A symbol of reconciliation

6 min read

mit Wilhelm von Boddien
Mr von Boddien, one of the last major building measures will be the installation of a cross on top of the cupola above Portal III of the Humboldt Forum at the Berlin Palace in May 2020. In the Christian iconography, the cross is primarily the symbol of death and resurrection. However, with this cross, the historic facade of the palace is also being restored at last. You personally have been actively committed to this project for the past eighteen years or so. Did you think, at the beginning, that your idea would become solid reality one day?

Wilhelm von Boddien: My dedication to the palace project dates back as long ago as 1961. However, that was the year when the GDR built the wall. The idea therefore remained only a dream – until 1989. And since then, so essentially since more than 30 years ago, my Friends and I have been working intensively on the realisation of our idea. Over the years, what began as a hobby really has become a lifetime’s mission for me. You shouldn’t pursue an idea like this if you don’t firmly believe in success in order to then find ways to also realise this dream with plenty of intuition.

The reconstructions of the most elemental parts of the facade have been modelled on Schlüter’s original design from the baroque period. Why then has the difficult decision been made to also reconstruct the cupola including lantern and the cross, which were added later on, in the 19th century? After all, this addition from the time of Frederick William IV could easily have been omitted.

Ultimately, the reconstruction of a lost historical building must be guided by the building. If you leave something out, this could easily be interpreted as a censorship of contentious attributes. Which is precisely what fired the controversy two years ago: many wanted to omit the cross – however, you can’t do that with a project like this. This immediately opens the floodgates to other omissions, and you become vulnerable. Here, the principle of “You are either pregnant or not; you can’t be just a little bit pregnant” applies.

The palace chapel as well as the cross were added in the 1840s by the architect Friedrich August Stüler – a circumstance which actually inspired the critique in the past few years you just referred to; after all, such a charging with sacral meaning in the mid-19th century could also be interpreted as a critique of the German revolutions of 1848 and as an intentional catalogue of symbolism to emphasise the “divine right” of the Prussian kings. How important is such historical embedding when reconstructing buildings as historic as this one?
I believe it is contrived in order to prevent the reconstruction of such symbolism-laden elements. The cupola was designed before the revolution. The cupola was already under construction at the start of the unrest in Berlin in 1848, as proven by contemporary copperplate engravings. The decision to install the cross therefore also fell before the revolution; after all, it was also about the building of an expansive Christian palace chapel beneath the cupola. The interpretations you mentioned also reflect our history; and that remains unchanged, even if you wanted to suppress it through omissions. Particularly where a building is dedicated to the cultures of the world, like the Humboldt Forum will be, the symbol of the cross provides a wonderful opportunity for re-emphasising its actual original Christian meaning. The cross stands for the death of Jesus, who voluntarily took upon himself what was probably the most brutal death sentence of antiquity. In his Sermon on the Mount, the same man had previously pronounced his legacy in the form of the eight Beatitudes which, better than all other messages, express compassion for people, humility and the promises of Christianity. More “love thy neighbour as thyself” is hardly possible! In my opinion, especially the cross on the cupola symbolises this attitude and charges the cultures of the world with reconciliation.

However, I also understand that for many people, the cross in its contemporary atheist interpretation is seen as a symbol of war and the abuse of power. Its message and its authority have been abused by those in power, who established a correlation to their own interests with it. Not Jesus but rulers, dictators and even democrats have summoned up God’s blessing for their “just wars”. The sign of the cross was made over cannons to bless them before people were sent into gruelling battles. The cross on the cupola of the Humboldt Forum should therefore also be viewed as a reminder to all people for more peace and neighbourly compassion between nations, not only from the perspective of historical building accuracy. Particularly the West would also benefit from taking heed of this reminder in their dealings with people in other countries.

Various contemporary documents will be deposited in the cupola below the cross. Can you tell us what kind of documents these will be?

As far as I know, the plan is to deposit building plans, coins, a daily newspaper and also a copy of our “Berliner Extrablatt” from late summer 2002, which featured a brief history of the palace, an article about the decisive Bundestag debate on 4 July 2002 and a summary of the future functions of the Humboldt Forum at the Berlin Palace.

Countless elements – including the lantern and the cross – have only been made possible through generous individual donations. Are there still building elements or sculptures whose reconstruction depends on the dedication of committed donors?

Yes, another almost six million euros have to be found for the already completed facades and the cupola. A further nine million have now been added that were not previously budgeted for to finance the works of art that are not elements of the building structure and can therefore also be added afterwards. These include the sculptures on the palace facades and the cupola, as well as the historically accurate design of the portal archways on the Lustgarten side. However, despite this, we should not forget the countless people in Germany and elsewhere who have shown an exceptional willingness to donate and have already contributed to the palace. We are incredibly grateful to them and owe them our most heartfelt respect!

Photo by Wilhelm von Boddien
Wilhelm von Boddien

Wilhelm von Boddien founded the Förderverein Berliner Schloss in 1992, was its first chairman until 2004 and has been managing director of the association since 2004.