Statements from the political and cultural arenas

23 min read

Susan Neiman

Director of the Einstein Forum, Potsdam

“The cross is an ambiguous symbol. For contemporary Christians, it stands for charity. But it reminds others of the pogroms against Jews and Muslims that accompanied the Crusades, as well as the power colonial rulers exerted in the name of bringing eternal salvation to ostensible barbarians. In a state where religion and politics are meant to be divided, crosses belong in churches. On a forum that is dedicated to non-European cultures, a cross is particularly contradictory. Nor can it be justified by reference to historical detail: neither the architecture is completely original, nor the purpose for which the palace will be used. It would be far better to omit it.”

Natalia Majluf

Art historian and curator, member of the International Expert Team of the Humbodt Forum, Lima

“The Berlin Palace was destroyed: the decision to erase its ruins was a political choice. Opposed political motives determined the razing of the building that replaced it. Reconstruction through the claims of historical accuracy is not a neutral act. There can be no disinterested rebuilding, as there is no perfect return to another time, because history cannot be erased, and many memories still wage battle on the site.”

Aiman Mazyek

Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD)

“The cross on top of the cupola is part of the cultural and historical legacy, and it does not bother me, particularly as this context should not be veiled or obsessively suppressed. If you want to underline the equality of the religions with future worldly buildings, you could include the symbols of all three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In Christianity, the symbol of the cross stands for charity, freedom, open-mindedness and tolerance.

Monika Grütters

Minister for Culture and Media, Berlin

“With the now completed reconstruction of the cupola, a further milestone has been reached in the rebuilding of the Berlin Palace. The accompanying cross is a striking landmark – and invites discussion. In Christianity, the symbol of the cross stands for charity, freedom, open-mindedness and tolerance. Exactly these are also the fundamental values of the Humboldt Forum. As a communication forum, it will facilitate a dialogue between the cultures of the world on equal terms. The cross can therefore also be seen as an invitation to get to know the various cultures that will be at home in the Humboldt Forum.”

Seyran Ateş

Lawyer, initiator and co-founder of the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin

“I am for the Humboldt Forum, and as a liberal mosque community, we appreciate the fact that we have been allowed to create a display inside the Forum. Through this, and with many other things that are already happening and will be happening inside the building in future, the Forum shows how open it is towards the diversity of our social reality. I welcome the complete reconstruction of the cupola with a cross. Anything else would contradict the Humboldt Forum’s overall concept and would be a self-censorship that would be neither appropriate nor honest. Omitting the cross in the interest of a multi-religion, multicultural society would in fact equal a denial of the history of the site and the building. An awareness of your own history with all of its contradictions must always come before false consideration. The cupola and the cross that is inextricably linked with it is not the place where contemporary history is written and claims to rule are asserted. The cupola with the cross and the inscription is merely a clean and honest piece of reconstruction. It deserves respect precisely for this. No more. With its open concept, the Humboldt Forum is bound to become an enriching addition to the European culture of debate. The city of contradictions can be proud of this.”

Johanna Di Blasi

Art historian, journalist and blogger, Berlin. Author of the book “Das Humboldt Lab. Museumsexperimente zwischen postkolonialer Revision und szenografischer Wende” [The Humboldt Lab. Museum experiments between post-colonial revision and scenographic change]

“On the former Berlin Palace, the cross stood for the alliance between throne and altar. Without throne and chapel, it has now – apparently – lost any kind of meaning. In actual fact, however, due to the world museum, it now tells us more than ever before: it recalls that unholy and still too seldom considered alliance between colonialism and missionarism that also gave us some of the ethnological collections.”

