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Hello to Berlin

The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape

by Brian Ladd
University of Chicago Press, 271 pp., $29.95

The Berlin of George Grosz: Drawings, Watercolours and Prints, 1912-1930

by Frank Whitford
Royal Academy of Arts/Yale University Press, 212 pp., $50.00

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905): Between Romanticism and Impressionism

edited by Claude Keisch, edited by Marie Ursula Riemann-Reyher
National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 480 pp., $65.00

Berlin: The City and the Court Smith.

by Jules Laforgue
Turtle Point Press, 220 pp., $13.95 (paper)

George Grosz: Berlin-New York

edited by Peter-Klaus Schuster
Nationalgalerie Berlin/Ars Nicolai, 590 pp., $120.00 (paper)

Reading Berlin 1900

by Peter Fritzsche
Harvard University Press, 308 pp., $39.95

The Writing on the Walls: Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter

by Shimon Attie
Edition Braus, 78 pp., $45.00

1.

Along Schlobstrasse in the Berlin neighborhood of Steglitz, prosperous shoppers swarm past bright show windows crammed with gleaming appliances, pastel-colored clothing, and fragrant pastries. Though the German economy has sputtered, and sometimes staggered, in recent years, no one here would suspect that. Middle-aged couples, modestly dressed, happily pay prices twice or three times as high as they would be in an American mall—one sees parents casually laying down a hundred dollars a pair for German blue jeans for their teenaged children.

Nothing—not the constant, rapid movement of the traffic, not the flat grey brutality of the modern buildings built here in the Sixties and after, not the mirror-surfaced memorial recently erected to the Jewish residents of Steglitz who died in the Holocaust—interferes with the constant movement of people and goods. This is the Germany built by the Wunderkinder of Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder—the Germany that the writers of the Sixties denounced, that the radicals tried to blow up, and that the rest of Europe and America dumbly envied.

A few blocks away, in the thickly wooded gardens around a local Gymnasium, or high school, it is quiet. In a dark log hut, invisible from the street, a young alumnus of the school takes the leather hood off the head of a falcon. Brilliant eyes burn through the twilit interior as other hunting birds step off their perches to show their fierce faces and utter their characteristic warlike sounds. Outside the hut, geese, ducks, and sheep run and squawk. In the middle of one of Europe’s largest, busiest cities—a city which now has the largest construction site in the world as its center—gentle breezes blow across a tiny farm. It is not the only one: in radical Kreuzberg, several kilometers and even more social classes removed from Steglitz, another city farm welcomes school trips. The children enjoy not only the farm’s animals, but also the totem poles at its corners, erected and consecrated by an American Indian sachem called in by the squatters who created the farm to protect it from the greedy hands of Berlin city planners. Tiny fingers of the German countryside and forest penetrate the wilderness of stone and asphalt.

Berlin yields its secrets slowly. A city of preternaturally ugly buildings, old and new, it bristles with the scars of its violent past. In the old urban center to the east, a vast open space stretches out where the palace of the Hohenzollerns, with its twelve hundred rooms, spectacular sculptured courtyard, and high dome, once dominated the cityscape. The grimy, grey façades of many nearby buildings still show the holes and chips left after the last great battle of World War II and the damage done more recently by pollution. Empty lots and lumpish dark-glass modules of East Bloc Moderne jostle with the colorful fronts and bright signs of recently opened Western businesses. Off to the east stretch the once ornate, now crumbling wedding-cake façades of the “Lockers for Workers” that lined East Berlin’s great boulevard, the Stalin- (later Karl-Marx-) Allee. The eastern city’s vast ceremonial center is the Alexanderplatz—where ill-assorted tall buildings, one of them covered with a wilderness of sheet metal tortured into modernist shapes, surround an enormous central space. Teenagers kicking beer cans, unemployed men drinking, and tourists eating lavish pastries at a Viennese cafe all vanish into insignificance.

In the rich districts to the west, late nineteenth-century villas and apartment buildings line grand streets, their pastel-colored façades swarming with mythological figures, eyes and muscles bulging in warlike fury. Next to them glass and steel skyscrapers admit sunlight through enormous conservatories into offices of gleaming, barren white. In the center of the western city, the Daimler-Benz emblem turns, slowly, on top of the massive mall that once beamed capitalist messages to the captive East; beside it, its base overwhelmed by crowds of scruffy kids, rises the broken spire of the bombed Memorial Church. Between the former east and west zones, in the Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest and later the saddest, emptiest place in Europe, bright pastel water lines, jagged scaffolding, and enormous cranes turn the skyline into an eerie image of destruction and construction, a Jurassic Park of machines that ramp and tear. Not far away from the flying dust and noise of Sony’s rising urban theme park lie the Reichstag and Hitler’s bunker, the “Topography of the Terror,” a cleverly designed set of signs and displays in the empty lot which once housed, and now commemorates, the headquarters of the Gestapo, and Tresor, the one-time vault which now harbors a famous East Berlin club. A little to the north, the ruins of the former Jewish quarter enclose Berlin’s liveliest scene, where the nights in local bars begin long after midnight for German students and Irish construction workers.

