Palais Raczynski

The Palais Raczynski was a city palace at today’s Platz der Republik in Berlin-Tiergarten, built from 1842 to 1844 for Polish aristocrat Atanazy Raczyński. Besides being used as residence, it housed Raczyński’s extensive art collection, then exhibited in the Prussian National Gallery and transferred in 1903 to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Posen/Poznań.
It was sold to the German government in 1874 by Raczyński’s son and subsequently demolished (1882) to make way for the Reichstag building.

The palace, Palais Raczyński, the first Berlin private art gallery which could be accessed by the public, belonged to a Polish count, diplomat and great art collector, Atanazy Raczyński.
The aristocrat who during the wars against Napoleon fought on… Napoleon’s side (with Poland invaded and divided among three foreign powers, Napoleon´s campaign against Prussia, Austria and Russia was seen as Poland’s only chance to recover its independence), nevertheless enjoyed both respect and personal sympathy of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

Raczyński impressed the monarch with his elegant, cultivated ways, his diplomatic talents as well as with is extensive knowledge of contemporary German paintings: his book on the topic is still considered a classic today. During his stay in Lisbon and Madrid, where he acted as an envoy to the Duchy of Warsaw, and later in Paris, he supported local artists and invested in building a private collection of European art.

This collection was not meant for Berlin, though. Atanazy Raczyński planned to have it displayed in his home town, in Poznań – at a new library built by his brother, Edward (the Raczyńskis were among the wealthiest and most influential Polish aristocrats). As it was, in 1837 the brothers clashed again – for political reasons their relationship was, to put it mildly, an unamicable one – and Atanazy promptly moved his paintings to Prussia. He had them put on display in the house he owned in Berlin: a small palazzo at Unter den Linden 21. The house went down in history also thanks to Raczyński´s tenant: Bettina von Arnim, famous German writer and society lady, who held her legendary literary and art meetings in the salon of the generous flat she rented on the first floor.

In 1840 Friedrich Wilhelm IV offered Raczyński a deal: a beautiful piece of land on the eastern edge of the former army exercise grounds in the Tiergarten and a permit to build a palace there in exchange for public access to the count´s gallery which would be located therein. Two years later the construction began and by 1844 Heinrich Strack´s beautiful neo-classicist design could be admired by all almost right outside the Brandenburger Tor. Strack´s name, by the way – like his teacher´s, Schinkel´s – is imprinted all over Berlin´s old centre: he is also the architect behind the Kronprinzenpalais in Unter den Linden (he re-designed it to look the way it does today), of the columned halls flanking the Brandenburg Gate as well as of the entrance to and the final design of the Old National Gallery on the Museum Island (he finished the job started by his colleague and fellow Schinkel-student, F.A. Stüler).

Coincidence or not, if you look at Strack´s design of Palais Raczyński main building – it comprised altogether five, with two smaller ones flanking the central house plus two pavilions on both sides of those – you will see plenty of the front of Berlin´s Nationalgalerie there. Clearly, Strack was simply being faithful to his favourite style.

Before Raczyński´s palace was ready, only one other building occupied the old army grounds at today´s Platz der Republik: the first permanent Berlin circus (and the fourth such establishment in Europe after Paris, London and Vienna), known as Circus olympicus or Circus vor dem Bradenburger Tor. This colossal wooden arena constructed by master carpenter Gustav Richter, which could house up to 1,000 spectators at once, burnt down during Berlin´s March Revolutions in 1848.

The other famous neighbour grew along with the count´s palace. And unlike that of Palais Raczyński, its name is still very present in Berlin´s history today: Kroll´scher Wintergarten, also known as Krolls Oper. It was constructed at the same time as the palace but on the opposite end of the old army exercise grounds in the Tiergarten. And like in Raczyński´s case, the land was presented to Joseph Kroll by the king as present (Kroll had to pay everything else, of course, and would have had to give the land back had the business not taken off).

Count Raczyński stayed true to his word and once the palace was ready, had his collection of 150 paintings moved there and made accessible to the public. The jewel in its crown was a 1447 picture he bought in 1824 in Paris: Sandro Botticeli´s “Madonna with a child and eight angels”. For many years crowds, including many foreign guests, streamed to Raczyński´s gallery to enjoy the magnificent collection.

