The heritage of declined rulers. Schloss Schönhausen – Prussia and the GDR.

Schloss Schönhausen, December 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Deze update verschijnt in het Nederlands op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

Three and a half century ago, a palace was build for the nobility at the road from Pankow to Niederschönhausen. In despite of being abandoned for several decades, the Schloss Schönhausen survived the whole Prussian kingdom (1701-1918) – going through ups and downs. What happened with this Prussian heritage during the GDR? And what is happening here nowadays?

In 1664, duchess Sophie Theodore zu Dohna-Schlobitten gave command to build a manor house – located somewhat outside the city of Berlin. The original design wouldn’t last long – since in 1680 it was already renovated thorougly by its new owners. It was sold in 1691 to Kurfürst (prince elector) Friedrich III von Brandenburg – and important negotiations to crown him as king Friedrich I of the to be made kingdom Prussia took place in the Schloss Schönhausen. As a king, Friedrich III expanded the Schloss and developed a baroque garden in French style. After his death in 1713 – Friedrich III’s son and thrown successor Friedrich Wilhelm I (‘The Soldier-king’) neglected the Schloss Schönhausen.

Schloss Schönhausen around 1710/1720

When Friedrich Wilhelm II (‘Frederick the Great’) took over the Prussian throne in 1740, he gave it to his wife – queen Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern. She used it as her summer residence till her death in 1797. The queen never renovated the house since she spended all her money to develop the garden in rococo style. During the Seven Year War (1756-1763), the queen fled to a safer place – and Schloss Schönhausen was destroyed by the Russian army. It would have been likely that Frederick the Great would have given his wife the Schloss Monbijou as a summer residence – which his mother used till she died in 1757. The Schloss Monbijou made a better appearance and was closer located to the commonly used Stadtschloss at Under den Linden. Nevertheless, Frederick let the Schloss Schönhausen being rebuild to its current design – in which he provided the queen a summer residence at the Panke creek in stead of the Spree river. By the way, Frederick the Great probably never visited the queen at the Schloss Schönhausen. They lived seperated – which never been unusual among the nobility. Also, they stayed childless.

Schloss Schönhausen around 1787

After the Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern passed away in 1797, the Schloss was taken over by Friederike von Mecklenburg-Strelitz – the sister of the new Prussian queen Luise (who gave name to the Luisenstädtische Kanal). This queen was only 18 years old when her husband – king Friedrich Wilhelm III von Preußen – found death in 1796. Being so young and already a widow – she found solace in many affairs which took place at her room in her sisters residence. Friederike von Mecklenburg-Strelitz asked the famous Prussian architect Peter Joseph Lenné to renovate the garden in 1828-1830 – which became in English style. After her death in 1841 – Schloss Schönhausen became in neglect again and was mostly used as a storage for furnishings.

In 1918 – when Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II fled and Germany became a republic – the Schloss became property of the Prussian state in 1920 and of the nazi-state since 1933. In 1935, the nazi’s renovated the Schloss and used it for visual art exhibitions. So called Entartete Kunst (degenerated art, which was forbidden by the nazi’s for not being in their petty style) was storaged in the Schloss. Nazi’s also exposed Entartete Kunst – next to drawnings by mentally or physically disabled people. During the Battle of Berlin, the Schloss Schönhausen only had light damage which was restorated by a Pankow artist organisation. The first exhibition was organised in September 1945 already again.

Wilhelm Pieck's office, 1950s. Schloss Schönhausen, Berlin. ©DDPShortly after, the Sovjets confiscated the Schloss and used it partly as a casino for officers, while another part was used as a boarding school for future Soviet officers. When the GDR was founded in 1949, the Schloss Schönhausen became their property. In stead of tearing down the feudal heritage, as they did with the Stadtschloss, the GDR elite used the Schloss for themselves. Wilhelm Pieck – who already celebrated his 70th birthday here – had an office at the first floor. A renovation was made and the garden became typically 1950s. In the meanwhile, the neighbourhood around the Schloss – especially the Majakowskiring with its many villa’s – became a popular area for GDR’s elite. Wilhelm Pieck lived at Majakowskiring 29, surrounded by Walter Ulbricht (no.28), Otto Grotewohl (no.46/48), Johannes Becher (no.34) and Erich Honecker (no.58). Erich Mielke, Chief of the Stasi, lived in a side street of the Majakowskiring – at the Stille Straße (no.10).

