A row is raging about the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. Should the 1970s showcase be left as a reminder of the old communist regime or replaced by a replica of the original 17th-century palace? Derek Scally hears both sides
Late at night as you pass through the streets of eastern Berlin you can see ghostly figures wandering the halls of the Palace of the Republic. It's 12 years since the last East German government abandoned the building that was once the showpiece of the communist regime. Since then, it has stood empty, apart from a team that works round-the-clock in protective clothing removing the asbestos that contaminates the building.
Earlier this month, after a decade of wrangling, the fate of the building appeared to be sealed: it will be torn down and replaced with a replica of the old Prussian Palace, the very building that used to stand on the site until the communists blew it up.
But after a decade in which they have watched much of their past disappear, East Berliners believe this is their last chance to preserve a crucial part of their history.
The controversy surrounding the palace goes back to 1950, when the government of the new East German state began to assert its authority on the capital. Much of the city still lay in ruins, and no exception was Unter den Linden, the boulevard stretching two kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate that is filled with Berlin's best neo-classical architecture.
The tree-lined thoroughfare was the legacy of the first Prussian king, Frederich, to Berlin. In the early 17th century he built his palace at the end of the boulevard, an imposing four-storey baroque building with ornate facades.
The palace was the seat of successive kings until the abdication of Wilhelm II after the end of the first World War. Neither the Weimar Republic nor the Nazi regime had much to do with the empty palace, shunning its legacy of Prussian militarism.
Like much of central Berlin, the palace sustained heavy structural damage during the second World War, but was not beyond reconstruction.
However, in 1950, Berlin's new communist regime decided that a Prussian palace had no place in its self-declared "workers' paradise".
"The centre of our capital and the ruins of the palace must become a grand square for demonstrations upon which our people's will for struggle and for progress can find expression," said Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) or Socialist Unity Party, in August 1950. A month later, the demolition began and 300 years of history was destroyed in a violent display of proletarian power.
The palace site lay derelict until the 1970s when the SED built its "Palace of the Republic", a squat building with a smoked, mirrored glass faÃ§ade. The building was home to the "People's Chamber" show parliament as well as a 5,000-seat auditorium, shops, a restaurant and a bowling alley.
The palace was a popular meeting point and countless East German couples have fond memories of wedding anniversaries celebrated there. But compared with its predecessor, the Palace of the Republic would have a short life. On August 23rd, 1990, 40 years to the day after the SED voted to destroy the Prussian palace, the first and last freely-elected East German government met in an all-night session in the palace to vote itself out of existence and join the Federal Republic.
In 1993, two years after it was closed because of asbestos contamination, the Berlin state government decided to destroy the palace. The decision sparked a heated public debate and East Germans took to the streets to save their "people's palace". They viewed the the decision as another example of West German victor justice.
It was the opening shot in a decade-long war of words, competing ideologies and rival nostalgias. East Germans remembered happy hours spent at the palace, a rare relic of an otherwise restricted public sphere in East Germany. The fight to save the palace was a fight to vindicate their former lives.
Lieselotte Schulz, of the "Save the Palace of the Republic" foundation, says the palace remains the property of the 16 million citizens of the former East Germany.
"To reply to the dynamiting of the Prussian palace with the demolition of the Palace of the Republic would see history vanish from our landscape once again. The palace must be retained," she says. For her and the foundation, the rebuilding of the former palace is a falsification of history and the destruction of what is an admittedly ugly, but authentic and existing historic monument.
But East Germans' determination to save their palace was countered by a 1993 exhibition about the old palace that tapped a reservoir of nostalgia for a building few Berliners could remember.
"Whoever is fundamentally against a reconstruction of the palace puts himself at the same level as the narrow-minded philistines Walter Ulbricht, the Socialist Unity Party and company," said one visitor in the exhibition guestbook.
But, as author Brian Ladd writes in his book The Ghosts of Berlin: "Is the proper answer to Ulbricht's crime to repeat it or avoid doing it again?" Supporters of a rebuilt palace point to the nearby neo-classical buildings on Unter den Linden to support their cause. Nearly all were destroyed in the second World War but faithfully restored. Even the Brandenburg Gate is on its third or fourth incarnation. Supporters say that only the the baroque faÃ§ade of the Prussian Palace can restore visual coherence to Unter den Linden, once Berlin's grandest boulevard. Last month, a government commission recommended that the Palace of the Republic be demolished and replaced with a new building with the faÃ§ade of the old palace.
For the second time, the death sentence was pronounced on the Palace of the Republic.
Behind the building's smoky glass windows, construction engineer Heinrich Grumpelt contemplates the future of the building he has spent four years and â‚¬65 million decontaminating.
"Berlin needs a city centre," he says. "The city was founded on this spot over 700 years ago and yet we still lack a coherent centre." He wanders the deserted corridors, casting a flashlight into the bare interior of the former People's Chamber and, in a corner, the tiled remains of Erich Honecker's private bathroom. Steel girders and concrete are all that's left of the palace remembered for its 1970s communist chic furnishings and an entrance hall so full of light fittings that it was nicknamed "Erich's lamp shop".
"I would rather see Berlin perhaps make a mistake and rebuild the Prussian Palace than live with this mistake of the East German government," says Grumpelt.
A new palace would, at a conservative estimate, cost â‚¬1.25 billion to build, excluding the cost of demolishing the existing palace.
But Berlin's state government is all but bankrupt and the federal government is concentrating on renovating the nearby neo-classical museum complex.
THE fate of the palace is no longer a matter of urban landscape and memory, but of money. Rather than make a final decision or commit any funding after the commission's report last month, Chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der announced yet another commission to study how a new palace would be used.
Despite his stalling, SchrÃ¶der has become an important supporter of the movement to rebuild the Prussian palace.
After the federal government moved to Berlin, with the Chancellery still under construction, SchrÃ¶der worked in Erich Honecker's former office in the the former SED headquarters adjacent to the palace.
The building's faÃ§ade boasts the only surviving section of the old palace, the balcony from which Socialist leader Karl Liebknecht declared a German socialist republic in 1918.
Chancellor SchrÃ¶der summed up the apolitical view of many Germans on the long-running battle of the palaces: "In my temporary office I had to keep looking at the Palace of the Republic," he said. "It is so monstrous that I would rather have a rebuilt palace, simply because it's prettier."