The cross is also a direct contradiction of the purpose the palace will be used for, the Humboldt Forum with its ethnological collections

Jürgen Zimmerer

Professor of Global Studies at Universität Hamburg

“The reconstruction of the Berlin palace also means that certain aspects of Berlin’s history, of Germany’s history, are being erased: the Second World War and the destruction it brought, the divided Germany and, not least, the GDR. The identity forming aspects referenced by the reconstruction, on the other hand, are Prussia, the monarchy, and the time before the devastating impact of two world wars that were mainly provoked by Berlin/Germany, the time before the Holocaust. In this context, the cross also stands for the Hohenzollern’s divine right, and therefore for an undemocratic system, for a universal claim to rule. This rule was legitimised by a Christian bedrock, which in turn was thereby given the normative social authority.

Not only is this divine rule as outdated as the vision of a homogenous society; the cross is also a direct contradiction of the purpose the palace will be used for, the Humboldt Forum with its ethnological collections. It remains to be seen whether the Humboldt Forum will manage to appropriately address its colonial core, i.e. the colonial collections with their raw objects, the ethnological tradition and a building that references the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples. The cross certainly makes this task even more difficult, considering that the European subjugation of the world took place in the name of the same.

The Humboldt Forum wants to be 21st century agora, and debate with the thinkers and artists of this world on equal terms, also as an act of the own de-colonisation. It now has to start with this cross and its role within as well as outside of Europe.”


Jyotindra Jain

Art and cultural historian, member of the International Expert Team of the Humbodt Forum, New Delhi

“The HF has, in the past, conducted a series of brilliantly innovative experiments on the interpretation of museum objects under the umbrella of the Humboldt Lab. I suggest that after the work on the dome is completed as per the architect’s design, a ‘New Humboldt Lab’ comprising curators, academics, artists, architects, writers, film-makers, theatre persons, etc. be set up with a brief to re-create an imaginary range of alternative conceptions of the dome by producing drawings, montages, art works, architectural models, films, write-ups or any other forms of expressions, which could be eventually presented as an exhibition at the HF.
In my view, this creative exercise will liberate the dome from its apparent heraldic freeze and usher it into a more fluid, democratic and critical space in line with the Forum’s objectives of plurality, diversity and openness.”

Klaus Lederer

Mayor of Berlin and Senator for Culture and Europe

“The cross and inscription on the cupola are a ‘heading’ above the Humboldt Forum that sends out the wrong signal, in my opinion. The cross is unequivocally a religious symbol; its contents are clearly defined. Its monopoly goes against almost everything that we want to do with the Humboldt Forum: show how ambiguous, diverse, intertwined, wider and deeper our roots really are, absolutely in the spirit of the name-givers, in the spirit of humanism and enlightenment – and the equality of all people and cultures.”

We are now living in a post-Christian society. However, attempting to hide this origin is nevertheless not a good idea.

Richard Schröder

Theologian, politician and Chairman of the Friends of Berlin Palace association

“The romanticist Frederick William IV was bent on living in the Gothic palace chapel and therefore had the cupola building with a cross and verses from the Bible built as the new palace chapel. We are now living in a post-Christian society. However, attempting to hide this origin is nevertheless not a good idea. In actual fact, the dubious intention of thereby becoming invulnerable makes it rather woolly. This obstructs the intercultural dialogue, which thrives on its participants contributing and addressing their origins. There are many cultures and languages. Not wanting to belong to any of them means having no culture and no voice.”

Sharon Macdonald

Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

“The cross is there. So what now? One of the most remarkable things about the Humboldt Forum is how its very coming-into-being has galvanised public debate about how Germany should relate to its problematic pasts – especially colonial and GDR – and to cultural diversity. The fact that people have got cross about the Humboldt Forum is perhaps what is most socially valuable about it. The key questions then are: How to tap into the public hunger for debate? How to make sure that the energy and engagement generated are not stifled by tired platitudes about Christian niceness or untenable claims of authenticity? How to ensure that the Humboldt Forum remains – or becomes even more effective as – a spur to reflection and future action?

