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Heritage is heritage, no matter how politically incorrect

March 8, 2010

Each building makes up a part of our city, and together all of a cities’ buildings form a grand and diverse tapestry that inform us of that city’s history. In order to understand our context, history and surroundings we must appreciate each building, every style and all of our landmarks, no matter how much we may dislike them.

There are plenty of examples of cities around the world, and buildings in London, which have been erased due to the fact they don’t fit the current fashion or our current ways of thinking.

One notable example of this is the former parliament of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany).

The Palace of the Republic in the former east Germany

The Palace of the Republic in the former east Germany

The Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) in Berlin was built in the 1970s, and though it may not win any prizes in a contest for the most beautiful seat of government in the world, it nevertheless told us an important story which is part of not just just the history of Berlin and Germany, but of the whole of Europe.

Its demolition was completed in 2008. I believe the German authorities made a tragic error. It is entirely wrong to try and airbrush the heritage of east Germany from history. During fifty years of separation, east Germans gained their own traditions, customs and ways of life.

Cultural tensions between the former east and west persist, most vibrantly demonstrated by the persistence of the ‘Wall in the Head’ and the current trend for Ostalgie (Nostalgia for the East).

A friend from the old East Germany testifies that many Germans sought reform of their government, not abolition. She herself protested outside the parliament and at the wall for freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

She did not, however, protest for homelessness, poverty or unemployment, all of which are now endemic problems in Germany – especially in the states forming the former GDR. Many east Germans resent the fact their state was absorbed into the West German system with no compromises and no co-option of many of the policies and in fact, rights, those in the east enjoyed.

These current problems facing the east Germany republic, surely explain Ostalgie.

Trabat Car

The 'Trabi' is an enduring symbol of East Germany

Now I am not advocating the re-division of Germany and Berlin, rather pointing out that for us to properly understand history we must understand the lives of those on the other side of the coin. We can’t grasp life on the other side of the Iron Curtain by destroying its remnants.

The former parliament building was relic of east which told us of east German’s lives. From the happy times (my friend recalls fondly visiting the ice skating rink there on weekends) to the more difficult. The parliament was one of the focal points for the escalating protests which eventually brought down the government and was a massively important point in world history, triggering the end of the Cold War and beginning one of the largest waves of democratisation in world history.

This building told us far more about the current issues in Germany, the entire nation’s context, than its planned, pastiche, replacement. How can we understand the present if we erase the past?

The Stadtschloss was demolished to make way for the Parliament. Of course, a historical building in its own right we cannot turn back time - the east German parliament told us far more about contemporary Germany.

The pretext of the demolition was the ostensible presence of asbestos, though it is doubtless the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss will no doubt be far more expensive than any renovation. (Ignoring of course, the fact that many public buildings across the UK and probably Germany are riven with asbestos. I don’t see the authorities demolishing my university or local hospital!)

It saddens me to see the fabric of history destroyed for what are clearly political reasons.

One city that has dealt far better with their communist history is Prague.

The Žižkov TV Tower stands out completely against the serenity and baroque one usually associates with the Paris of the east.

The TV tower was very much maligned by the Czechs, nevertheless proving to be useful for its eponymous function it has survived. In 2000 artist David Černý installed numerous crawling babies on the structure as a temporary, now permanent art work.

Constructed between 1985 and 1992, the TV tower is a symbol of the former communist regime. Picture courtesy of Yoko!

This has proven popular amongst Czechs and adds a whimsical feature to the tower which subverts its communist associations and helped Czechs reconcile the towers imposing nature, while also becoming a tourist draw.

Surely the Germans could have done something just as imaginative with their Palast? They have, after all, retained sections of the Berlin wall, now transformed into the East Side Gallery.

The East Side Gallery, formed from sections of the Berlin Wall. Piece entitled My God help me, this deadly love to survive

Every period of history makes its mark on the present, and in no way is this mark more obvious than in buildings bestowed to us.

We need to look long and hard at our buildings (and ourselves) before we destroy them.

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