The Next Disaster? Berlin Lays Cornerstone of Troubled Palace

The money involved, of course, is not nearly on the level of the Elbe Philharmonic, the Stuttgart train station or the Berlin airport. But the decision even to attempt a reconstruction of the palace in the first place was an extremely controversial one. And pledges that private funding would cover a significant portion of construction costs were key in finally securing approval in 2002 and funding in 2011.

Any extra costs laid at the feet of German taxpayers are almost sure to trigger yet another flare-up in the long-standing debate over the purpose of the reconstruction project. Currently, the structure is to house the Humboldt Forum, art holdings belonging to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the city-state library and elements of nearby Humboldt University. But the question as to why, exactly, the building had to look like the old Prussian palace, construction of which was inaugurated by Friedrich II ("Iron Tooth") in the 15th century, has never been adequately answered.

Fuelling yet more debate is the fact that the East German Palast der Republik was razed from 2006 to 2008 to make way for the Schloss, providing yet more proof in the eyes of former East Berliners that reunification was more of a Western takeover than a marriage between equals.

On Wednesday, however, all those questions were to be set aside for the sunny, cornerstone-laying ceremony complete with a smiling President Joachim Gauck swinging a hammer at a large stone marked curiously "1443-2013."

Chancellor Angela Merkel was not present, reportedly because she wanted to avoid it at all costs. After all, she faces re-election this fall, and the project is highly unpopular among Germans. A recent poll by the news magazine Stern found that almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Germans oppose the project.

cgh -- with reporting by Sven Becker and Michael Sontheimer

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