What is Gendarmenmarkt?
The Gendarmenmarkt is a picturesque public square in Berlin that was built in the late 17th century and named after the ‘Gens d’armes’, a Prussian cavalry regiment made up of Huguenot soldiers.
This attractive square has changed names frequently over the years. Originally called Esplanade, it once functioned as the centre of a town called Friedrichstadt, founded in the late 17th century by Frederick III of Brandenburg (who later became King Frederick I of Prussia). The square served as a public marketplace for nearly 200 years, until covered market halls became popular in the 19th century.
In 1685, King Louis XIV expelled the Huguenots – a general term for French Protestants – from Catholic France. Frederick’s father, who was Elector of Brandenburg at the time, was tolerant of religious difference. He encouraged the new wave of Protestant refugees to move to Calvinist Brandenburg. Many Huguenots eventually settled in Friedrichstadt, and the name Gendarmenmarkt refers to this founding population. The square was home to the Gens d’armes (or literally ‘men-at-arms’), a Prussian cavalry regiment made up of Huguenot soldiers. Gendarmenmarkt was a place of refuge and renewal for the Huguenots, and the square maintained its cosmopolitan identity even as it evolved in the 18th century: when the Gens d’armes moved out in the 1770s, a state-subsidised French Comedy House took their place. However, it didn’t last long. It was demolished at the start of the 19th century and replaced by a large national theatre, which burnt down shortly afterwards. The Royal Drama Theatre was constructed in its place at the west of the square, now a concert hall known as the Konzerthaus.
As is the case for many public squares, Gendarmenmarkt has also been a site of civil unrest. On a bustling market day in 1847, a hungry crowd attacked a potato trader because of his inflated prices. The desperate rioters then looted a bakery on nearby Charlottenstrasse. Prussia had been badly affected by the same potato blight which was causing famine in Ireland. Just as the United Kingdom government failed to prevent the disastrous consequences of the Irish blight, the Prussian leaders didn’t provide adequate aid, and over 40,000 Prussians died as a result.
Unfortunately, the Third Reich left its mark on Gendarmenmarkt. The ornamental gardens, which had brought life and colour to the square, were paved over to make space for Nazi military parades in the 1930s. The monument to Friedrich Schiller (the 18th-century German dramatist, poet and philosopher) at the square’s centre was also dismantled, given that he was anathema to the Nazis as a republican and cosmopolitan. Its parts were scattered throughout East and West Berlin. The statue was eventually reconstructed and repositioned here in the 1980s.
Against all odds, Gendarmenmarkt has re-emerged from the turbulent 20th century as a symbol of cosmopolitanism and renewal. After the war, the Konzerthaus and cathedrals were gradually restored to their former glory. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein conducted a celebratory performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Konzerthaus. The lyrics of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (which Bernstein had changed to ‘Ode to Freedom’) heralded a new era for Europe.