By Geert Muylle, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium in Germany
This year the Belgian Embassy in Berlin celebrates its 20th anniversary. Exactly 20 years ago, on 17 May 2001, the renovated Embassy was officially inaugurated by King Albert II alongside the German and Belgian Ministers of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer and Louis Michel.
This anniversary presented us with the opportunity to look back at the history of our diplomatic presence in the city and showed us how fundamentally interlinked our representation here is with the history of the city and its people.
It all started in 1913 with the acquisition of the mansion at Jägerstrasse 53, built in 1884 by Ernst von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, one of the most influential German private bankers of his time. In 1938, Belgium bought the house next door that belonged to the Bank Mendelssohn & Co and had been built by Martin Gropius (great-uncle of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius) and Heino Schmieden, who together formed one of the largest architecture firms of the city, and also built the famous Martin Gropius Bau.
We know what happened next: the war broke out, Germany invaded Belgium and the Embassy was closed. Both buildings were destroyed during the bombings of the city. After the war, the plot was situated in the Soviet zone. It lay fallow until it was expropriated by the GDR in 1966. The situation was very central and apparently quite useful for the regime: the new building erected on the ruins of the former Embassy was used by the Ministry for State Security (StaSi). From this plot, situated close to an important telecommunications hub in the city, the StaSi tapped phone lines in Berlin-Mitte.
It took some time, but eventually the wall fell and the two Berlins and two Germany’s could finally be reunited. The double-plot became the property of the City of Berlin and we started negotiations to try to reacquire the historical plot, which eventually succeeded at the end of 1993. It goes without saying that for structural, esthetic but also reasons linked to the history of the building, a thorough renovation and transformation was required. The Belgian authorities launched an architectural competition.
The representation of the Kingdom of Belgium in the German capital was to signal light, transparency and openness whilst preserving something of the architectural esthetic of the “Plattenbau” that is so typical of East Berlin. In 1998, the project by the Berlin studio Rüthnick Architekten was selected. This choice made Belgium one of the few countries whose Embassy was planned by a German architect…and a woman! As the sales agreement stipulated that the building was not allowed to be left unoccupied pending renovation, the Head of the Berlin Bureau of the Belgian Embassy at the time offered studio spaces to Belgian and German artists.
During the end of the 1990s, the building was used for exhibitions, receptions and lectures, and gradually developed into a cultural centre as the Berlin art scene was booming.
Today, the Embassy is the first point of contact for the more than 24,000 Belgians living in Germany and for all Germans interested in Belgium, whether for economic, educational, cultural or touristic reasons. This building is one of the places where the bilateral relations between Belgium and Germany are given shape to the benefit of both our countries and their citizens.
As demonstrated above, the history of the German capital and that of the Embassy building are inseparable. I am proud of 20 years of diplomatic and consular work in this historic location at the heart of Berlin and am thrilled to celebrate what unites us with the city and its inhabitants as well as the contacts, partnerships and friendships that have blossomed over the years.
For further information
Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium in the Federal Republic of Germany: https://germany.diplomatie.belgium.be/de/botschaft-und-konsulate/botschaft-berlin
Images courtesy of the Belgian Embassy in Germany (Berlin)