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Colonialism, genocide and resistance: My visit to Humboldt Forum

Our writer visited Berlin’s most controversial new building and expected to be both bored and enraged. Here’s what he found.

Image for Colonialism, genocide and resistance: My visit to Humboldt Forum

Berlin’s most reactionary building opened last Tuesday. Nathaniel Flakin visited two days later, expecting to be both bored and enraged. Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

The Humboldt Forum is a copy of the Berlin City Palace, which was built starting in the 15th century, until it was destroyed in 1945. This was once the home of the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling dynasty of Brandenburg, Prussia and the German Empire. The German government has spent €680 million for a monument to Prussia with all of its authoritarian, militaristic and colonial traditions. If you want to see the value’s of today’s German elite, look no further.

Except: it’s not really a copy. Three sides attempt to recreate the yellowish baroque facade of the old palace. But architectural plans for the whole building could not be found. So the side facing the Spree looks like an uninspired yet monumental office building. The courtyard is even more disconcerting, where two old-looking and two new-looking walls (all ugly, in their own way) intersect.

Above everything is a copper dome, topped by a cross and surrounded by bible verses that celebrate the Hohenzollerns after they defeated the democratic revolution of 1848. Maren Otto, the widow of Germany’s mail-order catalogue king Werner Otto, donated a million euros for that. The Otto family runs malls across Germany, including the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, the Ring Center and others in Berlin. This is a perfect metaphor for the architectural style: second-rate baroque combined with a shopping centre, as if the Prussian monarchy had been assimilated by a neoliberal version of the Borg.

One would have assumed that after 1945, the German bourgeoisie had abandoned gigantism forever, but apparently not.

What happened to the old City Palace? You might have heard it was blown up by evil communists in 1950. In fact, it was destroyed in the war — the House of Hohenzollern played no small role in both world wars. The German Democratic Republic merely cleared away the ruins. And was that really so bad? At a time when working-class Berliners desperately needed housing, the East German government decided it was not going to invest vast resources in rebuilding a monument to war criminals. Think of that from today’s perspective: don’t you wish the German government had spent €680 million on affordable housing, rather than this hulk?

In 1976, the GDR opened the Palace of the Republic. Its bronze-tinted windows reflected the centre of East Berlin for the next three decades. Iconic round light fixtures hung from the ceilings — East Germans called it Erich’s Lamp Shop, as Stalinist boss Erich Honecker personally picked the design. Over 60 million people visited the Palace over the years — a great public space with two enormous halls, restaurants, and shops.

Starting in 2006, the Palace of the Republic was torn down. Supposedly this was because of asbestos — but that could have been removed. Berlin is now going to clean out asbestos from the Internationales Congress Centrum in Charlottenburg, which West Berlin opened three years later, although it is far less architecturally interesting or historically significant. Today, the gift shop at the Humboldt Forum has more tchotchkes for the Place of the Republic than for itself — the market is acknowledging that the old building had more style.

Soon, the Humboldt Forum will hold Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. This might have seemed like a solid choice a decade ago, as the old Ethnological Museum down in Dahlem was popular yet far away. From today’s perspective, however, they could not have picked anything more offensive.

Image for Colonialism, genocide and resistance: My visit to Humboldt Forum

The Berlin Global exhibition ping-pongs between Afro-German struggles, modern fashion, the old vault from the club Tresor and German genocides. Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

When the permanent exhibitions open on September 22, this palace built by colonialists will house a veritable celebration of genocide. The crown jewel of the collection is a massive Polynesian ship known as the “Luf Boat.” As historian Götz Aly has shown in a recent book, this ship was acquired as German colonialists were in the process of massacring every single inhabitant of the island they called Luf. This is far from the only artifact of plunder.

As the date of Humboldt Forum’s opening approached, the organisers clearly noticed the wind was turning against their shrine to imperialism. It would seem like they panicked, and commissioned an exhibition called Berlin Global that provides an astoundingly progressive contrast to its reactionary location.

That exhibition opens with a room-sized comic mural about colonialism, followed by an immersive overview of the city’s revolutions and revolts (1848, 1918, 1953, 1968, 1989). Next comes a display about struggles by trans and queer people going back 100 years, and a gorgeous punk diorama about the occupied youth centres Drugstore and Potse — the former evicted by capitalist interests, and the latter just hanging on. Kind of weird that the city would pay to evict the centre, and then pay for a museum exhibit commemorating it.

The exhibition feels kind of random — ping-ponging between Afro-German struggles, modern fashion, the old vault from the club Tresor and German genocides. But it was made by different activists, and their energy shines through. For me, the most moving part was a room about war showing the continuities between colonial crimes and Germany’s Bundeswehr today. One wall listed German Wars in the 20th century, which included the First and Second World War, multiple colonial massacres (“Boxer War,” Maji Maji War, Herero and Nama War), and German military missions abroad since 1990.

This is absolutely correct — all these wars were carried out by the same military in the interests of the same capitalists — but it is a third rail of German politics to admit this. Germany’s federal president even had to resign when he accidentally admitted that Germany carried out wars for its economic interests. Today, one is supposed to say that wars are about “human rights,” “feminism” and other disingenuous excuses. But this exhibition was having none of that.

Berlin Global was making me feel giddy. Could it really be so good? I double checked what the class enemy thought: the arch-conservative newspaper FAZ. They hated it. Like the rest of the people who planned this building, they want the Humboldt Brothers — Wilhelm and Alexander — to stand for a “modern” Prussia and a “progressive” colonialism. But the exhibition displays the facts: there is a straight line running from colonialism to fascism and the holocaust, and this is all connected to the German state today. The FAZ author was incensed about this “ideological manifesto” in a “place of propaganda.”

“If you took this at its word,” he wrote, “you’d have to tear down the Humboldt Forum.” And I’d have to agree with him there!

The initiative Palast Jetzt! is calling for the reconstruction of the Palace of the Republic. It might sound like a joke, but it’s a well-considered plan. They’re not proposing to tear down the Humboldt Forum immediately, which would indeed seem wasteful. Instead, they have a five-point plan that starts with placing a bronze model of the Palace in front of the Humboldt Forum now. Over the following years, simulated facades of the Palace could be added, and the Humboldt Forum would finally torn down in 2050, after 30 years — the exact same time the Palace was allowed to stand (1976–2006).

The Humboldt Forum is, above all, a monument to capitalist decay. Germany’s ruling class has almost limitless resources — but it clearly has no vision for the world. As their system causes biblical floods, they have clearly given up hope for its future. So they invest in rockets, reflecting a nihilistic hedonism that dreams of a billionaires’ colony on Mars. This is reflected in an architecture that is nothing but despair, combing nostalgia for the aristocracy with the generic look of a shopping mall. (I really can’t overstate just how ugly this all is!) Yet they realise that most people find their aesthetics disgusting, so they hand over the central exhibition space to their critics, leaving nothing more than a cowardly mishmash.

On November 9, 1918, in the middle of an insurrection, communist leader Liebknecht went onto a balcony of the City Palace to proclaim the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. That balcony has now been carefully reconstructed. (Even though the original was preserved as part of the GDR’s State Council Building a few hundred metres behind, meaning that Berlin now has two of them!) That revolution failed, which is why the very same aristocrats and capitalists remain in power. But their rule will not last forever. When the next socialist revolution arrives, someone is definitely going to climb up to that balcony and finish what Liebknecht set out to do. This system clearly has no future, so it’s only a matter of time.

Thanks to my friend Nico for visiting the Humboldt Forum with me. Our shared complaints formed the basis for this article.