Isabelle, Gendarmenmarkt and Classicism for Young People

Raffaela Rondini


Herzlich Willkommen auf der Baustelle der Welt! Welcome to the construction site of the world! Yes, yes, you’re still in Berlin! You’re here to have a good time, right? Well you’re in exactly the right place, friend! Herzlich Willkommen am Gendarmenmarkt! No, it’s not a discotheque. You just left the Berghain, didn’t you? Don’t you remember? Sorry? You say “club”? Great! A Jacobean one perhaps! Yes, that’s correct, you got there at two a.m. on Sunday morning and stayed until about seven, then went to Ostbahnhof and took a train to Alexanderplatz but you didn’t want to exit onto the square because you were cold so you walked over to the U-Bahn map and decided to take the U2 because you said you wanted to follow a red thread. Then you got off at Hausvogteiplatz because it reminded you of home for some reason and then you started to wander about until you ended up here at the Gendarmenmarkt.

Well, you did, just now. Why am I answering you? Well, because even  whispers carry on this square. The acoustics are fantastic! Did you know that in the summer they hold open-air concerts here? Six thousand people come here to listen to opera, to symphonies…try to throw a piece of change into the center of the square…you don’t have one? No, no, your bankcard won’t do…no, not your cell phone, either, please…okay…In any event, I can hear you quite clearly. No, not in translation either, in French! Biensûr I understand French. I am French! And stop turning around to look over your shoulder. Behind you there’s only the Akademie der Wissenschaften (known today as the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities). I am up here on the right, on the north side, je suis Isabelle, the dome above the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral). Oh, merci! Toi aussi, tu es beau.

Do you know what they called this square during the time of the German Democratic Republic? Platz der Akademie on account of that building behind you, but no one will be speaking there at this moment on a Sunday. At this time on a Sunday morning on Gendarmenmarkt I’m the only one. My twin sister, who is commonly referred to as the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral) although she also goes by the name of Neue Kirche (New Church), the one on the southern side of the square, likes to sleep late. No, no, don’t worry, you didn’t drink too much, we are exactly the same, the German Cathedral and I, at least externally speaking, yes, that’s right, two twin domes. But of course domes speak! (But only early on Sunday mornings when no one else is in the square!)

You see? Here we are, you, me, Schiller and his muses, the German Cathedral and its dome, the Akademie der Wissenschaften, and the Schauspielhaus, which since 1984 has been called the Konzerthaus. No, Schiller wasn’t with you at Berghain. No, that’s not it, of course statues move! But no, the muses did not go with you last night either.

From the time he came back, Schiller has spent every night with us here in the square, but he was indeed gone for quite some time…In 1935 he was taken away because he wasn’t particularly loved by the National Socialist regime and anyway the army needed the space. When Berlin was a divided city, he could be found in the western half at Lietzenseepark but without his muses who, for their part, remained here in the east. The poet and his muses separated by a wall. Imagine that. In any case, it was there he remained until 1986 when, toward the twilight of the GDR, he was returned here to us as part of the cultural exchange program known as the “Kulturgüteraustausch.” And so Schiller was present when President Honecker welcomed all those important guests to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin in 1987. He was also here for the memorable concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein for Christmas 1989. Beethoven’s 9th in the Konzerthaus with orchestras and choirs from both east and west and lots of jubilation indeed. And in the Ode to Joy instead of the word “joy” they substituted the word “freedom.” Can you imagine? Freiheit, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium…Do you have internet capability on your phone? Great! Go to one of those video sites just to get an idea.

Schiller was here in front of us for Helmut Kohl’s first speech as the first Chancellor of all Germans too, right here on this square. Yes, this is a “square” in the true sense of the word, you know? It has always been that way – here one is allowed to publically express oneself! It has always been quite popular. Even today you can find expressions of both jubilation as well as protest. But of course! The young too! Why just the other day young teachers came here to protest their work conditions, for example. They all had red umbrellas they opened and closed and one by one passed a microphone amongst themselves in order to say what they had to say. Sorry? Well, that’s what’s known as tolerance! Tolerance! The freedom to express yourself without being discriminated against! Exactly! What you’re saying, that which all of you young people come here to Berlin to find, the Huguenots already found three and a half centuries ago!

