If there was a building at Berlin favourite for the Führer that was the Opera…
Its importance and history, its location in Berlin Mitte in the middle of Unter den Linden Avenue, and its musicians, made it a symbol of the city. A symbol raised to the altars by the Nazi regime, encouraging the radical enhancement of Wagner’s work along with the Aryan ideals.
Its long history from its construction would live extensions, a fire and reconstruction, four wars and an almost total annihilation by air bombings, as well as its use as political and cultural weapon with the arrival of the Iron Curtain and the new Communist regime.
[A pre-war view of the Staastsoper at Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Platz (today Bebelplatz), this picture was taken in 1938.]
The Staatsoper was built in 1741-43 as the Hofoper (‘Court Opera’) commissioned by King Frederick II of Prussia with design by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff. In 1843 the building lives its first reconstruction after suffering a serious fire, supervised by architect Carl Ferdinand Langhans. A year later it was renamed Königliches Opernhaus (Royal Opera House) and took an extension of the theatre and the stage.
After the collapse of the German Empire in 1918, the Opera was renamed Staatsoper Unter den Linden, highlighting a major renovation in the twenties to adapt to the standards of the time, and with the arrival of the Third Reich lived a time full of lights and shadows: on the one hand, the glorification of the operatic work and its authors, on the other, the condemnation and expulsion of many of the best directors and musicians of the moment, for being Jewish.
[The Staatsoper Berlin during the celebration of the Heldengedenktag (‘Heroes Memorial Day’) in February 1934. In the front row among others Adolf Hitler and the former President Paul von Hindenburg.]
During the 1930’s, subordinated to the Preußisches Staatstheater, concerts there became major party events, due to the Nazi regime fanfare for Imperial traditions. The Führer had an almost fanatical devotion to the work of Richard Wagner, which to Hitler represented everything that was good about culture in Nazi Germany. The new regime forced that music had to conform to the Aryan ideal. Hence some composers were tolerated and even elevated to a status of pure Nazism, while other composers, frequently Jewish, were shunned and censored. During the Third Reich, Robert Heger, Herbert von Karajan and Johannes Schüler were Staats Kapellmeister (the conductor of the orchestra) at some time.
[Herbert von Karajan at a concert in the Berlin State Opera in 1941].
The outbreak of World War Two would cause the almost total destruction of the Opera, being one of the key-point buildings of the aerial bombing campaign suffered by Berlin, appearing in every writing of every press correspondent hosted in the city as well as in the official parts after each enemy’s raid. Destruction falling from above was a real threat since the start of the war, evidence of this is the warning text that appeared on every program (“Bei Fliegeralarm ist den Anordnungen der Logenschließer unbedingt Folge zu leisten” - In the event of an air-raid alarm, the instructions of the ushers must be followed) to alert the audience before the performance from 1940.
But the origin of the destruction of the Berlin’s Opera would be thousands of kilometers east of the Reichshauptstadt, exactly in Yugoslavia…
BRAND DER STAATSOPER - 10 APRIL 1941
The night before RAF Bomber Command raided the city dropping several sticks of bombs at Unter den Linden and Mitte. The attack was made by 80 medium bombers (nearly half of them reached the city) and the attacking force bombed Berlin illuminated by moonlight conditions. The British lost 5 aircraft and minor damage was made to the capital.
Some sources indicates this attack was ordered by Britain’s War Cabinet in retaliation for the bombing of Belgrade by the Luftwaffe on 6 April [‘Operation Retribution’ (Unternehmen Strafgericht)]. That day, 160 medium bombers dropped 215–360 tons of bombs and incendiaries in four air strikes on the Yugoslav capital. Hitler had given orders for the city to be annihilated but the order was changed in the last minute by the Air Staff into an order to attack military objectives within the city area. Prime Minister Churchill said that Germans killed twelve thousand souls in his statement for BBC London on the very next day.
[6 April 1941. Luftwaffe bombs devastated Belgrade. German estimates of the Yugoslav casualties were between 1,500 and 1,700. The precise figure of victims was never discovered.]
[Brand der Staatsoper. 10 April 1941. Feuerschutzpolizei Berlin tries to extinguish the fire, with the roof engulfed in flames, after several British incendiary bombs targeted the building the night before. In the background can be seen the St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale with her big dome.]
[10 April 1941. Several trucks from Feuerschutzpolizei Berlin in front of the main entrance of the Staatsoper den Linden during the fire-extinguish works. This time the picture is taken looking west, notice St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale at left.]
The worst part of the raid damage goes to the Staatsoper theatre. The roof construction was partially plunged into the auditorium, the head building in front of the massive stage house actually ripe for the demolition. The correspondent from US news agency United Press reported to New York: “Berlin’s large opera house at Unter den Linden, in which Adolf Hitler often heard Wagner, his favorite music, today lies in smoldering ruins.”
According to the city’s municipal report, “she was hit by a large number of incendiary bombs. Burned out theatre building, stage house badly affected. Heavy property damage.” Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler’s official photographer, was there and took a series of dramatic photographies of the Opera engulfed in flames after the attack.
[10 April 1941. Columns of smoke and fire rises from the theatre hit by bombs as seen from the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great at Unter den Linden.]
[Destruction, fire and chaos scene seen in this picture taken from the Humboldt-Universität front garden on that morning.]
[A closer look at the Feuerschutzpolizei firemen work to extinguish the flames with their ladders extended to reach the Opera’s roof after the Bombenangriff.]
[A chaotic scene at the Opera: instruments and accessories are taken out the building to avoid being victims of fire during the extinguishing works.]
[Firefighters working on the extinguishing at the walkaway lodges inside the burned out building after the April 1941 British air-raid.]
After the raid, Nazi leadership took advantage of the apparent non-military targets of this air attack. ‘Angriff auf das Berliner Kulturviertel’ was the name given to this propaganda campaign led by Propaganda Minister and Gauleiter of Berlin Joseph Goebbels. Official German agencies exaggerated the destruction and spread Goebbels’ speach throughout the world.
He noted in his diary about the destruction of the Opera: “A serious loss. Apparently he actually felt struck: “I look at the damage in the Staatsoper. She is lost. The whole interior completely burned out. There is hardly anything to save… How many happy hours have I already experienced in this house. And now this ruin.”
[Here we can see the Nazi-leader visiting the damage of the city after a British night bombing, the so called ‘Terror-attack’ , in October 1940].
The attack on the cultural quarter of the city gave Berlin leaders a good counterargument to the bombing and destruction of Belgrade days before.
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