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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin

What is Charlottenburg Palace?

Charlottenburg Palace is a magnificent Baroque palace constructed in the late 17th century that served as the summer residence of the Brandenburg electors, Prussian kings and German emperors.

Charlottenburg Palace Gates

Charlottenburg Palace History

In 1695, Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg and later King in Prussia, gifted to his wife, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the village of Lietzow, which had been settled for the past 500 years. Shortly afterwards, it was re-founded by the princess and given the self-aggrandising new name of Charlottenburg (now a neighbourhood in modern Berlin). Frederick then commissioned Johann Arnold Nering, an architect of Dutch extraction, to draw up designs for a modest summer residence. The house, originally named Lützenburg Castle, would be expanded again and again over the years, until it became the exquisite and striking Baroque palace it is today. As the power and wealth of Prussia grew so did the wealth and power of her kings, resulting in ever-grander construction projects.

Princess Sophia Charlotte was a woman of great talent and intellect; she performed Italian opera, played the harpsichord, and strolled through the grounds of her summer residence with her friend the esteemed philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Following the princess’s untimely death from pneumonia in 1705, her summer house was renamed in her honour: Schloss Charlottenburg (or Charlottenburg Palace). She was, however, far from being the only Prussian queen to leave her mark on Charlottenburg. In the 18th century, the palace was home to Frederick William III and his queen consort Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who became somewhat of a royal icon at the time. Historian Christopher Clark claims she was: ‘… a female celebrity who in the mind of the public combined virtue, modesty and sovereign grace with kindness and sex appeal, and whose early death in 1810 at the age of only 34 preserved her youth in the memory of posterity.’ Her husband commissioned a Neoclassical mausoleum in the palace gardens as a fitting tomb for his beloved wife. They’re both buried there, as are Wilhelm I, the first German Emperor, and his wife Augusta.

Charlottenburg Palace Lawn

After the fall of the German Empire, the surrounding area, now assimilated into the city of Berlin, developed and evolved. When a politician complained in 2017 that in fashionable Berlin restaurants none of the staff spoke German anymore, he was probably not aware this point had been made at least once before, nearly 100 years earlier. In the early 1920s, a significant number of Russian exiles arrived in Berlin following the October Revolution. In Charlottenburg, dozens of Russian cafés and restaurants sprang up and Berliners took to calling the district ‘Charlottengrad’ as a result. One such newcomer was the writer Vladimir Nabokov who arrived in 1922, having just finished his studies at Cambridge. He stayed in Berlin for 15 years and his first novels were set entirely or partly in the city. But writing was not his primary source of income: Nabokov also gave English and tennis lessons to wealthier exiles. Given the number of his compatriots who had settled here following the establishment of Bolshevik rule at home, the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich referred to Berlin as ‘the stepmother of Russian cities’.

The Charlottenburg Palace was heavily damaged during the Second World War. The cupola (or dome) collapsed following an Allied air raid in November 1943. Reconstruction by the West German government in the post-war period was in marked contrast to the demolition of the burned-out Berlin Palace by the East Germans in 1950. Fortunately, the structure was sympathetically restored to its former glory, and today boasts opulent private apartments, wood-panelled halls, and the extraordinary Porcelain Chamber, complete with priceless ware from China and Japan. A stroll through the halls and gardens of this stately palace allows you to step into the shoes of the men and women who once ruled the Kingdom of Prussia.

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