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What Does the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Remember?

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

The bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) on Breitscheidplatz near Zoo Station in Berlin was recently renovated. And it must be one of Berlin’s ugliest, but also most layered, thought-compelling urban spaces.

Let’s first consider the ugliness. The Church was commissioned in the 1890s by the hubristic Wilhelm II––a compulsive tree-cutter who almost certainly suffered from ADHD––to memorialise his father, Wilhelm I, the first Emperor of a unified Germany. The 1890s style was neo-Romanesque, with none of the elegance of the early medieval period. It is actually something of an accomplishment to take the pared-down beauty of rounded arches and succeed in giving them the thickness and heaviness of an elephant (who never forgets?). Inside is a lot of nostalgic nonsense, which you can still enjoy today: antiqued mosaics, kitsch iconography of the Hohenzollern princes alongside religious counterparts. The Church itself was consecrated on the eve of a public holiday to celebrate the German 1870 victory against the French at Sedan, wedding religion to royalty to war. The place was an obscenity.

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

These bombastic gestures suggest some of the insecurity of Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, who never felt sufficiently taken seriously by the other royals of his European family. The whole ensemble, built at ridiculous cost, contains the kind of hysteria that one generally expects from buildings built by powers at the end of their glory (I’m thinking of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, or for that matter the Millennium Dome…). Germany, instead, was simply beginning to assert its muscle, eventually in the graveyards of the Western Front.

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was only improved by bombing in 1943. It remained a hollowed shell looming at the end of Kürfurstendamm––one of the first places in Berlin to be renovated after the war for a growing mass (and often crass) consumerism. But the Church was not rebuilt, but rather its hollow spire called a ‘hollow tooth’ (hohler Zahn), remained as a reminder, a warning, of war. This symbol was officialised with the 1963 completion of a memorial project designed by Egon Eiermann. Added to the shattered remains of the church were four additional buildings––including a new tower and Protestant church, called the ‘lipstick and powder compact’ (Lippenstift und Puderdose) by locals––including symbols from other bombed cathedrals such as Coventry. The design’s brutalist concrete mesh did not exactly add to the beauty of the site, nor did it complement the Romanesque ruins (although the blue-glass interior is luminous). The entire site is now cacophonous and unsettling.

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

Perhaps this was the intent: West Berlin city planners were well aware of the ugly impulses that inspired the original building––militarism, the deification of royal power, the lust for power––and to have a symbol of these desires permanently shattered on the Berlin cityscape told one a great deal about the developing Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming-to-terms with the past, of post-war West Germany.

One of the subsequent absurdities of the space is that the church began to fall apart––this was brought to media attention in 2007–– and so it had to be extensively renovated. Ruins being renovated! One of the crusaders for the renovation was, interestingly, an RAF pilot involved in bombing raids over Germany in World War Two.

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

The moniker ‘Gedächtniskirche’, or ‘Memory Church’, always struck me as strange. A church that itself is memory asks us to personify it.

Where is the church’s memory located? I sometimes like to come here and look up at the yellowed stones and imagine them encoding the different moments of history they experienced. I like to think that the mortar is a network of associations, which has preserved memory even though much of the Church was (brain?) damaged, many of the stones lost. But what does the Church remember if it cannot see or move? There’s no visual or motor cortex. Maybe, instead, it feels.

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Photo by Neven Mikač, used with permission.

If I come close and touch one of the stones, perhaps it will remember me. This is reassuring because, despite its turbulent history, I expect the Church will be around much longer than I. But isn’t this also pure egotism? What the stones should remember is not its visitors, but rather the memory of war. I get to thinking that this poor church really must be traumatised if it remembers 1943. How can we console it? Does it expect more from us? Isn’t it disappointed that we spend so much time shopping on Kürfurstendamm instead of whispering kind words to it?

Of course, the idea of a Memory Church is an elaborate fiction. The stones, of course, are dead, they do not speak, they will not carry on the memory of the Second World War as a warning without a context of people to whom these memories, this warning of war, has been transmitted. Perhaps that is the invitation of this hollowed, shattered space. Because it cannot remember, we must. We can stare up at its voids, and because it will not tell us what it has seen, we must be this ugly creature’s extended mind, its hard-drive, its memory network, its conscience, its renovation, its future.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, 1900. Photo out of copyright.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, 1900. Photo out of copyright.

One Comment

  1. Ronda Scott wrote:

    I lived in Berlin in 1989 when the Wall came down. This church was a constant reminder to me, a US soldier, of the destruction man is capable of in a world where churches are a symbol of faith in humanity. It was relevant that the war torn scars remain to evoke that emotional tension so that I learn to avoid such a repeat in history.