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Up until it suffered severe damage during the Second World War, was demolished by the powers that be in the GDR and experienced the division of Berlin over many years, the Berlin City Palace had established itself as the architectural centre of the present-day capital over a period of more than 500 years. As a location steeped in history, it witnessed and went on to symbolise a number of momentous events. The reconstruction of the palace as the Humboldt Forum aims to return it to its former glory as an open centre for social and cultural life that allows visitors to experience the dialectic between the future and the past up close, in person and more intensely than in any other historic location in the heart of Berlin. As part of its Sunday reading material, DER BERLINER MODE SALON is exploring the diverse and eventful history of the palace and providing an insight into its current transformation into the modern-day Humboldt Forum in a four-part article.


Part 4/4:  Alexander von Humboldt

Even during his lifetime he was known and celebrated as the ‘second Columbus’, the ‘scientific re-discoverer of America’ and the ‘new Aristotle’. Today, a moon crater, a lily and even an ocean stream are just some of the things that are named after him. Alexander von Humboldt is, like his older brother Wilhelm, a household name. He is regarded as a universal genius and one of the most famous Germans.

Alexander von Humboldt 1806, Quelle

Alexander von Humboldt 1806, Source


Youth, studies and civil service

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, who later became a naturalist and world traveller, was born in Berlin in 1769 and grew up in Schloss Tegel. In addition to his achievements in biology, he is also known as being the founder of empirical geography. After studying political economics, natural sciences and anatomy, von Humboldt first worked as an engineer in the mining industry and pursued a career in the civil service. Alongside this work, he also spent a lot of time researching flora and chemical combustion. For example, he developed the predecessor of the respiratory mask and substantially improved pit lamps used by miners. By the time he approached the Prussian king to arrange his release in 1795, he had revolutionised the very essence of the mining industry.


Two great expeditions

However, it wasn’t until his mother died the following year, and with the help of the inheritance that he received, that he was able to realise his childhood dream of going on research trips all over the world. It took him three years to plan and prepare his great expedition. During this period, he seized upon every opportunity that came his way to deepen his knowledge, especially by establishing personal contacts with leading astronomers, botanists and zoologists. Humboldt’s network was crucial. Thanks to his open character, it was surprisingly easy for him to make friends with scientists from all over the world. Having such a close network for exchanging information and data was hugely important to him, since he worked in different disciplines at the same time and he often depended on experts’ advice in a specialist field.


The capital of science, Paris, became von Humboldt’s second home in May 1798. Here he strengthened his reputation as a renowned and respected scientist by participating in debates and giving lectures.


Forschungsreise, Quelle

Expedition (1799-1804), Source


Between 1799 and 1804 he went on his decisive expedition to American, during which he crossed the territories of today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba before concluding the great American expedition with a visit to the USA. Due to his intense exchange of letters throughout his travels, von Humboldt was held in the highest esteem and even stayed at the White House for three weeks as a guest of the then American President Thomas Jefferson. The quantities of measurement data as well as the botanical and geographic samples that he collected were just as impressive as the route of his journey. He was dedicated to an incredible variety of research areas, from geomagnetism, botany, zoology, ethnology, volcanology, cartography, economics, agriculture and mining, to meteorology and marine biology. Never before had a private citizen undertaken such an expedition using his own funds. His fortune had been reduced by a third, and his 34-volume travel book, which was published between 1805 and 1839 and remained unfinished, ruined him financially.


The all-round scientist embarked upon his second expedition in 1829, this time to Russia. Although the route from St. Petersburg to the Urals was dictated by the Russian government, von Humboldt was able to make small changes and even managed to cross the Chinese border. His primary interests were the climate, geology and geomagnetism.


Alexander von Humboldt 1843, Quelle

Alexander von Humboldt 1843, Source



Citizen of the world

Humboldt’s worldview was always shaped by the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the concept that all people are equally endowed with reason. No race is superior than another; people only differ in their education and culture. He was a fierce critic of slavery and the way in which the native people of America were treated. His faith in constant advances in science and politics, which will give rise to the creation of an egalitarian society free of legal and social inequality, was unshakable.


Until his death, the universal genius was devoted to completing his life’s work; ‘Cosmos’, an influential treatise in which he strived to find the connections between all knowledge about the world: “I was struck by a great idea, to describe the physical world, everything that we know today about the phenomena of space and life on Earth, from the galaxies through to the geography of mosses that live on granite rocks, all in a single work, which simultaneously stimulates the reader in vivid language and is a feast for the mind.”


Alexander von Humboldt died in Berlin on 6 May 1859. Today, the Alexander von Humboldt University owes its name to him, and its Geographical Institute is one of the world’s most important educational organisations for empirical geography. Both Alexander and his brother Wilhelm are patrons of the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin City Palace.




Also read:

Part 1/4: The Palace during the Time of the Electors of Brandenburg, Prussian Kings and German Emperors 

Part 2/4: Developments after the fall of the wall 

Part 3/4: The Reconstruction of Berlin’s Palace as Humboldt Forum