Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Berlin’s Palace of Nostalgia

Berlin's reconstructed Humboldt Forum, built to resemble an old Prussian palace which was replaced by a modernist icon, is a monument to the nostalgia driving the revival of right-wing sentiment across Europe.

Zweifel stood on top of the Palast Der Republik, in six-metre-high letters. The German word for doubt glowered in the freezing Berlin mist throughout February 2005. The Palast had become a site for art installations in its last days. Zweifel (an artwork by Lars Ø Ramberg) was installed on the condemned building while its future was decided. In that moment, the piece reflected back what the city and the German nation were feeling.

The building which replaces the Palast Der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the Humboldt Forum is opening this month. Does it represent a reversal of the long process of historical reflection which Germany has undergone in recent decades? Germany has done more than any other nation to face its painful, tragic past, and perhaps as result has avoided the fevered flag-waving patriotism which defines so much of national politics around the world. Has this sentiment of considered doubt and ambivalence been replaced with nostalgia and something altogether more crude and sinister?

The Forum

The Humboldt Forum is a new institution, and aims to be a new kind of institution. At 42,000sqm it is in the same ‘world museum’ bracket as the Louvre (60,000sqm) or the Victoria and Albert (30,000sqm). It aspires to behave differently, though, by acting specifically as a forum, bringing other cultural institutions together, housing event spaces, galleries, lecture theatres, and collections varying from ethnological objects to historic scientific equipment. Education and debate are the core stated aims of the institution, communicating with a wide audience, from academic researchers to tourists to local school kids.

The Stadtschloss in Berlin in 1900.

Three of the Humboldt Forum’s four sides replicate the façade of the Prussian Imperial Palace, the Stadtschloss. The Stadtschloss had grown to symbolize Prussian royal power since the 15th century, and having been bombed during the Second World War, it was demolished by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government in 1950 in a deliberate act of iconoclasm.

Demolition doesn’t offer a profound engagement with the past, no matter how legitimate the desire to destroy public expressions of a terrible past may be. Berlin went through years of eradicating swastikas, dynamiting and chiselling them off civic buildings. Now the only visible swastika in the city is being crushed under the boot of a 12m Soviet soldier, who is lowering his sword to save a German child, at the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. Although it represents an edited past, who would argue that the demolition of architectural swastikas was illegitimate?

The GDR replaced the Stadtschloss in 1973 with the Palast der Republik, which housed the Volkskammer (the rubber stamp East German Parliament). The Palast was imagined as a volkshaus (people’s house), a kind of elevated trade union hall where culture, the people, and power come face to face, at least in theory. The Palast housed high culture: classical concerts were performed in auditoria with futuristic adjustable walls, and it had fine art galleries – but also discos on rotating dance floors and a bowling alley. The building was wrapped up in warm, reflective bronzed glass and large slabs of white marble. It was a building that looked confidently to the future, with no hint of historical reference. Its monolithic elegance belied the uncomfortable ambiguity of the building: its glass façade supposedly symbolized governmental transparency, while the GDR was undertaking mass clandestine surveillance of its own people. In a recent Financial Times interview, Harmut Dorgerloh, director of the new Forum, said the Palast ‘was the GDR as it wished itself to be.’ It was, like the other icon of East Berlin, the Fernsehrturm, designed to talk to disparate audiences. Entertaining East Berliners and glossing over the cracks in the GDR economy while showing off to the West.

After reunification, the future of the Palast was uncertain. The original architect, Hans Graffunder, proposed a strange amalgam, combining it with a partial reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, and there were several other tentative plans. Ultimately the traditionalists were triumphant, and a replica building was decided upon. Over the next decades the beleaguered project hit a series of hurdles, from local and national politics, through construction problems to Covid regulations, and most recently by an explosive fire which seemed like a bad omen. After many revisions to the timetable it will be partially opening at the end of 2020.

Germany’s National Identity in Built Form

Remembering the past through buildings and histories is important for a city’s identity. The neuralgic point is always which past to remember. In Berlin’s case, perhaps, there is just too much history. The rebuilding of the Stadtschloss has to be seen in the wider context of the theory of ‘Critical Reconstruction’. In practice, this meant keeping Berlin’s historic rooflines low, with dense mixed-use city blocks. The theory was applied city-wide after the fall of the Berlin Wall, under the chief planner, Hans Stimmann. Implementation of the theory became increasingly conservative over time, moving from a controlled attitude about sensitively rebuilding with high urban density, towards a formal classical tendency, losing the criticality. In an architectural sense, it encouraged a return to a specific moment – Berlin’s imperial past.

Architects such as Hans Kollhoff champion a style of ‘New Simplicity’, derived from Critical Reconstruction and the associated architectural style of Rationalism. These are all various strains of classicised modernism; stripped back, unadorned, with the order and rigour of classical architecture. Kollhoff’s work itself has become increasingly conservative over time – and in it, we can see an elision between conservative city planning and right-wing politics. Kollhoff designed the Berlin square Walter Benjamin Platz, named in honour of the German-Jewish philosopher and Marxist, who died fleeing Nazism. The square was inexplicably adorned, in Kollhoff’s design, with a poem by the antisemite and fascist Ezra Pound. The poem was later removed after its extreme inappropriateness was raised by architectural theorist Stephan Trüby, who has has frequently written about the architectural agenda of Germany’s new right-wing. Kollhoff’s use of the Pound quote in his design is an explicitly right-wing reference, but large areas of Berlin seem to evoke right-wing Wilhelmine sentiments without actually inscribing antisemites’ quotes in stone.

The Palast der Republik shortly after its construction in the 1970s.

