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Heritage Online Debate: Monument Protection in Germany

A brief history of German monument protection
By Johanna Roethe, Architectural Investigator, Historic England

Germany's current system of protecting buildings, sites and areas developed over more than 200 years. Unlike in France or Austria, for example, conservation authorities were never centralised but have always been based at regional level, a structure which survives today in the form of the 16 regional conservation authorities (Landesdenkmalämter).

As in England, romanticism and the incipient nationalism of the 18th century prompted an increasing interest in historic, and particularly medieval, buildings. This new-found appreciation turned to concern, especially after the destructions of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the secularisation of church property in the Holy Roman Empire after 1803. Among the earliest legislation to protect historic buildings and structures were decrees issued in the 1810s by the grand duchies of Baden (1812) and Hesse-Darmstadt (1818). The latter contained many elements of modern conservation legislation, such as the requirement to compile an inventory of structures worthy of protection and the duty to notify the authorities of any planned alterations affecting them. The first regulations to control archaeological excavations and to protect sites and finds date from around the same time.

But the true founding document of building conservation in Germany is a memorandum written by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1815 for the Prussian King. He recommended the establishment of a dedicated organisation with regional 'protection deputations' and a comprehensive survey of buildings and artworks dating from before 1650. While his proposals were not realised immediately, they led to a series of decrees, the first of which required that any alterations to public buildings or monuments had to be notified to the Prussian Building Office. In 1835 Bavaria created the first post of a 'general inspector', tasked with compiling an inventory of medieval buildings. Similar posts in other German states followed in the subsequent decades. Early published inventories or lists were superseded by increasingly comprehensive, illustrated volumes.

The creation of the German Empire in 1871 was followed by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation which highlighted the insufficient provision for monument protection. Such protection remained the responsibility of the Empire's constituent territories. The largest offices were those of Bavaria and Prussia, although the latter lacked comprehensive legislation. The most important result of the annual sector-wide meeting (Deutscher Denkmaltag) in 1900 was the founding of the handbooks of German monuments, called Dehio for short after their founder, Georg Dehio; like Nikolaus Pevsner's county guides, which the Dehio series inspired, these handbooks were an important non-statutory inventory. The first modern monument protection law was that passed by the Grand Duke of Hesse in 1902, an influential model for all post-1945 German conservation laws. Protection was specifically extended to the setting of a monument and also independent of private or public ownership. At first, a cut-off date was not included but two years later a thirty-year rule was adopted.

After a general lack of investment in historic buildings during the inter-war years, conservation authorities in West Germany could barely keep up with the post-1945 economic miracle and the consequent building boom. By the early 1970s, the tide had turned and the conservation of historic buildings and areas became a wider public concern, notably due to the 1975 European Architectural Year. New and more comprehensive laws were passed by each of the West German states in the 1970s; by contrast, building conservation was centralised in East Germany. Following reunification, new conservation authorities with their own legal frameworks were established in the six new East German states, and work started on the huge repair backlog.

Today, there are about one million protected monuments in Germany, including buildings, archaeological sites, historic areas, parks and gardens, and moveable monuments such as ships; all of these are of equal value and not ranked hierarchically. Among current conservation debates the protection of the post-war built heritage, and in particular the buildings of the GDR, continues to be contentious. For example, while the Kulturpalast of 1967-9 in Dresden has been a protected building since 2008, Berlin's Palast der Republik (the multipurpose GDR parliament building of 1973-6) has been demolished.

Further reading

Jokilehto, J, A History of Architectural Conservation Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann (2002)
Kiesow, G, Denkmalpflege in Deutschland Stuttgart: Theiss (2000)
Schmidt, L, Einführung in die Denkmalpflege Darmstadt: WBG (2008)
Swenson, A, The Rise of Heritage. Preserving the Past in France, Germany and England, 1789-1914 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2013)