Visitors used to Western European order, cleanliness, and beauty often recoil at the first encounter with this city of bloat, wreck, and shadow. If one stays a while, however, Berlin can captivate and charm. The belt of lakes and forests that surrounds the city, its ranks of trees replanted after the war in rows of military straightness, makes Berlin greener than any other great city in Europe. For all the damage done by invaders and architects, some Berlin neighborhoods retain a highly individual appeal. In the western neighborhood of Schöneberg, a center of Berlin’s lively gay culture, and in the Savignyplatz not far away, ornate façades rise over tiny, attractive shops and restaurants. In warm weather, customers swarm about the outside tables with all the northerner’s desperate need for light and air. Squares temporarily become extensions of dwelling places, streets are not passed through, but lived in—just as in the Tuscan piazzas that all cultured West Berliners long for.

Far to the east, in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the urban scene is equally distinctive, but evokes a radically different—and much more local—set of urban visions. Battered Bauhaus apartment buildings with shops, offices, and places of entertainment on their ground floors, their once-sleek oval balconies leaking stucco on passers-by, call to mind Weimar planners’ dreams of the self-contained machine for living that would make life in Metropolis modern and efficient. Behind the graffiti on some eastern streets in the center one even finds stairwells and courtyards in the old Prussian style, austere and classical, which was mostly buried by the empires of Wilhelm II and Hitler. They quickly catch one’s attention.

So does the city’s odd mix of extreme provincialism and high sophistication. While no newspaper or magazine of high quality is published in Berlin, the city’s museums, operas, and orchestras are superb. It has scholarly and literary book publishers that New York and Boston can only envy. Berlin cabdrivers, many of whom are students, often show a knowledge of Hegel and Nietzsche that would put American professors to shame. (Admittedly, Berlin intellectuals have a propensity to fall for theories once fashionable in Paris or Berkeley, when they arrive, a few years late, at the Zoo Station.) Berlin cuisine is not high: its characteristic dish—pig’s knuckles, eaten with a Teutonic version of polenta and washed down with corn liquor and thin beer—will never threaten the popularity of choucroute garnie. But the city’s language is sharp and powerful. Berliners cherish a peculiar gallows humor, best expressed in the local dialect, with its characteristic substitution of j for the hard g (guten morgen becomes yuten moryen in Berlinerisch) and its Yiddishisms, so chilling to the American who does not expect them. “You can’t eat as much as you would like to throw up”—Max Liebermann’s famous remark about the Nazis marching through the Brandenburg Gate epitomizes a satirical, gallows-humored turn of thought that remained alive even in the spy-haunted wastes of East Berlin (West child to East child: “We have bananas, you don’t.” East child: “So? We have socialism.” West child: “Big deal: we’ll get socialism too.” East child: “Then you won’t have any bananas either”).1

Like Thomas Wolfe’s Brooklyn, Berlin refuses to be known as a whole. Even Walter Benjamin, who traced the paths of memory into lost streets, cafés, and apartments, and expressed his love for his lost city in prose of delicate beauty, could not speak the local dialect—as his friend Gershom Scholem, whose language and temperament were permanently marked by his own Berlin upbringing, noted with amusement. Other European cities describe their pasts in a visual language that lends itself to decoding. In Vienna, as Carl Schorske has shown, the Athenian parliament building and Gothic city hall on the Ring still record the aspirations of nineteenth-century liberals to build the civic institutions which their imperial city had never possessed, and to connect these with a history Vienna had not experienced. The concrete antiaircraft towers built in World War II, never torn down, dominate parts of the skyline, huge mushrooms of grey concrete which make the city’s collective effort to forget its Nazi period even more starkly visible than its failed experiment with liberalism. In Berlin, by contrast, every neighborhood speaks with a slightly different inflection, hard to record or explain. For all the precision of the city maps that enable the newcomer to find addresses in Berlin’s maze of homonymous streets, the profile of the city as a whole remains hard to trace, harder still to decipher.

2.

Historians, naturally, find Berlin’s elusiveness a challenge to their curiosity and industry. A number of them have recently followed different threads to what they see as the secret at the heart of Berlin’s stone labyrinth. Brian Ladd faces the city’s fragmented past and incoherent present head on. In his lucid study The Ghosts of Berlin, he explores the history of the built city, period by period, paying close attention to the numerous recent controversies about the meanings of form and space in the city—controversies which have surrounded everything from such very conspicuous, public projects as the new Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind, the future of which remains uncertain, to the renaming of obscure East Berlin streets after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His well-written and well-illustrated book amounts to a brief history of the city as well as a guide to its landscape.

Ladd shows particular sensitivity to the aesthetic and planning principles of the former East Germany—principles little appreciated in the West even before the collapse of communism, and now rapidly becoming indecipherable as the society in which they took shape disappears into the past. Tracing the creation of the Stalinallee and Alexanderplatz, for example, he carefully explains how East German planners deliberately placed their emphasis on the city center and tried to produce an imposing style for it, a showcase for Stalinism’s ability to mobilize men and resources (Ladd describes their chosen style as “an amalgam of Schinkel and Stalin”). The Stalinallee, with its falling Meissen façade tiles and kitsch excesses of scale, looks foolish now, an emblem of forlorn hopes for a future lost to tyranny and corruption. But in its period, the “first socialist boulevard,” symbolically running west to east and inhabited, to a great extent, by workers and war victims rather than apparatchiks, can be seen both as a high point of modernism and an ambitious attempt to muster civic energies.

  1. 1

    Clément de Wroblewsky, “Die Hauptstadt Berlin. Ein Witz,” in Berlin—Hauptstadt der DDR 1949-1989. Utopie und Realität, edited by Bernd Wilczek (Baden-Baden: Elster Verlag, 1995), pp. 247-264.

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