The Opera - Reconstruction and Death

When the Staatsoper den Linden was severely damaged by British bombs in April 1941, Hitler urgently ordered its reconstruction, as it was one of his favourite buildings from his fanatical devotion to Opera and Richard Wagner’s works.

[December 1942: Nazi-parade of a guard of honour at Unter den Linden on the occasion of the anniversary of the Tripartite Pact (the military agreement signed by Germany, Italy and Japan signed in 1940). We can see Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Oshima -third from right saluting the guards. The reconstructed Staatsoper den Linden is seen behind the troops.]

[Photo: ullstein bild/Getty images.]

The theatre would be restored under the direction of Erich Meffert, the Ministerial Councilor from Finance, with the estructure been hardly modified externally and a new broad monumental staircase inside. According to the architects, the goal was the redesign - in addition to the elimination of functional defects, but tight timeframes and the delivery difficulties for building materials in war time however, forced for most rooms a comparatively simple equipment. In addition to the actual construction site, dozens of plasterers and painters in studios were soon busy working on the elaborate interior design. Everyone was under great pressure, because of the 200th anniversary of the inauguration of the Opera in December 1942 the reconstruction should be completed. Finally, on scheduled time, the Staatsoper reopened with the staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” under the musical direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

[This is a view of the reconstructed foyer floor of the Opera in 1942.]

[Photo: BerlinStateOpera.].

[Three 1942-era postcards showing the reconstructed and new design of the Staatsoper.]

[Photo: Meffert, E. Leipzig, Max Beck Verlag. 1944.]

[Photo: Meffert, E. Leipzig, Max Beck Verlag. 1944.]

[Photo: Meffert, E. Leipzig, Max Beck Verlag. 1944.]

[”200 Jahre - Staats Oper Berlin -Im Bild”, a book printed in 1942 to commemorate the 200th birthday of the Staatsoper. Today it’s easy to find and acquire relics of this type in different auction houses and antique stores like eBay.]

[Source: Ebay]

After that, normal life returned to the Opera, with the usual programming of operas and concerts and its constant use by the Nazi leaders. The Staatsoper was still a reference between European culture, despite the prohibition of Jewish authors and their exile from Germany.

[This picture, published in September 1942 by ‘Das Reich’, shows the opera ‘Salome’ written by Richard Strauss, with Austrian soprano Maria Cebotari as Salome and Julius Pölzer as ‘Tetrarch’ being played at the Berlin Staatsoper.]

[Photo by Charlotte Williot / Getty images.]

But war reached the Opera again. The Staatsoper was slightly damaged in the second half of 1943, during the British Bomber Command attacks made in late summer and fall of that year in which the adjacent St Hedwig cathedral at Bebelplatz was severely damaged too. With American bombs falling on Unter den Linden and Staatsbibliothek in May 1944, Dr Goebbels, as Gauleiter of Berlin, closed down the Opera again in August in the name of the Totaler Krieg (“Total War”) policy. Last performance was on August 31, with ‘Le nozze di Figaro’, directed by Johannes Schüler. The Staatskapelle continued performing symphonic and opera concerts. On November 24, 1944, an attack by several British RAF Mosquito bombers hit the facade of the State Opera (57 Mosquitoes took off with orders to bomb Berlin that night, they bomb on dead reckoning due to bad weather), the cloakroom and the cash desk have been destroyed and the entrance hall damaged.

The rebuilt Opera house had just 26 months when the building was finally destroyed on February 3, 1945 hit again by bombs during the massive daylight raid made by US Eighth Air Force. That Saturday the government district of Berlin was pounded and smashed to rubble by American bombs dropped by 937 four-engined bombers which unloaded 2,500 tons of bombs. The Americans lost 23 bombers.

Some bombs fell on Unter den Linden and three of them hit the theatre, engulfing in flames not just the roof and the auditorium but also the foundation walls. The portico and the Apollo hall including the internals of the years 1941/42 remained more or less intact.

[A Boeing B-17 US heavy-bomber leaving contrails over the burning Berlin on 3 February 1945. The American official record states that the bombers were sent to hit the Tempelhof marshalling yards.]

[Photo: Roger Freeman Collection. FRE 14366.]

[The ruins of the Berlin Oper as seen in July 1945 by William Vandivert, an American journalist. Notice the rubble on the foreground and the brick cover case at left.]

[Photo by William Vandivert/The LIFE Picture Collection.]

[A view of the rear side of the iconic building after the end of the war, taken from Behrenstraße.]

[Photo: still from film. Framepool & RightSmith Stock | 833-162-646.]

That last great bombing, and the subsequent Battle of Berlin with its bloodied street fighting with Soviet troops left the centre of the capital in a dilapidated and ruined state, with the bad damaged Staatsoper being finally taken by Red Army’s 416th and 295th Rifle Divisions after heavy fighting block by block moving west along Unter den Linden on May 1st, 1945, with the iconic Opera building included in the destroyed set of war prizes get by Stalin as conqueror and final executor of the Third Reich. 

[Two views of a German 15 cm FH18 howitzer gun at Bebelplatz next to the Staatsoper, left behind by the defeated garrison after the battle with the Red Army.]

[Photo: still from Russian newsreel. Via Piet Vergiet.]

[Photo: still from Russian newsreel. Via Piet Vergiet.]

[Ruined and bombed out view of Unter den Linden and Staatsoper, seen from the Neue Wache across the street just after the war.]

[Photo: AKG images (AKG61023).]

[This blurred but interesting image of the shrapnel- and bullet riddle Staatsoper in 1946 was recently sold at an Ebay auction. Notice that the building windows and main gate were walled in with bricks to protect it from the battle.]

[Photo: ebay.]


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Sources and Bibliography:

  • 8th Air Force Historical Society. Eighth Air Force Operations History - 3 February 1945 <http://8thafhs.com/missions.php>
  • Aster, Misha. (2017). Staatsoper: Die bewegte Geschichte der Berliner Lindenoper im 20. Jahrhundert. Siedler Verlag.
  • Einhard, Luther. (2012). Oper in Berlin – Heiß umkämpft und stets unter Feuer. Pro Business.
  • Freydank, Ruth. (1988). Theater in Berlin: von den Anfängen bis 1945. Berlin.
  • Friedrich, Jörg. (2002). Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Propylaen Verlag, Zweigniederlassung der Ullstein.
  • Kellerhoff Sven F. (2011). Berlin im Krieg: Eine Generation erinnert sich. BASTEIBBE.
  • Meffert, Erich. (1944). Das Haus der Staatsoper und seine neue Gestaltung. Dargebracht von der Generalintendanz der Preussischen Staatstheater. Generalintendanz der Preussischen Staatstheater. Leipzig, Max Beck Verlag.
  • Moorhouse, Roger (2011). Berlin at war. Life and death in Hitler’s capital, 1939-45. Vintage Books.
  • Schmitz, Franz. Kleine Baugeschichte der Staatsoper Unter den Linden. STAATSOPER UNTER DEN LINDEN <https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de>


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