Pergamonmuseum in Berlin: Post 1945

Kriegsende und Neubeginn

Photo: AC Byers / Hein Gorny / Collection Regard.

When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945 and the Third Reich capital was seized by Soviet troops, Berlin’s Museumsinsel was in a desolate condition; most of the buildings were badly hit by air strikes and the artillery fire from the final battle between the Red Army and the fierce defence by the German garrison; now the long post-war period began. In the case of Pergamon museum, surrounded by rubble, bombs and fire had blackened its walls and shattered the windows and glass roof but the building has survived without great structural damage.  

The main room of the museum, where the Altar von Pergamon has been exhibit, was now left in ruins without the friezes, that were secured at the Zoo’s Flak bunker as we have seen in our previous post. In the adjacent rooms, the remaining artifacts and built-in archaeological monuments (the Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Mschatta facade) were hit by debris and were now also exposed to weather.[1] First priority during summer of 1945 was to secure the art works that had survived and remained in the museums, and some of the buildings itself, with the surviving curators and employees trying to reunite the collections housed in the eastern area of Berlin, despite the ruined state.[2]

[Two 1945-views of the Markttor von Milet room at the museum. During the war, the roof above the gate was destroyed by fire-bombs and although it was covered by a brick shield to protect from the air raids, it suffered some degree of damage: its right wing collapsed and it was damaged by fire and debris. The later exposure to elements led to a rapid deterioration, something incremented by indoor atmospheric effects, during the next years until restoration was started in the 1950s.][3]

Photo: FD E 030 038 (Vorschaubild) © DeutscheFotothek.

Photo: ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv.

[Pergamonmuseum, 1947: note roofless condition due to fire-bombs; some battle-damage from artillery shells is visible on the portico of the museum’s south wing too.]

Photo by Reich. ullstein bild (E & O).

At first, Soviet occupation’s purge and revenge included that all the properties and objects were confiscated during this initial period, including art works, but after they restored basic services of the Mitte district and bring order to the devastated capital, Soviet Commander Col Gen Bersarin (the first town mayor after the war) tried to restart art and cultural institutions as soon as possible.[4] From July 1945, Museumsinsel and its museums was located within the Soviet sector in the eastern part of the city and, under the new Kommandatura leadership, cultural institutions back to life: indeed, the first committee set up was for cultural affairs on that very month, but the ruined conditions of the capital prevented many employees back to work and clean-up and reconstruction work required great effort.[5]

[Museum employees and workers posing for the camera during the reconstruction at the courtyard of the Pergamon in 1950.]

Photo: ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv (ZA 1.1.3./03065).

[Reconstruction work at the museum already began in the same year that the war ended, summer 1945.]

Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv (ZA 1.1.6./06892).

Follow the back to “normal life”, the four occupying powers started a denazification program, which included all German university professors, museum curators and cultural institutions staff too.[6] After this investigation process, some of them were reestablished to their positions again, such was the case of the already mentioned Prof Unverzagt,[7] or Prof Walter Andrae. The latter’s decision to not remove for safe-storage the permanent fixtures of the Vorderasiatisches Museum at Pergamon saved them almost intact from war bombings and from the Soviet art looting after the war.[8]

[Prof Walter Andrae, curator of the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, posing for the camera in a damaged south wing room of the Pergamonmuseum, circa 1945. Note in the background one of the museum’s Assyrian lamassu, a human-headed winged bull from Nimrud, today exposed in the building.]

Photo: Aufnahme- Eschen - Studio /ullstein bild.

[Photographer Harry Croner took in 1947 these two views of Kupfergraben from the adjacent railway bridge looking south with battle-damaged Pergamonmuseum and the bridge entrance over the canal. The surviving building at Dorotheenstraße 1 is seen after the war’s fire and destruction. Note the ruined cupola of the Stadtschloss in the background and part of one of the Dom’s front towers.]

Photo: © Stadtmuseum Berlin SM (CronerNeg 108/B3).

Photo: © Stadtmuseum Berlin SM (CronerNeg 108/B2).

