The Big Apfel

German Encounters with Modernity: Novels of Imperial Berlin

by Katherine Roper
Humanities Press International, 269 pp., $45.00

Berlin: Culture and Metropolis

edited by Charles W. Haxthausen, edited by Heidrun Suhr
University of Minnesota Press, 265 pp., $24.95

Battleground Berlin: Diaries, 1945–1948

by Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, translated by Anna Boerresen
Paragon House, 261 pp., $18.95

Berlin Before the Wall: A Foreign Student’s Diary with Sketches

by Hsi-Huey Liang
Routledge, 258 pp., $29.95

Up Against It: Photographs of the Berlin Wall

by Leland Rice
University of New Mexico Press, 141 pp., $50.00

After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin

by John Borneman
Basic Books, 258 pp., $21.95


During the 1870s, the English journalist Henry Vizetelly made several prolonged visits to the capital of the new German Empire, and at the end of the decade he published his impressions of the city in two highly informative and entertaining volumes. In the preface to this work, he wrote:

The aim the writer has had in view has been to convey an accurate idea…of a city out of the regular highway of continental travel, and which, as the capital of the new German Empire, is destined to increase in interest to the other nations of Europe as well as to exercise a greatly extended influence over the rest of the Fatherland. There is an old proverb that says, “Who has not seen Cologne has never seen Germany,” but today the proverb has lost its significance, as it is no longer the city of the shrines of the Magi, and the eleven thousand martyred virgins, but the whilom capital of the little Mark of Brandenburg and the present chief city of the powerful German Empire which it is necessary a stranger should see. Of the great Germanic body, Berlin is today at once the head and the heart, for in all that relates to the new Empire, it is Berlin that thinks, conceives, frames, organizes, and commands.1

One need only substitute Bonn for Cologne in this passage and make a few other minor adjustments to make it sound like a reference to the transformation effected in Germany on June 20 of this year, when the Bundestag voted to make Berlin the capital of the newly united Federal Republic. The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel titled its cover story on June 24 “Hauptstadt Berlin: Der deutsche Kraftakt.” The literal meaning of the word Kraftakt is strongman’s act, as in a circus or carnival, a demonstrative show of strength, designed to impress onlookers. In this sense, the title was entirely apt, for as Der Spiegel went on to point out, the Bundestag vote was no idle gesture but an action so fraught with political significance that its importance could hardly be lost on spectators in the international community.

After the German Democratic Republic, the old Federal Republic is also—manifestly now—passé. The Adenauer State no longer exists. Left of the Rhine and east of the Elbe are one again. The shape of the country is undergoing a correction to the north, to the east, into the Protestant lands. Last Thursday was Day Zero for a new Germany. Only now does the post-war era come to an end.2

The parliamentarians who gathered in Bonn for the crucial decision were well aware of the significance of the issue, and their day-long debate has been called the greatest in the Bundestag’s history, for the passion and eloquence that it inspired and the honesty and forthrightness of the exchange, which was possible because the deputies were subject to no party restraint and were able to speak their minds freely. The champions of Berlin were quick to point out that tradition and consistency stood on their side: forty-two years ago the Bundestag had voted that “the principal federal agencies would take their place in the capital Berlin as soon as universal, free, equal, secret and direct elections are established in Berlin and the Soviet zone of occupation. The Bundestag will assemble then in Berlin.” One could hardly, they argued, abandon a pledge that had been maintained during the days of the Berlin blockade, the Khrushchev ultimatum, and the challenge of the Wall now that their longsought goal had been achieved. Placing the capital in Berlin, moreover, would help to cement unification, going a long way to alleviate the feeling of many of the inhabitants of the new Länder that they were regarded in the West merely as objects of exploitation and helping, by the capital investment that it would attract, to speed their economic recovery.

In more than one speech, reference was made to the fact that European powers had long been accustomed to establishing their governments in their greatest cities rather than in towns that would fail to impress the foreigner. No one belabored the point that Bonn was a provincial backwater (except Willy Brandt, who with uncharacteristic tactlessness said, “It would never have occurred to anyone in France to remain in relatively idyllic Vichy once foreign power no longer prevented a return to the Seine”)—but implicit in the Berlin case was the opinion that it was only in Berlin that one would find the lively adventurous energy, the creative urbanity, and the openness to the new and the modern that would be required as Germany was reborn. This was the essential meaning of the impassioned plea for Berlin made by Wolfgang Schäuble, the minister of the interior and the negotiator of the 1990 unification treaty with the Democratic Republic, which ended with the words, “What is at stake today is not Bonn or Berlin! What is at stake is the future of us all!”