I take inspiration from the Fourth Plinth initiative in Trafalgar Square, London. Each year, an artist creates a work for the empty plinth. These are often brilliant – playing insightfully with the plinth’s form, historical and locational symbolism. It is always exciting to see what will happen next. And it always catches attention – not only from the media but also from the many visitors who pass by. It acts as a kind of cultural weathervane, moving with concerns of the moment. The cross on the Humboldt Forum could operate likewise. Indeed, it might be repurposed to literally, as well as metaphorically, serve as a weathervane, responding to cross-currents in political and environmental climate-change. The designers and architects in the Matters of Activity research excellence cluster could, surely, contribute through their skills in the creation of clouds and bubbles (what better for corona times?), or self-generating structures that respond to prevailing conditions. Hybrid Space Lab’s designs for a greening of the Humboldt Forum as jungle top the dome with a bird or gorilla. With just a little modification, the cross might function very readily as a bird feeder, or, should the pigeons become too much of a menace, as a scare-crow. It is, after all, shaped ready for a human form, having been designed as an instrument of bodily torture. Among many intelligent site-sensitive ideas, my artist colleague Tal Adler has suggested that the cross might be temporarily transformed into the finger of doubting Thomas – thus continuing the Christian iconography but also highlighting questions of the basis of belief, as well as being a neat gesture towards Lars Ø Ramberg’s Zweifel (Doubt), mounted in 2005 on the Forum’s predecessor, the GDR Palace of the Republic, and proposed also for the current building (though remaining, I believe, in doubt).

My call, then, is for such an initiative to mobilise the creativity and capacity for provocative engagement for which Berlin is so famous.”

Reconstruction of the dome and its elements such as the cross and inscription might be symbolical and communicate different meaning to different people in connection to the past history.

Flower Manase

Senior Curator-History, National Museum of Tanzania

“Reconstruction of the dome and its elements such as the cross and inscription might be symbolical and communicate different meaning to different people in connection to the past history. It appears 2020 is already a historical year of making new history in relation to the building background. However, the developing history of 21st Century in connection to the Humboldt Forum building and it’s elements, is expected to be inclusive in giving space for the long silenced voices and majorities. The Humboldt forum building is expected not only to showcase the world cultures to attract European tourism and cultural debates. But to play a role of honouring ancestors and their work of cultures we are researching, celebrating, debating, exhibiting and commemorating. It is my wishes, the Humboldt forum will not only become a platform for debates/dialogues but also a place where displayed works of ancestors will breath “freedom” and receive the light of “justice” based on the past global history of imperialism and colonialism”.

Christoph Markschies

Dean of the Faculty of Theology Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, President-Elect of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

“In 2002, with a historic compromise, the Bundestag decided with a majority of almost two-thirds to combine the reconstruction of the facades of the former palace with the use of the site in a way that is appropriate and in keeping with our times, namely as a place for non-European cultures. As someone with a keen interest in history, I am grateful that the charge of reconstructing the facades in a way that takes art history as well as historic building conservation aspects into account was taken seriously, and that therefore, none of the details which we would nowadays never affix to a public building, for good reasons, were omitted. As a contemporary Protestant theologian, I analyse the layman’s theology of the Prussian king Frederick William IV, expressed in the form of the cupola as an important work of art in the mid-19th century, from quite a distant perspective, like much other evidence of the history of Christianity. But I do think that the argument about the cross above the city, like so many of the other controversies regarding the Humboldt Forum, can be a catalyst for the crucial debates that must take place in our society, in this case about the role of religion. I therefore welcome the cross on the cupola.”

Wolfgang Thierse

Former President of the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag) and member of the Humboldt Forum Foundation Council

“Does anyone have to be afraid of the cross on the cupola of the Humboldt Forum? I think not. First of all, it is simply part of the historically accurate reconstruction of the Berlin Palace’s baroque facades, period. No one will still seriously misinterpret it as a symbol of triumph, even if it once was the symbol of a royal religion. However, the cross has always been a symbol of truly complex ambiguity: Christianity’s religious symbol par excellence that signifies suffering and salvation, martyrdom and redemption. And precisely as such, it had an effect, and continues to have an effect, far beyond Christianity; it became part of a global and also secular culture and history and has remained so.

