Berlin is a city of change. It always has been, and it most likely always will be. Berlin evolved from a small village in a swamp to the capital of the Prussian empire, to the largest industrial city in Europe – and at one point it was even the second largest city in the world. That all came to a halt after the end of the second World War.

With East Berlin becoming the new capital of the newly founded German Democratic Republic, the communists sought to leave their architectural mark over the next 40 years. With German reunification, a new wind swept through the country, slowly removing almost all traces of the former east. But one building in the heart of Berlin which (un)ironically merged the gilded (baroque and) Prussian age with the highest political levels of communism endures to this day: The Staatsratsgebäude.

The Stadtschloß – A Historical and Architectural Marvel

No building in Berlin has managed to create as much talk and drama in Berlin as the Stadtschloß (maybe aside from the proposed Trump Tower at Alexanderplatz). Using its official name, the Königliches Schloss (The Royal Castle) was built by decree of the Margraves of Brandenburg in 1442 as a residence for the Hohenzollern clan.

Over the years it was remodelled and expanded several times to fit the architectural taste of the time – from Gothic, to Renaissance to Baroque. From 1701, the Berliner Schloß served as the Royal Prussian winter residence, and from 1871 it was the winter residence of the German Kaiser (Kaiser Wilhelm II actually only made the Berliner Schloß his main residence in 1888 when he ascended to the throne).

Postkarte Berliner Schloß um 1920
Postcard of the Berliner Schloß circa 1920

The most lasting architectural changes were done by Andreas Schlüter, who became the court architect in 1699. He transformed the Berliner Schloß into a baroque castle – seeking inspiration from the louvre in Paris as well as the Palazzo Madama in Rome. The exterior of the Stadtschloß virtually stayed the same over the years – aside from the addition of the cupola in the 19th Century. The interior – as was to be expected changed greatly over the years, depending on the purpose and taste of the current occupant.

An important feature of the Berliner Stadtschloß were the impressive portals – five of them to be exact. After Wilhelm II moved in, he modernised the interior of the castle but also hired the most reputable blacksmiths to create incredibly ornate gates for the previously open (to the public) portals.

The Portals I, II, IV and V had no name, but the grand Portal III was known as the Eosanderportal (named after the Architect Johann Friedrich Nilsson Eosander von Göthe who followed after Schlüter in 1707). Eosander took the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus in Rome as a model for the three-arched portal – and one can see where the inspiration came from.

eosanderportal berliner schloß
The Eosanderportal of the Berliner Schloß | Photo uploaded by janwillemsen

While the Portal IV was nameless and wasnt as ornate as the Eosanderportal, it is arguably one of the most historically important pieces of the Stadtschloß, as well as the main reason why we’ve been talking about the Stadtschloß so much instead of the Staatsratsgebäude. On the 31st of July 1914, a day after the Russian Empire mobilised its troops, Kaiser Wilhelm II stepped onto the balcony of the Portal IV and spoke to the tens of thousands of people who had amassed below to prepare for war. He would hold another speech on the same balcony on the 1st of August, officially declaring war against Russia.

Berliner Stadtschloß balkonrede kaiser wilhelm II 1914
A crowd cheers the Kaiser declaring War against Russia at the Berliner Stadtschloss, 1914

A Royal Balcony and Communist Legend

Fast forward four years to the 9th of November 1918. Half of Europe lay in ruins and the German Empire was crumbling. The November revolution had broken out and Sailors, Soldiers and Workers took up arms to overthrow the status quo. Political pressure was growing for the Kaiser to abdicate in an effort to quell the revolution, to little success.

As the masses waltzed through Berlin, hissing red flags above the Brandenburg Gate, the government began to crumble when the MSPD (Social Democrats) left the coalition. Reichskanzler Max von Baden announced on his own that the Kaiser had abdicated and that the prince regent would not lay claim to the throne – he then handed over his position as Reichskanzler to Friedrich Ebert.

Philipp Scheidemann (one of the most influential Social Democrats in German history) seized the opportunity and proclaimed (at 2pm) from the west balcony of the Reichstag the end of the monarchy and the creation of the German Republic. The Kaiser, fearing the same fate as the Romanovs’ fled from Spa in Belgium (he was at his military headquarters at the time) to the Netherlands – where he only officially abdicated 19 days later.

