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.1
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. It is certainly the idea Berliners like to have of themselves. They take pride in the famous Berlin Schnauze, meaning snout, or “lip”: irreverent, antiauthoritarian, frank, streetwise. Then there is the equally famous Berliner Unwille, the Berliners’ unwillingness to do as they are told; the opposite, that is, of that other proud German motto: Befehl ist Befehl (An order is an order).
Call it an urban myth, if you like. Alexandra Richie’s book, Faust’s Metropolis, passionately demolishes that myth. After her 1,139 pages of destruction, there is not much left for the Berlin snout to brag about. From her historical account, Berliners emerge as cravenly obedient to authorities, anxiously self-important, deeply provincial, and adept at spinning flattering fantasies about themselves. She has done brilliant work, but 1,139 pages, like “Bomber” Harris’s 14,562 sorties over Berlin, is perhaps a case of overkill. Her points could have been made with fewer words. There are too many discursions into well-known matters of German history: Napoleon’s campaigns, Hitler’s career, and so on. This makes her book a slog to read, but the material is all fascinating and Richie is an excellent descriptive writer.
Since she is out to make a case, Richie has a tendency to tell only one side of a story. She was in Berlin when Marlene Dietrich was buried there in 1992. So was I, and I share her disgust for the gracelessness with which Dietrich’s native city received her. The city government refused to give her an official funeral (after the French had draped her coffin in the tricolor). And Richie describes how some Berliners actually spat on her grave, while others called her a “whore,” or (perhaps worse) “that foreigner” who had worn an “enemy uniform.” But Richie doesn’t mention that large numbers of people came to pay tribute at the cemetery after the ceremony was over. That most of those people were under forty might actually prove her case that most old Berliners are conservative, chauvinistic, and intolerant. But it also shows that many young Berliners mourn a culture that was the opposite of these things.
The first myth to be addressed by Richie concerns the origins of Berlin. It is, as so often with German myths, a racial one. In 1864, a historian named Adolph Streckfuss published the book From Fishing Village to World City. His thesis, which soon became accepted fact, was that people of German stock had founded Berlin on barren but nonetheless ancestral soil in the twelfth century. This fabrication served to deny the fact that Berlin had started as a Slavic settlement, and remained so for six centuries. The name Berlin comes not from the German “bear,” but from a Slavic word, brl, meaning “swamp.” Not only was Berlin and its surrounding country Slavic, but it was one of the last places in Germany to be Christianized. It was never part of the Roman Empire, or even Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. So much, then, for the early Berliners: not brave Teutons, civilized by Roman laws, or German subjects of Charlemagne, but pagan Slavs, in a swamp. Adenauer—who hated Berlin—was not entirely wrong to mutter “Asia, Asia,” whenever he crossed the Elbe River from the west.
The foundation myth was corrected after World War II, but it is an example of the Berlin tendency to appear as something it is not, or at least as something grander than it is. Stephen Spender, who liked Berlin, noted the vainglory of its pre-war architecture:
Everything about Berlin seemed strained and false, and at times, it plunged wildly into the fantastic…. I shall never forget the heaviness of Berlin porticoes, the massiveness of the entrance halls, the insistence even in the design of a stove in a room on a style which seeks an alibi from the charge of pretentiousness in massiveness. One room which I was offered for the price of about one pound a week (with breakfast) was designed in a mixture of baronial and Gothic styles, being inlaid entirely with carved cedarwood; which gave it the smell and the air of the interior of a large cigar box. On a platform at one end of this room there stood the figures of four knights, in shining armour.2
Ever since I first read this, I have found it hard to walk past what is left of the Wilhelmine façades in central Berlin without thinking of Stephen Spender. His short chapter on Berlin, in a book entitled European Witness, about Germany in ruins in 1945, should be read by anybody interested in this remarkable city.
