language. The prevalence of French, however, benefited Huguenot refugees who emigrated from France to Prussia after the Thirty Years War (the latter had killed around a third of the local population!). Berlin Palace and much of Potsdam’s pomp, including the baroque version of Berlin Palace that is currently being rebuilt – could not have been built without this influx of Huguenot labour.

My colleague Margaret Byron created a more complex picture of German migrations in the following lecture, in which she traced different migrations in both directions, including Russian migration, US migration, Turkish migration and the current ‘Flüchtlingswelle’ (wave of refugees). Margaret highlighted many paradoxes of German migration law that acknowledge certain migrants as Germans who had been living and intermingled outside of Germany for hundreds of years, but refused ‘Germanness’ to people who had been living in Germany for decades and sometimes generations. It also explained well where Germans and their language and culture had ended up, and how Germany had been shaped by a multiplicity of ‘outside’ influences. As German poets Goethe and Schiller once commented on the various attempts to contain ‘Germany’:

“Deutschland? Aber wo liegt es?
Ich weiß das Land nicht zu finden”

[Germany? But where is it?
I don’t know how to find the country.]

(Goethe & Schiller, 1796)

Next, I talked about the German revolutions, which further explain the problematic making of a German identity. In both the March and November revolutions, Berlin Palace figures as an embattled entity. The German revolutions of 1848-1849, during which many workers were killed by the Prussian military in front of Berlin Palace, followed on from other European revolutions that challenged the rule and cultural and geographic divisions of the aristocracy. The working and bourgeois classes were tenuously united by being fed up with the territorial squabbles of the noble houses. However, they were fed up for different reasons. The bourgeois disliked that the aristocracy stood in the way of economic progress and their own financial growth; the working classes were troubled by hunger, overpopulation and terrible working conditions (many emigrated to America), and their protests were aggressively put down by the elites. Although the revolutions started with the two parties more or less unified against the nobility, the competing ideas of social progress within different classes led to the eventual failure of the uprisings. Paintings of this event show people waving the German flag, although no Germany existed as yet. The flag had developed from republican student movements around the turn of the 18th/19th century, and later became the flag of the German Confederation. During the March Revolution, protesters waved the flag, especially a vertical version (echoing the French tricolore), in protest at the corruption of the republican ideal by the aristocracy.


Image: Illustration showing the difference between monarchist (horizonal stripes) and republican (vertical stripes) flags. Source: Wikipedia

When Germany, after another war with France and lengthy squabbles among the aristocratic families about its final boundaries (“Großdeutschland” versus “Kleindeutschland” – with or without Austria), finally became unified in 1871, it was felt to be a severe corruption of the desired ‘Germania’ of the Romantics and more radical political groups. In addition, the orchestrator of the unification, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, managed to decrease the allure of revolutionary social movements by founding a German welfare state. It was during this time that Germany joined the colonial rush, despite Bismarck’s initial conviction that colonialisation wasn’t worth the economic expense. Persuaded by the plans of German merchants, the chancellor eventually helped create an overseas empire that included present countries such as Namibia, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. In Namibia, Germans committed a particularly systematic genocide of the Herero, Nama and San people that saw the creation of the country’s first death camps. Still today, wealthy white elites remain in positions of power in this country that did not gain independence (from South Africa) until 1990 (some parts not until 1994). You can read an article on memorials celebrating the genocide here.


Image: Genocide memorial in the Namibian capital Windhoek. Source: New York Times.

Germany lost its colonies at the end of World War I – a war that was proclaimed from Berlin Palace. The Palace, and Germany as a whole, then became the site of the November Revolution (1918-1919), which resulted in the foundation of the Weimar Republic. Since Berlin street fighting was too intense for politicians to meet (there was even fighting inside the Palace), the government moved to a theatre in the ‘German Enlightenment capital’ of Weimar. Another German utopian project, the Weimar Republic was sadly short lived and ended with the National Socialist (Nazi) takeover of the country. During their reign, the Nazis did not really know what to do with Berlin Palace and mainly used it for their flag displays. Partially destroyed during World War II and located on the Eastern side of Berlin, the GDR government decided to blow up the palace – save for the balcony from which the Free Socialist Republic was allegedly declared – and to replace it with a new communist monument: the Palace of the Republic. This new palace functioned both as seat of the East German government, but also as cultural space with a large entertainment complex. Like its predecessor, it became associated with key historical events, including the agreement on German reunification.


Image: Palast der Republik in 1996. Image: Icon Magazine.

Today’s reconstruction efforts of the Palace strongly reference the Prussian Enlightenment, and specifically the ideas associated with the Humboldt brothers. Alexander von Humboldt, more known outside of Germany, was a geographer, naturalist and explorer. His brother Wilhelm, a linguist, philosopher and Prussian politician, became the founder of Berlin’s Humboldt University. In Germany, the Humboldt brothers tend to be wheeled out every time someone tries to sell an elite version of cosmopolitanism. As German political scientist and cultural critic Kien Nghi Ha put it his critical evaluation of the Humboldt worship, ‘Imperfect Steal‘ (he outs Alexander as a skull thief and colonial accomplice): “The Humboldts function as a collective projection screen and cultural-political invention of something that Germany never was in its entire history.”

In the case of the Humboldt Forum that is the idea that housing non-European collections curated by White Germans inside a reconstructed imperial palace ‘named after a skull robber’ (Mnyaka Sururu Mboro of Berlin Postkolonial) is a symbol of ‘cultural dialogue’. As Lilia Youssefi, also a German political scientist and cultural critic, asks in her brilliant essay on remembering and ‘de-membering’: “Whose voices and perspectives are really being made visible in this project?’ There is growing activism not just against the HuFo (Humboldt Forum), but against other sites that show evidence of German colonialism such as the African Quarter in Wedding (part of Berlin) whose streets are named after German colonisers and colonial towns. (Another example that I already discussed on this blog – and also introduced as part of the lecture – is Tahani Nadim’s work on the collections of the Natural History Museum in Berlin.) Groups such as No Humboldt 21, Berlin Postkolonial and AfricAvenir campaign for the renaming of places and especially the integration of Germans of colour in decision making processes on ‘post’-colonial matters.


Image: An information point about the history of Berlin’s African Quarter put up in collaboration with anti-colonial activists (credits enlarged below).

I ended the lecture with an overview of similar reconstruction projects including the Garnisionskirche in Potsdam – a Prussian military church with strong far right and royalist associations (next year, this will feature Potsdam City Palace, the ‘little sister’ of Berlin Palace). On the final slide, I compared such efforts with another project of German identity building: the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg – a ‘hall of fame’ that showcases famous people that shaped German cultural, political and intellectual life. Incidentally initiated by the same guy who founded the Oktoberfest (the future king Ludwig I of Bavaria), it houses a very uneven mixture of famous Germans – some Germans remained excluded for their gender, religion or controversial views (apparently, Ludwig greatly ‘appreciated’ women, so there are a few more women in there than usual…). In fact, the memorial remains so unrepresentative for many Germans that few even know about it, despite its monumental size and project. What this and many current projects express, however, are power struggles over national representation. Thus, the lecture ended on questions around identity building, and the effects of such apparently innocent questions not just on the built environment, but not on on the economic and legal conditions of people from different migration and social backgrounds living in Germany.


Image: Aerial view of the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg. Source: Wikipedia.

The question that remained after the lecture was how to translate this into a successful theme day. For my first attempt, see part 2.

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