Louis XIV, king of France, revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had been passed in 1598 by Henry IV, and in so doing helped to restart the persecution of religious minorities in France. Close to 200,000 Huguenots left their homes and of these about 20,000 reestablished themselves in Brandenburg, many in Berlin itself. The Edict of Potsdam guaranteed them a number of both cultural and financial privileges. It was a true welcoming with open arms! The Réfugiés, as they were called, were allowed to preserve their own traditions. They could, for example, continue to express themselves in French and were not obligated to learn German. They could also continue to practice their own form of religion within a place of worship. This is why in 1705, right below me, they decided to build this beautiful church according to a central plan. At first they called it the Französische Kirche in der Friedrichstadt, which was the name of this new quarter at the time. In due time, the church simply became known as the French Cathedral.

The French Calvinists were more culturally advanced than the Germans of Brandenburg at that time, and their arrival in Berlin brought with it a great wind of change throughout all of Prussia. They brought more refined manners, modes of dress, manufacturing techniques, and numerous new industrial objects and basic materials. If you’re interested, at ten o’clock the Huguenot Museum will open here, you should go and have a look.

You think that you’ve heard this story before, but you didn’t remember it being so old? You see? History from seemingly long ago sometimes actually seems more modern than more recent history, doesn’t it? But, as you do already know, the comings and goings were to continue. For example, this idyll with the Huguenots was to end around the time of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s. From that point on, the use of French instead of German was no longer tolerated. Nevertheless, Berlin had enjoyed about a century of bilingualism, which had a great influence on both the language and the culture of the city.

Well, if you have a little bit of time, I would like to tell you about what happened here in the square in the 18th century. Sorry? You’d like a coffee first? Well, I’m not really sure. If you can manage, you could go to Café Einstein over on Unter den Linden. You’ll see it. It’s a nice, elegant, if rather sober, place that’s well worth a trip. You can come back afterwards if you like! (When they ask you for a moment to go and get a coffee sometimes they come back, and sometimes they don’t…Who knows if he’ll be back. Today is Sunday and the stores are closed, so there’s a little bit of hope…and furthermore, he seemed like a nice boy…but one who goes to the Berghain…who knows…But what is it about this Berghain place anyway? A club they call it…could they be Jacobeans? I think I shall take a night off to go and see!)

You came back! What a pleasure to see you again! What did you say your name was, again, young man? Pierre! Ah, enchantée! Dear boy, you can travel all over Berlin looking for architectonic emotions but when you are feeling nostalgic, when you desire those familiar canons of harmony rooted in our way of thinking, you must simply come here to rest your mind, to regroup as you would say, vibrating together with that cord which is familiar to us all. For, you see, the Gendarmenmarkt is not simply reassuring, but is also an expression of beauty on the whole. Look around you! We are the three daughters of the Enlightenment: the German Cathedral, the French Cathedral, and the Konzerthaus. In fact, if you look at the Akademie back there behind you, you’ll notice that there are in fact four of us! We are clean and elegant, rich but never pompous, we are well proportioned and in perfect harmony with one another. In short, we relate to one another in an enchanting and orderly manner. Classicism is inspired by Greco-Roman art and the desire to return to the magnificence of that style, but nourished by Enlightenment thought. And herein lies the difference to the Baroque, which at that time was considered both heavy and old. In classicism the forms return to a sense of purity, ascension, sobriety, and essentialism. You see?

But as I was saying, now we are in the 18th century. And what a great one it was! An anything but homogenous period of time! A period of time that began with absolute monarchy and ended with the French Revolution! Young people like you throughout the ages have always talked about turning the old values over on their heads in order to give space to the “new”…sorry? Yes, of course, recent history is full of revolutions, too! But what occurred in the 18th century was, well, we could say truly revolutionary! At that time, the “old”, the status quo, all political power and cultural hegemony were incarnated in the aristocracy and in the monarchy. Moreover, in the states of southern Europe the Catholic Church exercised considerable moral and social control. Here in Germany, however, a certain amount of religious freedom had already been hard won.

