In its attempt to atone for the horrors inflicted on the world by the Nazis, Berlin has gone out of its way to confront its past with monuments of what it sees as reconciliation. For example, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe covers an area in the centre of the city which was used by the Nazi war machine, but it would be easy to forget that the German people also suffered from the horrors of war. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Breitscheidplatz goes some way towards rectifying that by remembering what Berliners had to endure too, but it also acts as a memorial to peace for everyone.
THE OLD CHURCH
The memorial actually consists of two churches, and it’s only natural that I start with the original one that was built in memory of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The foundation stone was laid four years after he died on what would have been his 94th birthday (22nd March 1891). This monumental church had a spire that rose to a height of 113m (371ft) and was able to accommodate a congregation of 2,000 people. It also boasted an entrance with some superb mosaics that made a connection between the ‘throne and the altar’.
On the night of 23rd November 1943 allied air raids caused extensive damage to the landmark church including the spire. A post-war assessment of the ruins led to a decision to keep what was left as a symbol of peace, but it took several attempts before the final plan was accepted by the people of Berlin. Initially, it was suggested that what was left of the spire should be torn down, but Berliners saw it as the ‘Heart of Berlin’ and so a compromise was reached where its height was reduced to 71m (233ft), prompting Berliners to call it “Der Hohle Zahn”, meaning The Hollow Tooth
The entrance hall was consecrated and re-opened to visitors in 1987. The mosaics include religious and medieval scenes and a procession of Hohenzollern princes. Although there is some obvious damage in places, the overall restoration is quite remarkable, as are the mosaics themselves.
As well as the mosaics, the Memorial Hall had something else worth looking at – the Coventry Cross of Nails. Three years before the Kaiser Wilhelm Church had been bombed, the same thing had happened to Coventry Cathedral in England, and nails from the cathedral’s burnt out roof timbers were used to make a cross. Since then, to promote peace and reconciliation, Coventry has given similar crosses to other churches and organizations, and the one here was donated in January 1987. Each Friday at noon, a prayer of reconciliation is read out at Coventry Cathedral and at the same time (1pm in Berlin), the same prayer is said at the Cross of Nails here in the Wilhelm Memorial Hall.
THE NEW CHURCH
On May 9th 1959 the foundation stone was laid for a new church that was to stand next to, and in complete contrast with, the restored old one.
Consecrated on December 17th 1961 the new church was comprised of a stand-alone 53m (174ft) high belfry and an octagonal chapel designed by Egon Eiermann. Made of steel, glass, and concrete, it quickly became an icon of West Berlin, but like many structures built in the 1960’s, it fell out of favour just as quickly.
It should be remembered that in the post-war years, towns and cities everywhere needed massive regeneration: Bombing raids had done untold damage and what was left was a mixture of slums and buildings that were in a bad state of repair. It was only natural therefore that whole areas were bulldozed and replaced with a new style of architecture that breathed fresh air into a hopeful new world, and the new church fitted into that mindset perfectly.
1960’s architecture may have fallen out of favour in the 21st century, but whatever your thoughts on it are, I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed when you step inside the chapel.
You are immediately hit by a wall of blue light that filters through the coloured panes of glass from outside. The light changes with the intensity of the available ambient light and can be quite breathtaking. Hanging above the altar is a statue of the ‘Resurrected Christ’, and just as impressive at the opposite end of the church is the fabulous organ. When this chapel was built it must surely have given Berliners hope for a better world to come.
Apart from the visual impact of the chapel, there was one particular item that caught my eye – a drawing called The Stalingrad Madonna. At first glance it didn’t look as though it warranted any further investigation, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became.
The picture was drawn by a German clergyman and doctor by the name of Kurt Reuber. He was one of thousands of German troops trapped during the Siege of Stalingrad. It’s well known that the local civilian population suffered unbelievable hardship during the siege, but it was also tough for the German 6th Army who were ill equipped for the Russian winter. As Christmas 1942 approached, medical supplies were running out and the doctor turned to his inner beliefs for help. He took an old Russian map, turned it over and used a charcoal pencil to draw the Madonna and Baby Jesus. It was meant to be a message of hope to all those who were trapped with him. Around the drawing were the words Licht (Light) – Leben (Life) – Liebe (Love). He hung it up on the bunker wall over Christmas.
The battle for Stalingrad ended on 2nd Feb 1943 and Kurt Reuber, along with another 90,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Soviet army. Before he was captured however, he managed to smuggle his drawing out of Russia, but although the Stalingrad Madonna survived, Kurt Reuber didn’t, and was buried in Yelabuga prison camp.
Reuber lived through a time of darkness, death and hatred, but kept his and other people’s, hopes alive through the words – light, life and love. In the old church, the Coventry Cross of Nails was there to help people realise that there is always hope for a better future, and here in the new church was another one. Kurt Reuber may not have survived the war, but he gave hope to others.
This modern church didn’t look quite so out of place as a Memorial to Peace now, and pausing here for a while looking at this simple drawing made me realise how fortunate most of us are, and how it wouldn’t take much for it all to change. In a world of hope, my hope is that we don’t have to create any more ‘Memorials to Peace’ – but I’m not holding my breath.
POSTED – MAY 2021