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Cross causes controversy atop Berlin Palace

May 29, 2020

The hoisting of a Christianised dome to top off Berlin's rebuilt imperial palace-turned-museum complex has run into controversy. Critics say Germany is missing a chance to portray post-colonial multicultural diversity.

The cross being readied for the dome of the Berlin Palace
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Berlin wind-conditions permitting, a crane was due Friday to host the 17-ton dome reminiscent of Prussian imperialism to top off the reconstructed Royal Palace in Berlin.

The building houses the Humboldt Forum, a large museum project actually intended to transcend religious and national boundaries.

At issue is not only a cross that will atop Berlin's latest skyline eye-catcher but also a band of text compiled by 19th-century King Friedrich Wilhelm IV calling on all peoples to submit to Christianity when he had the dome added in the 1840s.

Restorative advocates, via a donors association, argue the palace's reconstruction, but with a very different modern interior, will restore Berlin's visual axis starting at the Brandenburg Gate and reflect reconciliation also contained in Christianity.

The Humboldt Forum, costing €644 million ($711 million) and approved by the Bundestag parliament in 2002, will feature artefacts from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania and Berlin's history as well as spaces for study and conferences.

The original, dating back to the 18th century, survived World War II only as a shell; located post-war in walled off East Berlin. Communist authorities tore down those remains, erected a 1970s Palace of the Republic, which, after German unification in 1990 was demolished, also amid debate.

The dome of the reconstructed Berlin Palace
The dome of the reconstructed Berlin PalaceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

Things 'stolen and destroyed'

The cross-crowned dome drew criticism Friday from Frankfurt-based museum curator Mahret Kupka, with family links to Nigeria and the Berlin-based Initiative of Black People in Germany ("Initiative Schwarze Menschen").

"Christianity has been a channel through which colonialism also functioned and was strengthened. It happened quasi in the name of Christianity, that things were stolen or destroyed," Kupka said, referring to Friedrich Wilhelm's inscription.

The original text reads: "There is no other salvation, there is no other name given to men, but the name of Jesus, in honor of the Father, that in the name of Jesus all of them that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth should bow down on their knees."

Since World War II however, Germany had become a "very heterogeneous" society, Kupka said.

"This is simply a very blatant statement that actually undermines everything that the Humboldt Forum claims to want to be."

Germany colonialism in Africa and the Pacific ended abruptly in 1914 with seizures by Britain and its allies at the end of World War I.

Remove inscription urges rabbi

On a commentary Thursday in the Berlin-based Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper, Rabbi Andreas Nachama urged Berlin's Catholic and Protestant bishops to take a lead in getting the Prussian king's quote removed from the new dome.

Frederick William IV had made "a name for himself in the bloody suppression of [then-imperial Germany's] revolution of 1848", said Nachama.

"I am curious to see how the Berlin bishops will react to the appropriation of their faith, for they are certainly promoters of religious cooperation and respect," added Nachama, who heads the German council for Christian-Jewish cooperation.

Forum's message negated

Berlin city-state's Culture Senator Klaus Lederer of the post-communist Left Party said the mounting of the cross was , "a clearly religious sign" that counteracted "almost everything we want with the Humboldt Forum: To show how ambiguous, diverse, intricate, broader and deeper our roots really are."

Federal States Minister for Culture Monika Grütters of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) described the dome's cross as a Christian symbol "for charity, freedom, cosmopolitanism and tolerance," reflected in the new Humboldt center's task of being a "Forum of Understanding" among world cultures.

She added that the chair of the Association of Muslims in Germany had encouraged her to stand by the country's Christian roots.

Under construction: Berlin's City Palace

'A bit pregnant,' not possible

Wilhelm von Boddien, veteran director of the palace reconstruction's fund-raising association said leaving out the cross would have been contrary to the "reconstruction of a lost monument."

"That does not work for such a project. One then immediately opens the door to other omissions, and one becomes easily criticized. Here the principle applies: Pregnant or not pregnant, a bit pregnant is not possible." 

The cross, "the most brutal death penalty in antiquity," used to murder Jesus of Nazareth, said von Boddien, had since been misused in more modern times to "send people into murderous battles."

On the dome of the Humboldt Forum it could "also be understood as an exhortation to all peoples to more peace and charity," he said.

ipj/rt (KNA, epd, dpa)

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