On September 7, 1950, the government of East Germany detonated a set of dynamite charges beneath Berlin’s old imperial palace, the first of a series of controlled explosions that in the course of six months destroyed the building. The international reaction was swift and furious. This was “the greatest work of the North German Baroque,” which over the centuries had housed the electors of Brandenburg, the kings of Prussia, and finally the kaisers of Germany. While it had been badly damaged in World War II, it was essentially intact, parts of it still in use. The East Germans were unmoved. Once the ground was finally cleared, the site was given over to a vast rallying ground, East Germany’s answer to Moscow’s Red Square.

Now the palace is there again, or rather a plausible facsimile. But behind its stone shell is a thoroughly...


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