Hello to Berlin

First some statistics:

By the time Soviet troops—arms festooned with looted watches—raised their flag on the roof of the Reichstag on May 1, 1945, 70 percent of the Berlin city center was in ruins; more bombs—33,390 tons—had been dropped on Berlin than on the whole of Britain. Casualties of the final Battle of Berlin in April 1945 included 304,000 Soviet soldiers, one million German soldiers, and 100,000 civilians.

Amid the mayhem of shrieking “Stalin Organs” (Soviet artillery), day and night bombing, and fighting from street to street were scenes of Gothic horror: starving people were shot by SS men for raiding a bakery; teenagers were strung up from lampposts for refusing to fight suicidal battles; panic-stricken giraffes and gibbering monkeys stampeded up the Kurfürstendamm, fleeing from the burning zoo; after a concert of Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony, attended by Nazi leaders, baskets filled with cyanide capsules were offered around by children in Hitler Youth uniforms. And down below, in his fetid bunker, the Führer babbled about dog breeding before shooting his brains out, while SS men danced in the canteen of his ruined chancellery.

A large proportion of the population in Berlin in 1945 consisted of foreign workers, many of them slaves. Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians were treated worst. They were Untermenschen. Relations with a German woman meant instant execution. French, Belgians, and Dutchmen were better off. Unlike the Untermenschen, they were sometimes able to huddle in bomb shelters with the exhausted Berliners. One of those people was my father, a law student at the time, forced to work in a German factory for refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the Nazi government of the occupied Netherlands. He still doesn’t like noisy crowds or loud bangs: they bring back memories.

I do not know what went through his mind on New Year’s Eve, 1989, as we joined a huge crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was dancing and shouting, and a pandemonium of popping corks, fireworks, and German songs. I lost him in the crowd, just before he was hit in the face by a misdirected firecracker, as an absurd little reminder from the angel of history.

What I do know is that he still has a soft spot for Russians, who liberated him and nursed him back to health, and also for Berliners, or more specifically for the working class of East Berlin, who, in his memory, hated the Nazi bosses almost as much as he did. There are memories of decent acts, of Jews hidden from deadly eyes, and of long lines in front of a packed church whose pastor spoke openly about German guilt (he was executed for this act of courage before the war was over).

This, then, was the idea of Berlin I grew up with: Germans had been bad, but Berliners had been a little better, some of them, perhaps, even quite good …

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