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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Schloss Bellevue (Bellevue Palace) in Berlin

What is Schloss Bellevue?

Schloss Bellevue, or Bellevue Palace in English, is the 18th-century Neoclassical official home of the President of Germany which was named after the wonderful view over the surrounding park.

Schloss Bellevue History

Schloss Bellevue (or Bellevue Palace) was built in the 1780s by Michael Philipp Boumann as a summer residence for the younger brother of the Prussian King Frederick II, Prince Augustus Ferdinand. Various younger Hohenzollern princes and princesses lived here until, in the wake of the German defeat in the First World War and the revolution which subsequently broke out, the dynasty was deposed and the Weimar Republic declared. In the 1930s, the palace housed the Museum of German Ethnology before it was heavily damaged by bombing in 1941. It was refurbished in the 1950s as the secondary seat of the West German President, the head of state. That first refurbishment saw the palace largely gutted and fitted with then-modern interiors. Subsequent renovations have gradually restored some of its former grandeur, though many of the larger reception rooms are still decorated in a 1980s style.

During the Cold War, the capital of West Germany was Bonn and the president resided there until the move to Berlin, which had become the new capital following reunification, in 1994. To date, no head of state has ever resided in Bellevue itself for more than a short while, with the exception of Roman Herzog in the late ‘90s. The President, like the Chancellor, also has the option of an official residence in the leafy Dahlem neighbourhood, Villa Wurmbach, though many of them have preferred to live in private apartments. Frank-Walter Steinmeier initially refused to move into Villa Wurmbach because it had been owned by a Jewish couple, Hugo and Maria Heymann, until 1933 when they were forced to sell it at far below market value to a publisher with close links to the Nazi regime. In 2017, Stolpersteine, small brass ‘stumbling stones’, were installed to commemorate the Heymanns’ ownership of the villa.

Set here in the park next to the Bellevue Palace is the black granite Bundespräsidialamt, the office of the Federal President. Built in the late 1990s by Frankfurt-based architects Martin Gruber and Helmut Kleine-Kraneburg, its design was controversial. The head of the Union of German Architects argued that the design ‘gives the impression that the public servants who work inside are bearers of state secrets’. The architects themselves described the building as exuding ‘a certain confidence’ worthy of the new capital and a ‘breaking away… from this fictitious concept of democratic architecture’. The debate reflected the question of what a reunified Germany should stand for. Was the new capital, and by extension the new state, to embrace transparency, accessibility and humanity? Or should reunification lead to a new national self-confidence and assertiveness?

But dealing with German history remains complicated. After the end of the Second World War, the publisher with Nazi links who had bought the Villa Wurmbach off the Heymanns received a ‘denazification’ certificate, attesting to his ideological distance from the regime, thanks to a character reference by none other than Theodor Heuss, the man who would become the first President of West Germany.

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