Robin Oomkes profiles Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais…
Despite its splendid location—directly opposite the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden and overlooking Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge)—as well as the Museumsinsel, Berliner Dom and, nowadays, the Humboldt Forum, you’d be forgiven for missing the Kronprinzenpalais when passing by. Yet the palace is one of those places that exemplifies Berlin’s multi-layered history.
Built in 1663 as a private residence, it was acquired by the ruling Hohenzollern royal family in the 1700s. From the start, it was given to Crown Princes (hence its name) for their use until their accession to the throne, which is how young Kaiser Wilhelm II – commonly known as Kaiser Bill – came to be born on its top floor; his father, Friedrich Wilhelm, although already in his 50s, was still Crown Prince at the time.
Wilhelm’s birth was significant in that many historians and psychologists argue it had a profound effect on his personality and his “impulsive” attitude towards making policy and war itself. Born in a breech position, the baby Kaiser had to be turned inside the birth canal and arrived into the world more dead than alive.
His left arm was much shorter than the right, and his left hand was almost devoid of function, leading to torturous ‘cures’ such as electric shocks, braces that forced his neck to grow straighter and ‘animal bath’ therapy – where between 2-10, Wilhelm was regularly forced to stick his arm inside the still-warm body of a freshly shot hare in the hope that its expiring life forces would find their way into his arm.
By 1914 Wilhelm was of course leading Germany into the First World War; four years later the Hohenzollern family were forced into exile, giving the palace took on its next significant role: ia museum space that served as an annex to the Weimar Republic’s National Gallery. The palace, specifically used to display works by living artists, was renamed the Galerie der Lebenden (Gallery of the Living), and was in fact the first dedicated Modern Art museum in the world, said to have inspired the New York Museum of Modern Art.
The palace/gallery became an easy target for the Nazis and their obsession with Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) and the gallery was purged of its most significant works. Some were burnt by the Gestapo, others displayed in the infamous ‘name and shame’ exposition – shown in Berlin and Munich – before being sold off.
Bombed during the last stages of World War II, the Kronprinzenpalais was temporarily used as a ballet school before being rebuilt in the 1960s as a guesthouse for visiting GDR dignitaries. The façade was restored to its mid-19th century appearance, though the interior was rendered in classic socialist-realist style, which still survives to this day – and is one of the reasons to pop your head in if you walk past.
But that’s not all: the palace had one more major claim to fame: it was the venue of choice for the signing of the Reunification Treaty between the two Germanies on 31 August 1990. (It was also considered as a candidate to serve as the official residence for the German Federal President, though the Schloss Bellevue in Tiergarten took that prize).
The building today is mostly used for cultural events – temporary exhibitions and fashion shows like this one, which manage to make aesthetic use of the Soviet-style chandeliers. Whether it’s a fitting use for such an esteemed venue is a moot point, but its architectural mish-mash and indeterminate status – half Royal leftover, half cultural space – seem somehow quintessentially Berlin.