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The painting "Garten am Wannsee" by Max Liebermann
The gardens at Lake Wannsee became a central theme in Liebermann's workImage: Collection of Michael Lauer, Arizona

Back in time

June 14, 2011

It's a beautiful lake home, but also a spot of Nazi occupation and eventually a disused sports hall. Painter Max Liebermann's villa on Lake Wannsee in Berlin tells a story of the 20th century and beyond.


In 1909, on the shore of Berlin's Lake Wannsee, painter Max Liebermann constructed a villa he proudly referred to as his "lakeside palace." It was there that he found refuge from Berlin's hustle and bustle and creative inspiration for part of his groundbreaking body of work.

Liebermann's original design for the 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet) surrounding the villa has since been replicated at the grounds. The landscape features a flowered terrace, hedge, vegetable and perennial gardens, a birch grove and the grand lawn leading down to the lake.

"The way of living you see here is a way you can't find in Berlin anymore - a bourgeois lifestyle that was typical for the time and this place before the Second World War," said Martin Faass, curator of the villa.

After the war, "Berlin changed completely through the Nazi terror, so this really is a special place to see how it looked," added Faass.

Shifting fates

In 1940, the villa was seized by the Nazis. Although the site was returned to the Liebermann family after the war, it suffered a bleak post-war fate. The site eventually became municipal property of Berlin, subject to neglect and misuse: first as a hospital, then empty and uncared for, and finally as an aquatic sports club.

But a spate of exhibitions in 1997, the 150th anniversary of Liebermann's birth, as well as citizen initiatives helped prompt the city and other supporters to restore the villa. Private enthusiasts raised millions of euros for the project.

The villa was reopened as a museum in 2006 - following restoration work in the gardens and its official recognition as a cultural heritage building and historical monument. Area resident Wolfgang Immenhausen was among the citizens who petitioned city hall extensively to restore and dedicate the villa to Liebermann's legacy.

"I've thought ever since I was a young man that it's important for us to pitch in to make sure that Liebermann's property is presented in a way that shows respect for him," said Immenhausen, whose family has lived in the Wannsee area for generations.

Today the facility is maintained without any funding from the city or state, thanks in part to high numbers of visitors, who are drawn both by Liebermann's villa and the rich history of the district.

"Many outstanding Jewish doctors and art collectors have lived in this area, which has played a significant role in German history," noted Immenhausen. "Highly successful bankers, industrialists and entrepreneurs lived here, and 50 percent of the residents were Jewish."

Liebermann's tragedy

The villa's ground floor houses a multimedia exhibition documenting Liebermann's family history and historic photographs of the home. The upper floor houses changing thematic exhibitions of artwork by the painter, regarded as one of the most prominent and groundbreaking figures in the art scene of his time.

The artist died before the Nazis confiscated his villa, but at the time of his death in 1935, he had been stripped of his honors with his work banned and branded as "tarnished." Liebermann's wife, Martha, survived him but committed suicide to avoid deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Uwe Kuehl, a Wannsee resident and volunteer at the villa, sees the painter's fate as especially tragic in light of his liberal political views.

"Liebermann belonged to the group that wanted to assimilate, and he was bitterly disappointed at the end of his life when he had to realize that he had failed in his hope that he would one day be equal before the law with regard to the other people in Germany," said Kuehl, who spends one day a week giving guided tours.

Following the restorations at Liebermann's villa, guests can gain insight into how the artist thought, lived and worked.

Author: Leah McDonnell / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

The gardens at Liebermann's villa
The villa's backyard meanders down to the lakeImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Max Liebermann's villa on Lake Wannsee
More than 200 of Liebermann's works were painted on the villa's groundsImage: picture-alliance/dpa
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