The King of Berlin has been without a home for so long! Thankfully, as of last week, the Berlin City Palace, and the Humboldt Forum inside it, has opened.
Seriously, though: why did Berlin need to spend more than half a billion euros for an ugly Baroque palace? What is the function of this building, if not as a winter residence for the House of Hohenzollern?
Construction was well along before they decided why they were building a palace in the first place. Now the collections of the old Ethnological Museum will be displayed here. German elites have a reputation for being tone-deaf — but putting art they looted from the colonial world into a Prussian palace?
Not so long ago, this was the location of the Palace of the Republic. And whatever you think of the German Democratic Republic, this was a building that was not just artistically striking, with its copper-toned windows reflecting Berlin’s centre — it also could have been imminently useful today, with two huge halls for concerts or congresses.
Bourgeois history will often claim that those evil communists “demolished” the palace in 1950. But after World War II, the palace was in ruins. Did East Berlin’s new government really want to dedicate resources to rebuilding for the Hohenzollerns while working people faced a dire housing shortage? Of course not. That is only something that the evil capitalists running the city today would do.
The GDR did save two elements of the former palace. Firstly, they took down the jingoistic National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument standing next to the palace. The statue of the first German emperor was surrounded by four bronze lions, and these were put into storage. When the East Berlin Zoo, the Tierpark, opened a hypermodern big cat house in 1963, these lions were “demilitarised” and placed at the entrance — where you can still see them today. How cool is that?
They also saved one of the palace’s gates. These gates were scenes of world history. It was from the balcony of Portal V, on July 31, 1914, that Wilhelm II declared war: “A difficult hour has fallen upon Germany today. Jealous enemies everywhere are forcing us to defend ourselves justly. They are putting the sword into our hand. (…) But we will show the enemies what it means to attack Germany.”
Note how he tried to present this as a “defensive” war. This is because just days previously, hundreds of thousands of people across Germany had protested against the war — including on Unter den Linden. As the war dragged on, creating greater horrors than the world had ever seen, working people began to fight back with bread riots and political strikes.
Finally, on November 9, 1918, the revolution reached Berlin. The Kaiser fled the country. It was at this same palace, this time at Portal IV, that communist leader Karl Liebknecht gave a famous speech: “The old is no more. The rule of the Hohenzollerns, who lived in this palace for centuries, is over. In this hour we proclaim the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. (…) On the spot where the Kaiser’s standard flew, we will raise the red flag of the free republic!”
During the revolution, the palace and the Marstall behind it were taken over by the revolutionary sailors of the People’s Navy Division. They were the armed force of the working class. The social democratic government and the proto-fascist of the paramilitary of the Freikorps were determined to get the sailors out of their headquarters in the city centre. So on Christmas Eve of 1918, it was the social democrats and the military who bombed the palace with artillery — long before the East German regime was established.
This building is a monument to the Hohenzollerns, who started World War I and, according to many historians, enthusiastically supported Hitler in World War II. But it also contains some revolutionary history.
Liebknecht’s Portal IV was saved when the palace’s ruins were removed in 1950. It was integrated into the State Council Building, the seat of the East German government, when it was opened in 1964. (That building is an architectural gem, with a breathtaking, three-story stained glass window in the atrium depicting the history of the German workers’ movement.) For that reason, Berlin’s centre now has two different copies of Portal IV in Berlin, just a few hundred metres apart.
This is a history that is frankly worth repeating. Revolutionary workers can again take over the palace. After returning all the looted art to the colonial world, we can turn it into public housing for working people. And before long, we will destroy this symbol of Prussian despotism a second time (as Die PARTEI has long demanded), and replace it with a real palace for working people.