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The House on the Square

The House on the Square

On the north-west edge of what is now Moravské Square but was then Lažanské Square stood the Deutsches Haus (German House), a building that inspired admiration and hatred. Its destruction marked the end of the coexistence of the two nationalities in Brno.

For decades the impressive Deutsches Haus stood at the centre of the civic and cultural life of the German-speaking population, fulfilling the same role as Besední Dům for the Czechs. Both these buildings began to be planned at the same time, in 1869, when the plan was ceremonially announced in the gymnasium of the Turnverein (a German gymnastic movement) on today’s Údolní Street.

 

However, the majority of the sixteen German associations invited to the planning and organisation of the building were unenthusiastic and the project lost its way. The second attempt, which was following the example of Besední Dům to be partly financed by donations and partly by the issuing of shares, met a similar fate. With the collapse of the Viennese Stock Exchange in 1873 the plan fell apart and the money already collected had to be returned.

 

Simply He Arranged It

 

At this point a group of Brno businessmen, headed by the engineering magnate Friedrich Wannieck, got involved. This time the funds were found to realise a cheaper version of the project and they were able to buy the plot of land for a suspiciously good price from the city. Protests from the Czech side were considered by the Moravian Provincial Parliament, the governorship and even the emperor’s office. None of these could or were willing to show corruption or unfair advantage and so in 1887 they were able to proceed with making a choice from twenty-two architectural designs.

 

The competition was won by the Berlin studio Ende & Böckmann with a Neo-Renaissance building drawing on northern German examples, further incensing the Czech population – the impression that it was to some extent a manifestation of nationhood was not without justification. Under a segmented redbrick facade lay an extensive summer terrace and an ornamental entrance to the monumental entrance hall. A grand staircase rose to three ceremonial halls, of which the largest could hold two thousand people. It contained an organ with 48 registers and four thousand pipes – the second largest instrument of its kind in Moravia – given to the association by the Wanniecks.

 

The halls were electrically illuminated from the building’s opening in 1891. As the original project did not include electrification, generators had to be built as an afterthought – Brno not yet having a power station. In the autumn of the previous year the building work was delayed by unexpected frosts, which as a result of a window being left open overnight destroyed the electrics and part of the internal equipment. The costs escalated to three times those of the “competing” Spolkový Dům.

 

Balls, exhibitions and concerts were held in the Deutsches Haus and in 1911 for example Richard Strauss conducted there. Lectures were held and it functioned as a café, a restaurant and even a public library. A range of organisations were based there, from the trade association Mährischer Gewerbeverein to the almost ‘Pythonesque’ Schlaraffia. After 1918 when German-speaking theatre performers began to be pushed out of the Na Hradbách theatre, today known as the Mahen Theatre, one of the halls was rebuilt as a theatre.

 

Fire. Let it Burn!

 

Even after the Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) of social and cultural life by the Nazis the building was still used for all kinds of events and in 1940 there even began a major reconstruction of all the working spaces, especially the restaurant and café. During air raids on the city towards the end of the war the building was partly damaged and then during the fighting to liberate the city German troops fortified and defended it. After hours of bombardment by small arms and light artillery it was little more than a shell, and was still burning after two weeks.

 

During the process of their expulsion from Brno the German-speaking inhabitants of the city had to clear the ruins. Given the symbolism of the building it is was precisely there that the most frequent acts of violence took place against defenceless and miserable people. What remained standing of it in the summer of 1945 was blown up, removing the last traces of this once-proud structure, which tried to be a redoubt and a display case of German-ness in Brno in rapidly changing times. However in the end it became rather a symbol of its destruction.

 


Jaroslav Ostrčilík