The mythology of Berlin’s past, and even the pretentiousness of its buildings, were not just matters of vulgar prejudice or newly rich bad taste. They often served political aims. As Richie says, “The extraordinary notion that one could use ancient history to legitimate contemporary politics was taken with deadly seriousness.” This was hardly extraordinary, and unique neither to Berlin nor to Germans, but it could perhaps be said that their seriousness has been more deadly than most. The point of Berlin’s foundation myth was to prove the purity of the German Volk, at a time when the Reich was being united by blood and iron. The idea that the capital of Prussia and Germany should have Slavic foundations would not have fitted the kind of nation promoted by Romantic nationalists and ruled by warrior-kings. That Adolph Streckfuss, the inventor of the myth, should have started life as a radical who also coined the idea of Berliner Unwille and took part in the revolt of 1848 is not as surprising as it may seem. His myth-making is an example of political disillusion leading to folkish romance, that bane of modern German history. (Richard Wagner, after all, had been a supporter of the failed 1848 revolution too.)
Berlin’s myth is really the key to Richie’s thesis, which is more than an attempt to debunk the braggadocio of Berlin’s big snout. She goes further: the denial of historical truth is part of what led to the destruction of Berlin, and by extension Germany too (not to mention great chunks of the world). In the history of Berlin, the past was always something to destroy, or purge, or reinvent in a debased and distorted form. The denial of truth in exchange for power and wealth, that, in Richie’s view, is the Faustian pact of Berlin. By giving in to the devil’s temptations, Berlin caused its own downfall.
Berlin, says Richie, “changes identities like a snake sloughing its skin.” These identities were largely imposed from above, by kings and kaisers, chancellors and first secretaries, and of course a Führer. Despotism, benevolent or not, dominates the political history of Berlin. There have been revolts and attempted revolutions, to be sure, but they mostly petered out more swiftly than in other German cities. On the other hand, twentieth-century Berlin was known as a “red” city. Many workers in the 1920s were Communists. The first anti-Communist uprising in the Soviet bloc also took place in Berlin, in 1953. Bertolt Brecht congratulated the ghastly Walter Ulbricht when it failed. But the “only effective general strike ever held in the capital,” says Richie, came in 1920, when Berliners stood up against the attempted military coup staged by the right-wing leader Wolfgang Kapp and his band of revanchist veterans.
Some heavily restored buildings still exist to remind us of Berlin’s radical changes of identity. There is the Berlin of Frederick the Great: French, Enlightened, baroque, rococo, benignly despotic. He designed a cathedral modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. His Royal Palace, damaged by bombs and then blown up by the East German Communist government, was larger than Versailles.
There is the Berlin of Frederick William III, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who turned from Gothic nationalism, filled with democratic hopes, to the neoclassical order of Prussian autocracy. Later in the century, Bismarck wanted his Berlin to be bigger and better than Paris, and Kaiser William II wanted his capital to be bigger and better than London (with Windsor Castle thrown in): the largest, most opulent hotels and department stores in the world were matched by equally outlandish fashions in clothes. In Richie’s words: “Hats had to be wider, skirts fuller, shoes higher and fabric more colorful than elsewhere….”
After the Kaiser’s dreams had crashed in 1918, Weimar Berlin, with its pumped-up air of decadence and urban frenzy, was built up as the New York City of Central Europe. But most radical and grandiose of all was Hitler’s Berlin, to be named Germania, whose Volkshalle, many times the size of St. Peter’s in Rome, would be so gigantic that its architect, Albert Speer, worried about clouds forming inside its dome. When the cold war cut Berlin in half, Soviet-style towers and Stalinist wedding-cake avenues faced, across the Wall, temples of conspicuous consumption, topped with the star of Mercedes-Benz and other bangles of capitalist wealth. And now Berlin has been turned into a huge building site yet again…for what? We shall see.
All great cities have changed their identities: think of what Haussmann did to Paris, or Nash to London. But the Babylonian hubris of Berlin, with its arriviste lust for excess, and its hunger for the trappings (and, alas, substance) of power, is special. The speed of Berlin’s transformations, and the fact that its architects and their patrons always looked elsewhere for models to follow and rivals to beat, produced an air of rootlessness that many observers have noted. Madame de Staël, quoted by Richie, said after a visit in 1804 that “one sees no traces of earlier times…. An entirely modern city, beautiful as it is, makes no impressions; it reveals no marks of the history of the country, or the character of its inhabitants.”