A divided city: reconstruction between 1948 and 1959

Clearing debris’ effort by Berliners allowed reconstruction of the museums and exhibition halls to begin in 1948, undertaking rebuilding measures in Pergamon museum, but political and administrative division of the city led to the division of the museums and its collections too.

For over a decade, the surviving art treasures were initially exhibited here in their ruined condition or partial restoration. The good condition of Pergamon helped the transfer to their rooms of many artworks from the destroyed Altes and Neues museums. Restoration work was made at the main rooms of the north and south wings too, affecting from 1948 the Mshatta facade and the Asian collection and from 1952 extensive work was made on the Miletus Gate.[9] After the roof was restored in 1951,[10] the museum was partly opened again to the public in 1953. 

[“Trümmerfrau vor dem Pergamonaltar”, photo taken by Liselotte Orgel-Köhne (Liselotte Purper before 1945) with her Rolleiflex camera in 1949. Note the absence of the marble friezes on the Altar.]

Photo: Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (11417/3).

[Several scenes of the reconstruction work of the Mshatta Facade during 1948. The monument itself was not hit during the war, but the room that houses it was severely damaged during the US air raid on February 3rd, 1945.[11] The photographic documentation taken during its excavation were essential during the postwar reconstruction shown here. Further restoration was started in 2016. The man standing at middle is Ernst Kühnel, Direktor des Museums für Islamische Kunst.] 

Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv. ZA 2.11./03267.

Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv

Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst.

[Museum employees saving Asian archaeological artifacts from war damage in July 1949.] 

Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-18000-2443.

[A view of Spree’s Kupfergraben and its railway bridge, between Pergamon’s north wing and the Bodemuseum, taken by Illus Junge in December 1951.]

Photo: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-12947-0003.

But what had happened with the friezes of the Great Altar?

The Pergamon panels, secured in crates, had been carried by Prof Unverzagt to the Tiergarten and put in storage into the Zoo’s Flakturm. Safeguarded by its thick walls, the ”Goldkisten”, awaiting evacuation, survived unscathed the bombings and the fierce battles with the Red Army but can not be finally transfer to a safer area outside Berlin.[12] When the bunker surrendered on May 1st, 1945, the Soviets had already established a “trophy and cultural party” under the direction of their Arts Committee to inspect and confiscate all the German art treasures found there and in private collections. Two days later, Dr Otto Kummel, director of the Berlin museums, escorted them through the sites and the Russians made Unverzagt “director of the Flak Tower Museum” to hold the collection.[13] As the Zoo-bunker lays in the future British zone, Stalin ordered its commanders to loot all the objects inside (same scenes happened at the Flakturm Friedrichshain and the Martin-Gropius-bau) before the transfer process to the British troops began; the crates were opened, sealed again and inventoried, being transferred in June to a Soviet depot on the eastern outskirts, and finally carried by plane to Moscow and Leningrad.[14]

[The Zoo-bunker or Flakturm-I, a real “fortress of art”, seen after the war at Tiergarten Berlin.]

Photo: still from film, Chronos MEDIA.

On July 13th, the Altar panels were taken from Berlin: “The last things to leave were a panel of the large frieze of Pergamon, a cabinet with antique cameos, and the Treasure of Priam from Troy” reported in those days archaeologist Carl Weickert.[15] According to the Preußischer Kulturbesitz“over 2.6 million works of art, more than 6 million books and kilometers of archival materials were brought to the USSR in this way”. Hundreds of paintings and antiques like islamic carpets, manuscripts and books had already been lost during the war, many of them sold by the Nazis while others were gutted by fire from the battles.[16] 

Just one crate, containing heads from the Telephos frieze, made its way to a Western storage, kept in Charlottenburg until the reunification in 1990.[17] When the Western Allies finally entered the city rest of the panels, confiscated secretly by the Russians, were thought to be lost or destroyed. 