Schäuble’s speech may have been decisive in effecting Berlin’s narrow majority of eighteen votes after fourteen hours of debate, but it was not designed to reassure Bonn’s defenders, many of whom took the line that Germany had done well for more than forty years under the prosaic leadership of the city on the Rhine, which was more than could be said of it during the doubtless more dramatic periods when Berlin was the capital. Leaving aside the horrendous costs of moving the government to Berlin, would not the result, it was suggested, sooner or later weaken the connection with the West and endanger the security that tie afforded? And would not the move encourage in some quarters old and dangerous passions and invite the efflorescence of a nationalism that would arouse the suspicions and opposition of Germany’s neighbors?

During the debate, this was more intimated than plainly said, but there were moments when it was clear enough: when, for example, Friedbert Pflüger, the young CDU deputy from Hannover, declared roundly, “My political fatherland is the Bonn democracy!”; when the youngest deputy present, the Social Democrat Hans-Martin Bury, declared that the chief arguments for Berlin, trustworthiness and symbolism, seemed in his view to be directed exclusively to the past; and when Bury’s party colleague Peter Glotz accused Helmut Kohl of turning, with his vote for Berlin, away from his previous policy of integration with Europe in order to return to a “Europe of the fatherlands.”3

These views did not prevail. It is significant, however, that the fears they expressed have not gone away. Recently, the news seems to have been full of Prussia, what with the return of the quadriga to the top of the Brandenburg Gate (which loosed a controversy over the political correctness of having the Prussian eagle and the Iron Cross on the staff borne by the charioteer, Gottfried Schadow’s Goddess of Peace) and the re-interment of the bones of Frederick the Great in the grounds of his palace Sanssouci in Potsdam (which has stirred up another row over the propriety of Chancellor Kohl’s decision to be present at the ceremony and led to caustic, if hardly appropriate, references to the meeting of Hindenburg and Hitler at Frederick’s grave on March 21, 1933). There have even been public proposals that the Hohenzollern Schloss should be rebuilt in its old place, at the head of Unter den Linden on the other side of the Kupfergraben. All of this has had an agitating effect upon some people.

Not all Berliners are happy about the prospective changes in their city. Watching property values double and rents rise to unimagined heights, dismayed by an influx into the city which clogs all main thoroughfares and makes even downtown pedestrian traffic a laborious business, some are beginning to suspect that change may be for the worse and modernity merely an excuse for destroying the best features of the past. There is already a nostalgia for the old West Berlin, the city that was, in the words of the painter Klaus Fussmann, already dead, but still very beautiful.

It was an isle of the blessed, from which one watched—separated from it by 200 kilometers of the DDR—the busy activity of the Federal Republic. In Berlin no decisions were made, no responsibility assumed, and no money made. One was only an observer; the trend was set in the West, even in matters of culture. Here the bad conscience of the nation was preserved, to the irritation of progressives in the West, who would have preferred to be subsumed in the French, later the American, culture. In Berlin that didn’t work. In the dying city the results of the war were inescapable.

Thus, in matters of art Berlin was not given to “postmodern whispering and astonishment à la Yves Klein and Beuys.” Like the city itself, Berlin art was modest, reserved, and skeptical, and showed society as it was. But now all that would change.

Berlin will represent the opposite of what it was in the postwar period. In Berlin, which for so long stood aside and regarded the heaping up of wealth so skeptically, the culture of the Federal Republic will finally realize itself fully…. Berlin will become great. “Remember that you are mortal,” they used to whisper to the Caesars when they were making their proclamations. Borrowing from that warning, one should like to whisper to the beloved city: Remember that you were dead!4


As capital, Berlin has always aroused ambivalent feelings among Germans. In the 1870s and 1880s, the city was a magnet to the young, the talented, and the ambitious, who came and were conquered, like the hero of Conrad Alberti’s novel The Old and the Young, who saw in

every droschke a wonder of technology,…every store window a fairyland,…every woman an ideal of beauty, a model of elegance.

and was intoxicated by the very air he breathed,

this nervous incessantly quivering Berlin air…that works upon people like alcohol, like morphium, like cocaine, exciting, inspiring, relaxing, deadly: the air of the world city.5

To others, like the publicist Konstantin Frantz, who opposed the choice of Berlin as imperial capital in 1871 because he regarded it as a Jewish city, it not only failed to represent the tradition and values of the country and its inhabitants but, as a center of materialism and depravity, was inimical to these things, as well as to freedom in any meaningful sense. This was the position of the poet Rilke, who dismissed dwellers in the city contemptuously as people who

name their snails’ slime progress
and travel more quickly where they carry slowly
and feel themselves and sparkle like whores
and make louder noises with metal and glass.6

These contradictory attitudes found interesting expression in the novels written about the city in the first phase of its modern development. Reading these is not a task that will appeal to many people (how many Germans read Spielhagen and Paul Lindau today, to say nothing of Fritz Mauthner and Julius Stinde?) but Katherine Roper has performed it for us by going through 130 novels written between 1870 and 1914, fifty of which she discusses in some detail. As she says at the outset, it is the intricate connections that the authors of these works—all of them drawn from the middle class and writing for middle-class audiences—made between the individual lives of their characters, the environment of Berlin, and the formation of a modernizing nation that gives this mass of literature historical importance.

