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Berlin divided again on communist relic

Workers will soon destroy East Germany's old parliament, a vestige of Berlin's fractured past.

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You have to believe that the communist government in 1970s East Berlin took perverse delight in erecting the blocky Palast der Republik. amid the elaborate relics of Prussian pomposity.

A massive building housing East Germany's parliament, restaurants, a concert hall, and the best bowling lanes in East Berlin, the Palast was built in 1976 to serve as "East Germany's greeting card" to the rest of the world. West German and other European tourists stopped in to glimpse life behind the wall. Politicians held meetings in the expansive chambers. Carlos Santana played a "Freedom" concert here in 1987.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the building's days were numbered by asbestos and a general revulsion to all reminders of the old regime. But rather than go quietly, the Palast has become the heart of a fierce debate on the shape Berlin will take in the coming decades. It's also become a metaphor for the identity crisis that has gripped this once divided city since World War II.

"Never has the Palast been so loved. Never has it been so hated," wrote a journalist last December in Cologne's K├Âlner Stadt-Anzeiger. The discussions leading up to its impending demolition - which began earlier this month - have pitted nostalgic Berliners and young artist groups against the city's political elite and traditionalists who want to rebuild the Berlin City Palace, a 15th century Prussian castle demolished by East German Communist leaders during the 1950s.

Critics of the Palast consider it an eyesore and reminder of the dark days of divided Berlin. During a recent parliamentary debate, Christian Democrat Wolfgang Boernsen called it a "symbol for the wall, barbed wire, and shoot-to-kill orders for border guards."

In mid-January, the Bundestag reaffirmed its decision - reached with the Berlin city government - to tear down the Palast. And everyone from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel have thrown their support behind a private initiative to rebuild the baroque facade of the former Berlin City Palace and fill it with a museum, a hotel, and exhibition and office space.

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