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Save Berlin: Disneyland birthday cake

A city proud of its little-known roots or a massive publicity stunt? Either way on October 28 Berlin is throwing itself a 775th birthday party. Dan Borden explores the history framing this special day.

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Put it in your calendars: on October 28, Berlin is throwing itself a 775th birthday party. Between now and then, the city is proudly showing off its little-known medieval roots. Do cities really have birthdays? Was the Berlin bear cub really born on October 28, 1237? Not exactly.

This party is all about public relations. In fact, like May pole dancing and the Olympic torch relay, celebrating Berlin’s official birthday is one of those grand traditions cooked up by Hitler’s propaganda machine. In 1937 the Nazis were desperate to prove themselves legitimate heirs to Berlin’s illustrious history. Why? Well because they were about to tear half of it down.

Transforming Berlin into Hitler’s grandiose capital Germania would mean bulldozing wide swaths of the city – the 700th birthday party was a sort of consolation gift. The October 28, 1237 date came from the first official mention of Berlin’s sister city Cölln (situated on what is now the Museum Island). Good timing – if they’d used the first mention of Berlin, the party would have been in 1944.

Fast forward to the 1980s and East and West Berlin were waging a propaganda war to prove themselves the “true Berlin.” The East Germans came up with a scheme to mark the city’s 750th birthday by recreating the city’s historic centre around the ruins of its oldest building, the Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas’ Church.

Now flash back about 700 years. Berlin was a little trading village at a crossing point in the Spree River with Cölln on the other side. At the heart of Berlin was a stone church, the Nikolaikirche. Over the centuries, it was burned down, rebuilt, extended, remodelled and, in 1943, bombed to smithereens. By 1980 its ruined shell was in danger of being bulldozed to make way for a mini-harbour for tour boats. Then East German leader Erich Honecker promised East Berliners a historic centre and tourist mecca, and the Nikolaiviertel was (re)born.

Architect Günther Stahn was enlisted to not only return the church to its pre-war beauty but surround it with suitable neighbours. Stahn’s team restored the few remaining buildings and filled the empty spaces with a pseudo-historical pastiche. Next to the church sits the long-lost Zum Nussbaum restaurant with its signature walnut tree – even though the original existed on the other side of the river.

The Ephraim Palais, once known as the “most beautiful corner in Berlin”, was rebuilt using pieces of its original façade. This 1766 rococo landmark had been dismantled by the Nazis to make way for Germania, but it sat in a West German warehouse. Delicate East-West negotiations led to its return. The one kernel of intact history is the Knoblauch House, ancestral home of an illustrious Berlin clan including architect Eduard Knoblauch, designer of the Jewish Synagogue in Mitte.

Stahn wrapped his historical cut-and-paste project in a ring of low-rise 1980s DDR Platten-bau apartments decked out in fanciful gables and faux-Gothic detailing. At the time, the Nikolaiviertel was derided as “Honecker’s Disneyland,” and it’s still a nightmare for historical purists. But after years of neglect, the 775th birthday events are putting this maligned Cold War oddity centre stage. But why pull the Nikolaiviertel into the spotlight now?

For one thing, it’s what you might call an underperforming asset. Despite some very real historic sites, it barely rates on the list of tourist must-sees. One reason for this is the fact that it’s hard to find. That should change when a new U5 station opens at the nearby Berliner Rathaus in 2017. But will the Nikolaivertel finally become a tourist mecca? Probably not. For most visitors, Berlin’s 700 plus years of pre-Hitler history are a ho-hum footnote. Perhaps the biggest reason for Wowereit & Co. to welcome this unloved bastard child into the family now is to give some legitimacy to their own experiment in historical cut-and-paste.

The 775th birthday party marks the unofficial construction kick off for the Humboldt Forum, the resurrected Prussian palace. They hope that by holding their faux-Baroque palace up against the faux-Gothic Nikolaiviertel, their fake history will look good by comparison.   

An outdoor exhibit about the 1937 and 1987 Berlin birthday celebrations stands in front of the Marienkirche until October 28. Further birthday celebration details: www.berlin.de/775