For the most part, these writers gravitated toward Berlin during the first decades after Germany’s unification in 1871, seeing the city, as Gerhard Hauptmann once said, as “the Mecca” in which “to celebrate the spirit of the time to the fullest.” It was their hope that their work would contribute to the creation of what Professor Roper calls “a national culture that both took cognizance of modernity and validated Germany’s newly won preeminence.” Her book makes it clear that they became progressively more doubtful about this enterprise and for the most part ended up in a state of cultural pessimism that is reflected in their books.

This was perhaps inevitable. Most of the novelists of the 1870s were liberals and patriots who believed that the victory over France had opened an age in which the failed revolution of 1848 would finally succeed, Germany would stand before the nations as a model of national well-being, freedom, and culture, and Berlin would be the symbol of this victory of the spirit. But nothing of the sort happened; the liberal age ended in 1879 with the victory of Bismarckian absolutism, and the self-confident Bürgertum whose values the novel writers for the most part extolled became a complaint and materialistic bourgeoisie. As their hopes faded, so did the shining city lose its allure. Its growth in size and industrial importance was accompanied by unprecedented social problems: overcrowding, cyclical unemployment, and the proliferation of slums, squalor, disease, vice, and crime. These conditions were described meticulously and with sympathy by novelists like Max Kretzer, but the latter feeling was unaccompanied by any sense of engagement, for there were no activists and very few socialists among these writers.

Instead, there was some feeling among them that the city itself bred the diseases from which it suffered. In Wilhelm Bölsche’s novel The Mid-day Goddess (Die Mittagsgöttin) (1891), the hero, who has always been inspired by the Brandenburg Gate and the nearby victory column, both symbolic of the high hopes of 1871, comes to believe that they have been superseded by the iron-and-glass shell of the Friedrichstrasse railway station, a center of frenzied human activity that daily vomited swarms of newcomers into the city. This monstrosity, he muses, “looming over the nearby roofs like the armored scales of an enormous lurking reptile,” might very well satisfy the longings of the next generation better than the Greek columns of the triumphal gate. In Karl Gutzkow’s novel about the Financial crash of 1873, The New Serapion Brethren (Die neuen Serapionsbrüder) (1877), a physician lectures on “sidewalk disease (Trottoirkrankheit),” which is caused by “the crowding, the random contact of its inhabitants with one another, and the nervousness created by the constant pressures and demands of the hurried pace of life in Berlin.” This has the effect, he suggests, of breaking down the solid virtues of the middle class by placing its members under constant strain to keep up with their fellows in the acquisition of wealth—a fact, it is intimated, that helped bring about the great crash. In Johannes Schlaf’s The Third Reich (Das Dritte Reich) (1900), the hero, who dreams of founding a philosophy that will usher in a new humanity and resolve the dichotomies of the German soul, is driven to suicide by the cold impersonality of the city, his sense of isolation from people around him, and his growing sense that the mechanical wonders of urban civilization are gravid with portents of cataclysm.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, novelists increasingly faulted Berlin for having attracted too many of the wrong kind of people, so that the old Athens-on-the-Spree of the 1830s had become a Spree-Parvenopolis, in which, as Theophil Zolling wrote in his novel of 1887 Gossip (Der Klatsch), “our society remains petty, lowly, and mean.” This disenchantment with Berlin and its immigrant populations, which is being echoed in some quarters of the city today, reached its high point in Heinrich Mann’s early novel The Land of Cockaigne (Im Schlaraffenland) (1900), a corrosive picture of an urban society that has been completely corrupted by ill-distributed capitalist wealth and in the process has debauched the rest of the country, which in its indulgence in drunken bouts of foreign adventurism and Hurrapatriotismus imitates the capital’s absorption in vice and pleasure and is equally “willing to overlook the cultural demolition taking place.”

After the First World War and the establishment of the Republic, there was some sentiment to move the capital from Berlin to Weimar, which, it was felt by those who urged it, might teach Germans that greatness was not to be equated with power and wealth but, as Schiller had written, with moral conviction and dedication to the cause of freedom. These hopes were unavailing. Berlin remained the capital, partly because of its identification with Bismarck’s creation of the Reich, partly because to go elsewhere would have seemed like an acceptance of the diminished status that the victorious Allies seemed intent on imposing upon Germany. The Republican Berlin of the years between 1919 and 1933 is today remembered mostly because it was the liveliest cultural center in Europe, but it was also, of course, an intensely political city, the Republican, Prussian, and municipal governments all having their seats there. Between these two worlds there was always tension, particularly after the rising politician Adolf Hitler, who hated Berlin but knew that its role had to be accepted, resolved to conquer it, and, in the mid-1920s, made Josef Goebbels Gauleiter of Berlin and entrusted him with that task.