How do you articulate a German national identity, or even patriotism, when the German state has a disgraceful history? Post-unification Berlin has done much to tread this delicate line, which fundamentally relies on recognising ambivalence. German pride has often depended on reaffirming a belief in culture, rather than the state. The contemporary art scene, the quality and abundance of memorials and public art in the city, and the prominence of institutions like the Berlin Philharmonic are all outward-looking objects of pride.

Berlin is not an outlier in the trend for revanchist architecture. The Garnisonkirche (Garrison Church) in Potsdam is being rebuilt having been demolished by the GDR. In Dresden, in 2005, the Frauenkirche’s (Church of Our Lady) reconstruction was completed based on the original plans from the 1720s. Frankfurt’s Neue Altstadt (New Old Town) scheme rebuilt a large chunk of the town centre, on broadly pre-war lines. What’s remarkable is that, although some of the development is based on pre-existing historical buildings, most of it is just in a historic style: it’s a kind of Disney reinterpretation of history, aiming for something closer to ‘oldness’ rather than historical reconstruction. The alt-right twitter account @arch_revival_ commenting on the Neue Altstadt in 2018 wrote: ‘Tradition and beauty is making a gradual comeback. A growing number of architects are rejecting the soulless and anti-traditional modernist ideas of the 20th century.’ This is a world-view which understands the 20th century as a blip and the very idea of progress as a mistake. Revanchist architecture is not a German phenomenon only – from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to the city centre of Skopje, buildings across Europe have been used to re-assert traditional politics.

Copies of Copies

No ideology has sole ownership over any architectural movement or style. In fact, the Humboldt Forum sits within a deep architectural tradition of re-appropriation: in a sense, architecture progresses through reproduction, pastiche, copying and theft. The Parthenon of Nashville, Tennessee is a copy of itself – the current concrete building replaced an 1897 facsimile made from plaster wood and brick in 1925. The Nashville version wouldn’t have happened without von Klenze’s Walhalla, which in turn copied the original Parthenon in Athens. All buildings were constructed under vastly different political systems, but all were attempting to borrow some of what the building’s symbolic form had to offer. Again the question arises of which past one is trying to remember – no-one is recreating the mosque which sat in the Athenian Parthenon until 1832. In a strange twist, the Nashville version has its frieze marbles, whereas the Athenian original does not since they sit in the British Museum, while facsimiles are displayed next to the original Parthenon in the Parthenon Museum, Athens. The copy is closer to the architects’ intention than the original.

The Palast der Republik in Berlin before it was torn down between 2006 and 2008.

The revived Stadtschloss is more like an historical re-enactment where the players wear trainers – it’s an imperfect facsimile. One enters through a heavy, pompous baroque reproduction façade, but sensibly, the interior layout has been designed to accommodate the new programme – and this disconnect re-emphasises the symbolic, rather than functional, nature of the exterior. Three façades replicate the long demolished historical building, but a fourth, east façade is wholly new. The design is neo-rationalist, by architect Franco Stella. Why was this strain of modernism chosen? Why express the contemporary section of the Forum with a stripped back, highly regimented colonnades? It seems inexplicable that the new façade of an open forum for debate should be articulated through the preferred architectural expression of fascist regimes. It seems that the Humboldt Forum presents Germany to the world today with a certain amount of induced amnesia.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been in power, the extreme right has grown. This political ecosystem is played out in the making of the Forum – the CDU approved the Forum through an act of parliament to applause from Alternative for Germany (AfD), the party of the extreme right. Merkel has been attacked by the AfD on immigration, but by committing some of her personal political capital to the Palast project, she has given succour to nationalists. There is always a suspicion that liberal democracy is more interested in fighting the Left than it is in confronting the Right. The demolition of the Palast is analogous to the way the former West purged the GDR’s universities and civil society with more rigor than West Germany had in tacking the issue of former Nazis in positions of power.


Germany’s brief but tragic colonial past is often overlooked, in part because of the shadow of Nazism, which is seen as an aberration rather than a continuation of earlier practices not in Europe, but in Africa. Perhaps because it was forced to address the past in a way that most Western powers have not, Germany does have a better record than most former colonial powers in the restitution of looted artefacts.

Most recently, in 2019, it returned the Stone Cross of Cape Cross to Namibia, the country where the German colonial regime committed a genocide of the Herero and Nama people at the start of the 20th century. The state has also issued restitution guidelines to public collections which hold colonial era objects. However, the Humboldt Forum still houses looted Benin Bronzes. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the revanchist imperial palace has become a provocative home for colonial prizes. While there is increasing pressure for these objects’ restitution, director Hartmut Dorgerloh has defended their continued possession, with the oft-heard argument that the objects serve to stimulate debate.

The final stages of the demolition of the Palast der Republik.

Zweifel (doubt) contains the word for two, zwei, with an idea of doubling and ambivalence. To contain ambivalence one must have a certain robustness and flexibility. The resurrection of the Stadtschloss is a brittle neurotic act. Rather than address the historical ambivalence, it attempts to iron out the painful wrinkles of the 20th century and bury doubt, as though to keep hold of it in the nation’s capital would be just too much for the national psyche to contain.

For a building that ostensibly projects confidence, the Humboldt Forum is more like a thin-skinned bully, confecting stories about their past to deflect attention from their insecure fragile ego. The building works by projecting an edited image of the past to the nation. As such, it embodies one way the realignment of European politics towards the right has worked – by reclaiming lost territory through edited nationalist stories. The building is a city block-sized metaphor for the precarious position Europe is currently in, in part consumed by doubt and anxieties about the past, and elsewhere overcompensating with tales of timeless values and tradition.

The Humboldt Forum has to be a piece of booming architectural rhetoric, since the more a construct is under pressure, the larger the rhetorical necessity to pretend it isn’t. Perhaps the Humboldt Forum is a sign, not just of a resurgent nationalism and traditionalism, but also the fragility of that project.