But all this was about to come to end when by 1871 German parliament, the Reichstag, got into dire straits: it suffered shortage of room. The unification of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto Bismarck meant that the number of MPs automatically grew: the MPs from the north now had to share space with all the representatives of the southern states. Palais Hardenberg at Döhnhoffplatz, the seat of the Prussian Landtag, where they held their meetings at the time was simply too small.

In the same year the Reichstag voted a motion to build a seat of their own. In the meantime, the MPs moved to a temporary quarters at the former Königliche Porzellanmanufaktur in Leipziger Straße: to that end, it was converted in just 70 days. But instead of the 5-6 years they planned to spend there, the German Reichstag stayed for another… 23 years. And the person who put the spoke into the parliamentary wheel was a Polish count with an affinity for art and paintings.

The Reichstag chose the future location for their seat well: at the eastern end of what by then was called Königsplatz (the name it got in 1864). The only problem was the fact that the site was not free. It was exactly the place where Palais Raczyński stood since 1844. The Reichstag committee in charge of the project candidly ignored the fact and, hoping for the best, called a design competition for the design of the future Reichstag building attended by over 100 architects from Germany and abroad.

They counted on two things happening at once: that the Kaiser Wilhelm I would support their cause and that the old count would sell. None of the two happened. Even though he found the location acceptable – Wilhelm I and Bismarck were adamant not to allow the Reichstag settle too close to the Royal Palace as this would have meant that the Parliament´s opinion really counts – the Kaiser was reluctant to use an expropriation procedure against Atanazy Raczyński.

And so by 1872 the Reichstag committee had a winner in the competition they called – a Russian architect living in Gotha, Ludwig Bohnstedt – but they did not have anywhere to build. Luckily for them, two years later, after Atanazy´s death, his son decided to sell. Still, the contract was not signed until 1881 and by then Bohnstedt´s design had been increasingly criticised as obsolete and “not German enough”. That is why in February 1882 a new competition was announced but this time with a – now highly controversial – condition: only architects of “deutscher Zunge” (literally, “of German tongue”) could participate. Ludwig Bohnstedt tried his luck again but having been born in Sankt Petersburg, he was automatically excluded.

Eventually out of 189 designs, the committee chose two and awarded both with the first prize: it went to Friedrich von Tiersch and Paul Wallot. After a vote, whose results were clearly in favour of Wallot (19 votes out of 21), the Reichstag was given its final shape by the latter.

But what happened to Atanazy Raczyński´s paintings? Where did they go? Following his last wish, a lion share of his collection was given on a permanent loan to the Prussian state. It found its new home at Berlin´s Nationalgalerie. In 1903 it travelled to Raczyński´s hometown, to Poznań and became the core of the city´s museum – today´s National Museum – which still contains the biggest collection of the nineteenth-century German paintings in Poland.

One of the few works of art from the old Palais Raczyński which did stay in Berlin was Botticelli´s “Madonna”. Hidden by the Nazis during the Second World War and later found by the US troops, in 1945 it was transported to Hessen. In 1953 Raczyński´s descendants, who by the time lived impoverished in Chile, claimed their rights as the painting´s rightful owners. Having escaped Nazi Germany leaving practically all their belongings behind, Sigismund Raczyński, who was a Nazi-opponent forcefully drafted into the Volkssturm and told to fight and die for the Führer (his wife was six months pregnant at the time), knew of the incredible value of Bottocelli´s work: it was estimated at around 2 million Marks.

What followed was a pretty embarrassing tug of war with the State of Hessen, which despite losing in court and being theoretically obliged to release the painting, decided to play dumb and offered Raczyński 692,000 Marks instead: they deducted the overdue taxes, including the Reichsfluchtsteuer (Reich Flight Tax), the tax introduced in 1931 to prevent German capital from being shifted abroad but best known as the “tax” (in fact an excuse for assets expropriation) levied by the Nazis on Jews and Nazi-opponents trying to leave the Third Reich. The tax was levied in Germany until 1953.

Eventually, the Federal Republic of Germany accepted Raczyński´s claim and bought the painting for 1.95 million Marks. Today, you can see it decorating the walls of Berlin´s Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum. Only slightly over one kilometre from where the old Palais Raczyński once stood.

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