The fascinating essays that Charles W. Haxthausen and Heidrun Suhr have brought together in Berlin: Culture and Metropolis are intended, as they say in their introduction, to concentrate on

the often uneasy relationship between twentieth-century Berlin and the culture produced there—in literature, poetry, film, cabaret, and the visual arts. In short, they explore the cultural mediation of a city in which such mediation has always been problematic.

All these essays deal in one way or another with attempts to understand a city that had quadrupled its population, from 907,000 to 3,700,000, between 1871 and 1919. Two of the most interesting, however, deal directly with the always latent conflict between culture and politics. From the scenarios that Linda Schulte-Sasse discusses in her essay on Berlin in Nazi films we can derive a pretty accurate impression of the propaganda used by Goebbels as he set out, under the slogan Bestürmt wird nun die schwarze Stadt!, to bring the city into the Nazi fold. As she points out, the Nazis detested the very thing that made Berlin a world city, its cosmopolitanism, which in their eyes demonstrated “a state of disintegration and debasement” that could be overcome only by National Socialism. “Nazism’s critique of modernity as embodied in ideologemes like blood and soil, the nation, Heimat (homeland), or Volk” was the staple of Goebbels’s speeches, as it was later, after 1933, of films designed to remind Berliners, and all Germans, of what they had escaped. In Nazi cinematography, as the editors point out, Berlin was often “a metaphor for the negative memories of the Weimar Republic—communism, capitalism, fragmentation, moral decadence, the subversion of national identity and German tradition through internationalism.”

Adolf Hitler had no love for Berlin and no interest in its history. In the early Thirties plans were made for a celebration, scheduled for August 1937, of the city’s 700th anniversary. Aside from seeing that this was transformed into a typical Nationalist Socialist extravaganza, the Führer ignored it and was out of town when it was held. As Gerhard Weiss writes in his essay on Berlin anniversaries:

How little the Third Reich cared about Berlin’s historical image can be seen by the fact that on January 30, 1937, at the beginning of the anniversary year, Hitler proclaimed his plan for a new Berlin, the notorious Speer plan, which envisaged a total rebuilding of the center city and its conversion into a gigantic “Germania,” the capital of the Thousand Year Reich. All through 1937, venerable buildings in the heart of Berlin were torn down (such as the Schlüterhaus, the Palais Schwerin, the Ephraim Palais, the Krögel), destroying Berlin’s historical substance at the very moment when one pretended to celebrate it.

A good idea of the grandiosity of Hitler’s plans for Berlin and the ruin brought upon the city by his foreign policy is provided by Alan Balfour’s book, Berlin: The Politics of Order. This ambitious work sets out to view the history of architecture and city planning from the reign of Frederick William I until the breaching of the Wall in 1989, by describing the fortunes of the Leipziger Platz and the Potsdamer Platz, which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed the hub of Berlin’s vehicular traffic and one of its most important commercial and entertainment centers, but were then destroyed by Allied bombing because of their proximity to Hitler’s bunker and were finally divided by the Wall.

Barbara Miller Lane has questioned the book’s emphasis, pointing out that Unter den Linden and the Charlottenburger Chaussee, which antedated the Leipziger Platz by almost a century, were the real nucleus of the old city and gave the impetus for the axial development of its street system, and that most of the significant innovations in urban development took place later along the Spree or in the suburbs. 7 There are other defects that might be mentioned—the all too frequent misspelling of German words and names and the free dispensing with the use of the umlaut, the baffling intrusion of things that don’t fit the context (quotations from the letters of Eva Braun, for example, and a titillating portrait of Josephine Baker), embarrassingly botched history (placing Richard Wagner and Gottfried Semper, the Dresden barricade fighters of 1849, in Berlin in 1848), and a prose style that sometimes slips its moorings and drifts away into foggy obscurity.

Yet this book has solid merits. Students of architecture will surely be interested in Balfour’s discussion of the modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn and the fortunes of his masterpiece Columbus House (1931), although they may find his criticism of post-1945 Berlin architects like Le Corbusier, Scharoun, and Mies van der Rohe less than generous. Of Scharoun’s Philharmonic Hall (1963), Balfour writes:

In the midst of a ruined city the Philharmonic had to be devoid of sentiment, nostalgia, and regret. It promised nothing but its absolute self. It was silent and this, to a people crying out for the comfort of easy promises, was and is its virtue. It has never been comfortable in its context. At a point and place in time crying out for rhetoric and empty gesture, it says nothing but that which relates to itself, and nothing at all to the future of Berlin or to the division of Europe.

On Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery of Art (1962–1967) he is harder.

It is a desolate place and nothing in its twenty years of existence has made it comfortable…. In its obsessive autonomy it diminishes all the art and the people placed within its area of influence.

But the architects who bulk largest in this book are Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer, and its central section is given over to a discussion of their plans for transforming Berlin into a monstrous semiclassical fantasy city, and what came of them in the end. One is reminded in looking at the stunning but frightening photographs that accompany the text of Hitler’s remark to Speer in November 1944 about the bomb damage.