In this extraordinary spirit of the times here in these parts, in continuous dialogue with the greatest French thinkers, the Enlightenment flowered in a most particular fashion. Have a look at my dome! Instead of a cross you’ll find a representation of “Religion Triumphant” while on the German Cathedral across the way you’ll find “Virtue Triumphant”.

Before Frederick became Frederick I, that is, when he still held the name of Frederick III Elector of Brandenburg, with great foresight he authorized the philosopher and mathematician Leibniz to found the Akademie der Wissenschaften – precisely, that one behind you –, which still exists today, albeit with various seats and more articulated norms. The greatest thinkers and scientists of the day were at home there in the Akademie. In the 18th century both humanistic and scientific studies were considered aspects of one single, greater field of knowledge. The mathematicians were often philosophers, and the philosophers mathematicians. Brilliant minds like Euler, Lagrange, Lambert, D’Alembert, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Kant spent their days here studying, thinking, writing, teaching, debating, and at times even arguing.

We domes were realized between 1780 and 1785 according to plans drawn up by Carl von Gontard in the age of Frederick II while the churches below us were constructed during the time of Frederick William I who came to the throne in 1713. The church below my sister dome – which is not a cathedral and is not to be confused with the Berliner Dom – was built immediately after the French one in 1708 and was given the name of the Neue Kirche.

The name of the piazza itself, Gendarmenmarkt, is of military origin, too. Gens d’Armes was, in fact, a cuirassier regiment under Frederick William I that was housed here nearby. Frederick William I had a great passion for the military, as you see here in exemplary fashion, and that is why he was known as the Soldier King. His son and successor Frederick II “the Great” came to power in 1740, but considered himself a son of the French Enlightenment. In fact, Frederick II wanted to turn Berlin into a sort of smaller version of Paris. We domes of the Gendarmenmarkt are a part of that dream. He just had enough time to have us realized before dying in 1786. His nephew, Frederick William II, succeeded him but would alas only rule for eleven years as he was to die in his turn in 1797.

In 1774 Frederick the Great ordered Georg Christian Unger to construct a small French theatre between the two churches, the Komödienhaus. Just a few years later he decided to enlarge the theatre and commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans to construct the 2000-seat National Theatre. Yes, you understood that correctly: Frederick I gave the square its name, allowed Leibniz to found the Society of Sciences and wanted two churches. Frederick II added two elegant domes to the latter and had a theatre constructed. But the really interesting thing is, do you know what he wanted to have written up above it? Ridentur et corriguntur mores, which translates more or less to “Customs are made fun of and thereby corrected”. Naturally it is a phrase that is open to interpretation, but the point was that of educating a people through a lay and liberal culture. And this was a very modern concept at the time, I mean, just imagine! A sovereign who was concerned with the freedom of satire! Isn’t that fantastic? Do you know what Lessing, who at that time was about the same age as you, said? That he couldn’t have lived in any other big city. Exactly. Just like many of you still say today. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Nicolai were three young friends who loved the truth, were curious, and were free spirits who did nothing other than develop ideas of every type. In the morning they would meet at Nicolai’s house – he had inherited his father’s bookshop, library, and publishing house – and evenings they would continue to drink and talk at Baumannshöhle bar.

But do you know what happened in 1785? What do you mean you don’t have any idea? I’ve already told you! It is the year in which the two of us domes were born! But a very important anonymously written manifesto entitled Neuer Weg zur Unsterblichkeit der Fürsten (A New Way for the Immortality of Princes) was also published at that time, and it practically had the effect of a bomb when it appeared in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. It was written that the only way for a monarchy to be able to live forever, or at least for a long time, was to give its state laws that could not be revoked solely on the whim of the sovereign himself or one of his successors. In other words, it was basically asking the sovereign to transform the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one in which the royal family would merely have a representative function. Never before had restrictions been proposed to a ruling power! What an age!