Karl Liebknecht sozialistische repubilk balkon portal stadtschloß berlin
Karl Liebknecht on the balcony of the Stadtschloß proclaiming the Socialist German Republic

2 hours later, unbeknownst as to what had happened at the Reichstag – Karl Liebknecht (Marxist and one of the founders of the German Communist Party) made his way to the Stadtschloß. The legend goes that Karl Liebknecht entered the unguarded palace (where the looting had already begun) and proclaimed the creation of the Socialist German Republic from the balcony of the Portal IV – the same portal where the Kaiser had declared war 4 years earlier.

The symbolic imagery of this was indeed a propagandistic goldmine, though it was a fabrication. Liebknecht did proclaim the creation of a Socialist German Republic, but he proclaimed it while standing on top of the roof of a truck under the balcony, and not on the balcony of the Portal IV.

The end of the Stadtschloß

With the end of World War II, Europe once again lay in ruins. With over 100,000 tons of explosives and phosphor dropped over Berlin, over 30% of the city was destroyed. The Berliner Stadtschloß suffered greatly under the bombing raids, though large parts of the structure remained intact. The overall consensus was that the Stadtschloß could be rebuilt, and there was a large support among the population for this to happen.

The communist rulers of the soviet sector thought differently and wanted the rid the city of its imperialistic symbol. On the III. Party congress of the SED (July 23, 1950), Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the central committee unilaterally announced the demolition of the castle (parts of the Berlin Cathedral endured a similar fate).

The central committee planned to build a parade ground – essentially an empty square where the „will of the people to fight and to reconstruct the country can be expressed“. Despite continued protests, the communists started blowing the castle to bits on the 7th of September, 1950. The SED did want to save one historical piece of the Stadtschloß though – and that was the Portal IV from which Liebknecht – so the legend goes – addressed the masses to proclaim the German socialist republic. The demolition crew intended gently break apart the Portal IV with explosives, though this failed spectacularly as it shattered to pieces once it hit the ground and only 1/5 of the structure survived.

The Parade Ground that replaced the Stadtschloß | Zentralbild Kemlein 31.7.1952 Marx-Engels-Platz, Berlin
The Parade Ground that replaced the Stadtschloß | Zentralbild Kemlein 31.7.1952 Marx-Engels-Platz, Berlin | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-15675-0003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Not to worry though, as they still had 3 other portals left so they ended up saving Portal V. The newly constructed Marx Engels Platz, remained relatively unused bar a few military parades and mass movements over the years, making the whole undertaking even more pointless. The glorious reason for this was that, the Palast der Republik (which housed amongst other things the East German Parliament) was built on the site of the former Stadtschloß in 1976. The rumbling tanks and cars which drove by the Palast during the parades caused the whole building to shake – so they were moved to the nearby Karl-Marx Allee.

Construction of the Staatsratsgebäude

Fast-forward 10 years and we can finally get to the Staatsratsgebäude. After the death of the first and only President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck, the State Council (Staatsrat) of the GDR was officially established as the highest official body of the German Democratic Republic in 1960, further aligning East Germany with the Soviet political model (they even changed the constitution to enable this move).  

The State Council had a total of 23 members and consisted of the Chairman, his deputies, 16 other members and a secretary.  After its foundation, the State Council was initially based in Schloß Schönhausen, where Wilhelm Pieck had previously resided as (the first and only) President of the GDR. It was not until the early 1960s that the Staatsrat approved the construction of the Staatsratsgebäude – the first purpose built political building of the German Democratic Republic.

schloß schönhausen pankow berlin
The Schönhausen Palace in Pankow | Photo by: A.Savin

The SED picked out the only 32-year-old Architect Roland Korn alongside Hans Erich Bogatzky to lead the construction of the Staatsratsgebäude. Korn and Bogatzky had both previously worked under Kurt W. Leucht during the construction of the first purpose built German socialist city – Stalinstadt (now known as Eisenhüttenstadt).

After the construction of the Staatsratsgebäude, Korn and his Architect collective would take on the lead on redeveloping the Alexanderplatz, which resulted in the construction of the tallest habitable building in the GDR, the Interhotel Stadt Berlin in 1970 (now known as the Park Inn by Radisson Berlin Alexanderplatz) and the Haus des Reisens in 1971.

