The hollow tooth

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, Germany

In Berlin after 1945 the priorities were necessities.  Half the buildings in the city were uninhabitable and the division of the city into four sectors compounded the difficulties of everyday life.

No-one had much time to consider historical conservation or what was left of the built environment.

And yet, the uproar over the demolition of the Anhalter Bahnhof showed that significant numbers of Berliners were keen to keep some built reminders of the historic city, not least to ensure that the horrors of the end of the war were not forgotten.

The most conspicuous of these reminders is of the course the Reichstag, notoriously burnt down in 1933, almost the last redoubt in the battle for the city in 1945, finally restored in 1999.

In the bustling Kurfürstendamm, however, stands a more poignant reminder of the impact of war – the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church [Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche], or rather the blasted remains of its substantial tower, which people call “der hohle Zahn – the Hollow Tooth”.  The church was designed by Franz Heinrich Schwechten, who had made his name with the Anhalter Bahnhof, and it was dedicated in 1895 as a memorial to the first German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888).

Most of the remains of the church were taken down as unsafe after the end of the war, and the architect of the reconstruction, Egon Eiermann (1904-1970), proposed to demolish the old tower but was prevented by a public outcry. 

Instead, alongside a new octagonal church and a separate hexagonal bell-tower (1959-63), the gaunt ruin of the 1895 church stands as a landmark and a symbol of hope and reconciliation.  The walls of the new church are a concrete honeycomb, lit by blue stained glass which floods the interior.  There are six bronze bells in the new tower, the largest of which is inscribed “Your cities are burned with fire.” (Isaiah 1:7) and “But my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” (Isaiah, 51:6).

The new church was consecrated on May 25th 1962, the same day that Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by German bombs in 1940 and rebuilt alongside the ruins, was also consecrated.

The parallels with Coventry Cathedral are powerful, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is a recipient of a Coventry cross of nails, which is displayed next to the damaged statue of Christ which stood on the original altar.

The only surviving interior of the 1895 church is the entrance lobby, rich with gilding and mosaics, the cracks resulting from the bombing filled but left visible like Japanese kintsugi []. 

It’s an overbearing space, lightened a little by the contrast of the modern exhibition dedicated to peace and reconciliation.

It’s easy to see why the Allied administrators were not anxious to preserve the unstable walls of the bombed nave, a temple to the aspirations of Wilhelm I’s newly united Germany from which had sprung two world wars.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church lacks the sense of wholeness of Coventry Cathedral, where the ruins of the old become a prelude and a pendant to Sir Basil Spence’s 1962 church, or the integrity of St Martin’s Church, Coney Street, York or St Luke’s Church, Liverpool, where in each case the altered form of the bombed church reminds the visitor of what happened and invites reflection.

But after even a moments’ consideration of the rigours of life in late 1940s Berlin, we must be grateful that some raised their voices and persuaded Egon Eiermann to keep the tower as a reminder of the darkest days of the city’s and the German nation’s history.

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