And just four years later the twenty-two-year-old Wilhelm von Humboldt, who would later found the University of Berlin, was in Paris storming the Bastille and fighting against the privileges of the nobility. This was the type of youth we had up until 1800! And thus the path to the age of Romanticism was opened, but also to the age of great politics, philosophy and national unity. Do you want to know how history continued on into the new century here in the square? Ah, what a young century!

After the French Revolution nothing was like it had been before. Liberty, equality, and fraternity! The 19th century was truly a century of revolutions! Society was being definitively reformed according to new criteria. The city seemed to belong to the young and their struggles for liberty, their thoughts and ideas enflamed by such incredible works of philosophy, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture! By sculpture…sculpture…but the sculpting of a table? But what are those hands up there in the form of a “T”?

Oh! You’d like another break? Another coffee? But won’t it be bad for you? Have something to eat at least! Well, okay, go around the corner here to… (Who knows if he’ll come back a second time. He really did seem interested though, if a bit tired. Really, what is it they do at this Berghain? If he comes back I shall ask him. Let’s hope he comes back).

Ach Pierre! I’m so happy you came back! The 19th century was a beautiful century here in this square, too! We never experienced such enthusiasm again. In 1806, October 23 to be exact, the French arrived in Berlin once again, no longer as Huguenots but as exporters of liberty, as Napoleon loved to say, or as others might say, as conquerors. But by that point it was clearly another story. The Prussians looked on those ragged yet victorious troops with disrespect and annoyance. And with that, the consciousness of belonging to a people, the German people, began to emerge precisely in relation to another peoples, the French. And here we found ourselves at yet another turning point.

On December 13, 1807, Johan Gottlieb Fichte held his famous Reden an die Deutsche Nation and Frederick William III, King of Prussia, thought the time was ripe for the founding of a university in order to liberate Prussia, if not strictly physically than at least culturally, from the French siege. Wilhelm von Humboldt, whom we encountered earlier, had long studied history, languages, and philology and was now Minister of Culture. In 1809 he received permission to found the University of Berlin. Fichte was appointed the first rector of the university, which was inaugurated October 15, 1810.

Fichte was a great philosopher, as you no doubt know already. However, perhaps you’ve never heard of the greatness of his charisma and personality. It immediately became clear that in the university the intellectuals saw the opportunity to research and teach openly, while for the sovereign the university was to be an element of patriotic and moral cohesion in those last years of loyalty to the monarchy. Sorry? Yes, it is interesting. But you’ve already heard all of this, right? Quite modern we were indeed! And strong and pure our professors! In 1813 Fichte, Arndt, Jahn, Schleiermeier, and 259 students signed a manifesto that sarcastically remarked: “We’re not fighting for the prince, but for our freedom!” With freedom they meant that of the French sort and the desire to unify Germany, but, of course, they also meant democratic freedom!

As for us, in 1817 the National Theatre went up in flames and Friedrich Schinkel was immediately ordered to construct a new one with what was left of the original structure. And he did. Oh, I see, this too seems a bit like déja vu to you? The phoenix rising from the flames as it were? Well, there is nothing new there, of course, if by that you mean this perennial oscillation between the need to reconstruct and the desire to push ever onward toward greater challenges. Just like today! The reconstruction of the theatre took place between 1819 and 1821, and Schinkel left his distinctive mark. A classical style but one refashioned in accordance with his unique imagination. Upon a six-meter-tall base he had a free set of stairs constructed, which culminated in a portico circumscribed by six elegant ionic columns topped by a tympanum. This extremely new frontal element was to be found placed before a second central edifice, which in its turn was topped by another tympanum. Then, behind them, the remaining spaces of the theatre were developed obliquely which allowed for an airy and harmonious play of spaces that accent and refer back to the elegance of the two churches crowned by we two beautiful domes at the sides of the square. Just look how beautiful it is!

