Condemned to Become: the Future of the Past in Berlin

colla prizeMarcus Colla is a final year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His research looks at the legacy of the Prussian state in communist East Germany. Marcus was awarded the Alexander Prize for 2018 for his article ‘Prussian Palimpsests: Architecture and Urban Spaces in East Germany, 1945-1961,’ Central European History, Vol. 50, (2017), 184-217. Here, he considers how Berlin has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape.

In 1910, the critic Karl Scheffler memorably described Berlin as a city ‘condemned forever to become and never to be’: a site in perpetual and restless flux, ever-transfiguring itself into something new. Today, massive projects such as the expansion of the government quarter and the ill-starred international airport bear testament to the city’s latest transformation, this time into a truly national capital and a cosmopolitan centre of culture.

But Berlin’s new urban identity is not geared to the future alone. At the city’s historic core, the €600 million ‘reconstruction’ of the eighteenth-century City Palace is now nearing completion. As a historian concerned with the fate of historic architecture in post-war Germany, this project raises a number of fascinating questions about the way that the capital of the reunified state has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape. My research explores the demolition of a number of buildings after 1945 that have in recent years reappeared on the streetscapes of Berlin and Potsdam – the City Palace included. But can an understanding of these buildings’ histories help explain why they are now being resurrected?

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The Fernsehturm. Credit: Polaroidville on Unsplash

There are many layers to the history of the site of the City Palace: once the seat of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors, the original structure was demolished by the communist government of East Germany (the GDR) in 1950. On its foundations they ultimately built the Palast der Republik (‘Palace of the Republic’) – a distinctively 1970s construction that served as both the seat of the GDR’s rubber-stamp parliament and a social and entertainment complex. But with the demise of their regime in 1990, the Palast itself was rendered aesthetically and functionally obsolete. Packed with asbestos, it finally met the wrecker’s ball in 2008. The Palast’s departure left unheeded the protests of many Ossis (‘Easties’) and their supporters, who perceived in this round of demolition a concerted attempt by imperious Westerners to erase East Germany’s history from the narrative of the new, unified state.

Now, the City Palace is re-emerging as the ‘Humboldt Forum’: a museum and research space whose dedication to world cultures and ethnology is designed to capture modern Germany’s forward-looking, cosmopolitan identity. In the temporal kaleidoscope of twenty-first century Germany, past, present and future are densely entangled. .

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West facade of the new Berlin City Palace (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The physical resurrection of the Palace has not been able to silence criticism entirely. For a site so pregnant with cultural potential, many Berliners are astonished by the lack of imagination the project betrays. Future generations, some muse, may be mystified by what they see. Will they falsely perceive the building as an authentic emblem of a baroque Berlin, a quaint antique of the city’s Prussian past? Or will they see it as a distinctly twenty-first century phenomenon; a curious postmodern composite born of nostalgia and cultural apathy?

Or is there perhaps something more radical and even ‘anti-historical’ at play? The reconstruction of the Palace, after all, has not just entailed the obliteration of the Palast der Republik: by symbolically reversing the original destruction of 1950, it also seeks to right a perceived historical wrong. Back in 1991, the historian and journalist Joachim Fest expressed a common sentiment when he argued that ‘if the destruction of the Palace was supposed to symbolise the victory’ of communism, then ‘reconstruction would symbolise its failure’. This represented a longing for ‘authenticity’, motivated by a desire for permanence and finality after a century of war and division. Berlin, such critics pleaded, must finally be allowed to ‘be’.

Sadly for these critics, the conflict over the past is not one that can be won or lost. As future visitors to Berlin will doubtless appreciate, history has a tenacious capacity to reassert itself. If one stands today at the western edge of the new City Palace, one is met by a striking vista. Before you, the palace’s cupola ascends elegantly from a mire of cranes and scaffolds, while the colossal dome of the Berlin Cathedral sparkles just a few metres to the north. The historic confluence of royal and spiritual power could not be more boldly expressed. But there, rising in the background between both structures, is the distinctive silhouette of the Fernsehturm: a 368m space-age needle that bespeaks communism’s lost dreams of technological and creative supremacy. Like laughter secreting from the coffin of history, it will haunt the backdrop of every photograph hence. Over one hundred years of trauma may separate Scheffler’s observation from the Berlin of today, but it continues to bear a sobering truth: Berlin is not a city that can simply be.

Propose a Camden Volume

RHS Literary Director Andrew Spicer explains the process of proposing a volume to our Camden Series of edited primary sources.


The Royal Historical Society publishes two volumes in the Camden Series each year, more than 325 have appeared to date. But the Society is always on the look-out for new proposals! The aim of the series is to make available to historians, researchers and students, editions of historical sources or unpublished manuscript material on an aspect of British history. Each volume is peer-reviewed and is accompanied by a scholarly introduction to the subject and the material.

The Camden Series predates the RHS: some 160 volumes were published by the Camden Society, established in 1838 ‘for the publication of early historical and literary remains’. The societies amalgamated in the late nineteenth century with the first two jointly published volumes – the papers of Sir Edmund Nicholas, and on the Archpriest Controversy – appearing in 1897. The chronological range of the series has broadened out from the initial focus on the medieval and early modern periods to embrace the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and since the 1980s, the twentieth century as well, up to the observations of the archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As part of the RHS’ 150th anniversary last year, we worked with Cambridge University Press to make a collection of volumes from the series freely available.