Wanting to obliterate it because we live in a – albeit not secular – but certainly pluralist society in terms of religions and credos would be a cheap denial of its historical and cultural character. Even more: it would contravene our constitution, as the basic law states that our country is completely neutral when it comes to religions and credos. The German state itself does not advocate a credo in order to allow its citizens religious freedom. Respecting this neutrality must therefore also not lead to privileging irreligiousness. In the contrary: the neutral state has the duty to ensure comprehensive religious freedom. It must therefore also not permit the arousal of the impression that negative religious freedom is the more genteel, more state-appropriate religious freedom, and should therefore enjoy preferential protection. There is no constitutionally guaranteed right to not be bothered by other people’s religions or credos! In practice, the neutral state must not discriminate against non-religious symbols in favour of religious symbols. Yes, it should not even privilege the lack of religious symbols (although it must also not instrumentalise religious symbols, for example for party political or electoral politics purposes).

A secular state should not confront the certainly conflict-laden religious/credo pluralism with institutional iconoclasm, with a cleansing of public spaces of all religious symbols. It neither has the right, nor the duty to level out a factual religious and credo plurality – for example in favour of an irreligious or religion-concealing neutrality.

So, no one should be afraid of a cross on a cupola! It is part of our plurality and an element of dealing with this plurality in a liberal way!”

Yasha Young

Founder of Urban Nation, Berlin

“Most of us have considerable freedom to discuss and debate – free speech. Historically a great achievement and value of humankind. The majority of humanity does not have these privileges. Starting a discussion means to evolve and can be productive. The full historical context of the Humboldt Forum is a value, as is its transition, current and future content.Erasing historical positions because they may not fit in today’s view may be one way to handle history. The other aspect is living with and discussing the potential controversies to learn from them and each other. I hope that the entirety of the Humboldt Forum remains an open format and  place for valued opinions, stays true to what a Forum should be by definition: “a meeting or medium where different ideas and views on a particular issue, are freely and openly exchanged” and hence acts as a place for cross genre, generation and cultural debate. Become a place of change. Visually, musically, and academically.Too often, historical Artifacts around the world were erased as part of the course of history and sadly still are to this day. These questionable actions were a way to handle the unwanted or controversial. I hope we can see all history as part of our culture, or culture in general and aim to acknowledge the past and also present lessons and relevance.”

Volker Hassemer

Chairman of the Board, Stiftung Zukunft Berlin foundation

“The Humboldt Forum and the reconstructed Hohenzollern palace – that will never be a harmonious pairing. However, it is possible. Most importantly: it was decided in a democratic way and is therefore right, clashes between building and contents included. It would be wrong and cowardly to deny the conflict, to pretend it’s all smooth sailing.

Why does the issue of the cross on the cupola illustrate this in a particularly impressive way? Above all due to its weightiness and the importance of the Humboldt Forum as such, which cannot be overestimated: it was a grandiose decision by Germany and Berlin to build the Humboldt Forum squarely in the centre of Germany’s capital precisely where the city’s royal palace once stood. Usage concepts of the utmost national importance were under discussion. Elsewhere, such a site would be occupied by the seats of the national government or parliaments, the political and religious cathedrals of the respective country.

We Germans, however, ultimately decided against using this unique site for our own representation. With the Humboldt Forum, we have made it available to the world’s cultures.  Encouraged and legitimised by the name-givers, two of our country’s greatest sons, Wilhelm and here, primarily, Alexander von Humboldt. A generous gesture that is certainly not without obligations towards the world for the reunited Germany that we can all be pleased with, no: proud of. Or at least, I am.