This new theatre known as the Schauspielhaus was inaugurated May 27, 1821, with a performance of that cornerstone of the classical theatre, Goethe’s tragedy in verse, Iphigenia in Tauris. The play, put extremely simply, concerns a beautiful free spirit who refuses any compromise whatsoever. Since that rather impressive beginning, the greatest actors and musicians of their times have passed through here. The audience literally went crazy for Paganini and was moved by Liszt, but if there were only one piece we really had to speak about at all, all of us present at the time agree that it would have to be the world premiere of Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz.

Now, everyone says that the Freischütz could very well be considered the first of the great German romantic operas, but at that time, of course, no one was capable of passing such a judgment. What was certain, however, was that everyone simply heard it, experienced it, and breathed it in intensely. In it Weber skillfully retold profoundly German legends with that strident emotional temperament of his and he elevated it all with arias and music of great strength and power. All the dreams of a culture were to be seen within this work. Naturally, there is the supernatural and mysterious dimension common to early romanticism, the womb of nature in which the whole drama of mythic values takes place, that struggle between good and evil, trials, magic, ancestral memories, the exaltation of a free and autonomous life in the famous scene of the wolf’s glen…and what fantastic orchestration! Trombones, bassoons, timpani, sharp strings, horns, and clarinets and all in an urgent rhythm! And then of course there’s Agathe, the future bride, questioning the moon and then there is the Huntsmen’s Chorus…You know all of this already as well? Bravo! How wonderful! A young person who actually knows a piece of opera! Sorry? It reminds you of what? The Berghain…But what the devil does the Huntsmen’s Chorus have to do with that place? You can at least see it on your telephone, can you not? Yes and no? No? You’d have to be there in person to understand? Certain atmospheres might indeed have to be experienced “live” as it were? Your wonderful internet is a poor substitute? You see? We two do think alike! Well, then, one time I shall have to come with you to your famous Berghain then…who knows if we won’t find the same kind of spirit as back then…sorry? The historical context is different? Of course it is, and all of you are different too. One cannot make parallels, I realize that, but a certain spirit, that is what I would like to experience again! I know that I shall not find the Huntsmen’s Chorus, but who knows? Perhaps that desire to discover, to know, in some way to put oneself to the test…or at the very least to seek… don’t you agree?

Do you know what Schinkel said? Yes, precisely that Schinkel, the one who constructed that marvelous structure which stands before you and not only? That same Schinkel who in just a few decades managed to beautify Berlin, and was one of the best architects of all times?

Überall ist man nur da wahrhaft lebendig, wo man Neues schafft, überall, wo man sich ganz sicher fühlt, hat der Zustand schon etwas Verdächtiges, denn da weiß man etwas gewiss. Also etwas, was schon da ist, wird nur gehandhabt, wird wiederholt angewendet, dies ist schon eine halb tote Lebendigkeit. Überall da, wo man ungewiss ist, aber den Drang fühlt und die Ahnung hat, von und zu etwas Schönem, welches dargestellt werden muss- da, wo man also sucht, ist man wahrhaft lebendig.

Freely translated you might say something like this: One is only truly alive when creating something new. Wherever one feels secure, there is something suspicious, for at those moments one is already certain. Something which exists already is simply manageable and thus only repeatable, only a form of half-life. Wherever one is unsure but has an idea of and feels the drive toward something beautiful that must be created – only there, where one seeks, is one truly alive.

Really? Your idols say the same thing? Well now!

No, as far as I know Schinkel had no tattoos nor piercings. But he did study a lot and had spent time in Rome, and the latter remained his inspiration and passion throughout his life. In Rome he had worked as an illustrator and here in Berlin he had gotten to know Wilhelm von Humboldt. Travel and study were and still are essential means for knowing and understanding. You think so too? That gives me hope. As they say, only he who knows the depths can be mature enough to see beyond them.