And here, in 1930, is Joseph Roth, the brilliant novelist and journalist from Galicia, who made his name in Weimar Berlin: “Berlin is a young, unhappy city of the future. Its tradition has a fragmentary character. Its development, often interrupted, and more often steered this way and that, has been hindered, as well as boosted by unconscious errors and consciously evil tendencies.”3
Rootlessness, in Richie’s book, seems to be mostly a bad thing, the sign of a society without an anchor. She describes Weimar culture as fun, but “essentially rootless.” But then perhaps it can also be a good thing, for ten pages later she notes that the greatest artists of the Weimar Republic, such as Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin, were denounced by Nazi types as “rootless internationalists.” Stephen Spender also reflected on Berlin’s rootlessness: “Berlin was a town where tradition was a caricature and a mockery, where action was conceived of entirely in terms of power—enormous power for good or for evil.”4 It is of course the evil power that still fascinates about Berlin, as we poke through its bullet-holed ruins.
What exactly is meant by “rootlessness” anyway? Richie, as I understand it, means two things. She argues that political failure, since the end of the eighteenth century, turned German intellectuals away from political reality toward a Romantic, often highly cultivated spiritual realm where politics was replaced by a high-minded ideal of culture. Sometimes this cultural ideal was a fantasy of German roots, of some essential, indefinable, but superior German spirit. This fantasy of roots was in itself a form of rootlessness. And, as she describes it, Berlin was the center of Romanticism, from Fichte to the Wandervögel, whose dream of pure nature was a Berlin-bred reaction to Berlin’s relentless urbanism.
The other kind of rootlessness she describes is the one observed by Madame de Staël and Joseph Roth: the habit of Berlin’s rulers of continuing the cycle of rejecting the past, or distorting it, and starting all over again, with ever-braver new worlds. It raises an interesting question: Do radical breaks with tradition result in evil, because societies become unhinged? Or does evil occur because dictatorial regimes try to usurp everything, including our views of the past? I think the latter. Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow, and Beijing were not the centers of evil empires in the twentieth century because traditions were broken, but because particular traditions were used, abused, and distorted by autocrats to justify their absolute hold on power. In Berlin these traditions included a surfeit of military pomp and authoritarian bureaucracy. Berliners, despite their streetwise ways and salty wit, had become used to following orders, hence Richie’s sharp words on their lack of Zivilcourage when it really mattered.
Some of the best-written and most shocking passages in Richie’s book are about the coexistence in Hitler’s Berlin of normal, daily life and extreme violence. A stilted version of Weimar jollity—girly revues, cabarets, jazz clubs—continued in Berlin well after the Republic had fallen. But, as Richie writes, “Merrymakers on their way past the SA building near the Friedrichstrasse nightclubs could have heard the screams of the tortured victims floating up from the cells….” In one SA torture center, which was named, with the customary humor of Nazi thugs, Café Komet, victims were beaten and kicked in time to the music. Meanwhile, most ordinary Berliners went on with their lives, drinking pale beer, averting their eyes from unpleasantness, and cheering Hitler’s early victories. There was not much they could do, to be sure, once the Nazis were in power. And not all were craven. Less than 10 percent of Berlin’s Jews survived the war; a terrible statistic. But it still took many brave Berliners even to save six thousand Jews.
There is another side to the alleged rootlessness of Berlin, something more positive, more in tune with Spender’s notion of the power to do good. Ever since Berlin became an important city barely two hundred years ago, its rulers wanted it to be like Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, or Rome. But in fact the Weimar idea of Berlin was more accurate. Walther Rathenau, the highly cultivated foreign minister, who was murdered in Berlin in 1922 by anti-Semitic terrorists, put it clearly, without intending it as praise: “Athens on the Spree is dead and Chicago on the Spree is emerging.” George Grosz projected his Americanophile fantasies on Berlin. So did Brecht. Herwarth Walden, the art dealer, said Berlin was “America in microcosm.”5 Berlin, like Shanghai, another relatively new metropolis with dodgy traditions and golden jazz age memories, is in many ways a New World city. Perhaps it always was.