Korn was also responsible for the construction of an entire city district in East Berlin for 250,000 people (today Marzahn and Hellersdorf). And if you ever pass through the Nikolaiviertel, Korn and his Architects were responsible for the Dom-Hotel (the one with the weird bubbles) and the redevelopment of the Nikolaiviertel.

The Liebknechtportal

The construction of the Staatsratsgebäude started in 1962 and lasted until 1964. Korn and his architects laid the foundation stone of what is known as “Ost Moderne” (Eastern Modernism) – a type of Architecture which was specific to East Germany. Somewhat ironically, the new Staatsratsgebäude was built on the Marxs-Engels Platz 1, directly opposite from there the Berliner Schloß once stood.

From day one, the architects had planned to integrate the Portal IV into the façade of the Staatsratsgebäude, going so far as to essentially constructing the building around the dimensions of the portal. Both the interior (ceiling height) and the exterior dimensions mirror the exact dimensions of the norther side façade of the former Berliner Schloß which originally incorporated the Portal IV and V. As mentioned above, only a fifth of the Portal IV survived, so they painstakingly merged it with the remnants of the Portal V – and voila they had the newly dubbed “Liebknechtportal”.

eingang entrance portal v liebknechtportal staatsratsgebaeude berlin DDR state council building esmt

If you spend a minute or two standing outside, you can also decode a little bit of the symbolism of the façade and of the balcony that survived the war and east German “reconstruction. The large balcony is supported by “Atlashermen” – male allegories of Autumn (on the left, decorated with vines and hunters prey) and Winter (on the right, decorated with furs and carnival masks and musical instruments). The venetian styled arched widow is topped by a coat of arms cartridge, which formerly had the Prussian coat of arms on it, topped with a crown.

They had been removed (alongside a whole host of other pretty details and ornaments) and replaced with the years “1713” and “1963”. The first date, 1713 is a reference to the construction of “Parade Chambers” which included the construction of the Portals, and 1963 is the reference to the construction of the Staatsratsgebäude. What is strange though is that they did not incorporate the year 1918 – a reference to Karl Liebknecht – which was essentially the whole reason why they saved the portal in the first place.

eingang entrance closeup portal v liebknechtportal staatsratsgebaeude berlin DDR state council building esmt

The integration of the balcony into the building can be seen as reliquary symbol of Karl Liebknecht’s and the November Revolutions achievements in the form of the Socialist GDR. One would have thought this would get more of a nod. The cladding of the facade was made of large rectangular, banner shaped red granite, which was meant to evoke associations with the red flag (the political identification symbol of the socialist and communist movement).

The interior of the Staatsratsgebäude

The interior of the building was equally lavish and steeped in symbolism. After entering through the portal, visitors would be greeted by a spacious entrance hall with an imposing staircase and 180 sqm large glass mosaic by Walter Womacka depicting scenes „From the history of the German labor movement “(which was also the title of the piece).

wappen ddr walter womacka glas fenster staatsratsgebaeude berlin

Over three stories, the stained glass depicts a glorification of the working class from the perspective of the SED and ideal images of life in the GDR with typified human depictions. A happy family with a child in their arms is framed by industrial production plants and workers. The transition to the floor below is bridged by white doves and a group performing a circle dance (Reigen).

karl liebknecht rosa luxemburg walter womacka staatsratsgebaeude berlin DDR state council building esmt

With the portraits of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Sailors of the November Revolution and the sentence “Despite everything!”, Womacka builds a bridge to the incorporated „Liebknecht Portal “. What the piece essentially does is highlight the GDR as the ultimate result of the struggles of the German working class.

walter womacka Aus der Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung staatsratsgebaeude berlin DDR state council building esmt

It’s easy to see that the SED spared no cost with the building. You can spot a Meissen porcelain symbol in the lower corner of the lavish entry hallway – which must surely have cost a small fortune to create. The offices of the six deputies of the chairman of the State Council were located on the ground floor, while the office of the President of the State Council was on the first floor, along with the State Council meeting room and the reception room for foreign diplomats. Fun fact: A coffee machine now stands where Erich Honecker once had his office.

