Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Present a post-war (but pre-Reunification) image of Berlin’s Lustgarten online and you can rest assured that approximately half of the reviews it receives will be crushing. They will chide the Communist system and East Berlin authorities for the alleged senseless and/or vengeful destruction of Berlin’s historical plaza. However, as with most things in life and nearly everything in Berlin, one should be wary of such typical knee-jerk reactions.
For although the Red Army’s Lust for Wreckage after they reached Berlin quite matched that displayed by Hitler’s troops in the East before, not the “Reds” but Nazis turned the area of Berlin’s first royal gardens – where today’s Altes Museum, the Stadtschloß and the Berliner Dom were built later – into the concrete plain it remained long after the war.
On February 13, 1935 – exactly 83 years ago – the Prussian Building and Finance Directorate commissioned Conrad Dammeier to redesign the Lustgarten for the 1936 Olympic Games. Hitler himself approved the decision a year earlier, partly channelling Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I, better known as Soldatenkönig: in 1713 he turned the plaza into an exercise and parade ground for his soldiers with whom he loved to play like a child would with tin toys.
Apart from the above as well as Lustgarten’s extremely convenient size and central location, Hitler might have had another, perhaps less obvious, reason to want to turn the plaza into a Nazi parade venue. Between 1918 and 1933 it was the scene of some of the most important political rallies in the history of the Weimar Republic and many of those were organised by Berlin’s Communists and Social-Democrats. In symbolic terms, the Lustgarten’s refurbishment could be interpreted as claiming territory, equal to hoisting a flag over a seized land.
The 1935-1936 redesign destroyed the early-nineteenth century shape – one created by Schinkel (the architect of both the Altes Museum and the older version of the Berliner Dom) together with Berlin’s leading green-space planner, Joseph Peter Lenné (to whom the city owes, among others, the Tiergarten Park).
The famous equestrian statue of Friedrich Wilhelm III (by Albert Wolff) unveiled in the centre of the Lustgarten in 1871, and further expanded in 1873, was proclaimed a visual nuisance and promptly removed to the western edge of the plaza. There it was turned by 90° to face the Dom to create the illusion of the monarch heading for the church (before that he was “on his way” to the City Castle).
The massive 1831 granite basin created by Cantian by carving it out of a giant rock, the Großer Markgrafenstein, and placed in front of the Altes Museum (it was actually meant to be placed inside it but proved to be too big to fit through the door) met with similar fate. It ended up on the lawn north of the church.
By August 1, 1936 when blond and blue-eyed German athlete Siegfried Eifrig lit the Olympic Flame using the torch carried by a 3,187-kilometre long relay from the Greek Olympia, the Lustgarten was a completely different place. The arrival of the Red Army in 1945, although obviously not without dramatic consequences for the city, did not do much to change the plaza’s overall design. After the war and the necessary clean-up operations, including the removal of debris and wrecked vehicles, it became, once again, a political rally venue – this time controlled by the Communist authorities in East Berlin.
In 1951 together with the site of the former Stadtschloß (demolished in 1950) and the old Schloßfreiheit, the Lustgarten became part of the new Marx-Engels-Platz. Soon afterwards the remaining 1935 street-lights were removed from it; however, the old “Nazi” paving stones – which miraculously survived the war – continued to serve as before. In fact, most of them did until the next big refurbishment which took place in 1997-1999, after the German Reunification.
Today the Lustgarten is one of the favourite tourist spots in Germany’s capital and is particularly popular on hot summer days – luckily, the strict nineteenth-century ban on entering the Lustgarten lawns was not re-introduced along with most of the plaza’s old design. Cantian’s Suppenschüssel (faithful to their tradition of giving amusing name to all large objects installed in public space, Berliners dubbed the granite bowl a “Soup Bowl”) returned to the prominent spot before Schinkel’s Altes Museum but the statue of King Friedrich Wilhelm III and his mount was melted either during or some time after the war.
Only two elements of the whole monument survive until today: the figure of Clio, the Greek muse of history, and the Allegory of Science. Both of them were placed next to Berlin’s oldest church, Nicholaikirche, in what is known as Nikolaiviertel.