Berlin divided again on communist relic

Workers will soon destroy East Germany's old parliament, a vestige of Berlin's fractured past.

You have to believe that the communist government in 1970s East Berlin took perverse delight in erecting the blocky Palast der Republik. amid the elaborate relics of Prussian pomposity.

A massive building housing East Germany's parliament, restaurants, a concert hall, and the best bowling lanes in East Berlin, the Palast was built in 1976 to serve as "East Germany's greeting card" to the rest of the world. West German and other European tourists stopped in to glimpse life behind the wall. Politicians held meetings in the expansive chambers. Carlos Santana played a "Freedom" concert here in 1987.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the building's days were numbered by asbestos and a general revulsion to all reminders of the old regime. But rather than go quietly, the Palast has become the heart of a fierce debate on the shape Berlin will take in the coming decades. It's also become a metaphor for the identity crisis that has gripped this once divided city since World War II.

"Never has the Palast been so loved. Never has it been so hated," wrote a journalist last December in Cologne's Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. The discussions leading up to its impending demolition - which began earlier this month - have pitted nostalgic Berliners and young artist groups against the city's political elite and traditionalists who want to rebuild the Berlin City Palace, a 15th century Prussian castle demolished by East German Communist leaders during the 1950s.

Critics of the Palast consider it an eyesore and reminder of the dark days of divided Berlin. During a recent parliamentary debate, Christian Democrat Wolfgang Boernsen called it a "symbol for the wall, barbed wire, and shoot-to-kill orders for border guards."

In mid-January, the Bundestag reaffirmed its decision - reached with the Berlin city government - to tear down the Palast. And everyone from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel have thrown their support behind a private initiative to rebuild the baroque facade of the former Berlin City Palace and fill it with a museum, a hotel, and exhibition and office space.

"It's important for the city to hold onto its traditions, and the palace is an important part of that," says Wilhelm von Boddien, the Hamburg-based director of the private initiative.

Opponents consider the estimated 650 million euros to 1.2 billion euros ($778 million to $1.4 billion) price tag - including at least 300 million euros in public money - a fantastic extravagance, a Disneyland fantasy wrapped up in nostalgia ill-suited to a forward-looking city. The nostalgia, as always, cuts both ways in this formerly divided city. Some East Berliners don't want the reminders of their previous life simply swept away with the rubble of history.

"How will we explain to future generations what was once there?" says Bernd Wolfgang, who was one of the Palast's five maintenance men and still has a copy of his key.

Perhaps they'll tell stories of the rebirth the building has witnessed in the last few years. Art installations, a museum exhibit, even Germany's industry association have met in the naked steel skeleton left after workers stripped the insides of the building in 2001.

So many "final" parties were held in the Palast, that heading there weekend nights for "one last party" became a running joke in the Berlin nightlife scene. When the end finally did arrive, in early December, artists found a fitting final exhibit.

In the middle of the "White Cube," an exhibit space of four walls stretching 10 meters (33 feet) high constructed in the Palast last year, a cellist played mournful music as docents dressed in 19th-century undertaker uniforms walked around. East and West Berliners, families with their children in strollers, and hipsters walked the expansive space, taking in photographs and paintings of bones and corpses.

The title of the exhibit was "Death." But, somehow, the Palast never felt more alive.

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