Hidden under tarmac: remains of a lost memorial

Historic image of National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument, Berlin

It was one of Berlin's most impressive sights - a gigantic memorial to Wilhelm I that stood in front of the city palace and loomed above the River Spree.

Unveiled in 1897, the National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Nationaldenkmal) was the largest sculptural work ever created in Germany; a neo-baroque extravaganza dedicated to the country's first emperor and former Prussian king.

Miraculously, it survived World War II almost unscathed, but was later destroyed - along with the palace itself - by the communists, who associated both landmarks with Germany's hated imperial past.

Destruction of National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument, Berlin

Credit: Rudolf Kessler / Landesarchiv Berlin / Abriss des Nationaldenkmals für Kaiser Wilhelm I, 1950

Its former pedestal still juts forlornly into the Spree, and although a long-awaited reconstruction of the Stadtschloss is finally underway, there are no plans to replicate its magnificent neighbour.

But while debate rages as to what, exactly, should be done with the site, few realise that substantial traces of the monument still exist, hidden beneath layers of asphalt.


As the original plans below show, the structure included an elaborate mosiac floor. And recent excavations reveal that the East Germans simply tarmacked this base rather than remove it completely.

Mosaic floors of the National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument Berlin

In fact, the discovery of this precious tiling is one reason why a long-standing plan for a new, contemporary monument on the site was recently abandoned, with the enormous costs of the floor's relocation adding to an already escalating bill.

Of course, traditionalists now hope the mosaics will remain in place, and although no one yet knows what will finally appear here, it's actually possible to see further remnants of the original memorial in unexpected corners of Berlin.

Bronze lions that once formed part of the National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument, Berlin
Bronze eagle that once formed part of the National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument, Berlin

The four massive bronze lions that once crouched beneath the Kaiser's pedastal now preside over the big cats' enclosure at Friedrichsfelde Zoo, while an impressive eagle with a 5-metre wingspan adorns a balcony at the Märkisches Museum.

As so often in Berlin, the past reappears in improbable places. And in this case, we're especially glad we can still see a tiny part of it.

See also:
Piecing together a lost Potsdamer Platz gem
Berlin's gloriously retro hotels
A cafe in an 'ancient' courtyard

Site of the former National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument: Schlossplatz 10178 Berlin
Friedrichsfelde Zoo: Am Tierpark 125, 10319 Berlin
Märkisches Museum courtyard cafe: Am Köllnischen Park 5, 10179 Berlin. Opening hours: Fri-Sun, 12pm-5pm, and first Wednesday of the month, 12pm-5.30pm.  

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