Books, Beethoven and Berlinka: The Berlin State Library

Robin Oomkes profiles Berlin’s ‘library in two homes’…

The State Library as viewed from the Schlossbrücke in 1900
The State Library as viewed from the Schlossbrücke in 1900. Image Creative Commons/Wikipedia.

Walking along Unter den Linden, from the Neue Wache past Humboldt University in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate, you could be forgiven for missing the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) altogether. Even though it’s one of the few buildings in Berlin to occupy a whole Karree, or city block, it has been hidden by scaffolding for so long that it’s virtually invisible.

But behind all the construction work lies a purpose-built structure from the Kaiserzeit, and one that was architecturally innovative at the time thanks to the metal structures that function as both the backbone of the building and the bookshelves that support the weight of the miles of books inside. Not just any old tomes either; not only is the Staatsbibliothek the largest research library in Germany, it also contains the manuscripts of almost all of Bach’s works, the Mozart operas, and most of Beethoven’s symphonies.

Even more impressive perhaps is that this colossal building – which was designed by Ernst von Ihne on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II and can be currently accessed around the back on Dorotheeenstrasse until renovation work at the front are finished – only holds half of the actual library.

Like many cultural institutions in Berlin (opera houses, concert halls, fine art museums), the State Library also has one section in the former East, and one in the West – “The Library In Two Houses” as its known – the latter part being on Potsdamer Strasse, and part of Hans Scharoun’s Kulturforum ensemble.

Not Quite A National Library


The State Library is to Germany what the British Library is to the United Kingdom, the Library of Congress to the United States, or the Biblothèque Nationale to France – but with some differences. Firstly, although the institution is part of Prussian Cultural Heritage, an organisation owned by the combined federal states of Germany, and despite it being the biggest such library in Germany, it is not strictly the ‘national library’.

Because of Germany’s federal nature, and since the country up until 1871 consisted of an amalgam of kingdoms, princedoms, grand duchies and duchies, there are many ‘State Libraries’ across the country. Another difference is that the foreign national libraries mentioned above are “legal deposit” libraries. This means that publishers in their respective countries must send a free copy of everything they publish to the national library, thus creating a complete archive of the nation’s writing.

Not so in the case of the State Library: when the new building on Unter den Linden opened in March 1914, the Director, Adolf von Harnack, rather haughtily refused the suggestion of complimentary copies. Instead, he requested, and received, a large acquisition budget, allowing the library to build its collection as it saw fit, by buying only the books it found interesting. Needless to say, this choice weighs heavy on the library’s budget.

Linked to the choice not to be a deposit library is the third key difference: the Staatsbibliothek has always had the ambition to be truly universal, so it has always made a point of acquiring books in English, French and other languages.

Many national libraries received their ‘starter kit’ from some crowned head divulging his book collection for the public good. In the case of the Berlin State Library, its history can be traced back to 1661, when Elector of Brandenburg Frederick Wilhelm, in an early show of the spirit of Enlightenment, made his private book collection available to the public, giving it the snappy title the “Electoral Library at Cölln upon Spree”.

With this move, he pre-empted his British counterpart George II by almost a century (the British Museum, including the current British Library, was only founded in 1753). When the Electors of Brandenburg proclaimed themselves ‘Kings in Prussia’ in 1701, the library was renamed to ‘Royal Library’ – a name it retained until 1918. Because the library was historically linked to the Kingdom of Prussia, it remained ‘Royal’ and did not become ‘Imperial’ when the Hohenzollerns were promoted to Emperors of Germany in 1871.

At the end of monarchy in 1918, the library was renamed to Prussian State Library; and after the Second World war, both sides adopted variations on the State Library name – without the Prussian epithet.

The Collection After The War: Where Is Berlinka?

The West Berlin part of the Staatsbibliotek, at Potsdamer Strasse. Image by Khalid Mahmoo.
The West Berlin part of the Staatsbibliotek, at Potsdamer Strasse. Image by Khalid Mahmoo/Creative Commons.

For the Staatsbibliothek, the impact of World War Two and the subsequent division of the city has caused even stranger and more complicated problems than for some of the other divided institutions. When in 1941 the first Allied air raid hit the library, plans to safeguard most of its treasures were enacted.

Since the collection at that time already numbered some three million books, obviously this was no small feat: the card index alone filled many rooms. The entire collection, including the catalogue, was spread across the nation for safe storage, in places like monasteries, churches, and salt mines.

A sizeable part of the collection ended up in Silesia – a region that Germany had to cede to Poland after the war – and another significant portion went to Bavaria. When fighting ceased in 1945 and the map of Europe had been redrawn, those parts of the collection that were in the Soviet Occupation Zone (which in 1949 would become the German Democratic Republic) were restored to the library’s old home on Unter den Linden.

