American and British Aviation Ruined Ancestral Castle of Russian Empress Ekaterina II

The ruins of the castle are still preserved in the German town of Zerbst

The history of the town of Zerbst started in the year 948, when German King Otto I founded the Brandenburg episcopacy. The ancestral castle of the Russian Empress Ekaterina II was preserved in the town until April 16th, 1945. Nowadays, tourists can only see the ruins of the eastern part of the castle.

Both the town of Zerbst and the Zerbst Castle suffered a lot from the bombardment of the British and American aviation. There used to be a fortress on the territory of the former Zerbst Castle, which was first mentioned in historical documents in 1196. In August of 1430, the fire destroyed the majority of the buildings around the fortress, so it was decided to build a defensive wall around the fortress. A lot of new constructions appeared in the courtyard in the 15th century.

As a result of the 30-year war, a big part of the fortress became dilapidated in the middle of the 17th century, it was not good to live in. Prince Karl Wilhelm von Anhalt-Zerbst entrusted Dutch architect and engineer Cornelis Ryckwaert with designing a new project of the Zerbst Castle. The foundation of the castle was laid in 1681. The architect designed a grand castle with the main building and two outbuildings. On account to financial difficulties, the construction of the Zerbst Castle continued only in 1704 under the guidance of Italian architect Giovanni Simonetti. He built the western outbuilding, in which a chapel was housed. Simonetti also built the greenhouse and the building of the financial department. In 1708 the architect left Zerbst, and local builders and craftsmen completed the construction of the castle in 1721.

Architect Schьtze was invited to Germany to work on the castle. Schьtze was in charge of the castle's tower and other constructions in the park. In 1742 Prince Christian August, the father of the would-be Russian Empress, Ekaterina II, and his brother, Prince Johann Ludwig, became ruling princes of Anhalt-Zerbst princedom. The German style of architecture changed in the middle of the 18th century. The rococo style came into fashion, and court architect Schutze was fired. Afterwards, they found another court architect in Prussia - Johann Friedrich Friedel. The architect and sculptor Johann Michael Hoppenhaupt d.A. worked to finish the western wing of the Zerbst Castle. The construction of the castle was going on for many years.

In 1758, Johann's dowager princess Elizabeth Anhalt Zerbst, the mother of the Russian Empress Ekaterina, left Zerbst. Her son, Prince Friedrich August, the last Anhalt-Zerbst ruling prince, left the castle in 1764 for good. The prince did not leave a descendant after him. When he died in 1793, princes Anhalt-Dessau became the owners of the town of Zerbst and the Zerbst Castle.

Prince Leopold Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessauwas not interested in the Zerbst Castle, he preferred to live in his palace. Changes started happening in Zerbst in March of 1798, on the king's order. An English-styled park was created there, former baroque gardens were destroyed. A women's school was housed in the Zerbst Castle in 1806, although it did not stay there for long. During the liberating war against Napoleon, the Zerbst Castle was used as a hospital and headquarters. The Anhalt Court used to be housed in the castle until the middle of the 19th century. In 1848, the Zerbst Caslte became a residence for Prince Georg Berhard Anhalt-Dessau and his family. The fire destroyed the top of the castle's tower in 1881, but it was restored already in 1884. The interior of the castle had been modernized by that time too. In 1918, the Duke of Anhalt abdicated the crown, and the Zerbst Castle became a museum in 1920.

On April 16th, 1945, 85 percent of the town of Zerbst was ruined as a result of the bombardment by the British and American aviation. Forty-six shell-holes were counted in the castle, boxes of treasures were stolen. The main building and the western outbuilding were leveled soon after WWII. However, the ruins of the eastern outbuilding of the castle are still preserved nowadays. The town had to clear up property relations after the unification of Germany, the process took too much time, and pushed the question of possible investments to reconstruct the castle far into the background.

Zerbst townsfolk set up the association called Zerbst Castle (Schloss Zerbst) on March 7th, 2003. Of course, members of the association are aware of the fact that it is impossible to restore the castle. However, they would like to take care of the historical legacy in the park of the Zerbst Castle. The international association Ekaterina II and other historical associations try to render all possible moral support to the Zerbst Castle society. Maybe, it is not too late to save at least a piece of the ancestral castle of the Russian Empress Ekaterina the Great for future generations.

Annehert Meinzer,
Chairs Ekaterina II historical society in Zerbst

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Author`s name Olga Savka