Restlessness, radicalism, iconoclasm, and the lack of a rooted population are the reasons Berlin culture and industry flourished when it did. All cities thrive when new people can move in and out freely to try their luck. All New World cities are immigrant cities, even if they happen to be in old nations. Shanghai was built by Western businessmen and by Chinese from the hinterlands. But few European cities actually had policies to attract ambitious foreigners in the way Berlin did under the Great Elector in the late seventeenth century. He had the city walls knocked down (literally) and invited Huguenot refugees from France, as well as Danes, Swedes, Dutch, Scots, Bohemians, and even Jews to come and settle there.
In the eighteenth century, under the enlightened despotism of Frederick the Great, Jews were free to build synagogues and run their own schools. Frederick’s Berlin was indeed one of the most liberal cities in Europe. Jewish women—Rahel Levin and Henriette Herz—ran the best literary salons, and Moses Mendelssohn was at the center of intellectual life. (There were limits, though, even in Berlin; whenever Mendelssohn entered the city, he had to pay a special transfer tax, which was applied to livestock and Jews.)
But the best period for the arts and sciences, described very well by Richie, was that astonishing time between 1918 and 1933. Without the Jews, as well as Russians and other foreigners, Berlin would have been a crass, provincial town; with them, for a short while, it was one of the great cultural centers of the world. Young Berliners are aware of that; hence the nostalgic mourning at Marlene Dietrich’s grave—not Jewish, but she might as well have been. Hence, also, the posing of young Gentiles, eating bagels at “Jewish” cafés in old East Berlin, and wearing Stars of David around their pale necks; and hence the piles of Judaica at any well-stocked Berlin bookstore.
One of the ironies of modern German history is that educated Jews, so often accused of rootlessness, were in fact the most faithful guardians of German culture—no bagels, and Stars of David, and “Jewish” cafés for them. They also had the most liberal politics. As the journalist Maximilian Harden, scourge of Kaiser William II, once said: “Freedom is an obsolete Jewish concept.”
Still, German-Jewish high-mindedness notwithstanding, there was much that was vulgar, pretentious, and excessive about Berlin. But like “rootlessness” these can be virtues of a kind. Berlin’s pretentiousness was the product of Prussian military swagger and a deep sense of inferiority, no doubt, but also of something more typical of a New World city. The ambition of outsiders to fulfill their dreams with cash is vulgar, but creates great vitality too. Cities where traditions are thin and money is made, rather than passed down, tend to be livelier than more settled, more “rooted,” more traditional communities. Inherited wealth in Prussia was mostly landed wealth, and that began to dwindle as the nineteenth century ended. Berlin always was a marketplace for brash newcomers. More than that, among the European capitals Berlin was itself a brash newcomer. And therein lies its fascination.
Stephen Spender identified two contradictory concepts of Berlin in its architecture. One was the “pompously Prussian…essay in studied Greek classicism”: the temples of culture, monarchy, and faith on Unter den Linden. And then there was the “meretriciously dazzling…Whore of Babylon” centered around the Kurfürstendamm: the cafés, nightclubs, shops, and brothels. These two ideas of what a great city should be lay “as it were in different bedrooms, like two mistresses of the Berlin soul.”6 Both were fantasies, played out on a huge urban stage. Richie tends to tut-tut fantasies. She regrets that Weimar Berlin had “no equivalent of the social register, the Paris gratin, or London society to filter out charlatans and confidence tricksters….” But, to me, that is precisely what makes Berlin so seductive: its whorishness, its trickery, its overblown attempts to make urban dreams come true. That the dreams were often tawdry, meretricious, or excessive makes them seem more human, though not always humane. (I exclude Albert Speer’s Germania from this rosy picture, for luckily his monster was stillborn.) As is, I think, true of Los Angeles or Tokyo, to mention two other Babylonian cities, Berlin’s (not Germania’s) pretentiousness could be seen as an asset.