What does it all signify? Speer, in Berlin alone you would have had to tear down eighty thousand buildings to complete our new building plan. Unfortunately, the English haven’t carried out this work in accordance with your plans. But at least they have launched the projects.8


So much has been written about the Berlin that emerged from the bombing that additions to this literature are apt to seem mere embellishments of a well-known story. Because of this, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich’s Battle-ground Berlin seems less impressive today than it might have twenty years ago. Born in Berlin, Andreas-Friedrich began her career as a journalist in the 1920s and, when war broke out, was a features writer for the journal Die Junge Dame. During the war years, she became a member of a Berlin resistance group called “Uncle Emil,” which found hiding places for Jews and political dissidents and secured false papers and planned escape routes for them. She described these activities, for which she was praised in an obituary published in the Israel Nachrichten in 1977, in her first book, Berlin Underground, which was composed of excerpts from her diaries for the years 1938-1945 and was first published in English in the United States in 1946.

In an afterword to the present volume, Jörg Drews writes that in 1949 Andreas-Friedrich “put together a second manuscript under the title Battleground Berlin.” This inevitably raises the question of why publication was so long delayed and what has been happening to the manuscript since it was completed and since the author’s death in 1977. The book purports to be her diaries for the years 1945–1948, but there are indications that this may be true more of the form than of the substance, which tends to be rhetorical, dramatic, and filled with long conversations in which the people mentioned are always quoted directly and their expressions and gestures described.

The main themes of this volume are the dissolution of the group “Uncle Emil” during the dreadful Berlin winters of 1946 and 1947, the rebirth of politics and the struggle of rival groups of socialists to control the city, the attempts of the zonal authorities to maintain a semblance of cooperation while sliding inevitably into the confrontation that broadened into the Cold War, and the ceaseless but almost hopeless search by the city’s inhabitants for food and fuel. The most interesting moments in the book are those in which we hear the voices of ordinary Berliners commenting on matters over which they have no control but which appeal to their ironic Berlin humor, like Hermann Goering’s escape from the death penalty imposed by the Nuremberg tribunal by committing suicide in his cell, or the pains taken by the victorious powers to abolish Prussia, as if it were the progenitor of a National Socialism that was born in Austria and nurtured in Bavaria, while at the same time honoring Austria as “the first country to fall prey to Hitler’s aggression.” The author gives some good examples of the inversion of values in postwar Berlin:

In daily transactions money is no longer an important factor anyway. If you go to the hairdresser to get your hair washed, you must bring soap, a towel and five pieces of wood. Two pounds of rags gets you a scouring cloth. A hundred pounds of rags gets you a suit. For six pounds of bones you get a piece of soap, for four pounds of waste paper a book. With luck, four pounds of the Völkischer Beobachter might even get you Homer, or other favorites from Pushkin to Goethe, Shakespeare and Racine. Four pounds of Nazi newspapers wondrously obtain for you the company of the world’s greatest minds.

Interesting also are the references to the militant tactics of the communists of the SED in September 1948, which hinted at a coup d’état, and must have led many Berliners to reflect, as Andreas-Friedrich does:

Perhaps by tomorrow we will have two city governments and along the sector boundary a Chinese wall with battlements and watch-towers.

Hsi-Huey Liang’s account of his year in West Berlin in the mid-1950s is a book that should delight all of those who, like Klaus Fussmann, are beginning to feel nostalgic about an older time. The son of a Chinese diplomat, Liang was born in Berlin in the days when Hindenburg was president and lived in various countries until 1951, when he went to the United States and began the study of history at Yale. In the fall of 1953, with the encouragement of his teachers Hajo Holborn, Harry Rudin, and Leonard Krieger, he decided to go to Berlin to do research on nineteenth-century social history, driven, as he writes, by a desire “to explore the living conditions—and through them, the mentality—of the lower classes in one of the grandest capitals of Europe that I had known as a child.” He remained in Berlin until October 1954, living in Steglitz but spending much of his daylight hours in the working-class districts of Neukölln and Wedding, and keeping an admirably meticulous diary, which he illustrated with dozens of charming and highly revealing line drawings. Now a professor of history at Vassar, he put his manuscript aside until the fall of the Berlin Wall encouraged him to think that a publisher might be interested.

Liang was a person of apparently limitless energy, attending seminars in the Free University, visiting libraries and archives and going through mountains of materials on nineteenth-century Berlin history, and interviewing everyone who seemed likely to aid his research, from archivists to old Siemens workers. At the same time, he made a systematic effort, by visits to small factories and interviews with workers, supervisors, and union representatives, to get a feeling for the culture of German labor and for traditional attitudes and prejudices. He was struck by how differently carpenters and smiths and turners and millers regarded their occupations and insisted on their own uniqueness, so that he came to doubt the utility of terms like “workers.” Nor were social attitudes always what he expected. In June 1954, Liang wrote:

Went to Reinickendorf in the early morning to interview Frau Bertha Kolasinski, a former house-maid…. Frau Kolasinski lives in Kleiststrasse and I met her in the street outside her flat, just as she was coming home from shopping with her dog. She had bought fish. We sat down in her living room (quite spacious and well furnished) and she told me about her life under the reign of Wilhem II. I was a bit surprised when, at one point, she called herself “middle class.” But upon reflection it seems to me that house servants in middle-class homes really belong to that culture.

