Wilhelm von Boddien: The rebirth of Berlin Palace – Fundraising for a “crazy” idea

The palace will restore the familiar picture of Berlin, round off the historical city centre and revitalise the cityscape. Its restoration will make Berlin the beloved “Athens on the Spree River” once again.

The Berlin Palace was once the most important secular building of the city which held the entire city centre together as one of the most important ensembles in Europe in terms of urban development and historical architecture. The political hatred and arbitrariness of the leaders of the German Demo­­cratic Republic (the former East Germany) sealed its demise in 1950, despite the fact that reconstruction would have been possible although it was gutted after an air raid The palace was not destroyed to the same degree as the Charlottenburg Palace in West Berlin, whose ruins are no longer visible. Reunification in 1990, which made considering rebuilding the palace possible in the first place, marked the 40th anniversary of the palace’s demolition. It had been forgotten.

Leading media, professional architects’ associations and many politicians considered on the left wing of the political spectrum regarded its reconstruction as backward-looking and restoring such a symbol of the past would be simply absurd. And that is how I became the public palace ghost; the boss of the gang of palace counterfeiter. From an unemotional perspective, it was obvious that the opponents as well as the defendants of the palace would each unite only a maximum 5 per cent of the population, not nearly enough to provide a solid base for their demands. Democracy requires majority votes. We are lacking 46 of 100 to gain this majority. But the same applied to the opposition.

Majorities are won by making friends, if possible amongst the political upper levels of society, as steps are swept from the top down. From the bottom up – this cannot be achieved a in grassroots democracy, as new dust falls from the top to bottom, creating large clouds of dust and leaving those at the top oblivious to what is happening beneath. Thus, we built a network of influential people from all sections of society, of people who will be listened to. But that is still far from having the majority. For that, the city’s residents must be won by fas­­cinating them. And for that purpose, pictures say more than a thousand words. On the dreary palace square, a draughty wind channel, no one could imagine the palace’s organising effects, which is why my friends and I had to build it. As a simulation, drawn in the best trompe l’oeil style on a 10,000 square meter canvas, hung on a huge 1:1 scale scaffolding, all done within four weeks in May and June 1993. The people rubbed their eyes when the palace was suddenly back. It stayed for two summers and one winter, being illuminated at night. The initial sensation turned into the ordinary, people forgot to forget and the location suddenly looked so normal, as if nothing else had ever stood there.

The palace had to be removed at the end of September 1994. The empty space known as Berliner Mitte returned and many people had withdrawal symptoms. An important architecture critic suddenly demanded new walls for the wind channel and pleaded insistently for the reconstruction. An eight-year-long debate on the fate of the middle of Berlin ensued and needed to be refuelled with new images time and again. All of this served the sole purpose of winning over the ma­­jority; we did not have the time to deal with the increasingly hectic manoeuvres by the palace opponents. After all, they were not necessary in order to win over the majority. On July 4, 2002, a two-thirds majority in the German parliament decided in favour of the palace reconstruction including a previously passed utilisation concept for the new building, the Humboldt Forum.

This was only possible because we recommitted ourselves. Whereas the palace simulation had been privately funded before, we assured to relive taxpayers by financing the additio­nal costs incurred by constructing the palace façades ver­­sus a modern building with a privately organised fund-­raising of 105 million euros. This assurance was the actual breakthrough.

Since then we systematically expanded our network using a kind of Ponzi scheme, in which our palace supporters fas­­ci­­nated new friends to the point that they donated money and in turn recruited new friends. That is how we were able to raise a donation volume of 45 million euros by 2014 without any of the historic building being visible. In 2014 alone we re­ceived 15.6 million euros. We hope to collect another 60 mil­­lion euros by 2019, which would represent an average of 15 million per year. The Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in Dres­den is our role model. The church received two-thirds of its do­­nation in the last third of the construction work. The people want to see what is happening with their money – and rightly so – who likes pouring their money into a black hole? The highly precise construction planning and execution is ex­­tremely helpful in these efforts; everything is going according to plan.

All we need now is 150,000 people who will contribute a one-off, tax-deductible donation of 400 euros. That’s two-tenths of one per cent of all Germans or 5 per cent of all Berlin residents or the Olympia Stadium in Berlin filled to capacity twice. These 150,000 Germans already exist. They only need to be con­­vinced and acknowledged for their contribution. This acknowledgement can later be seen in the palace and can already be seen on the Internet, respectfully, creatively and individual. This is available to all who donate more than EUR 50 and consent to the publication of their good name.

Wilhelm von Boddien2011-10-Wilhelm-von-Boddien
Wilhelm von Boddien was born in the Pomeranian town of Stargard in 1942 and grew up in Aumühle near Hamburg after 1945. The businessman is one of the initiators of the reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace demolished under Walter Ulbricht, and has been the Business manager of the Association Berliner Schloss e.V. since 2004.