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 on the eastern side of the city’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard, nestled in a horse chestnut grove. A testament to the ideological fluctuations of 20th century Germany, this building 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 is almost as often frequented by official representatives of visiting nations as it is by the millions of tourists who pass through Berlin each year and perhaps stumble across this humble neoclassical structure on the city’s main historic boulevard and former Prussian via triumphalis.
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 does bear all of the typical hallmarks of a Schinkel design.
One of the leading exponents of neoclassicism in architecture – in particular the Greek Revival – 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 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. It’s new form the work of architect Heinrich Tessenow, a contemporary of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and one time teacher of 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 memorial of the Prussian state government for the victims of the Great War – the men who had died in the First World War. The interior of the structure would be gutted and transformed into a memorial hall centered around a black granite block with an oak wreath. Above the granite block, the building would open to the sky through a circular skylight (an oculus), similar to the Pantheon in Rome.
When following the end of the Second World War, the building fell into the hands of the East German regime, it would again be transformed – this time into the 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 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 only one 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 iconic sculpture was the work of Prussian artist Kathe 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, seen so much destruction and conflict.