In the Berlin of 1954, politics was unavoidable. The atmosphere was still tense from the East German workers’ rising of June 17, 1953, and 1954 was the year of the fruitless Foreign Ministers Conference on reunification and the agitations over the raising of a West German contingent for NATO. Liang rarely missed a demonstration or political gathering of importance. Along with sketches of the desolation of the Potsdamer Platz and street scenes in Wedding and Neukölln, of the former Wehrmacht headquarters in the Bendlerstrasse, where Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg was executed after the failure of the plot against Hitler, and of Berliners enjoying themselves in dance halls and cafés, his diary includes portraits of nearly every important politician of the time, all captured by his busy pencil at interviews and public meetings. He was a good listener and, because he was Chinese, heard things that would not have been admitted to an American or an Englishman, including a not inconsiderable amount of anti-Semitism. On one evening in July he was appalled when his land-lady, in the course of a long conversation, made it clear that she admired

Manneszucht, Treue zum Vaterland, alter Preussengeist, even the Führerprinzip (the virtue of leadership, as long as you get a good leader). While she acknowledges that Hitler was evil and that Germany should not have tried to conquer all Europe (“that was a mistake!”), she insists on blaming the Allies for imposing Versailles on Germany and thereby provoking the Nazi movement. The Americans are also blamed by her for failing to remove Hitler in 1943 or 1944…. She…insists that for the Germans to overthrow him from below was “impossible.” She also said that Hitler never married the better to exert his magic hold over German womanhood…. She is obviously sincere, but she does not know what democracy means. She also heartily dislikes the SPD and the working class.

Liang was fascinated by such evidence of the persistence of old attitudes and prejudices, as he was also impressed by the friendliness and good spirit of Berliners caught in a city that was in a state of suspension and dependent upon foreigners for decisions about their future. When he left Berlin, he wrote:

I shall always remember the Putlitz Bridge and the towering chimneys of the Bolle Brewery which I saw each time I drove north to Wedding, symbolizing the gateway to Berlin’s poorest working-class districts. I also will remember the friendly, quaint streets of Neukölln, where I have found most of the material for my thesis. I will often think back to the contrast between the glamor of the Kudamm and the desolate fate of Berlin’s many destitute refugees and old pensioners. And I will think of the East sector with its bright posters, blaring loudspeakers, and grey, forlorn emptiness.

The posters and loudspeakers that Liang saw on the other side of the Sektorgrenze were not beguiling enough to prevent the citizens of Soviet zone from fleeing to the the western part of the city in ever increasing numbers, and this eventually led in August 1961 to the decision of the East German government to close the escape hatch. The building of the Wall solved an urgent problem and helped to stabilize the eastern regime for almost three decades, but Charles McClelland is certainly right, in his historical introduction to Leland Rice’s Up Against It, in writing that “the Wall, designed to save the GDR as a state and the SED as its ruling party, in fact bred the universal revulsion that brought all of them down.”

Meanwhile, apart from being a political symbol, it became, on its western side, an inviting space for graffiti and the more elaborate creations that came to be called Wall Art. The photographer Leland Rice was fascinated by these and keenly aware of their evanescent nature (since the desire for self-expression often led people to obliterate the compositions of others and paint over them). In 1983 he began to photograph the imagery of the Wall, focusing upon its brightly colored pictographic aspects and the symbols and slogans that characterized it. He continued doing this for eight years, and the results of his efforts are reproduced in his handsome book, the most complete record of Wall Art that we now possess, since after November 9, 1989, much of it was hacked and chiseled to bits by tourists and small entrepreneurs and dispatched to the four quarters of the globe. Some of those who look at Mr. Rice’s reproductions may feel that this is no great loss, for although some of these panels offer striking textures of color and form there is always, because of the overpainting, a strong element of incoherence.

Surprising is the relatively scant amount of political content in these paintings, aside from expletives like “Scheiss Hitler!,” demands that the Turks and the Yanks go home, and random comments such as “All that I want to know is on which side the Fashists (sic) are on (sic) so that I can be on the other side!” An exception is a lively representation of an alarmed Humpty Dumpty labeled “Détente” falling off the Wall, but the meaning of this is ambiguous, and it may be interpreted as pro- rather than anti-Wall. In most of the compositions, strange animals, disembodied fish, Charlie Chaplin figures, embracing skeletons, and groups of leather-clad and mini-skirted youngsters peer out from behind wads of paint and whorls of incoherent messages, under titles like “Ghetto Love,” “Sex and Crime,” “Tango King,” and “Getting to Know the Stranger.” It is clear that many of the artists had more on their minds, and more insistently, than the division of Berlin.