It is no coincidence that both Tokyo and Los Angeles are built on geological faultlines. The constant threat of imminent destruction by an earthquake gives them a sense of impermanence, or rootlessness, if you prefer. If nothing is permanent, anything is possible. Stephen Spender’s remark that tradition in Berlin was treated as caricature and mockery is another facet of this sense of impermanence. Berlin was never destroyed by earthquakes, but by wars and official architects. Spender said that living in Weimar Berlin made all experiences feel contemporary:
In this city without style, without tradition, one was conscious above all of everyone’s sense that he or she was living in every way from day to day around a kind of zero. The strength and the weakness of the Berliners was their feeling that they could begin a completely new kind of life—because they had nothing to begin from.
It is a fine description of our own contemporary lives in a world that is becoming more like the New World everywhere. Perhaps we are all Berliners now.
What about Berlin today? The intensity of the debates on how to stitch Berlin together again, after more than fifty years of separation, and how to remember the past, shows how self-conscious Berliners are about their city and its checkered history. The architectural battles since 1989 echo similar questions raised just after the war. What to do with old Nazi (or Communist) buildings? Should pride in pre-Hitler Germany be revived? If so, how? Or should the city, yet again, begin at point zero, with a modernist style that turns its back on the past? And yet again, as in 1933 and 1945, street names are changed, monuments blown up, and statues of discredited heroes demolished.
In the center of Berlin, close to where the Wall used to be, next to a former arts academy, is a small hill overgrown with weeds. It contains the rubble of the former Gestapo headquarters on the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. The buildings survived the war, albeit damaged by bombs, but were blown up in 1949. A road was to be built over them. Then, thanks to an architectural historian and urban planner named Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, it was decided to keep the site as a memorial. Excavations revealed the kitchen cellars of the Gestapo HQ, and an exhibition, called the Topography of Terror, was installed in 1987. One of the debates in 1989 was about whether to make the exhibition permanent.
The story of the Gestapo HQ is typical of the contradictory impulses that mark German (and Berlin) attitudes to the past: blow it up, bury it under a road or a parking lot, or turn it into a monument. Hitler’s chancellery is buried under a kindergarten, and his bunker under a block of hideous apartment buildings. As soon as Spandau prison had seen the back of its last Nazi inmate, the place was dynamited. And yet there are the cellar walls of the Gestapo, carefully preserved in a sandy ditch; and there is the prison of Plötzensee, where the plotters against Hitler’s life were hanged in 1944, and there, in the suburb of Oranienburg, is the Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, later used extensively by the Soviets to imprison enemies of the people. Sachsenhausen is a monument. The question now is whether it should be only a Nazi monument, or a Communist one too.
The most heated debate, which has gone on for ten years, concerns a Holocaust memorial for Berlin. A leading proponent of such a monument is a Gentile woman who adopted the Jewish-sounding name Lea Rosh. Many plans were submitted, some patently absurd. An artist named Richard Gruber thought it would be a good idea to build a huge ferris wheel with sixteen freight cars of the type that transported Jews to the death camps. There was also a plan to build an immense oven modeled after the crematoria used at Auschwitz. There were rows about whom, in particular, should be remembered: only the Jewish victims, or Gypsies and homosexuals too? All together in one memorial, or in separate ones?
The problems are yet to be resolved. Chancellor Helmut Kohl favored a design by the architect Peter Eisenman and the artist Richard Serra for a large square consisting of 4,000 concrete pillars, rather like a stylized cemetery, to be built on a spot near the Brandenburg Gate. But critics of the plan, such as the writer Günter Grass and the new cultural minister Michael Naumann, argue that there are better ways to remember the Holocaust than building monuments. Now that the Social Democrats have come to power it is unlikely that the monument will be built.
