The New Republic

September 29, 1997, The New Republic

Berlin Dispatch: Re-edification

Can democratic ministries occupy Nazi relics?

Hermann Goring’s former Aviation Ministry stretches along an entire block of Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse–the artery of power in imperial and Nazi Germany. Like Hitler at his Reich Chancellery down the street, Goring desired a headquarters that could browbeat anyone in its vicinity. “Whoever approached here felt as if he had been knocked down a peg,” writes Gunter Grass in his most recent novel. The Chancellery was flattened by the Allies, but as reunified Germany prepares to move its capital from Bonn to Berlin in the next two-and-a-half years, Goring’s old headquarters is being readied for a new tenant: the Federal Republic’s Finance Ministry.

In restoring Berlin as its capital, Germany has taken on an epic task–the transformation of totalitarian-era buildings into democratic ones. The Labor Ministry will occupy Joseph Goebbels’s former Propaganda Ministry. And Germany’s Foreign Ministry will awkwardly set up shop in the former Reichsbank, whose design was selected by Hitler and later served as the headquarters of the East German Communist Party. The bank’s huge subterranean vault, used to stockpile gold stolen from death camp victims and safeguard the Communists’ top-secret documents, will become the Foreign Ministry archives.

There were calls to bulldoze these buildings and erect a new capital from scratch. But financial constraints–the transfer from Bonn is costing some $14 billion–have obliged Germany to use them. “We can’t change history by negating it architecturally,” says Building Minister Klaus Topfer. He has moved his own Berlin offices into East Germany’s former State Council Building. “The important thing is the spirit that reigns in a building today and in the future.” But Topfer also says reusing the structures “cannot mean that we retain everything as it came over to us.”

The Aviation Ministry and the Reichsbank were prime examples of the Nazi effort to deploy monumental architecture as a propaganda tool. “Our opponents will come to realize it, but above all our followers must know it: our buildings are erected with the aim of strengthening … authority,” Hitler declared. Sixty years later, with Germany’s neighbors anxious about renewed dominance from Berlin, the Federal Republic is aware that its return to these buildings will do little to assuage simmering suspicion and resentment. Of course, other governments have adapted buildings of fallen rulers. The British viceroy’s palace has become home to India’s democracy; Mexico’s president sits in a sixteenthcentury pile erected by HernAn Cortes. Will time and new occupants also exorcise Berlin’s buildings?

So far, the Foreign Ministry is doing its best to put a positive spin on its move into the former Reichsbank. “It’s not at all bad for the federal government to constantly be conscious of living and working against the backdrop of a difficult history,” says Fritjof von Nordenskjold, the diplomat overseeing the ministry’s move. But a selective appropriation of history is already taking place. “We can occupy this building very easily,” senior Finance Ministry official Hans-Michael Meyer-Sebastian tells me as we sit in offices where German officers ordered the bombings of Coventry, Rotterdam and Guernica. “It was a building of the resistance during the Third Reich.” He means the Red Orchestra resistance group, which operated covertly until the arrest and execution of its leading members. An exhibit in the lobby hails their courage, but there is no marker on the facade alluding to the building’s genesis or the aggression plotted there. A plaque affixed in 1993 recalls only the 1953 workers’ uprising crushed by Soviet tanks. Will the stress on the appealing legacy of resistance obscure the role these buildings played in validating totalitarian rule? Says architectural historian Winfried Nerdinger: “I have always objected when people say, ‘Oh, these are merely neoclassical buildings. They are harmless, innocent stones that one can deal with today.’ They remain bloodily entangled and one must see them in their entirety or do injustice to history.”

The Reichsbank exemplifies this bloody entanglement. It was the first project to get under way after the Nazis came to power in 1933. When Hitler reviewed architectural submissions, he found them all lacking in grandeur and chose another design for a labyrinth of spare classicism with nearly 1,000 rooms. A row of stolid columns stretched across the facade, decorated with a frieze of muscled figures. Swastikas adorned the doorknobs and bellicose eagles were inscribed in the entryway. By the time the building was complete in 1940, Germany was at war. The bank’s financial functions were augmented by a new task–storing goods arriving in a steady stream from extermination camps. Its vault rapidly overflowed with plunder, including gold yanked from Jews’ teeth, watches, jewelry and spectacle frames.

Andreas Marx, an architectural historian advising the government on the Reichsbank’s conversion, is pressing officials to acknowledge the building’s history. “There’s no sense in lying and afterwards having the Israeli Foreign Minister visit and then learn from some media campaign about all the things that happened there,” he says. The Foreign Ministry has agreed to have Marx author an official publication about the bank for distribution to visitors. “It is important for the people who work here to know what happened before them within these walls,” explains von Nordenskjold. The desire to inform seems to have limits, however. “We will see how far we can, should and must go into details” of the building’s history, the diplomat says, adding that there are no plans to document the past with a plaque. “We don’t need it. The building speaks for itself.”

The structure was bound to create anxiety for the current government. “I was concerned that the image of this building would always appear on television when state visitors arrived,” says former Federal Construction Board President Barbara Jakubeit. The Foreign Ministry’s need for extra space to house its library and visa department helped resolve the symbolic quandary with architectural sleight of hand. A new competition was held last year, with guidelines stating that the old facade “will be hidden from the public eye” by an extension covering an entire city block fronting the Reichsbank. The competition guidelines emphasized that the ministry’s “architectural identity will be determined by the new structure.” The winning design features a glass atrium symbolizing official openness.

For the renovation of the former Reichsbank itself, the ministry chose Berlin architect Hans Kolhoff to infuse the somber behemoth with natural light, greenery and color. “This is a very solid building; one has the feeling that it could stand for centuries,” Kolhoff says, voicing unabashed admiration for the original design that, minus the Nazi insignia, bears some resemblance to 1930s architecture erected in Washington, Moscow or Rome. Kolhoff hopes the removal of many communist-era renovations will alleviate the building’s current gloom. He wants visitors to feel “certain vibrations that should not go as far as to be nervous-making, but here and there should indeed be unsettling.”

There will be unsettling “vibrations” at the new Finance Ministry as well. From 1946 to 1949, the Soviet military administration was headquartered there and until 1989, a dozen top East German ministries were located in the complex. It was later occupied by the Treuhandanstalt, which privatized the East’s state enterprises. All these entities sought to modify the building in their own image. None had much luck in mellowing its martial feel. This time the limestone facade is being cleansed of black grime. But landmark authorities thwarted a total “white-wash” that would have eliminated all signs of wartime damage. Inside, the ballroom where Nazis once strode the marble floor will become a conference room with sleek Charles Eames chairs. The architect overseeing the makeover, Wolfgang Keilholz, calls the changes “an injection of a new philosophy.” He acknowledges that integrating these burdensome structures into a democratic capital, as well as conveying their true history, will test Germany’s character in ways both aesthetic and political. “We are trying to start this transformation,” says Keilholz. “The user will have to finish it.”