Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Kroll´scher Wintergarten or Krolloper (also known as Krolls Etablissement), which opened as an up-market entertainment venue in February 1844, was originally built on the western edge of army parade and drill ground in the Tiergarten.
Joseph Kroll, owner of Kroll´scher Wintergarten in Breslau (today Polish “Wrocław”), had it designed by Ludwig Persius, famous early-nineteenth century Berlin and Potsdam architect and a pupil of Schinkel’s. The place Kroll was investing money in had to be impressive and pleasing to the eye (read: expensive). First and foremost, it had to please the Prussian king. It was, after all, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, delighted with the amusing events he attended in Breslau, who presented Kroll with a generous and well-located plot – for free but on several conditions.
One of them being that should Kroll fail, it would have been his duty and financial responsibility to demolish whatever buildings he had had erected on the site before returning the land to the crown.
Despite permanent financial straits in which Kroll’scher Wintergarten found itself basically from day one – at some point poor Kroll even expressed tearful regret at having ever attracted the King’s attention – the place became an immediate hit with the local Schickeria (“in-crowd”). It was a commonly accepted fact that not attending events at Kroll’s equalled being a social pariah. Whoever wished to be part of the game, made sure their their horse-drawn coach took them to the Tiergarten hotspot on regular basis.
The building, whose façade had the same length as the western edge of the parade ground before it, had three enormous front halls – the largest of them was, understandably, the Königssaal. Dozens of smaller rooms served as foyers for the said halls during numerous balls organised there. For these events, such rooms were traditionally turned into beautifully yet discreetly illuminated orangeries. The presence of 400 gas flames illuminating the building from the inside – Kroll’s was among the very first Berlin sites with indoor gas illumination – filled those events with an almost magic glow.
Unfortunately, only seven years after the grand opening, these flames caused the great catastrophe: on February 1, 1851 the Kroll’scher Wintergarten burnt down completely, leaving nothing but the foundations of the original Persius design. The venue, however, could be rebuilt a year later – this time after commissioning with its design another famous German architect, Edward Titz.
Despite lavish expenses, star performers (Kroll’s was visited by world-class composers like Strauß and by many famous entertainers of the day), money just wouldn’t flow back and the place’s financial situation kept deteriorating. By the early 1870s another calamity struck: the probability of its being closed down and demolished to make room for the new Reichstag building became pretty high. Luckily for the Krolloper fans, the final decision taken in 1876 had the wrecking ball swing in the opposite direction, towards the other end of the old parade ground. Instead of Kroll’s, the government chose to demolish the old Palais Raczynski (whose fascinating history we presented in another post).
In 1896 Kroll’s, which in the meantime had been bought by Julius Bötzow – owner of one of Berlin’s big breweries in the east of the city – changed hands again and became property of the Prussian state. It was officially converted into an opera building – also through refurbishment – and finally began to flourish. Not for long, though: after Kaiser Wilhelm II decided the old building should be demolished and replaced with a bigger, more impressive edifice, the First World War put a stop to all works, including those which had already been under way. During the war the formerly splendid venue served as a shelter for wounded soldiers and as a textile warehouse.
Its temporary resurrection as a place of art and entertainment took place in the 1920s when the Krolloper was rented by the Volksbühne, a Berlin organisation striving to bring “high culture to low classes” and whose main site was the theatre at today’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, then known as the Volksbühne Berlin. Between 1927 and July 3, 1931 the Staatsoper am Platz der Republik, as it was known since 1926, continued to shock, surprise and delight its audiences with what can only be described as ground-breaking repertoire and approach to Art.
Unfortunately, as could be expected, this kind of artistic trailblazing quickly attracted the attention of the nationalist as well as right-wing political circles and led to having the theatre’s programme branded as “cultural Bolshevism” and criticised from all directions as un-patriotic, un-German and unacceptable. The last opera event at the Krolloper, under Otto Klemperer, was, however, quite a moderate choice: on July 3, 1931 – exactly 86 years ago – they presented Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”.
Two years later with the Reichstag building still swathed in smoke from the massive fire that destroyed it in February 1933, Krollopera became the new assembly hall for the German parliament. In March of the same year at the former Kroll’scher Wintergarten Hitler announced what is known as the “Enabling Act of 1933” – an act of law which effectively allowed the Nazis to seize power in Germany.
It was also here that Hitler announced the outbreak of war against Poland on September 1, 1939 – it marked the beginning of the Second World War – and in December 1941, Germany’s declaration of war against the USA. In 1942 he followed it with a particularly vicious show of Nazi chutzpah when Germany’s defeat in the USSR and failure to take Moscow were presented as… another great success of the Nazi military strategy. Krolloper had seen many spectacles in its eventful past but actors who took its stage in 1933 and held it for over a decade reached absolutely new heights of theatrical deception.
The building at the western end of the Platz der Republik (former Königsplatz) shared the fate of many of Berlin’s historical buildings: bombed during air-raids, it got caught between the Scylla of the German defence and Charybdis of the Red Army offence in April/May 1945. Although badly damaged, the building, which like the Stadtschloß or the Anhalter Bahnhof in Stresemannstraße, could have been restored to its former glory, was gradually demolished in 1951-1957. Today its site is overgrown with grass and nothing but a memorial plaque reminds the visitors where to look for its ghost.