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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Französischer Dom in Berlin

What is Französischer Dom?

The French Church of Friedrichstadt, or Französische Friedrichstadtkirche in German, which is more commonly referred to as ‘Französischer Dom’ (translation: French Cathedral) is an 18th-century domed church built by, and for, Berlin’s Huguenot community.

französischer dom

Französischer Dom History

The so-called Französischer Dom (or French Cathedral) is, strictly speaking, a church rather than a cathedral, since no bishop has their seat here. Yet any visitor contemplating the building from its own shadow would understand why ‘cathedral’ is appropriate. Nor is the tower part of the church proper, as the latter predates the former by about a hundred years. The tower initially served no purpose, just like its twin across the square. Both were built by Carl von Gontard in the 1780s under the auspices of Frederick the Great, who deemed the square to be of insufficient grandeur, and commissioned its redesign.

The church over which the tower soars was built by Berlin’s Huguenot community – French Protestants fleeing persecution by a Catholic majority and an often-intolerant state, after the spread of the Reformation through France in the 16th century. In large numbers they started to arrive in Prussia, ruled by the Calvinist House of Hohenzollern, during the late 17th century. By 1700, about one in five Berliners was a Huguenot. Since the 1930s, the tower has housed a Huguenot Museum, containing the original Edict of Potsdam in which Frederick William, the Great Elector, granted refuge to the Huguenots in Prussia in 1685. These refugees were initially granted a special status, living in so-called kolonien (or ‘colonies’), the two most notable being Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichstadt, where they were allowed to maintain their own customs, language, a separate administration, and even a distinct judiciary. These privileges were only gradually relinquished over the second half of the 18th century. As Huguenots integrated into Prussian society their descendants made their mark on the country and the city. Paul Wallot, for example, became the architect selected to design the Reichstag. Lothar de Maizière was the first democratically elected, and at the same time final, East German head of government.

During the Second World War, both the Huguenot church and the tower were severely damaged and the whole of Gendarmenmarkt, known by the less martial name Platz der Akademie in East Germany, stood in ruins for decades. The pseudo-cathedral was only restored in the late 1970s as a result of a massive project of restoration undertaken by the East German government under the leadership of Erich Honecker. Conservation of Berlin’s historic core had become a priority, in the build-up to the official celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin in 1987: thereby, reckoned the East German government, they could lay claim to the heart of the old capital and its central place in German history.

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