The war damaged Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, with its mutilated spire, is one of West Berlin’s most iconic sites – located a short walk from the Zoologischer Garten and the train station that bears the same name.
Due to the extensive damage to this evangelical house of worship – in particular the truncated steeple – the building is known locally as the ‘Hohle Zahn’ (Hollow Tooth or Cavity).
This nickname could also be said to be a cheeky reference to the former German Imperial and Prussian royal family, the Hohenzollern, for whom this church was constructed back in 1895. The official name of the church being a reference to the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I, given to the building by his then-ruling grandson, Wilhelm II, as a tribute to the man who had united Germany some 24 years earlier.
Wilhelm II had initiated a programme of church building across the country, in an attempt to highlight traditional Christian values in Germany and counter the growing significance of what he deemed the godless Socialist and Labour movements. This new church, beyond what was technically classified as Berlin at the time – in the area known as Charlottenburg – was to be his showpiece house of worship. Not only had his grandfather united Germany in 1871 but also overseen the completion of Cologne Cathedral in 1880 – 632 years after construction had originally commenced.
Wilhelm II was hoping to do one better.
The man he entrusted with this missionary project – Franz Heinrich Schwechten – had earlier been responsible for the design of the largest train station in continental Europe – Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof.
Like the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, that train station now stands in ruin, near the famous Potsdamer Platz junction. All that remains, the preserved facade; a tragic reminder of that once great terminus.
Schwechten came to be known for his contribution to the development of historicist architecture – taking elements of the past and integrating these signifiers into structures of the Wilhelmine era. At a time when Germany was looking to define itself on the world stage and channeling elements of its scattered past.
A style that can been seen in the designs of both the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche and Anhalter Bahnhof.
When completed, this Neo-Romanesque church stood 113 metres high and boasted a nave big enough for around 2,000 to gather in for ceremonies and services.
It would be symbolically opened on September 1st 1895 – the anniversary of Sedan Day, when in 1870 Napoleon III and his army were taken prisoner at the castle of Sedan, less than two months after the start of the Franco-Prussian war. Prussian victory in this conflict, the third major victory in the so-called Wars of Unification (Denmark, Austria, France) would see the Prussian King crowned German Emperor and the country unified on January 15th 1871.
As a result, Sedan Day would become a de-facto national holiday in unified German, until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 brought an end to the Hohenzollern throne.
When stepping inside the church today, it is hard not to immediately notice the dazzling ceiling mosaic that decorates the interior of the vestibule entrance – with the depiction of the royal procession of Prussian Kings and German Emperors – cast centre-stage in the tumultuous parade of German history. Each suitably bearded and walking alongside their wives as a celebration of Divine Right. Executed by famous painter, Hermann Schaper, who would later decorate Aachen Cathedral, the mosaic – much like the rest of the building – was damaged during the war and, as such, shows its scars.
Berlin is now a majority non-believer city, as most people in the German capital do not profess a religion. Although around 66% of the country identifies as Christian, Berlin is a notable exception.
Examining the exterior of the church, it is possible to see the bomb and shrapnel damage, still maintained on the body of the building. The enormous circular stained glass window that was previously set above the entrance of the building is now missing, and the belfry – although since restored – is missing its original bells.
When cast, these were said to be second only to the bells of Cologne Cathedral – and when rung, so loud that the wolves in the nearby Zoo would become restless and howl. Made of bronze from guns captured during the Franco-Prussian war, the bells of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche fell victim to the Second World War when in January 1943 four of the five bells were removed and melted down as part of the war effort.
The worst damage inflicted on the church during the Nazi period, however, came in November 1943, when a British Royal Air Force raid on the city brought carnage to large parts of the west of Berlin.
This was the largest raid of the war up to that point, as more than 700 bombers – Lancasters, Halifaxes, Sterlings and Mosquitos – flying from bases in the south of England, dropped just over 2,500 tons of ordnance in the space of one night. Ten churches were left in ruin. Many embassies on Unter den Linden were bombed out. The world-renowned KaDeWe department store nearby also suffered a direct hit from a crippled British bomber that crashed through the ceiling.
Nazi claims that a newer, more impressive church would replace the damaged building never materialsed – but a post-war architectural competition in 1957 did present a promising new direction.
Egon Eiermann, responsible for the German Embassy in Washington D.C., initially intended to demolish the old church and replace it with a new version. Following impassioned public debate, this idea was dropped, in favour of preserving the original church as a memorial against war and adding an ensemble of four buildings surrounding the damaged structure.
Opened in 1961, Eiermann’s new church consists of an unusual octagonal nave complete with grid walls filled with over 20,000 panes of stained glass inspired by the Jesse Tree in Chartres Cathedral. Contributed by French artist Gabriel Loire, these pieces of glass were smashed into smaller sections and then rebuilt inside the walls, to provide the unique lighting to the interior – mainly ultramarine blue.
Far more representative than the other aspects of this building – the Stalingrad Madonna, the Cross of Nails, the 300kg brass Christ the Redeemer – the stain glass interior of the new church can be seen in direct contrast to the broken processional mosaic of the original church building.
Rather than a celebration of the righteousness and direct lineage of the royal family and German history, these broken glass fragments represent the country shattered into pieces in 1945 – struggling to find its identity while coming to terms with its past.
Humble yet glorious; capable of beauty and triumph despite its flaws.
Some useful links related to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche:
The Berlin government page on the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin and explore this urban battlefield with our Battle of Berlin tours.
Learn more about the history of Nazi Germany and life in Hitler’s Third Reich with our Capital Of Tyranny tours.
Learn more about the history of East German and life behind the Iron Curtain with our Republic Of Fear tours.
Learn more about the history of Prussia and the life of Frederick the Great with our Glory Of Prussia tours.
Learn more about the Nazi Concentration Camp industry and visit Sachsenhausen on our Invention of Hell tours.