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Keeping the Light on at the People's Palace

July 10, 2003

Berlin's Palace of the Republic has been opened for the last time before its likely demolition. But the fight to save one of the last symbols of the former East German regime continues.

Will the former seat of the GDR government be torn down?Image: Bilderbox

Thousands of Germans have been lining up in Berlin over the past two weeks for a final look at the last bastion of the former East German regime. Der Palast der Republik (The Palace of the Republic.) has been opened to the public for the first time in 13 years.

Guided tours have been taking place at the former seat of the East German parliament, offering Germans the last chance to have a peek at their once-divided history before the building is likely torn down.

Former seat of GDR government

Built in 1976, the Palace of the Republic was constructed on the exact spot where GDR head Eric Honecker (1912-1994) ordered the demolition of the home of the former German royal family, the Hohenzollern palace, 26 years earlier.

The 'people's palace' is a rather unsightly cuboid structure with orange-tinted windows on Berlin's central Unter den Linden boulevard. Under the communist regime, it housed governmental offices, was the meeting place for east Germany's trade unions and hosted cultural events for GDR citizens in its many bars and cafes. It even had its own bowling alley.

Asbestos riddle

After re-unification, the fate of the old palace rose to the forefront of discussions on Berlin’s city planning. In the face of city plans to create a high-profile architectural area near the tourist magnet of the Museum Island, the GDR remnant was out of place.

But before a ruling was made on whether or not the communist eye-sore should be torn down, asbestos was discovered in the building. The German government then shelled out €70 million ($79 million) to have it removed. The presence of the synthetic fiber was just one factor bolstering the argument that big changes needed to be made.

And after over a decade of debate, the German government voted last July to tear it down and replace it with a reconstruction of the 19th-century Baroque Hohenzollern palace. The resurrection of the royal home won't be a complete replica, however. The plan which was approved by German parliament will see one of two alternatives.

Under one proposal, led by State Secretary for Culture Christina Weiss, the façade of the old Hohenzollern palace will be reconstructed on three sides and the inside space entirely devoted for, as yet, unspecified cultural purposes. That proposal calls for 80 percent funding by the German taxpayer, with the remaining 20 percent coming from private investors.

The second proposal is the brainchild of Wilhelm von Boddien, a Hamburg businessman who has lobbied for more than a decade to re-build the building’s façade. But his plan calls for the interior to be turned into two hotels and numerous plush offices. Unlike Weiss', Boddien has said 80 percent of the costs will be shouldered by private investors. The remaining 20 percent will be publicly funded. Both projects will cost roughly €600 million ($681 million.)

Fighting to save Erich's lamp shop

But opposition groups, who have been fighting for years to save the palace, are furious at what they see as a political decision by the government to sweep East German history under the carpet.

"It's a huge waste of taxpayers money," Lieselotte Schulz, chairman of the Association for the Preservation of the Palace of the Republic told Deutsche Welle.

The association, officially formed in 1997, has since gathered thousands of signatures from German citizens who want to save "Eric's lamp shop" (called so because of the thousands of light fittings it had). Many of the association's supporters have fond memories of personal achievements, such as school graduations, which they celebrated in the Palace of the Republic.

"It's the only building of it's type in the world," Schulz says.

No decision reached

No final decision has been reached, according to the Federal Ministry for Transport, Buildings and Living which looks after the building owned by the German state. But even it admits that the re-building plans currently in the pipeline mean the fate of the palace is likely to have already been sealed.

"Obviously it (the palace) will have to be torn down if a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace takes place, since the new building will stand on the same spot," Horst Grothues, the government official in charge of the project, told Deutsche Welle.