Richie writes that “of all the cities in the world, Berlin most powerfully represents the link between architecture and ideology.” This is true, and yet it is risky to draw political conclusions too swiftly from building styles, for the relations between politics and aesthetics are rarely that simple. Consider, for instance, the Bauhaus revival after the war in West Germany. The Bauhaus, with its socialist and internationalist connotations, seemed to be the perfect antidote to the bombastic violence and folkish sentimentality of the Third Reich. The Nazis hated the Bauhaus, and called it typically “Jewish”—for its cosmopolitanism. Many Bauhaus architects had indeed been socialists and internationalists, but they thrived in the United States, where their clean, modern lines came to define the look of corporate capitalism. So it was the Communist “internationalists” of the Soviet-controlled East who condemned the neo-Bauhaus look of the Federal Republic as an unpatriotic, un-German, “brutal, mendacious ‘global style’ of American coinage….” Stalin hated cosmopolitanism too.
These criticisms, published in an East German journal, are quoted by Michael Z. Wise in his excellent discussion of current architectural debates in Berlin, entitled Capital Dilemma. He warns, quite rightly, against seeing “an automatic congruence between architectural form and ideological content.” He notes, for example, a similarity between the postwar West German taste for glassy government buildings—to make politics seem transparent—and Mussolini’s House of Fascism in Como, which expressed the Duce’s idea that “fascism is a glass house into which everyone can peer.” Modernism had an influence on fascist aesthetics. Many Nazis liked steely modern design. Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, all of whom, as consummate modernists, were asked to redesign Berlin after the war, had flirted with fascist patrons in the Thirties and, in Corbu’s case, the Forties.
The reason West Germans became such fanatical modernists was the Nazis’ perversion of so much that was “traditional,” including classicism, and, of course, anything that smacked of German folkishness. The Communist regime, on the other hand, despite its radical, internationalist front and its desire to consign history to the dustbin, felt quite at home with fusty forms of the German past: goose-stepping military parades, nineteenth-century grandiosity, saccharine folklore, and later, when the attraction of scientific socialism had worn thin, Prussian neoclassicism. This was not a great step: Stalinist architecture was neoclassical too.
Yet the East Germans also had their version of modernism. The cheap housing blocks that disfigure every East German town are gimcrack descendants of the Bauhaus. The “people’s palace,” or Palast der Republik, erected on the site of the demolished Royal Palace in Berlin, is an example of modernism gone horribly wrong: a copper-colored, asbestos-rich monstrosity redolent of kommissar kitsch. There was talk after 1989 of tearing it down. For a while, the thing was hidden behind a mock façade of Frederick the Great’s old palace. A typically Berlin compromise: tradition as cartoon.
Two questions dominated the recent debates on how to rebuild Berlin: what to build on the wastelands separating the old East and West, and how to use the tainted buildings that are still there: Goering’s Aviation Ministry, Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, the former Reichsbank, and more of that kind. These buildings will be in the middle of the new government district. Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, the urban planner mentioned above, argued against the German government’s using them. He thought it would be more appropriate for international tenants to move in, the United Nations, say. The range of alibis that the trusted UN is expected to provide never ceases to amaze. In fact, however, the federal government will be the new tenants: the Foreign Ministry in the old Reichsbank, the Finance Ministry in Goering’s old place, and the Labor Ministry in Goebbels’s offices.
Since these buildings were already refurbished once by the Communist government, the next question is what should be done with the Communist decorations which replaced bronze swastikas and stone eagles. One side of the Aviation Ministry used to be decorated with a bronze relief of marching Wehrmacht soldiers. This was removed by the East Germans, who put a mural there instead of ecstatic workers in the garden of socialism. When the Treuhand Agency, in charge of privatizing DDR industries, occupied the building after 1990, the mural was covered with photographs of the 1953 anti-Communist uprising. It will be uncovered again when the Finance Ministry moves in.
What is striking about the tone of the architectural arguments, and of the many pamphlets, booklets, and newspaper supplements they spawned, is the German terror of repeating past mistakes. Modern developments in London and elsewhere have often been monumental. But Berlin, a recent promotional article tells us, “represents a break with this tradition of monumentalism. Each of the flagship developments grouped in Berlin’s Mitte, Tiergarten, and Schöneberg districts is large and high-rise. But inspiring awe is the last thing these developments have been designed to do.”7 Classicism is also a taboo, and so is anything too symbolic of state power.