Likewise, the books recovered in West Germany were sent to West Berlin, awaiting a proper new home. However, the parts of the collection that had been stored in the Eastern-most parts of the Reich were not returned but either kept in Poland or taken to the Soviet Union, where they remain to this day. Finally, a considerable volume of books are known to have perished, for example when one of the storage buildings, such as a church, was bombed.

To make matters yet more complicated, the card indexes, which had also been dispersed, did not necessarily stay with their referenced books, and the East Berlin State Library ended up with many cards that referenced books and materials in West Berlin, Krakow or Moscow, or had been lost altogether. After reunification, the East and West Berlin State Libraries merged, and the decision was made to store works from up to 1945 at Unter den Linden, and anything more recent at Potsdamer Strasse.

Interior of the Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Strasse. Image by C. Kösser.
Interior of the Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Strasse. Image by C. Kösser.

A famous example of a work that has remained divided since the war is the manuscript of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Whilst the first, second and fourth movements are in Berlin, the third movement is in Krakow, in what is known as the ‘Berlinka collection’ – which numbers 300,000 works (Beethoven’s famous Ninth, in case you were wondering, is complete and held at Unter den Linden).

In early 2014, as a result of mounting tensions in the Ukraine, the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France started cooperating more closely on aligning the EU position on this conflict in the so called Weimar Group. On the sidelines of the group’s meeting in Berlin on 31st March, Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier returned a painting to Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

The work, Francesco Guardi’s “Palace Steps” had been looted by the Nazis from Warsaw’s National Gallery in 1939 and had been kept in various German museums since. The move was widely seen as a token of goodwill, but one with an ulterior motive: Germany now hopes that Poland will return the 300,000 pieces of the Berlinka collection to the State Library, thus reuniting Beethoven’s Eighth.

Another difficult situation is the result of parts of the library’s collection: when the Nazis started looting Jewish property in the 1930s, valuable book collections often ended up in the State Library, and if they were not lost during the war, they might still be there today. But because of the scattered nature of the catalogue and the lack of markings on some of the books, returning the items to the owners’ descendants is a challenge.

Since 2007, a dedicated team is methodically checking all 3 million works of the original collection for ‘dubious acquisitions’, and marking their finds as ’NS-Raubgut’ (Nazi loot) in the online catalogue, and steps are subsequently taken to identify the owners.

Restoring the building at Unter den Linden


Staircase to the reading room at the Unter den Linden State Library. Image by Robin Oomkes
Image by Robin Oomkes

Even though the library at Unter den Linden had been routinely bombed from 1941 onwards, the outer quads emerged relatively unscathed – a result of the especially robust construction mentioned earlier – the Lipman Regalsystem, where the floors of the building itself are supported by the upright stacks of the bookshelves.

The round reading room with its cupola in the centre of the building – very much like the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, in fact – was not so lucky. The cupola collapsed and the reading room was left in ruins until it was finally demolished in 1975. It was replaced by four storage towers.

After German reunification in 1990, the two libraries wasted no time in merging their collections and, from 1992 on, have been part of the same organisation. In 1998, plans were finally initiated to restore the building at Unter den Linden. In the first part of the restoration project – now complete – all the storage floors were covered.

Furthermore, a new general reading room (not round, as in the British Museum, but square) and a rare materials reading room were built. This work was completed in 2013, and the rotunda at the rear side of the building at Dorotheeenstrasse now serves as the entrance.

The Reading Room at Unter den Linden. Image by Robin Oomkes.
The Reading Room at Unter den Linden. Image by Robin Oomkes.

The second phase of the project, which covers the front half of the building, a monumental entry hall and exhibition rooms, however, seems to bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Berlin Brandenburg International airport project, inasmuch as no one is willing to commit to a completion date anymore. Rumour has it that at least part of the delay in completing the library was a result of the carpenters who were supposed to work on the reading rooms being pressed into service to finish the check-in desks at BER airport…

Membership & Free Tours

Unlike the British Library, where you need to prove a legitimate research or artistic interest to receive a reader’s pass, the Staatsbibliothek is a public institution that is open to anyone who can identify themselves (bring your passport) and pay the membership fee, which costs 12 Euros for a month or 30 Euros for a year. These memberships give you access to the reading rooms at both Unter den Linden and Potsdamer Strasse, and entitles you to request works from the catalogues and consult them in the reading rooms.

If you just want to see the buildings and avoid the membership fee, no problem: just join the one-hour free tour. No registration is necessary, you just show up. For the Unter den Linden building, tours are every Friday at 5pm or on every first Saturday of the month at 10-30am.

At Potsdamer Strasse, the tours are every third Saturday of the month (also at 10.30 am) – all dates except public holidays. The tours are held in German but the friendly staff might be able to answer some questions in English. Be sure to check the library’s excellent website before taking a tour, in case of any last minute changes.


Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Haus Unter den Linden, Entrance: Dorotheenstraße 27, 10117 Berlin, S/U Friedrichstraße

Haus Potsdamer Straße, Potsdamer Straße 33, 10785 Berlin, S/U Potsdamer Platz

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