But where were we with our story? Oh yes, the university. The upheaval at the university was in reality only one aspect of a wider movement of peoples throughout Europe. Uprisings and revolts were springing up a bit overall throughout those years. In any event, Frederick William IV, who sympathized with the students, came to the throne while the protests were growing in intensity across all of Germany. In 1836 Karl Marx arrived in Berlin and then in 1841 Friedrich Engels. The sovereign did not manage to promise democratic reforms in time, like the abolishing of the censor, for example, and so in March 1848 a revolution erupted in Berlin. The students became insurgents and both the middle class as well as the working class joined forces to fight against absolutism. From September 19 to November 10, 1848, our Schauspielhaus was no longer an opera house but the headquarters of the Prussian National Assembly. They demanded a constitution, but soon all returned to the sphere of Prussian absolutism. It is strange to think that, at first, they had been traveling toward the unification of Germany and thereafter toward various nationalisms.

And then times changed once again and, sadly, things became even darker here on our square. However, before them at least in 1871 Reinhold Begas’ statue of Schiller, a symbol of national culture, and his muses was unveiled. Not too very long after that came the two world wars.

By the end of the Second World War we were only a heap of rubble. We belonged to the government of the GDR, but they did not take too great an interest in us. Restoration of the German Cathedral began in 1966 and was to last until the middle of the 1990s. The architect Jürgen Pleuser, however, had quite a radical plan. He united the dome to the lower structure in a beautiful and new space that was to host the permanent exhibit of the German Parliament on the history of parliamentary democracy in the finally united Germany. It is tellingly entitled Frage an die Deutsche Geschichte, Wege – Irrwege – Umwege (“Questions of German History – Paths – Wrong Ways – Detours”). Entrance is free, and I highly recommend it. They even offer you a cup of water and the restrooms are wonderful. But, above all, you can encounter all of the stories I’ve just told you and many more that I haven’t besides.

My dome, on the other hand, was renovated in 1977 but not in such a radical way. I remain a dome a bit removed from the body…You can come up to visit me, by the way, it costs only 3 Euros, and from here you can see over the entire square. You would like to? Yes, if you like. The panorama isn’t quite as impressive as Clara’s over there at the Reichstag, but it remains a point of view that is not to be missed! First and foremost, you’ll notice that I am surrounded by cranes, which are all moving simultaneously, but with different rhythms and in different directions. A strange, asynchronous, but nevertheless unique bit of choreography that will not last forever. Beyond the square’s splendor, you’ll see an expanse of Plattenbau, those gigantic prefabricated GDR apartment blocks. Indeed, you may ask yourself once more where you are. How can everything be that different and still somehow together you ask? Can classicism be surrounded by Plattenbau? It sure can. We are in Berlin. A dome like me, for example, could one night decide to take a break and go get in line to try and enter Berghain just like one Sunday morning you decided to come and listen to me.

Do you know what has always characterized Berlin? By now you will have understood having heard a little bit about the Huguenots, the Enlightenment, Frederick II, Schinkel…Berlin has always been at the crossroads of different ways of thinking, cultures and therefore of various forms of art which for the most part manage to all live together in a civilized manner. This openness, this calling to welcoming the other is old, dear Pierre, and that is what I really wanted to tell you about this morning – I am so glad you decided to stay! From all of these words that have rained down on you, above all I would like you to remember that everything which appears to be static in reality is not; or, in any event, has not always been. And that things which may appear to be identical, like we two domes, if you really pay attention, turn out to be rather different. History, art: both are a departure and a return but also a continual discovery and adventure into the future and this future is now yours, dear Pierre!

Do go and say hello to the muses surrounding dear Schiller before you go.

There is the Muse of Poetry with her harp, History carved with the names of Lessing, Kant, and Goethe, there is the Muse of Tragedy complete with mask and dagger, and the Muse of Philosophy unrolling her piece of parchment whereupon is written: know thyself.

And now it is time for you to go, dear! Fare thee well! And a wonderful Sunday to you!

Translated by Alexander Booth

3 years ago