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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

What is Berliner Dom?

Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral in English, is an iconic late-19th-century cathedral commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II that was reconstructed following the Second World War.


Berliner dom from the spree river

Berlin Cathedral History

Designed in the 1890s by Julius Raschdorff in striking Renaissance Revival style, the Berliner Dom (or Berlin Cathedral) was a prestige project for Wilhelm II intended to serve as the primary cathedral of the new German Empire. The Kaiser imagined the Berlin Cathedral would become to world Protestantism what St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was to Catholicism. On its inauguration in 1905 he declared that Protestantism would soon replace Catholicism as the dominant world religion and the Berliner Dom would be its headquarters. But so grand a project inevitably had its detractors and, as one architectural critic wrote, ‘what has been achieved here is empty elegance, nothing more… It shows off, that is all’.


The cathedral was heavily damaged during the Second World War by Allied bombing. The cupola (or dome) collapsed and much of the interior burned out. But plans for the restoration of the Berliner Dom had to wait until the 1970s. Walter Ulbricht, head of the East German government from 1950 to 1971, had intended to tear it down, but his successor, Erich Honecker, saw an opportunity. The restoration would not only become part of his grand plans for the rejuvenation of Berlin’s historic centre, but might also improve relations with the Evangelical Church.


Berliner dom close up detail

According to Rüdiger Hoth, who oversaw the reconstruction, the initial plans would have seen the cathedral converted into a concert hall as in the opinion of the East German leadership religion was a relic of bourgeois society, unworthy of support from the socialist state. In any case, the old cathedral had over 2,000 seats and East Berlin’s Protestant community then numbered scarcely more than 300. But plans for the cathedral’s conversion were abandoned when West German Protestants agreed to pay for part of the reconstruction if the cathedral were to remain a place of worship. The façades were not completed until 1984, while the interior was still under construction when the Berlin Wall fell.


But in spite of Honecker’s zeal for the reconstruction of Berlin’s Prussian centre, one notable demolition was that of the Denkmalskirche, an annexe to the cathedral’s northern side that contained the dynastic crypt of the House of Hohenzollern, Germany’s imperial and Prussia’s royal family. This had been constructed to replace the Campo Santo, a never-completed royal burial hall built atop the old royal laundry. The Denkmalskirche was demolished in spite of the fact that it had survived the war largely intact. High visitor numbers to the new Hohenzollern Crypt, now in the basement of the cathedral itself, have in recent years reinvigorated the debate around a possible reconstruction of the Denkmalskirche, part of a wider trend that has resulted in the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace nearby. But it’s not only in Berlin that old Prussian monuments are being reconstructed. In nearby Potsdam, the foundations for a partial reconstruction of the Hohenzollerns’ own parish church, the Garnisonkirche, which was demolished by the East German government in 1968, were made in 2017.


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