German Encounters with Modernity: Novels of Imperial Berlin
Berlin: Culture and Metropolis
Battleground Berlin: Diaries, 19451948
Berlin Before the Wall: A Foreign Student’s Diary with Sketches
Up Against It: Photographs of the Berlin Wall
After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin
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.
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.
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.