Nicholas Kulish: Berlin decides to destroy its East German history

When I first lived in Berlin more than a decade ago, my favorite moment each morning was when my streetcar rumbled past a giant black bust of a dead Communist hero, Ernst Thälmann. Dawn came stubbornly late in winter and the temperature was often well below freezing. Waiting for the streetcar to come, stamping my feet to keep the feeling in my toes, I would often question why I had chosen the frigid outer reaches of Germany over my second choice, Barcelona.

Passing ugly old Ernst's monumental bald head, I remembered why. Here was Adolf Hitler's opposite in the era of street fighting captured in Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories." Thälmann was executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in 1944. The cold war Communist government erected this ugly statue while the city was still the center of a standoff between superpowers. It had since been tagged around the base with extensive graffiti in the strange brew of post-wall Berlin.

I never much worried about Ernst's value as art. His clunky statue brought together the most interesting eras in the city's history, which were also reflections of larger forces in Europe and the world beyond. In many ways, Berlin was the defining city of the 20th century, and here was proof.

My thoughts drifted back to Ernst when I learned that workers there have begun tearing down another monument to that Communist era. The Palace of the Republic is a squat thing, a dumpy rectangle of concrete and steel. Its only real claim to beauty was bronze glass that could catch a sunset just so and emanate a warm glow. The first panels of the facade have come down and by next year there will be nothing left.

That is a shame, and an all-too-clear indication that the city's towering inferiority complex is standing strong. The palace opened in 1976 on a prime piece of real estate on the main drag of Unter den Linden. It sits incongruously among imposing museums, monuments and historic Humboldt University. The East German government built it on the spot where a war-damaged Prussian castle was demolished in 1950. The plan now is to spend years and possibly over $1 billion to place a replica of the old castle there.

Real history is falling so that fake history can take its place....

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