Of course, there can hardly be any doubt: no one would plan a new Humboldt Forum topped by a cross. However, it is also just as unlikely that you would deny an accurate reconstruction of the city palace the cross on its cupola. And if the historical cupola had never had a cross, no one would want one now. As things stand, however, it has been firmly put it in its rightful place for facsimile reasons.

Without a doubt, the Christians, the culture of Christianity, will also be at home in this new old building. It is part of the Humboldt Forum’s concept. However, it will be at home here and honoured in the spirit of this concept. The Forum would hardly commit the self-harm of wanting to be “top dog” in a place where cultures will by meeting each other as equals and with mutual respect. No, the cross will not be on the top “for its own sake”, but as part of a reconstruction.

“Generous gesture”: what if the Church, which is also my church, had asked the creators of the Humboldt Forum to omit the cross on top of the cupola which no longer houses a chapel? No omissions. A gift, and not only for the benefit and in honour of the recipient.”

My cross is this crossing – a meeting place, a place where decisions have to be made, and a dialogue has to be held.

Mia Florentine Weiss

Artist, Berlin

The crux of the cross – crossing or cross-less? That was also the title of my exhibition at the Stadtmuseum Berlin, Das Kreuz mit dem Kreuz – Kreuz Weg oder Kreuz “weg”?, where we embedded an oversized, walk-on cross at eye-level in European soil. Did it fall; was it pushed over or even laid down? We challenged the museum visitors with this question, which references the debate about the cross on the cupola of the Humboldt Forum. Two lines that cross!

The symbol of the cross is also a crossing where the spiritual and the material world, Heaven and Earth, meet. From hopscotch to crucifix, between horizontal and vertical to crosshairs, from former instrument of torture to graphic sign par excellence, from symbol of death to crossing – the cross issue polarises.

Karlheinz Lüdeking writes about this in the KREUZWEG catalogue: “The gesture of laying down a cross resembles that of laying down arms; it can no longer be used for execution purposes! In contrast to ‘the raising of the cross’ so frequently painted since the Middle Ages, you could therefore talk about a ‘laying down of the cross’ here. The cross becomes a place where two roads meet.”

My cross is this crossing – a meeting place, a place where decisions have to be made, and a dialogue has to be held. “In the Beginning Was the Word”, and with our cross, it comes full circle.

Stefan Fittkau

Metalworker who worked on the cupola of the Berlin Palace, Berlin

“The installation of the cupola lantern with the cupola cross is not a paradox in the present times. An open-minded society must also include the recognition of Christianity. With the facade, we have also created not a critical, but an accurate reconstruction of the original. That also includes the cross on the cupola. In my opinion, the Humboldt Forum’s function as an institution with a global mindset does not run contrary to Christian symbolism, as charity and a love of strangers are fundamental elements of what it means to be a Christian.”

We do not interpret the cross as a symbol of power or rule, which is what it has been used for in the past due to an absolute misunderstanding of its meaning.

Eric Haußmann

Reverend of St Marienkirche church, Berlin

“The cross is a religious symbol – a reminder of our human condition as part of a great world house in which we reside together with many people. It humbles us, because it reveals life’s abysses. It recognises that the lives of all people and also the life in our city are shaped by suffering, yet also by reconciliation. We do not interpret the cross as a symbol of power or rule, which is what it has been used for in the past due to an absolute misunderstanding of its meaning. It encourages critical self-reflection. When we as Christians look upon the cross, we are humbly seeking for the commonalities between cultures, religions and people as well as our religious grounding. We also view the cross on the cupola of the Berlin Palace in the centre of the city like this, and according to this interpretation.”

Christiane und Gerrit Winter

Berlin Palace supporters, Hamburg

“These days, the cross on the historical cupola stands for solidarity with everyone in the world, whether they are Christians or non-Christians. All people should be able to lead their lives according to their own ideas and in dignity. For those who suffer destitution, the discriminated, the cross is a symbol of hope.”