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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of The Neue Wache in Berlin

What is The Neue Wache?

The Neue Wache is an early-19th-century monument that has commemorated a number of conflicts, and since 1993 has been the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship.

Neue Wache

Neue Wache History

Since its construction in the early 19th century, the Neue Wache (or ‘New Guardhouse’) has been repurposed by successive rulers as a memorial to different moments in German history. As a building it embodies the country’s tumultuous past, and its various iterations over time underscore the fact that history is written by the winners, who shape and craft the story of the past to serve their own ends.

Originally the brainchild of King Frederick William III of Prussia, the Neue Wache was commissioned as a guardhouse for his royal palace across the road. It was a replacement for the old Artillery Guardhouse, and was to serve as a memorial to the Wars of Liberation that saw the defeat of the First French Empire. The design was entrusted to the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who would become famous for his many Neoclassical and neo-Gothic buildings throughout Germany. It was Schinkel’s first major commission in Berlin and was unveiled on no less an occasion than the state visit of Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1818.

After the German monarchy fell at the end of the First World War, the Neue Wache was redesigned by the architect Heinrich Tessenow in 1931 as a memorial to those who had died in the Great War. This iteration of the monument featured a large black granite block crowned with a gilded wreath of oak leaves underneath a circular skylight. A few years later, in 1934, the Nazis established a new national holiday, The Day of Commemoration of Heroes, and the Neue Wache played a central role in the annual celebrations.

Neue Wache close up detail of sculpture

When Berlin was divided up into sectors by the victorious Allies following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, the Neue Wache was located in the Soviet sector. In 1957, the communist leaders commissioned a redesign of the monument, now intended to be a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. Two decades later, on the 20th anniversary of the founding of East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR), they replaced the granite block with a transparent, glass cube with an eternal flame. To symbolise all the victims of the Nazi war, the East German leaders ordered that the remains of an Unknown Soldier and a concentration camp victim be buried there in soil taken from battlefields of the Second World War and from the concentration camps. Until the collapse of the GDR in 1990, two soldiers from the Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment performed a special parading of the guard ceremony twice a week, which became a tourist attraction.

After German reunification, the Neue Wache was redesigned yet again in 1993, this time as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. At Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s suggestion, the GDR memorial was replaced by Käthe Kollwitz's Pietà-style sculpture Mother with her Dead Son, which was installed directly under the circular skylight. The fact that the statue was open to the elements was meant to symbolise the suffering of German civilians during the Second World War. It was a controversial choice and critics questioned whether the installation was sufficiently inclusive of the victims of the Nazi war.

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