Berlin History

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.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

5 thoughts on “What Does the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Remember?

  • 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.

  • I visited this church as kid in the mid 70s and it left a deep impression especially seeing and touching all the stones that were covered in tank and bullet holes which brought home the imaginated time of such a violent war. Then when I went back sometime later and showed a friend what I was had experienced we found that all the bullet and battle scars from small arms etc. Had been meticulously filled in? So now as one looks at the church it stands as a reminder to ww2 yes but it looks as though it just a building that could have been destroyed by fire back in the day and not a stark reminder of the battle that took place . Maybe they did this because of some structural thing to save it I don’t know but they missed the mark

  • Here’s a challenge for someone: I have looked all over the internet, but have never seen a single photo posted of the interior of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche. I know there are some photos of the inside of the remains of the tower which today is a sort of souvenir shop. But I’d like to see pictures of the prewar interior.

  • Thank you for writing this article, it has really helped me to get to know more about Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
    I have some questions about the church and get your insight on it.
    1. What was the reason why Berliners protest on plan to completely demolish the church in 1956? It probably was a constant reminder to Berliners of the horrors of war, but why did they decide to protect it from being demolished?
    2. I am very curious about what emotions Berliners feel today when they see or walk by the memorial church. What do they remember about the war, what emotions occur in them?

    Thank you for taking your time to read my questions, I am a student in South Korea and very curious about this church. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your question. There were a number of reasons why Berliners fought demolition in 1956: one was a suspicion of new buildings and a nostalgia for the old structure. The modern design of Egon Eiermann was unpopular, as were many midcentury design projects. Another was the role of the Tagesspiegel whose newspaper editor launched a crusade to save the building, mobilising readers. Finally, the building represented the resilience of Berliners, while at the same time was a warning of war, and these meanings were resonant with the public. What do Berliners feel today? Many are so used to the church’s presence perhaps they don’t notice anymore. Others are shaken from their everyday reality and reminded of the horrors of war. It’s hard of course to measure which reaction is more frequent.


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