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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.

  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.

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