In his brilliant new novel, The Translator, which deals obliquely but perceptively with the events of 1989 and 1990, Ward Just, speaking through the mouth of an East German, describes how German unity was effected:

It seemed to many of us at the gymnasium that our Berlin was no more corrupt than your Berlin or Washington or Paris. It was corrupt in a different way, and the reforms were no easier for us than they are for the Americans and the French. We thought that once we had reformed the party then we would have decent politics and a modern society. A number of us thought that. Quite a lot, really. You must not think that all of us are bewitched by automobiles, television sets and dirty films…. But there are not enough of us and probably we are naive, although naiveté was never a conspicuous trait with us. I will say that perhaps we are too romantic. But the party fell in an instant. And when it broke apart we saw how corrupt it was. It was just a sick old man without energy enough to be paranoid, even. The proletariat rushed into the streets, not knowing what it would find. And it found Herr Kohl. And here we are.9

The new books by Robert Darnton and John Borneman can be read as elaborations on that lapidary statement. Darnton went to West Berlin in 1989 as a fellow in the think tank called the Wissenschaftskolleg, with the intention, he says, of “writing yet another monograph about the eighteenth century.” Unexpectedly, he found himself in the middle of something that looked like a revolution and decided to try to produce a journalistic account of events as they occurred. He has written a very attractive and highly readable book. But historians tend to be better when they are reflecting upon events that have already happened than when they are doing on-the-spot reporting; and reading Darnton’s accounts of the fall of the Wall, the popular assault on Stasi headquarters in January 1990, and the election of March 1990 is not much more interesting than reading old newspapers, while his explanation of the failure of the New Forum group, which hoped for “a third way,” adds nothing to what Ward Just’s East German says about naiveté and romanticism.

Still, there are fine things in this book, a splendid description, for example, of one of the opening scenes in the revolutionary drama, in November 1989, when young East German families took the first step to freedom by entering the West German embassy in Prague. Darnton writes:

You could see the sense of loss mixed with hope in their faces as they arrived. Some smiled, some wept, some clenched their jaws and looked ahead. None of them stepped lightly over the threshold.

He is good on such things as the element of chance in events, pointing out, for example, how an off-the-cuff announcement by the SED spokesman Günter Schabowski about a temporary lightening of visa restrictions for travel to the West pending a new travel law unintentionally triggered the opening of the Wall when crowds at border crossing points persuaded the guards that they had seen this being authorized on television. He notes the symptoms of waning enthusiasm among the East German Communists and comments on different concepts of time and money in the two Germanies and on the working of the censorship system in East Berlin. And there is an interesting chapter on the author’s meetings with some of the bitter and intellectually depressed members of the professoriate of the University of Halle, which points to one of the most serious problems facing the new Germany, that of attaining a uniformity of standards in universities in the old and the new Länder.

Even so, this is a disappointing book, and one is left wondering why a “Berlin journal” should say so little about the western half of the city. After all, West Berlin was no mean place, possessing, in addition to its cultural and intellectual eminence, the acutest political sensitivity of any city in Germany. In his diary, Hsi-Huey Liang talks at some length about its responses to the events of 1953 and 1954, and the building of the Wall elicited from John F. Kennedy a famous tribute to its political energy. Are we to assume that nothing of moment occurred in West Berlin during the tumultuous events of 1989 and 1990? What was its usually feisty press saying during this period? What was going on in its rambunctious universities? Were the Spontis and Chaoten and Mescaleros and City District Indians unmoved by the smell of revolution in the air? Professor Darnton seems strangely indifferent to this side of the story, not even telling us anything about the reactions of West Berlin’s Red-Green coalition government and how—to give only one example of its activity—it began actively to plan what to do about the waste that had once been the Potsdamer Platz.

The emphasis in John Borneman’s After the Wall is upon the new Berlin that will emerge from the events that Darnton has described. The author is clearly as fascinated by the city as some of the heroes of Katherine Roper’s novels, and in an early passage he writes of it as the “first post-modern city.”

If, as the great pre-war critic of Berlin culture, Walter Benjamin, says, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, Berlin is arguably the twentieth century’s paradigmatic space—every major social upheaval of significance in this century has either graced or scarred its surface. Wandering along its wide boulevards and tree-lined avenues, beholding its bullet-scarred apartment facades set in relief by postmodern face-lifts, I am always struck by how much history I see: not the history of other centuries preserved as in a museum, but twentieth-century history. Berlin forces one to “be there”—Dasein. The romanticism of Paris or the nostalgia of Vienna protect one, by contrast, from the vertigo and the peculiar imprisonment of raw, undigested present time.

