MESEBERG, Germany — The French have Fort de Brégançon, a spectacular, medieval citadel on a Mediterranean islet. The Americans have Camp David, a sprawling retreat previous presidents referred to as “Shangri-La” for its secluded mountain beauty. The Germans have Meseberg.
Haven’t heard of Meseberg? You’re not alone.
Official retreats often serve a critical function, allowing world leaders to escape the noise and bustle of their capitals to reflect on big decisions or to host foreign leaders in a relaxed setting where deep conversations sometimes yield historic agreements. Camp David was the place where the invasion of Normandy was partly planned, where Eisenhower and Khrushchev met, where Israeli and Egyptian leaders agreed to make peace.
The German chancellor’s official retreat — Schloss Meseberg — an 18th century baroque castle located in a small village of 150 people in the countryside north of Berlin, doesn’t carry the same weight.
The lakeside castle, with its stately columns and high mansard roof, is without doubt a lovely residence. But in a country famous for breathtaking castles, the Schloss stands out for its relative simplicity.
That was exactly the intention. Berlin wanted an official retreat that would reflect the modest ethos of its leaders. (Chancellor Angela Merkel, after all, is known to do much of her own supermarket shopping.) In a country ill at ease with the notion of its own global power, such humility also suits Germany’s self-image as a modest geopolitical player.
Hans Heinrich von Srbik, the chairman of the Messerschmitt Stiftung, a foundation that protects historic buildings and owns Schloss Meseberg, put it succinctly in a recent telephone interview: “Meseberg was beautiful enough for Germany and not as pompous as the French [residences], which wouldn’t have suited us.”
Yet some in Germany question, considering the considerable expense involved in maintaining the retreat and the lack of importance attached to it, whether it’s worth keeping the lights on at all — voices that may grow louder once Merkel’s successor gets to decide what to make of Meseberg.
An unpretentious choice
The Messerschmitt Stiftung was founded in 1969 by Willy Messerschmitt, an aircraft manufacturer with a complicated legacy: He is better known for the Nazi warplanes he built during World War II, using forced labor. His foundation first spotted the castle after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the structure — like many others in the former East Germany — was neglected and rundown. The foundation eventually undertook a multi-million euro renovation.
The government’s official retreat prior to German reunification had been Petersberg — a luxury hotel in the mountains southeast of the West German capital, Bonn. Berlin’s restoration as capital, however, meant a retreat closer to home was needed. So, in 2004, only a year before Merkel came to power, the government made a deal to rent Schloss Meseberg for 20 years at a symbolic price of €1.
Meseberg was never meant to come with all the luxurious features often enjoyed by other world leaders: There’s no swimming pool, no golf course, no tennis court.
Though this was the kind of unpretentiousness Merkel seems to enjoy, she didn’t use Meseberg as her own personal retreat, preferring instead to recharge at her country house in the Uckermark, a region in the state of Brandenburg where she grew up.
Still, Merkel was keen to prevent the existence of the even modest Schloss from being interpreted by foreign leaders as a symbol of growing German geopolitical ambitions. To that end, government officials were encouraged to not refer to the place as a castle, but rather as a Gästehaus, Die Welt reported at the time.
While Merkel has invited leaders like George W. Bush and Emmanuel Macron to Meseberg, the castle hasn’t gotten very much use over the years.
From 2015 to 2018, the Schloss was used only eight days a year on average, and that’s including two annual public events: An open house and a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, according to the government’s own accounting.
The lack of use reflects, in some measure, Germany’s continued reluctance to project global power. And while it remains to be seen whether Germany’s next chancellor makes more use of the place, what has gotten more attention in Germany is a far more mundane issue: the amount of taxpayer money spent to maintain it.
It costs €5 million annually to operate the retreat, according to the government. From 2015 to 2018, police surveillance alone cost €15.4 million.
An organization called the German Taxpayers Federation, which seeks to monitor government overspending, included the Schloss in its so-called “black book” of public waste. “If the federal government wants to continue operating the castle, it should develop a concept of how it can be used more frequently in the future,” the association said.
There is, however, one constituent group that has been particularly happy about the status quo. Locals in Meseberg say their village has benefited immeasurably from upgrades to local infrastructure as well as new jobs that came with the castle’s designation as the chancellor’s retreat.
“Seemingly overnight, the village moved from the Middle Ages to modern times,” Bert Groche, who runs the local hotel, said recently.
Outside of the village, however, there’s notably less enthusiasm.
“Meseberg is more of a haunted castle,” said Benjamin Strasser, a parliamentarian from the Free Democratic Party. “A guesthouse,” he added, “only makes sense if you use it.”