Perhaps these protestations of innocence are reassuring, but they sometimes irritated foreign architects sitting on juries deciding the future shape of Berlin. An axis cutting through Berlin from north to south, for example, could not be considered, because Albert Speer had thought of that too. Michael Wise writes in his book that foreign jurors began to lose patience with German historical sensitivities. The French architect Claude Vasconi accused the Germans of cowardice. He said: “Symbolism in architecture need not be synonymous with the Third Reich. It’s not everyday that one has the chance to rebuild a capital. One should make the most of it and not be afraid.”
So it has come to this: foreigners telling Germans to be less modest about Berlin. The most exciting—and sensitive—projects have often been left to foreigners. By far the most eccentric and interesting new building in Berlin is the Jewish Museum, cutting into the Lindenstrasse like an exploding Star of David. It is the work of the Polish-Jewish-American Daniel Libeskind. The Reichstag is being revamped, with a brand new dome, by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. Isozaki Arata, a Japanese, and Renzo Piano, an Italian, have designed buildings for Sony and Daimler-Benz on the Potsdamer Platz.
But the plan for the new government district, on a “safe” east-west axis, was drawn up by a Berlin firm, Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank. It is a bold plan, with typically postwar German touches: it originally included a Civic Forum, described by Schultes as “a place of civil courage,” an area where individuals “can heal themselves of the malady of being German.” The plan for this institutionalized place of discourse and protest, to be open night and day, has now been put on hold. And Schultes’s idea of extending the government district well into East Berlin, as a symbol of unification, also had to be abandoned for bureaucratic and political reasons. As Schultes put it, his plans were born “in the euphoria of unification”; since then “a lot of sand got into the gears.” The days that governments and their architects could reshape Berlin at will are over.
It would be foolish to feel nostalgic for German bombast, or architecture by government diktat. Nostalgia is in any case one of the least attractive components of a city that is constantly reinventing itself. The golden days of Weimar, which were not so golden for most people anyway, have become frozen in a sickly caricature, both in the west and the east of Berlin. Least attractive of all is the nostalgia among many West Berliners for the palmy days (for them) of the Wall, when West Berlin was a heavily subsidized playground for mediocre artists, dropouts, and poseurs of various kinds. It is time Berlin became a great city once again. This means that Berliners will have to get used to great city problems too: higher rents, heavier traffic, and large numbers of foreigners coming in to hustle in the best New World tradition. So far, the Berlin snout has spent too much time grumbling.
And yet I too feel a twinge of nostalgia, not for the Wall, but for the time when the Wall came down. I remember the first time I crossed from west to east, the wasteland dotted with abandoned watchtowers and rusty barbed wire. Where there had once been busy city squares, grand hotels, railway stations, government ministries, royal palaces, and Gestapo torture chambers, there was now a vast expanse of sand, with rabbits darting about and children playing football. Soon it will all be covered with buildings. But I wish they would leave at least a small patch of it as it is: a little bit of wilderness to show off this wonderful city’s capacity for terrible destruction and its promise of boundless possibilities.
November 19, 1998
These facts are in Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis. The one million German military casualties includes POWs, who never returned from the Soviet gulag. ↩
Stephen Spender, European Witness (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946), pp. 234-235. ↩
Joseph Roth, Joseph Roth in Berlin: Ein Lesebuch für Spaziergänger, edited by Michael Bienert (Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1996). ↩
Spender, European Witness, p. 236. ↩
There is some confusion about spellings in Richie’s book. Herwarth Walden becomes either Herwath or Herwuth. I know for a fact that Burama should be Buruma. And since I’m nit-picking anyway, future editions should not say that the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach shot himself during the war; he spent twenty years in Spandau prison with his colleagues Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer. ↩
It seems fitting that after 1945 the pompous Prussianism (and the working-class slums) became part of the Soviet zone, and the Whore of Babylon fell to the capitalist allies. ↩
International Herald Tribune, June 26, 1998. ↩