Borneman’s interest lies mainly with the eastern half of this city, with those Berliners whose participation in the German autumn revolution was shaped by the peculiar nature of life in the GDR, a life that is best described as one of gratifications postponed until the Plan should succeed and the Revolution be complete. For years many of the citizens of the GDR lived in the belief (shared by many in the West) that theirs was the most productive country in Eastern Europe and that it was only a matter of time before the trade balances were adjusted and they would enjoy the rewards of their labors. In November 1989, it became clear with terrible suddenness that they had all along been shareholders in an enterprise that was being systematically looted by its board of directors for its personal profit, and that they now had nothing to show for their labors except a physical environment polluted by industrial effluents and a social environment poisoned by the thought control and incessant surveillance of the Stasi. Even before the Wall fell, there was a smell of disintegration. In the summer of 1989, Borneman talked with an East German friend who told him that the atmosphere was “stink sour,” adding,

Our regime has been selling us out for years. This summer I saw a village where they are selling the cobblestone streets, the original ones from the Middle Ages, to West Germany. Can you believe it? They’re selling our streets! And where is the money going? All the best things we produce are being exported.

Borneman describes his book as “a salvage operation,” designed to recapture the thoughts and concerns of the victims of this exploitation before they are completely swallowed up in the reunification process. As he records his conversations with East Germans of varying ages and occupations about their lives and careers in the GDR, their attitudes toward the regime, their hopes and ambitions, the prevailing note—far from being one of joy or relief over their liberation—is one of bewilderment tinged with regret. One of his informants, Frau Erika Gruner, a lifelong adherent of socialism, a judge, and the author of the Family Law Book of the GDR, could still in March 1990 point to notable accomplishments of the GDR, like land reform, programs to eliminate class conflict, and the protection of women’s rights, while admitting that she now realized that “we didn’t have socialism; we had a form of state capitalism, a system of exploitation with a very few party elite on the top,” and that now none of the achievements would survive.

Others whom he interviewed admitted that their initial exhilaration in November 1989 was followed by more complicated emotions. “To be sure we were all overjoyed by the collapse of the regime,” one said, “but then it all went so fast and frenzied.” There was no time to take stock, to think of the possibility of constructing a free socialist state, although, as one of Borneman’s friends said later, “On 16 October, I still remember that everything was open, that it could have turned out otherwise. On 4 November, there wasn’t a single banner asking for reunification.” That didn’t last. The temptation to abandon the failed experiment was too great. But many East Germans instinctively rejected the blandishments of Western capitalism and among those who surrendered to them, there are many who now regret their decision.

In Conrad Alberti’s novel The Old and the Young, the hero was enraptured by the promises that the new Berlin of the 1870s held out to him, the great boon of being able

in this glowing, intoxicating air to drink the breath of freedom, the unnoticed unconditional freedom in which everyone was responsible only to himself, touched by the aura of world history, which is determined here, surrounded by all the glory, the greatness, the beauty, the opulence that shows itself here in every dwelling, on every cobblestone, available to everyone who has the strength and pluck to grasp and possess it.10

Most of Borneman’s friends were too ill-equipped by their life in East Germany and too alienated by what they knew of the West to seek that kind of freedom. Instead, they hoped for an ill-defined realm of democratic socialism that would exist between the worlds of capitalism and communism. This illusion was destroyed by their own apathy and lack of organization and the rush of events. The result has not been happy. As Borneman writes:

Perhaps the most acute, if not the most overt, difficulty the new German state will face lies within the troubled subjectivity of the East Germans it wishes to absorb. Many of these potential citizens are paralyzed by an anomie separating them drastically from both the state that reared them and the state that claims them. They seem victims of an ambivalence both historically specific and almost paradigmatically modern.

They are wanderers between two worlds, whose plight will not easily be alleviated.

  1. 1

    Henry Vizetelly, Berlin Under the New Empire: The Institutions, Inhabitants, Industry, Monuments, Museums, Social Life, Manners and Amusements: Illustrated with upwards of 400 engravings from designs by German artists (London: 1879).

  2. 2

    Der Spiegel, 26/1991 (June 24, 1991), p. 22.

  3. 3

    On all this, see Gunter Hofmann’s circumstantial analysis of the debate, “Das Wagnis eines spaten Neuanfangs,” in Die Zeit, No 27 (June 28, 1991), p. 3.

  4. 4

    Klaus Fussmann, “Bedenke, das du tot warst,” Die Zeit, No. 14 (April 5, 1991).

  5. 5

    Conrad Alberti (Konrad Sittenfeld), Die Alten und die Jungen: Sozialer Roman, 2 Vols. (Leipzig: 1889).

  6. 6

    Rainer Maria Rilke, Das Stundenbuch (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955), p. 107.

  7. 7

    Barbara Miller Lane, “A Mecca for Architects,” The Times Literary Supplement (June 7, 1991), p. 17.

  8. 8

    Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, translated from the German (Macmillan, 1976), p. 220.

  9. 9

    Ward Just, The Translator (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) p. 263.

  10. 10

    Conrad Alberti, Die Alten und die Jungen, Vol. 1, p. 13.