Ho Chi Minh and Wilhelm Pieck, Schloss Schönhausen - Berlin. July 1957. ©Walter Heilig and BundesarchivThe Schloss became a residential living place for state visitors. Among the Schloss’ famous guests were Ho Chi Minh in July 1957 and Chroesjtsjov in 1959. After Piek’s death in 1960 – the Schloss became the residence for the State Coucil of the GDR, which replaced Pieck’s presidential function. Other state visitors who stayed in Schloss Schönhausen were Fidel Castro (1972), Indira Ghandi (1976) and the Persian shah Reza Pahlevi (1978). For these state visitors, Wilhelm Pieck’s former office – which became a memorial site to honour him – was rebuild as a East German historical museum.

Pieck (left), Khrushchev and Ulbricht (right) in 1958. ©Bundesarchiv and Horst Sturm

During the 1980s, the southern part of the Schloss was reconstructed and filled with semi-antique furniture. The Schloss stayed the residency for GDR’s state visitors up till the very end. Even in October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife were guests of Schloss Schönhausen.

Round Table Conferences (1990). ©Landesarchiv Berlin and Klaus Lehnartz

After the Fall, the Schloss was the main place where negotiations for a German unification took place. In these ’round table’ – also named ‘the 2+4’ – negotiations, not only the GDR and FRG discussed, but also the USA, USSR, England and France. Out of the sixteen gatherings, thirteen took place in the Schloss – with the serious result of German unity. The Schloss kept its function as a residential place somewhat longer. Thereafter, Rammstein used Schloss Schönhausen to make their videoclip for their single Du riechst so gut (‘You smell so good’) in 1998. In the meanwhile, the Majakowskiring attracted the new rich. Nevertheless, still are memorial panels situated at the houses of Wilhelm Pieck, Otto Grotewohl and Johan Becher – remembering their former residents. No memorial stones are erected at the houses of Ulbricht, Honecker and Mielke. In Honecker’s former villa, nowadays a childcare is situated – while Mielke’s former residence is occupied by a senior club.

Between June 2005 and December 2009, the Schloss was renovated for €8.6 million. At the ground floor, many rooms were filled again with various furniture from Elisabeth’s old days – among them rugs, the mantelpiece and mirror frames. At the first floor, the room where GDR’s state visitors stayed over are still visible – as well as Wilhelm Pieck’s office. At both floors, various furniture from the Dohna family is exhibited – brought by Alexander zu Dohna to Berlin before his property in East Prussia would have been confisquated by the Sovjets.

Exhibition, southern entrance of Schloss Schönhausen, Berlin. No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserAlso, there is a permanent exhibition about the Schloss and the Majakowskiring at the Schloss‘ southern entrance. When you enter the site, the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik (Federal College for Security Studies) is situated on your right. Since 2004, here is discussed about security policy interests and in this function it supports Germany’s role within the international community. The ground has a military destination plan – and formerly, you can be shot when setting foot there.

After all, one can conclude that the Schloss Schönhausen is still – as ever been – a place for negotiations. The negotiations to crown Friedrich III as a Prussian king are typical – and despite the feudal heritage of the Prussians, the Schloss was not demolished by the communist rulers. In stead, they also used it as a residential palace, a function it kept till twenty years ago. Nowadays, the Federal College for Security Studies is still negotiating in the garden – and if you come to close, you can be shot. Perhaps, this militaristic attitude is the heritage of both Prussia and the GDR.

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