The second floor housed the ballroom with a GDR state emblem made of one million mosaic stones (one of the few remaining emblems of the GDR in Berlin) and the adjoining state banquet hall and club room. The banquet room was decorated with a 35-meter-long frieze titled „Life in the GDR“ made of Meissen porcelain, designed by Günther Brendel.

ddr wappen mosaik festsaal staatsratsgebaeude berlin DDR state council building esmt

All offices were lined with their own specific type of veneer, which was then consistently maintained from the built-in cupboards to the baseboards. The interior design with all the furniture was designed and carried out by the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau and the VEB “Edelholzbau Berlin”. Important rooms were decorated by artworks specifically created for those rooms – the stained-glass window in the foyer by W. Womacka, the porcelain frieze in the banquet hall by G. Bendel and an etched steel wall in the state council meeting room by F. Kühn, just to name a few.

Wherever you go through the building, you’ll find interesting details. There’s a small windowless hallway on the second floor with a bunch of tiles decorated with gold peace doves. Those tiles were actually a gift from Mongolia and were made out of goat leather. The hallway wasn’t just a decorative piece though, it was supposedly „bug-proof“.

The symbolism didn’t end with the interior of the Staatsratsgebäude – even the opening date was meant to coincide with a historic date – the 15th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic republic. Walter Ulbricht was handed the symbolic key to the building on the 3rd of October 1964, and a mere four days later the building hosted its first international guest to celebrate the anniversary – the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Special cutlery and porcelain were manufactured for the state receptions hosted in the Staatsratsgebäude. The porcelain was manufactured by the Thuringian manufacturer Graf von Henneberg, though it was stamped with the logo of the porcelain factory Reichenbach. Reichenbach did take care of the décor and the glaze of the porcelain, but because Reichenbacher porcelain was the best quality the GDR produced and was therefore easier to sell abroad, a little trickery was used and their stamp was added instead of Graf von Hennebergs.

Another interesting fact: The Staatsratsgebäude even made it onto the East German Mark. Up until 1985, the highest denomination note in East Germany was 100 Mark. The State Bank of the GDR sought to change this and wanted to introduce a 200- and 500-Mark note. The front showed the coat-of-arms of the GDR, while the back showed – you guess it the Staatsratsgebäude. The 200- and 500-Mark bills never went into circulation, but why this happened is a story for another article.

One of the last segments to be added, in 1964 to be exact was a garden complex and a mosaic fountain designed by the garden architect Hubert Matthes. While the ensemble is also a part of the listed monument, it seems a little worse for wear today.

The Staatsratsgebäude today

After 1990, the Staatsratsgebäude now without a real purpose fell into a weird limbo and at one point was used as an information center for the Federal Ministry of Building for the conversion of Berlin as the capital of a united Germany. From 1999 until the completion of the new Chancellery in 2001 (with large parts of the government having already moved to Berlin from Bonn) – the then Chancellor Gerhard Schörder had his offices set up in the Staatsratsgebäude.

Did you know that everyone’s favorite German band Ramstein shot the Music video for their song Ich Will in the building in 2001?

As of 2006, the European School of Management and Technology has been renting out the building to teach their students. The building was renovated at the cost of 35 million euros between 2003 and 2005, and converted to be used by the ESMT. Interestingly enough, while the building and most of the interior has been listed as a protected monument (including the window by Womacka) – the large Hammer and Compass mosaic wasn’t. I wonder why that is. Regardless – it too received an overhaul during those years.

And if you think that a building which has been in Berlin for this long has no more secrets, you are wrong. It was only in 2004 (most likely during the renovation works) – that a secret Bunker was discovered in the cellar of the building. It was found six meters deep, behind a heavy steel door. A 2.20-meter-high corridor leads through half a dozen rooms. In addition to toilets, there was a room with two bicycles that were connected to fans.

Apparently, there was a room for SED chief and GDR state council chairman Erich Honecker which was decorated with red velour on the walls. An approximately 30-meter-long escape tunnel lead from this room into the courtyard of the State Council building. The bunker apparently wasn’t part of the “listed monument” protection, and it was most likely that the doors were sealed off after the renovation.

Funnily enough, the city of Berlin has been rebuilding the Berliner Stadtschloß (which is now known as the Humboldt Forum), so soon enough the city will have two Portal IV, but neither of them will be original.

The Staatsratsgebäude is a truly fascinating historical building. The ESMT organizes monthly (German speaking) tours through the building – which are highly recommendable (they can be found here). Even if you can’t attend a tour, just walking into the foyer and having a peek at the giant stained-glass windows is worth your time.

Staatsratsgebäude Address

Ehemalliges Staatsratsgebäude der DDR | European School of Management and Technology
Schloßplatz 1, 10178 Berlin

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