Wrecker ball to smash socialist palace East German pile to rule no more

April 08, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- In the dear dead days of the East German Republic, the more ironic socialist burghers called the Palast der Republik "Palazzo Prozzo," an Italian pun that meant Pretentious Palace, or Palace of Pretentions.

The Volkskammer, the rubber-stamp Parliament, met in the Palace of the Republic, and its members pretended they were really representatives of the people.

Nobody paid much attention to them because everybody knew they were powerless and irrelevant. The leaders of the Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (DDR) mostly ignored them and ruled by fiat. The Communist Party ran the country.

But the people of the DDR loved their "Palazzo Prozzo." It was, in fact, a multi-use people's palace. It was a shiny, expensive showplace, but it was theirs.

Among the government buildings ranged around Marx-Engels Platz in the middle of Berlin, only the Palast was easily accessible to the public. The rest were verboten.

The Palast had the best and most popular disco in the DDR. One had to buy tickets weeks in advance.

In a 5,000-seat concert hall you could see the ballet "Swan Lake" or hear the Puhdys, East Germany's hottest rock band. TiP, the Theater in the Palast, was the sharpest and most critical in the DDR. The director had connections high in the party.

You could actually drink espresso or cappuccino, rarities in the DDR, in one of the 13 restaurants and cafes. And there were bowling alleys in the basement.

On opening day in April 1976, about 105,000 citizens tramped through the Palast. By the time it was closed in 1990 because of an asbestos threat, 70 million East Germans were said to have visited the place.

The last act of the Volkskammer in the Palast was to vote for the unification of East and West Germany in 1990.

Now the federal government, essentially Westerners, has managed to offend both East and West Berliners by ordering the Palast to be torn down to make way for a new Foreign Ministry when the capital of Germany moves to Berlin.

Even though the mayor, a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic Union, acquiesced in the decision, Berliners complain that nobody asked them.

"It is an idiocy and a waste of money to build a new building," said a gray-haired man-in-the-street quoted by the Berliner Zeitung, east Berlin's most popular newspaper.

"But they still wipe out everything that belonged to the history of the DDR, renaming streets, pulling down memorials. They're blind to our interests."

City officials diligently erase relics of the DDR past. Karl-Marx-Allee is now Frankfurter-Allee. Lenin's statue is gone.

Next to go is a giant memorial to Ernst Thaelmann, the Communist Party leader who was killed by the Nazis after 10 years in a concentration camp.

The Marx-Engels elevated train stop is now the politically innocuous Hackescher Market Station. And no one can envision major buildings of a united Germany forever ringing Marx-Engels Platz.

The head of the Berlin architect's society has called knocking down the Palast for a new Foreign Ministry building "a death blow to a lively, urbane city center.

"Architecturally speaking, the Palast is not exactly bad, just mediocre," said an East Berliner from Pankow. "It looks like a good main post office in Chicago."

A critic more familiar with U.S. capitalism might have called it savings-and-loan modern.

In justifying the demolition, the federal government said ridding the Palast of asbestos and renovating the building would cost too much.

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