Despite the important contributions of two of Germany’s most revered artists to its aesthetic, neither would live to see the Neue Wache in its current – and perhaps ultimate – form.
This two storey structure, designed by 19th century master architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, contains one of the most recognisable works of celebrated Berlin sculptress, Käthe Kollwitz, and stands nestled in a grove of chestnut trees on the eastern side of the city’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard. A testament to the ideological fluctuations of 20th century Germany, the Neue Wache has taken many different forms since its construction in 1818.
In stark contrast to its inception as a Prussian guard house – once emblematic of the military might of one of Europe’s most significant powers – it now stands as a memorial dedicated to the ‘Victims of War and Tyranny’. Fittingly not to German victims, or victims of German war or tyranny, but in the intentional ambiguity of its name, a memorial to all victims of all wars and tyranny. A monument that attracts thousands of tourists each year, who no doubt largely stumble across this humble Neoclassical structure on the city’s main historic boulevard and former Prussian via triumphalis, rather than are drawn to it by it reputation. But also visiting foreign digitaries, politicians, heads of state, and ambassadors – tasked as representatives of nations here to pay their respects.
As Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s first major commission in Berlin, it is certainly fair to say that the Neue Wache lacks the grandeur of his later projects – such as the nearby Altes Museum and the Konzerthaus on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt. Although despite its more modest proportions, this building still bears all of the typical hallmarks of a Schinkel design.
One of the leading exponents of Neoclassicism in architecture – in particular Greek Revivalism – Karl Friedrich Schinkel would serve as the head of Prussia’s prestigious Building Commission and play a significant role in transforming Berlin into a capital fit for one of Europe’s leading imperial powers. Instrumental in introducing gas lighting to the city, he would also design the most significant military decoration in the Kingdom of Prussia – the Iron Cross.
With its proportions intentionally reminiscent of a Roman military fort, the Neue Wache would be originally opened to house the soldiers of the Prussian King’s First Regiment and realised in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces in the War of Liberation. Evidence of this symbolic connection can be seen in the tympanum above the door, depicting the Greek goddess Nike deciding a battle – although this particular detail was not added until after Schinkel’s death.
The Neue Wache was initially surrounded by statues of Prussian military leaders - since relocated across the street to next to the former Prussian princesses' palace.
While the interior would initially serve as quarters for the King’s soldiers, the building would be repurposed, redesigned, and reopened in 1931. Its new form the work of architect Heinrich Tessenow, a contemporary of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and mentor to Adolf Hitler’s architect-confidant Albert Speer – who also served as Tessenow’s assistant.
Rather than a guardhouse, the Neue Wache would from that point serve as the Prussian state government’s memorial for the victims of the Great War – the men who had died in the First World War. The interior of the structure gutted and transformed into a memorial hall centered around a black granite block with an oak wreath. Above the granite block, the building open to the sky through a circular skylight (an Oculus), similar in appearance to the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome.
When, following the end of the Second World War, the building fell into the hands of the East German government, it would again be transformed – this time into a memorial for the ‘Victims of Fascism and Militarism’. With a commemorative eternal flame added to replace the wreath, and the body of an unknown concentration camp inmate laid to rest beside that of an unknown soldier.
To step inside the Neue Wache today is to be confronted by a different memorial – with the similarly empty interior now interrupted by another eye catching detail – that of a small bronze statue of a mother holding her dead son in her arms. Placed directly under the Oculus – and on top of the remains of the unknown soldier and concentration camp victim.
Reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s pieta housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, this provocative sculpture was the work of Prussian artist Käthe Kollwitz – famous for her depictions of the effects of war and poverty on the lives of the poor. In this instance secularising traditional imagery of Christian suffering to address social justice issues.
Both Schnikel and Kollwitz were born in Prussia, a once mighty European power that now no longer exists. But one of the things that Prussia has come to represent in the minds of many still does – militarism, war, suffering by any other name. Greek philosopher Plato would say that only the dead know the end of war. While the suffering continues without conclusion, its victims have a memorial in Berlin waiting for them. A place of contemplation and peaceful reflection. In a country that has, in only the last 100 years, experienced so much conflict and destruction.
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