European Times Berlin: Ghosts of old Prussia rise from the ruins

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The Independent Online
ONE DAY, the mist of cement dust that hangs over Berlin will lift, revealing a post- modern vision of subdued grandeur designed to obliterate memories of an unsavoury history. The bunkers have been sealed and flattened, terrifying ruins still visible are getting sanitising glass ceilings with cafes attached, and the old ministries of the Third Reich are being fitted out for the new masters who will shortly move in. No ghosts will haunt this metropolis.

That, at least, was the plan. But the relaunch of the charred capital in pastel shades and stockbroker chic has not had the unanimous approval of the natives. Some want their ruins back, to remind them of their ravaged past and the much maligned country of their fore- fathers. Just as Germany is trying to redefine itself in a new political era at the turn of the millennium, old Prussia is awakening.

An undistinguished square at the eastern end of Unter den Linden is at the focus of a burgeoning revivalist movement. On this desolate spot, some Berliners want to rebuild the seat of Prussia's former rulers.

Gunter Tetting saw the building burn for three days after the firestorm that came from the skies on 3 February 1945. He has no complaints about that. "Berlin was a strategic target for the Allied bombers," he says. The Hohenzollern Schloss, twice the size of Buckingham Palace and almost as old as Berlin, did not die then. Mr Tetting went to exhibitions staged after the war in draughty halls that survived because the external walls, some five centuries old, had stood firm. The Schloss and all it represented expired in 1950, when the East German regime decided to blow it up to make room for a May Day parade ground that had to be bigger than Moscow's Red Square. The Hohenzollerns' palace simply did not fit into this scheme. It took four months to blast it into oblivion.

There were sound ideological reasons for this kind of urban planning, as the politburo of the time readily admitted. It is not only Germany's neighbours whose minds, when confronted with the name "Prussia", are flooded with images of marching soldiers and rows of barbed wire. To the communists, too, Prussia was the root of all evil, and the Schloss its most potent shrine. With the demolition of the palace, Prussian militarism was buried, ringing in a bright new era that was later to prove a false dawn.

"The GDR [East German] regime wanted everything that stood before to be removed from people's heads," says Ruth Rudiger, who belongs to one of the mushrooming associations that want to have the Schloss rebuilt. "In architectural importance the Schloss ranked with the Louvre. Its destruction amounted to cultural barbarism."

Mr Tetting, 70, boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of the building's thousand rooms. But as he raves about the baroque facades and the sumptuous interior of clashing styles, he admits his obsession is not entirely inspired by his love of art.

"They took away our identity, our Prussian identity," he laments. "But you cannot lie away your history." His favourite era in this personalised history is the Age of Reason, in which Prussia, he points out, played a leading role. As for all that nonsense about wars, Mr Tetting thinks his homeland had a bad press. "The First and Second World War originated not in Prussia," he notes, "but were started mainly by south Germans and Austrians."

It is exactly this kind of talk that gets south, and other, Germans worried about the people who inhabit their new capital. The suggestion to rebuild the former abode of Prussia's kings and emperors causes as much offence and fright in Hamburg or Munich as it might do in Paris. Those goose-stepping soldiers again.

"Let's get this straight. We are not for the Kaiser, we don't want a Greater German Reich," says Wieland Giebel, a publisher. "We simply want our Schloss back."

But the government is divided, as is Berlin and the rest of Germany. The Schloss is the ultimate test of how much of their history Germans may dare to reclaim.

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