The heritage of declined rulers. Schloss Schönhausen – Prussia and East Germany.

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

In 1664, a Schloss (manor) was build at the road from Pankow to Niederschönhausen. In despite of being abandoned for several decades, this Schloss Schönhausen survived the whole Prussian kingdom (1701-1918) through all its ups and downs. What happened with this elitist Prussian heritage during socialist rule? And what happens now?

In 1664, duchess Sophie Theodore zu Dohna-Schlobitten gave command to build a manor house outside the city of Berlin. The original design wouldn’t last long. By 1680 the Schloss  was already renovated by its new owners. It was sold in 1691 to Kurfürst (prince elector) Friedrich III von Brandenburg. In the Schloss, important negotiations were held to crown him as a König (king) from the to-be-made kingdom: Prussia. During his rule as a king, Friedrich expanded the Schloss and developed a baroque garden in French style. After his death (1713) Friedrich’s son and thrown successor Friedrich Wilhelm I (aka the soldier-king) neglected the Schloss Schönhausen.

Schloss Schönhausen around 1710/1720

Friedrich Wilhelm II (aka Frederick the Great) took over the Prussian throne in 1740 and gave the Schloss 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. Now, Schloss Schönhausen was destroyed by the Russian army. It was expected that Frederick the Great would have given Elisabeth the Schloss Monbijou, because it was unused since his mother’s death (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. The queen was given a summer residence at the Panke creek in stead of the Spree river. Interestingly, Frederick the Great probably never visited the queen at the Schloss Schönhausen. They lived seperated and never got themselves children.

Schloss Schönhausen around 1787

After Elisabeth passed awa (1797) the Schloss was taken over by Friederike von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was the sister of the new Prussian queen Luise (who gave name to the Luisenstädtische Kanal). The queen was only 18 years old when her husband (king Friedrich Wilhelm III von Preußen) died in 1796. Being so young and already a widow, Luise found solace in affairs for which she used her room in her sisters’ residence. Friederike asked the well-known architect Peter Joseph Lenné to renovate the garden (1828-1830) in English style. After Friederike’s death in 1841, Schloss Schönhausen went through a less intense period again. It was mostly used as a storage.

After the First World War, the 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 in 1933. Two years later, it was renovated and used for art exhibitions. So called Entartete Kunst (‘degenerated art’ or basically cool stuff that the nazi’s with their petty minds didn’t understand) 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, Schloss Schönhausen only had light damages. It was restorated by a Pankow artist organisation and the first exhibition was organised in September 1945 already.

Wilhelm Pieck's office, 1950s. Schloss Schönhausen, Berlin. ©DDPShortly after, the Sovjets confiscated the Schloss and used it partly as a casino for army officers. Another part was used as a boarding school for future officers. When the East German State was founded in 1949, Schloss Schönhausen became its property. In stead of tearing down the feudal heritage, as was done with the Stadtschloss, the East German elite used the Schloss for themselves. Wilhelm Pieck celebrated his 70th birthday here and hold an office at the first floor. A renovation was made, the garden became typically in the style of the 1950s. Also, the surrounding neighbourhood became a popular area for the East German elite. The Majalowskiring is the best example of this. Wilhelm Pieck lived at Majakowskiring (no. 29) surrounded by Walter Ulbricht (no. 28), Otto Grotewohl (no. 46/48), Johannes Becher (no. 34) and Erich Honecker (no. 58). Erich Mielke, the infamous chief of the Stasi, lived in a side street of the Majakowskiring (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 Khrushchev in 1959. When Wilhelm Piek passed away (1960) the Schloss became the residence for the State Coucil of the East Germany, a council that 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 such occassions, Wilhelm Pieck’s former office was redesigned as an 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 East German state visitors up till the very end. Even in October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev was a guest of Schloss Schönhausen.

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

After the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Schloss was the main location to negotiate the German unification. In these ’round table negotiations’ (also named ‘the 2+4 negotiations’) not only governments from East- and West Germany hold a place, but also from the USA, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France. Out of the sixteen gatherings, thirteen took place in the Schloss. It resulted in the new, united Germany like we know it now. 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 to remember their former residents. No memorial stones are placed at the houses of Ulbricht, Honecker and Mielke. In Honecker’s former villa, there is now a childcare. Mielke’s former residence is occupied by a senior club.

Between June 2005 and December 2009, the Schloss was renovated for €8.6 million. Furniture from Elisabeth’s old days such as rugs, the mantelpiece and mirror frames can be seen at the ground floor. At the first floor, Piek’s office can be visited as well as the room for the state visitors. Also, there is an exhibition about the Schloss and the Majakowskiring at the southern entrance.

Exhibition, southern entrance of Schloss Schönhausen, Berlin. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser
When you enter the site, the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik (Federal College for Security Studies) is on your right hand side. Since 2004, this is the place where security policy is discussed. This supports what the role of the German state should be within the international community. Doing so, you can say that the Schloss Schönhausen is still a place for diplomatic negotiations! The negotiations to crown Friedrich III as a Prussian king was typical. During communist rule, the Schloss was also used as a residential palace. Nowadays, the Federal College for Security Studies is still negotiating in the garden.