A couple of days ago I walked by the famous TV tower on Alexanderplatz as tourists lined up to buy tickets to go up in the tower. Viewing Berlin from the tower had never occurred to me, and for a few seconds I wondered if this might provide the same enjoyment as ascending the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. But, those seconds slipped by and I took a pass on the tower tour.
Because here is my insight (and I know I’m safe to share this because no one comes to this blog): visually, Berlin has little to offer. In terms of signature monuments and dramatic architecture, Berlin comes in behind every Western European capital that I’ve visited (and some I have not—looking at you, Paris). Where is its Hagia Sophia, its Colosseum, its Westminster Abby, its Plaza Mayor? Brandenburg Tor facing the (back of) the Siegessäule (Victory Tower) makes a claim to a grand vision of the city. But these are at almost opposite ends of the Tiergarten (a vast park) and so far apart they just about loose one another. The most important built feature of the city was the Berlin Wall, something that everyone knew and could not avoid. And also something that was torn down as soon as that became possible. (Parts still stand as a memorial to the wall that everyone hated.)
I say this to make clear how strongly drawn I am to one major feature of Berlin architecture, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche. The church was completed in 1895, a memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm I but really more of a shrine to German military successes, especially its victory in the Franco Prussian War that created the German empire. As such, it is a companion to the Siegessäule, which is only a couple of kilometers away.
But unlike the tower of winged victory, the Memorial Church was extensively damaged in World War II. The Allies refused to rebuild it, and by the late 1950s was on its way to being demolished. But it was not. Instead, the church was left in its devastated state and integrated into a companion building, a new church dedicated to actual worship. Leaving the towering and yet devastated church was meant to draw our attention to the evil of war. For me, it does just that. In busy, ultra modern Berlin, the Memorial Church prods our memory by shocking us with its war torn walls and vacant belfries.
Inside, there are bas reliefs around what I assume must have been the sanctuary (today it is a space for tourists to mill about and purchase souvenirs). These are not the 12 stations of the cross (because Protestant church), but there is one station in evidence. Jesus, in the garden, praying the words below the relief— “doch nicht mein sondern dein wille geschiet” (not my will, but thine be done). But below the supplicant Christ we see a relief from the Franco Prussian war, the whole point of this church. There sits Wilhelm I (king of Prussia and soon to be the German Kaiser) with his generals, studying plans of battle, with his chancellor, Bismarck (who had orchestrated this, and two previous wars), standing and facing out into the worship space. This relief, still standing in that wrecked church, with its glorification of imperial aspiration and military might, serves for me as a perfect visual irony. The fruits of war surround this testament to the esteem of war. And with the words of Jesus just overhead, as though part of the ensemble below them, the irony also becomes verbal.