The Palace of the Republic was home to the GDR’s parliament, the People’s Chamber, and functioned as a major cultural centre for the East German capital. Constructed between 1973 and 1976, the Palace sat on the former site of the Berlin City Palace, home of the Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia from 1701 until their abdication in 1918. Rejected by the GDR as a symbol of Prussian imperialism, the lightly damaged palace was blown up by East German authorities in 1950.
In the years which followed, a number of plans for the site were considered and rejected before the design and concept for a “House of the People” was finally approved by Erich Honecker shortly after he assumed position of First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, thereby becoming the de facto head of the GDR, in the early 1970s.
The design was intended to reinforce Honecker’s decision to shift the GDR’s economic focus from one which favoured the development of industry to one in which consumer demands, and dissatisfaction with the standard of living, were taken more seriously. This was done by incorporating a number of cultural and recreational options into the building. In the end, the Palace housed 13 restaurants/cafes at a wide variety of price points and levels of service, a discotheque, an art gallery, a bowling alley, as well as a theatre (used primarily, but not exclusively, as a venue for Berlin companies to present their work) and several multipurpose spaces suitable for hosting festivals, readings, etc.. Watchers of GDR television (apparently there were some) came to know the Palace as the host of ‘Ein Kessel Buntes‘ (‘A Mixed Bag’), the country’s most popular television variety show.
Not surprisingly given its showcase function, the Palace received priority treatment from suppliers and visitors were able to find many items here which were otherwise difficult, or even impossible, to find elsewhere in the GDR. For example, the country’s best beer, Radeberger Pilsener, was available at the Palace, despite being designated as a product earmarked for export to hard currency markets. Visits by GDR citizens from the “province” often included a visit to the Palace and many East Germans appreciated it as a place (perhaps the only one?) where the promises of a socialism featuring prosperity and comfort were fulfilled.
The Party’s Over
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanies had been decided upon, the last East German Parliament ordered the Palace shut down due to the presence of spray asbestos throughout the building. The use of this material meant the Palace would not adhere to EU and West German health and safety regulations which loomed. No decision was made on the fate of the building at that time, but plans to remove the asbestos proceeded. This work began only in 1998 and lasted through to 2003.
In two years from 2004-2006, parts of the Palace were used for a number of exhibits and concerts. The former often took up the question of what to do with the building, a subject of considerable debate both inside and outside of during. One citizens initiative proposed a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Palace but many Germans questioned the wisdom of erasing this symbol of the GDR and replacing it with a palace whose function was undetermined.
In the end, and after a heated public debate, the German Bundestag (Parliament) voted to have the Palace torn down (2006) and replaced with a replica of the Hohenzollern Palace (2007). While the removal of the Palace proceeded rather quickly, construction of the replica Palace has been delayed to 2014 due to budgetary considerations.
I am sorry to say that I never managed to set foot in the Palace either during my visits to East Berlin when the GDR still existed, or when it was partially reopened as an art/concert venue in the 2000s. My first visit to the East came in 1985 and was paid for by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). That the GDR’s showcase didn’t appear on this itinerary of what was then an arm’s length office of the West German government is not a great surprise. In 1989, however, I am afraid that while fascinated by Berlin, my understanding of what that meant was limited to the boundaries of West Berlin; the Eastern side of the city held little appeal and so I only made one day-trip over. Alas, alack.
Despite this, however, I have managed to collect a few items from the Palace for my collection. These include:
- A reproduction of the Palace of the Republic building blocks set produced by Formo (GDR Lego™)
- A fruit knife with the Palace logo
- Two mocha cups (also with Palace logo)
- A commemorative coin presented to construction workers who built the Palace
- Several stamps issued by GDR Postal Service with Palace motifs, one from 1976, a collector’s letter from 1978 and one from a 1980 series paying tribute to a number of notable East German buildings (see slideshow below)
- The Palace of the Republic mini book
- several postcards of the Palace foyer and its Milk Bar (see the slideshow below)