The Humboldt Box and the future of the past

Our first excursion in Berlin began in a downpour that felt like buckets of water being poured over our heads. To say it was bracing would be an understatement.

We started the day at a place called the Humboldt Box on the Schlossplatz for a look at a controversial project to restore a piece of Germany’s royal history. (Two notes: “Schloss” is German for “castle” and just about everything related to how Germans remember their past is controversial. I lost count of the times someone said to us, “There’s a lot of debate about this.”)

This architectural curiosity is located on a site in the middle of Berlin where a private organization wants to rebuild the old Prussian palace where the Kaisers resided. Click this link to see pictures of both the Box and the palace concept.

Except for the Humboldt Box, there’s nothing there but a big hole in the ground. The palace, home of kings and kaisers from 1701 to 1918, was heavily damaged by Allied bombing in World War II and the ruins were razed by the Communists in 1950, despite West German protests.

Now, some private organizations are seeking donations from the public to build a replica of the old German palace on its former site, using some design elements preserved from the remnants of the old palace. And, as we noted, there’s much debate about it.

First, the price tag is huge, an estimated 552 million euros (about $660 million) — 440 million euros from government funding and the rest being sought from donations. And while Germany has one of the more robust economies in the Eurozone, that’s all relative these days and it’s asking a lot, some say, to ask the average German to pony up for the construction of a replica castle.

Last summer German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the project, which was supposed to have gotten under way this year, would begin in 2014.

Second, there’s the symbolism involved and, depending on your point of view, the old palace was seen as either a point of national pride or a reminder of the Prussian militarism that led the Germans into losing two world wars.

And lastly, the ersatz castle is criticized as the “Disneyfication” — not the word they use in Germany, but Americans will get the idea — of history. Wonder if there will be an animatronic Kaiser Wilhelm?

The German Historical Museum a few blocks away was the next stop, and we spent an all-too-short hour or so looking at just about half the museum — exhibits from the Weimar Republic of between the World Wars to the present day.

One of the lingering questions for me about Nazi Germany and Hitler’s rise to power over the years is how could it all have happened — a monstrously destructive second World War, the Holocaust and the rest. And after touring this museum, I think I finally understand.

The artifacts show you the conditions that helped bring Hitler to power — the staggering inflation that resulted in 1 billion mark notes and caused restaurant patrons to order dessert at the beginning of the meal because it would be more expensive by the end of it.

And election propaganda of the time showed how Hitler was, above all a master manipulator as a politician — he was much better at that than at being a generalissimo, as it turned out. After having seen Auschwitz, the posters demonizing the Jews are especially unsettling.

The post-World War II section of the museum has a design appropriate to the content — patrons can follow one corridor for the history of West Germany or another parallel one for East Germany, and can criss-cross between them before coming out into a central location for re-unified Germany after 1989.

From ruin to re-unification — it’s a pattern that will re-appear quite a few more times before our trip is done.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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