BERLIN, Germany — A brass band played under a bright sun earlier this month as thousands of Berliners streamed into one of the city's newest construction sites. Not just any real estate project, it was for a recreation of the demolished Prussian palace where the Kaiser declared war in 1914.
Intended to bolster support for the billion-dollar reconstruction project that still needs millions in private donations, the open house drew a whopping 35,000 visitors.
Supporters say the rebuilt Berlin City Palace will fill a physical and psychological hole in the capital’s center, marking the completion of Berlin's transformation from a divided, backward-looking Cold War city into a booming rival of Paris and London.
“To reconstruct this building, which created in a way this town in the 15th century, is to reconnect the two parts of Berlin,” says spokesman Bernhard Wolter. “It may be one of the last stones in the mosaic of the reunification of Germany.”
However, critics see the project as part of a battlefield for the city’s soul.
The Berlin Palace-Humboldt Forum Foundation has already raised about a third of the $142 million in private donations needed for the facade and “options” that include interior portals and the reproduction of the decorations on the central dome.
Currently a thicket of cranes and scaffolding, the project is set to be completed in 2018. Construction began in June last year, when the Berlin city government claimed that most Berliners backed the project.
Never mind that a poll conducted at the time suggested that as many as two-thirds of Germans opposed the plans because of concerns about its symbolic resonance and the potential for mammoth cost overruns.
That the June 2 unveiling attracted so many visitors testifies to its significance — and contentiousness — as a symbol.
Among the opponents, artist Marion Pfaus is already raising funds for the new palace's demolition with a humorous online campaign.
“It shows a lack of imagination and symbolizes German chauvinism,” she says.
Many former East Berliners also see rebuilding the palace less as a way to reunite the city as more as another step toward erasing all vestiges of their communist past.
It was from the palace’s balcony that Kaiser Wilhelm II declared war on Russia in 1914, and many still see the Berlin City Palace as a symbol of German imperialism.
Unlike many cultural landmarks, the building was still standing at the end of World War II despite being hit by bombs and gutted by fire in 1945.
After Berlin was divided following the fighting, it ended up in the eastern zone, where the communist government of the German Democratic Republic deemed it too badly damaged — or too fraught with symbolism — to repair.
Instead, the GDR flattened the imperial symbol and replaced it with an anachronistic glass-and-steel “Palace of the Republic,” which was torn down in 2008.
Nicknamed “the lamp factory,” the unprepossessing modern structure looked out of place amid other grandiose pre-war buildings that East Germany had deemed worthy of reconstruction.
Nevertheless, as the venue for rare concerts by decadent Western bands and cheap bars that accepted local currency, it helped sustain a certain nostalgia for the past after the communist collapse.
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To help quiet critics, instead of being seen to glorify Germany, the new palace will exhibit art from Africa and Asia and host debates about the role of globalization in the developing world, Wolter says.
Like the demolished Palace of the Republic, it will remain open to the public as a center for concerts and other cultural events. To counter claims that it is a monument to the West's Cold War victory over the East, it will also include a permanent exhibition of art from the former communist republic.
“In five years, it will once again be the most important point in the capital of Germany,” Wolter says. “Not as a Prussian king's palace but as an open space for citizens and visitors.”