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The Palace simulation: How a PR stunt changed the face of Berlin

This is the story of how a monumental PR stunt paved the way for the demolition of Berlin's iconic Palace of the Republic.

The City Palace simulation. Photo: IMAGO / Ecomedia / Robert Fishman

The imposing facade of the Humboldt Forum looms large on museum island and its huge size is matched only by the colossal controversies that surround it. The massive project to replace the Palace of the Republic with a reconstructed Prussian palace remains a bone of contention in Berlin – with many people mourning the loss of the masterpiece of socialist architecture. 

So how did the Berlin Palace come to re-built at all? It all started with a massive PR stunt, funded by private industry and backed by a powerful lobby. This is the story of Berlin’s Berlin Palace simulation. 

The Palace of the Republic, August 1990. Eyesore or cultural monument? Photo: IMAGO / Detlev Konnerth

What was The Palace of the Republic?

The Palace of the Republic used to stand where the Humboldt Forum is today, on the site of the former Berlin Palace (bombed to bits in World War II). The so-called People’s Palace was constructed in the DDR between 1973 and 1976. It housed the Volkskammer (the lower house of the DDR legislature), but also a huge range of cultural offerings: two large auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, a cinema, 13 restaurants, 5 beer halls, a bowling alley, billiards rooms, a rooftop ice skating rink, a gym, a casino, a basketball court, a pool, barbershops and salons, a disco, and even a video game arcade.

The interior of the Palace of the Republic, 1986. Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1986-0417-4146-417 / CC BY-SA 3.0 de / Wikipedia Creative Commons

After the fall of the wall, the Palace of the Republic was closed. At first, this was for health and safety reasons due to the  more than 5,000 tons of asbestos in the building. However, by 2003 the building had been made safe. Yet it still stood empty. 

The interior of the Palace of the Republic, nicknamed ‘Erich’s lamp shop’ after the abundance of funky lighting and the then General Secretary of the SED, Erich Honecker. 1976. Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0706-417 / CC BY-SA 3.0 de / Wikipedia Creative Commons

During this time, however, another campaign was underway led by a powerful group of people who wanted to rebuild the Berlin Palace. At first, this idea seemed odd. The memory of the building wasn’t strong in Berlin. The building had been completely destroyed in 1950, when its shattered remains were demolished by the DDR as a royalist symbol not in keeping with the regime’s communist ideology. This is where the ‘Friends of the Berlin Palace’ enter our story. 

The Palace Simulation was constructed adjacent to the Palace of the Republic. Photo: IMAGO / SMID

The Friends of the Berlin Palace

In 1992 a group which called itself the ‘Friends of the Berlin Palace’ (Förderverein Berliner Schloss) was founded by Wilhelm von Boddien, the manager of a manufacturing plant for combine harvesters in Schleswig-Holstein. This eccentric organisation was characterised by Prussian nostalgia and right-wing conservatism, and they wanted to fill the ideological vacuum of the city post-reunification. 

This group wanted to bring back the Berlin Palace, and destroy the Palace of the Republic that stood in its place. But how to visualise such an enormous idea, and bring it into public discourse as a tangible possibility? They came up with the ingenious idea of recreating the palace in a 1:1 simulation. The project was to be financed exclusively with private funds on the basis of donations and sponsorship. Some of these donors included BMW and the pharmaceutical giant Schering.

The construction of the Palace Simulation. Photo: © Copyright 2020 FOTO DISKURSE

The Palace Simulation

Having amassed sufficient funding, as well as support from the governing CDU mayor, Eberhard Depgen, a replica of the palace was built in 1993. The construction was a vast scaffolding frame, heavily sponsored by the scaffolding manufacturer Thyssen-Hünnebeck, which was then covered with a ‘trompe l’oeil’ plastic covering (10,000m2 of it), painted by the french large-screen artist Catherine Feff. The ‘exhibit’ was opened on June 30, 1993, to much pomp and ceremony. 

The palace simulation stood for 15 months on what was then Marx-Engels-Platz, and was seen by millions of visitors. The stunt was crucial in the formation of opinion and in winning over powerful supporters to the cause of rebuilding the Berlin Palace. It’s difficult to know of course, how much it influenced the opinions of ordinary Berliners, who were not consulted at any point in the decision making process. With this PR coup, the dynamic of reunification in Berlin took a significant step towards favouring the imperial over the communist past. 

A doomed monument to communism. The Palace of the Republic, August 1994. Photo: IMAGO / Rolf Zöllner

Pushing for reconstruction

The goal of the Friends of the Berlin Palace was now focused on promoting reconstruction. Major news outlets promoted the idea, the CDU mayor praised the construction as an “important contribution to the urban development discussion”, and Wilhelm von Boddien climbed to the lofty heights of the State Monument Council of Berlin.

By the time the Palace simulation was dismantled in 1994 millions of people had visited the site. Inside, an exhibition familiarised Berlin residents with the supposed splendour and glory of the former residence. There was even accompanying merch, with Swatch bringing out a wrist watch with a Berlin Palace motif. The possibility of reconstructing the Berlin Palace had been manifested as a physical reality, thanks to the Palace Simulation installation, and was a powerful tool in its ultimate success.

The Palace of the Republic from above, August 2004. Photo: IMAGO / Schöning

The Palace of the Republic is doomed

With so many influential people now won over to the cause of reconstructing the Berlin Palace, what was to become of the Palace of the Republic? Its doors had been closed since 1990, and despite vocal popular support and love for the building among ordinary Berliners, the decision on the building’s fate was never to be put to the people.  

In 2001 a commission of 17 city planning experts and six politicians decided that they would recommend the construction of a replica of the Berlin Palace with its baroque facades, with a majority of one vote. The fate of the Palace of the Republic was sealed, and it was demolished between 2006 and 2008.

The Berlin Palace and the Humboldt Forum today

Protests outside the Humboldt Forum in 2021. Photo: IMAGO / Matthias Reichelt

The palace reconstruction began in 2013 and was completed in 2020, all for the tidy sum of 680 million euros. This new incarnation of the Berlin Palace, now known as the Humboldt Forum, is intended to enrich social life with exhibitions and cultural events.

However, criticism of the prestige project has been ongoing since the debate began in the 1990s. Like other similar institutions such as the British Museum in London, current criticism is levelled at the building’s contents, which includes ethnological collections made up of looted art and artefacts from the colonial era.

Imperialist Disneyland replica, or symbol of unity of the historic centre? Travesty or majesty? It’s up to every Berliner to decide. But whatever side of the debate you land on, we can all agree that the loss of the Palace of the Republic was a sad moment in Berlin’s cultural history. 

This article has been adapted from the German by Poppy Smallwood.