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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 December 2005, 12:22 GMT
Berliners divided over fate of palace
By Ray Furlong
BBC Berlin correspondent

A petition was handed to the German government this week asking for the former East German parliament building to be saved from demolition. Ray Furlong looks at the Palace of the Republic, which has been dividing opinion among Berliners.

Protesters outside the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, Germany
The fate of the building has raised questions about German identity
It's hard to overlook the Palace of the Republic: a squat, brown building on a vast expanse of empty concrete in the heart of Berlin.

It sits like an angry proletarian opposite the fake Italian Renaissance of the city's cathedral - which holds the bones of the Hohenzollern dynasty in its crypts.

This is a building, both in its style and its location that was designed to celebrate a state of workers and farmers. But that state has long faded into history, and the palace too is now on its death bed.

Graffiti disfigures its once-proud exterior and weeds have sprouted in the walls. Inside, the noise of the city gives way to a ghostly silence.

The heart of the building, its shops, theatre, gallery and bars, has been removed. So too has the chamber of East Germany's rubberstamp parliament.

Only steel pylons and concrete walls remain. The fake-marble stairs are crumbling away. A puddle of stagnant water has formed in the main foyer.

'Special magic'

But the building is still solid, and still produces powerful emotions. This week, 10,000 signatures were delivered to parliament calling for the palace to be saved.

Among those 10,000 people was Harald Schoepe, a 55-year-old engineer from Dresden who knew and loved the building in communist times.

We met in a rather grotty cafe just off Karl Marx Avenue, part of what was once East Berlin.

"It had a special magic," he said, adding for my benefit: "It was as special as Buckingham Palace. But it was open for everyone."

Mr Schoepe said he had enjoyed going there with his children. He recalled entering the foyer, illuminated by a thousand ball-shaped lamps hanging from the ceiling, and feeling "transformed".

Berlin's cathedral
The palace is a stark contrast to the nearby cathedral
Time for another comparison: it was, he said, like entering a church. "The vast vistas drew you in, you went up the stairs, and every step was an epiphany," he said.

For most East Berliners it was less of a religious experience. But it was still a place to meet and hang out - filled with life - and that's why so many of them want to save it.

But Mr Schoepe pointed to another reason that finds a wider echo in the city.

He says the decision to close the building shortly after German reunification, when asbestos was found inside it, was political.

Question of identity

It's a conspiracy theory that chimes with a more general feeling of disillusion in eastern Germany with what followed unification - not only mass unemployment, but also the erasure of East German identity.

It was felt in all areas of life. Words used by East Germans were replaced by West German terms. Products disappeared as Western brands filled the shelves.

There have been periodic bouts of nostalgia for the East ever since, most recently perhaps when the film Goodbye, Lenin! filled cinemas a couple of years ago: a bittersweet love story with sentimental references to East German gherkins.

Leaving conspiracy theories about the Palace of the Republic aside, there is a well-organised lobby to get it removed.

It has a shiny information centre just round the corner, documenting the Prussian royal palace which originally stood on the site.

The royal palace was damaged in the war, and the communists dynamited it in 1952 - before erecting the symbol of their power in the 1970s.

A West German businessman is now raising donations to rebuild the facade of the Old Prussian palace, with a modern conference centre to go inside.

But it would be wrong to paint the bitter arguments over the future of the building merely in terms of Germany's lingering East-West divide.

A vocal part of the campaign to save the building is made up by artists, many of them from the West or from other countries, who have held a number of sell-out events inside the shell of the building.

Historic Berlin

And there are also some easterners who want to see the Prussian palace back.

Annett Schnell runs a bakery on the edge of town - and produces a range of goods bearing the pictures of the royal palace, or Schloss.

There's Schloss cake, a tooth-disintegrating mix of jam, chocolate and marzipan; there are Schloss rolls, with cheese baked over them.

And there's even a two-kilogram loaf of Schloss bread, which comes in a special box in the shape of the royal palace.

Annett donates one euro to the fund for rebuilding it for every item of her Schloss range that's sold. Like most supporters of the campaign, she says it's about giving Berlin its original look back.

The political decision has been taken to dismantle the Palace of the Republic and to rebuild the facade of its predecessor. But the money to do it is not there.

Berlin is practically bankrupt, the German government is also battling a ballooning budget deficit, and the appeal has raised just 11m euros; short of its 80m target.

All this gives Harold hope - as we left the cafe he told me, "Never say die", before disappearing amid the glitzy lights of Karl Marx Avenue.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 10 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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