Finally, among other cultural assets, the frieze panels of the Altar were returned to East Germany in 1958, among many other objects looted from the pre-war ’Antikensammlung’ collectionAround half a million objects and 500 boxes were returned by the Soviet Union in this way to the German Democratic Republic (GDR-DDR) from the beginning of the 1950 decade.[18] Some sources states that this return was a political action in order to achieve the East German support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.[19] In contrast, thousands of artifacts and treasures disappeared, considered as lost during the war by Western institutions, but were kept in secret in the Soviet Union museums storage rooms until the end of the Cold War in 1991.[20]

Photo: ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv (ZA 2.2./08480).

Back in Berlin, a new permanent Altar was installed, with some differences from the 1930 one. The reconstructed ‘Great Altar of Pergamon’ was reopened on 4 October 1959 to match with the 10th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, so the friezes were quickly reinstalled without a deep restoration. Finally, a new building entrance was inaugurated in 1982 at the end of the main court and a new entrance bridge over the canal was built.

[The frieze slabs being reinstalled to the Great Altar reconstructed walls, during the 1958 works at the museum.]

Photo: © Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Photo: © bpk/Herbert Hensky.

[A close view from the colonnade at Pergamon hall, one of the main cultural attractions of the East Germany state, taken in 1961 by Ralf Goetze.]

Photo: © Stadtmuseum Berlin SM 2014-1765,72.

[The city’s tram Linie 22 pass by the Pergamonmuseum main entrance at Am Kupfergraben, during the last DDR period in 1986.]

[Although many buildings were refurbished war memories were still present in East Berlin during the final days of the DDR-socialist regime.]

Photo: ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv (ZA 1.1.6./06764).

[Facade battle-damage seen in this still from film from a February 1990 footage, three months after the East Berlin border was reopened.]

Photo: still from film, video credit: videohai02.

When German reunification came in 1990, and the city’s art treasures were reunited again, the Pergamon Altar and the Zeus and Telephos friezes, reunited too, were finally restored between 1994 and 2004. Through the years cornice has been repeatedly cleaned and partly restored, and although was already renovated between 2007 and 2009, signs of battle-damage and scars from the war days are still visible when you look at the museum’s facade.

Photo by the author, 2014.

Photo by the author, 2018.

Photo by the author, 2018.

Photo: Pergamon-Colin Utz Photography/Alamy

Photo: Damian Entwistle.

Photo: Damian Entwistle.

Photo: Pergamon-Colin Utz Photography/Alamy

[Inner courtyard of the museum with the modern 1980s visitors entrance, as seen during a spring “sunny” Berliner day in April 2008.]

Photo by the author, 2008.

[Reconstruction of the Zeus Great Altar of Pergamon at the Berlin museum, just before the building been closed to public to start the last and great renovation in 2012.]

Photo by the author, 2012.

Since 2012-2013, the museum has started a complete renovation and extension as part of the Masterplan Museumsinsel to integrate it into a whole museum complex. The north wing and the Hall of the Pergamon Altar remains closed to the public until 2024; the south wing will remain open. It is expected that the building will be completely accessible to visitors again in 2025/26. The bridge over the Kupfergraben and the tempietto entrance in the Court of Honor will be rebuilt adding a new wing -the fourth- to the museum.[21]

During this time, a new visitors centre and gallery designed by architect David Chipperfield, the James-Simon-Gallery, has opened in 2019 located at the narrow strip of land between Pergamon and the Neues Museum next to the Eiserne Brücke (already reconstructed in 2008). 

Photo: Simon Menges.

© SPK / ART+COM, 2015


Notes and Citations:

[1] WINTER, Petra. Invasion auf der Insel: 75 Jahre Kriegsende auf der Museumsinsel. Blog der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz <>
[2] History of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin <>
[3] SIEGESMUND, Siegfried and MIDDENDORF, Bernhard (2008), “The Market Gate of Miletus: damages, material characteristics and the development of a compatible mortar for restoration”. Environmental Geology. 56 (3–4): 753–766.
[4] STIVERS, William and CARTER, Donald A, (2017), The City Becomes a Symbol: The U.S. Army in the Occupation of Berlin, 1945-1949. Centers of Military History United States Army. CMH Pub 45–4. p 70. Available at: <> 
[5] The Allied Kommandatura was a four-powered control govern established by the victors in Berlin and started its work from 11 July, 1945; STIVERS, CARTERop. cit, p 90; WINTERop. cit.
[6] STIVERS, CARTERop. cit, pp 102-105.
[7]  WEMHOFF, Matthias. (2014). Das Berliner Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte in der Zeit des Nationalsozialiusmus. In: Blickpunkt Archäologie 3, 2014, p 43. Unverzagt’s process on 30 July 1945 suggested that he did not act under pressure only but as with many cases with “some Nazi activity”, he was dismissed and a few months later started a new career in East Berlin; GRUNWALD, Susanne. Scientific Capital after 1945 in German Archaeology – Wilhelm Unverzagt and the Archaeology of Hillforts. Archaeologia Polona, vol. 50 : 2012(2019), 85–109.
[8] Prof Andrae (1875-1956) was the director and curator of the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin (the Ancient Near East) from 1928 to 1952. In 1946 he was appointed full professor of building history and construction at the TUniversity of Berlin and he was one of the supporters of the reestablished Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society) to promote oriental archaeological research. Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin. History of the Vorderasiatisches Museums <>
[9] SIEGESMUNDop. cit, p 754.
[10] HEILMEYER, Wolf-Dieter. (1996), History of the Display of the Telephos Frieze in the Twentieth Century. In: Dreyfus, R (ed). PERGAMON: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar, Volume 1. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. p 34.
[11] WINTERop. cit. Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin Museen zu Berlin. Museum für Islamische Kunst. Mschatta im Fokus - Das jordanische Wüstenschloss in historischen Fotografien. 3. Oktober 2014 bis 15. März 2015 - exhibition flyer.
[12] ALLEN, Susan Heuck (1999), Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik. University of California Press, p 248.
[13] ALLENop. cit. p 250.
[14] Ibid
[15] HEILMEYERop. cit. p 34; WINTERop. cit.
[16] Kriegsbedingt verlagerte Kulturgüter in Russland. Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz. <>
[17] HEILMEYERop. cit. p 34.
[18] HEILMEYERop. cit. p 36; Kriegsbedingt verlagerte Kulturgüter in Russland. 
[19] ALLENop. cit. p 252. “The official position is that after this time [1960] no German cultural assets of significance were held in Soviet custody anymore” states the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesit.
[20] IbidKriegsbedingt verlagerte Kulturgüter in Russland. The so-called Soviet ‘Trophy Brigades’ were revealed in 1990 when two Russian journalists discovered the “Beutekunst” story to Western media: during the next years a legal battle started with many ‘lost’ art objects returned to Germany (like the Priam treasure of Troy or the Adolph Menzel’s Iron Rolling Mill) and many others still at Russia today. Since reunification, the German federal government has been negotiating with Russia over the return of cultural assets. The Soviet Union declared at the time that those cultural assets were part of its war reparation, seized on a land with no legitimate government in May 1945.
[21] Pergamonmuseum. Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz 


  • Andrae, Walter (1961), Lebenserinnerungen eines Ausgräbers. De Gruyter.
  • Bilsel, Can (2012), Antiquity on Display: Regimes of the Authentic in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, Oxford University Press.
  • Chapuis, Julien and Stephan Kemperdick, Stephan. (2016), The Lost Museum: The Berlin Painting and Sculpture Collections 70 Years after World War II. Michael Imhof Verlag. 
  • Demps, Laurenz. (2014), Luftangriffe auf Berlin. Die Berichte der Hauptluftschutzstelle. Ch. Links Verlag. 
  • Landesarchiv Berlin; LAB, A Rep. 005-07, Nr. 559, o. Bl.
  • Pollitt, Jerome J. (1986), Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge University Press. 
  • Shirer, William L. (1997), Berlin Diary: Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941. Galahad Books.
  • Wildt, Michael and Kreutzmueller, Christoph. (2013), Berlin 1933-1945 - Stadt und Gesellschaft im Nationalsozialismus. Siedler Verlag.


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