One of the most significant paintings held by REME Museum is Erich Mercker’s ‘The Building of the Reich’s Chancellery’. It is not by a British artist, and it doesn’t show either the activities or personnel of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Why, then, is it important? And how does it relate to the story of REME?
Erich Mercker (1891-1973), The Building of the Reich’s Chancellery, 1938. Oil on canvas, presented to REME Museum in 1958. 1958.45.
The Building of the Reich’s Chancellery shows the construction of the New Reich’s Chancellery in central Berlin in 1938. The building was designed by Albert Speer and commissioned by Adolf Hitler, who wanted a grand building constructed quickly to reflect his ambitions for Germany.
The painting is by Erich Mercker (1891-1973) who was born in the Rhineland. He began his artistic career painting industrial scenes during First World War. His fame grew in the inter-war period. In 1933 the Nazis came to power in Germany and, as the economy grew, Mercker was commissioned by major companies to make paintings of factories and offices. They were held up as examples of ‘Aryan art’ as they were detailed, representative and concerned with celebrating German achievement.
In this painting, Mercker shows the front of the Chancellery from Voßstraße in central Berlin. Building materials are piled up in the foreground. Compared to photographs from the time, the scene is bright, clean and tidy and you can see workmen in spotless white shirts. The artist is making the scene more flattering to the authorities who commissioned the building and this painting.
After the war, Mercker continued to paint. However, his association with the Nazi administration made it hard for him to find an audience. Recently, art historians are looking more favourably on his skilled treatments of industrial subjects.
The New Reich’s Chancellery suffered significant damage during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. When Berlin fell, the city was occupied by troops from the USSR, Britain, the United States and France. The Soviet diplomat and politician Andrei Gromyko visited the building and described,
‘… ruined edifices, formless heaps of metal and ferro-concrete encumbered the way. It was almost destroyed.’
The Chancellery’s fittings, fixtures and furniture were taken by the occupying forces. The Soviets used red granite from the building to construct a war memorial, while a bronze eagle is now held by the Imperial War Museum. It was finally demolished in 1951 to make way for the Berlin Wall.
REME Major Cliff Gough entered the Reich’s Chancellery in July 1945, as part of the British contingent in Berlin. He found evidence of looting, and of intense hand to hand fighting. He was accompanied by Major H G Roberts of the Second Army, who discovered this painting in Hitler’s own offices and took it back to England.
The painting reminds us of REME’s role in World War Two, and of those fraught and violent days following the fall of Berlin.
For many years the painting hung it the REME Officer’s Mess, before it was given to the Museum in 1958. The painting is now permanently displayed in the Conference Room at REME Museum, where it stimulates much discussion. The Conference Room is not ordinarily part of a Museum visit. If you would like to view the painting, please contact us.
The painting as it is displayed today in our Conference Room.
Find out more
Listen to a 2014 PBS talk with Mercker expert Patrick Jung, discussing the artist’s life, career and art.
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin with a National Geographic article.
View more of the fascinating artwork in the REME Museum’s collection via Art UK: the online home for UK public art collections.