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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin

What is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church?

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, or Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in German, is a Protestant church in Berlin that was built in the 1890s as a memorial to the first German Emperor Wilhelm I and then rebuilt in the mid-20th century after suffering bomb damage in the Second World War.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church History

Berlin is not a city that shies away from its own tumultuous, dramatic history. Throughout the capital, there are countless, visible reminders of Germany’s difficult past. Situated on the Kurfürstendamm, a place typically thronged with crowds of shoppers, the Protestant Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (or Memorial Church) is one of many thoughtful civic initiatives undertaken to commemorate the country’s recent history in a constructive way.

Today, the Gedächtniskirche is made up of the ruins of the original church that was badly damaged during the Allied air raids in 1943, as well as some newer buildings. The original Gedächtniskirche was commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II to honour his grandfather, the foundation stone laid on the 22nd of March 1891 to mark Wilhelm I's birthday. It was a grand building designed in the Neo- Romanesque style by Franz Schwechten and featured five spires (one main spire, the remains of which still stand today, supplemented by four smaller spires, one of which has survived intact). Its bells were the second-largest in the country after Cologne Cathedral, and there is a possibly apocryphal tale that whenever they were rung, the wolves in Berlin Zoo would howl. With the onset of the Second World War, however, the bells were removed and melted down for munitions.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Interior

Eleven years after the war ended, plans to demolish the church’s ruins were met with angry protests. This paved the way for a compromise whereby the appointed architect, Egon Eiermann, integrated the remains of the old church, notably its damaged but surviving main spire, into his new design. The new Gedächtniskirche is made up of four buildings grouped around the ruins of the old one. The four buildings include to the west of the ruins the new church with a foyer, and a tower with a chapel to the east. Eiermann’s design, which was constructed between 1959 and 1963, features honeycomb-patterned concrete with stained-glass inlays in the new church. The glass in the octagonal nave section admits blue-tinted light, creating a calm, meditative atmosphere in the building.

There’s a memorial hall in the old spire, intended as a place for peaceful contemplation. The hall features a simple cross made from nails extracted from the burnt timbers of Coventry Cathedral in England, which was totally obliterated by German bombing in 1940. It’s intended to signify reconciliation between former enemies. Other crosses made of nails from Coventry have been installed in Dresden, Hiroshima and Volgograd – all places that were devastated by bombing during the Second World War.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at night

Not only a striking landmark, the new Gedächtniskirche makes a powerful statement against war and destruction, and is testament to Berliners’ determination to rebuild their city following the extensive damage it suffered. The church has been given several nicknames by them. The war-damaged spire is sometimes referred to as ‘der hohle Zahn’, meaning ‘the hollow tooth’, whilst the new buildings, because of their distinctive appearance, are called ‘Lippenstift und Puderdose’ (or ‘the lipstick and the powder box’).

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