The term ‘British’ history is rather broadly defined. It encompasses not only sources relating to individuals and institutions within the islands of Britain and Ireland but has also come to include British interests – whether diplomatic, legal, military, political, religious, etc. – outside the archipelago as well as the affairs and activities of Britons and Irish people overseas. The series is also becoming more inclusive – although there is always plenty of scope for improvement – with volumes, for example, on the diaries and writings of early modern women. In 2011, the society published the minutes and papers relating to the building of the East London mosque in the early twentieth century reflecting on the aspirations of the Muslim community in London to have a mosque that befitted the capital city of a world empire. The most recent volume is Jo Ann Moran Cruz’s An Account of an Elizabethan Family: the Willoughbys of Wollaton by Cassandra Willoughby, 1670–1735. An indication of the range of subjects covered by the recent volumes can found on the RHS and Cambridge University Press websites.

What is it like to work on a Camden volume? My fellow RHS Literary Director Richard Toye recently co-edited the diaries of the Liberal politician Cecil Bisshopp Harmsworth (1869–1948), the younger brother of the influential newspaper proprietors Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere. Besides the insights it provides on Westminster politics, the volume also details the constituency life and electioneering of an MP in the early twentieth century. In the RHS Newsletter, Toye describes what it is like to turn a manuscript into a Camden volume, reflecting on both the challenging and satisfying aspects of the process. The volume has increased awareness of Harmsworth’s career, such that he is now to be included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Typically, volumes for the Camden Series are between 80,000 and 120,000 words in length, including the introduction and all the normal scholarly apparatus. Shorter texts will be considered but those under 60,000 words are more appropriate for a Camden Miscellany. Each volume requires an introduction providing details about the edited source, including where appropriate how and why it was generated, as well as contextualising and assessing the significance of the material. The volumes are published by Cambridge University Press both in hard copy and are available electronically through their Cambridge Core platform.

The RHS considers proposals throughout the year, although the main forum for discussion are the Publications Committee meetings in late February and September. Proposal forms can be found on the RHS website; these need to be submitted with a sample of the edited source material for peer review. Responsibility for the Camden Series is divided between the literary directors with me (Andrew Spicer) overseeing the medieval and early modern volumes, and Richard Toye those relating to the period after 1750. If you have an idea for a volume, please get in touch (literary.directors[AT]royalhistsoc.org); we are happy to discuss potential Camden publications in advance of a formal proposal.

Prof. Andrew Spicer
RHS Literary Director
Oxford Brookes University

New Historical Perspectives

‘New Historical Perspectives’ (NHP) is our new Open Access book series for Early Career Researchers, a partnership between the RHS and the Institute of Historical Research. As the first tranche of finished manuscripts begins to arrive, Penny Summerfield – one of the series’ editorial convenors – reflects on the formation of NHP and its work to create a new list of OA monographs.

‘New Historical Perspectives’ was launched in April 2016, with Professor Simon Newman and myself as co-editors, as an Open Access publishing venture under the joint auspices of the RHS and IHR and with support from Economic History Society and Past and Present. The Editorial Board (EB), characterized by equal numbers of men and women and a diverse range of expertise, was in place by June 2016. We had no idea whether the idea of Open Access publishing would appeal to the early career researchers (ECRs) we wanted to attract. RHS had agreed that they should be within ten years of receiving their PhDs from British or Irish universities.

Helped by the Publishing Workshops organized by Jonathan Newbury from IHR, we have received 23 proposals since June 2016. Eleven of these have been accepted, following scrutiny by the editors and Editorial Board members and rigorous peer review by leading experts in their specific fields. Eight of the successful proposals are for monographs, three are edited collections. The series is not themed, and its openness in terms of subject matter and chronology has brought in proposals relating to periods from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries and topics as varied as medieval scholasticism, and masculinity and danger on the Grand Tour.

NHP offers an opportunity to rewrite a PhD thesis for publication, and this has evident appeal to authors, especially in view of the negativity of some publishers towards theses. Our view is that some of the most creative and thoroughly researched work is invested in PhDs, which are often the source of the ‘new perspectives’ we wish to encourage. However, every PhD thesis needs development before it can become a useful and readable book. The comments of EB members, and the often quite lengthy reports of peer reviewers, are an essential part of that process, as are the Author Workshops that we offer each of our authors.

These workshops involve two or more experts in the field, plus an EB member and one of the Co-Editors, meeting with the author for half a day to discuss a near-to-final draft. We have held four such workshops so far and the feedback from authors has borne out our initial hunch that in-depth conversations about a book in preparation are extremely useful to novice monograph authors, probably more so than further written reports. The experts who have agreed to join the workshops have given really valuable service, and, like the authors, they seem to have enjoyed the experience. We ask for finalized manuscripts to come in within about six months of a workshop, and so far we are just about on target, with the first four titles due out in Spring/Summer 2019.

On publication each NHP title will be appear on the IHR’s Open Access books platform, with copies of the work available as OA downloads, eBooks and in hard and paperback formats. As with current IHR publications, each New Historical Perspectives title will also feature on JSTOR’s OA books platform, increasing discoverability and the option to access and share a book at the chapter level.

We are open to non-standard forms of publication, such as short-form works, and also to proposals for edited collections of essays. In this case the lead editor and at least half the contributors need to be ECRs, but they may work with more experienced historians. We have accepted three edited collections on condition that they are thematically coherent and characterized by a rigorous approach to the editing process. Editors of such collections do not get an Author Workshop – which would become a major conference-style event if all the contributors were to be involved – but the complete manuscript is of course subject to peer review.

Simon Newman moved on in June 2018, after sterling service, to be replaced by Jane Winters who, as professor of digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, has particularly relevant expertise in Open Access publishing. The Editorial Board is composed of admirably committed members whose scrutiny of proposals and reports, care of authors, and input to shaping the series, is invaluable.

My term of office ends in Spring 2019 and I’ll use this opportunity to say how interesting and satisfying the role of co-editor of NHP is, in the hope that this will encourage potential successors!

Professor Penny Summerfield
Co-editor, New Historical Perspectives
University of Manchester