Posted tagged ‘Berlin’

The Berlin story

October 10, 2014

As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.

Reichstag

Reichstag

One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

The fallen Wall and a search for history

November 9, 2009

One of my very earliest memories is of walking with my parents and older sister on the banks of the River Elbe near Dannenberg in what was then (in the mid-1950s) West Germany. At that point the Elbe marked the border between the Federal Republic of (West) Germany and the (East) German Democratic Republic. The river here is very wide, but as I walked with my parents they explained that the men I could just about see on the other side were armed border guards and that they would stop anyone who wanted to swim across the river. The idea of wanting to swim across this vast river seemed absurd to me, and so I quietly thought of the role of these guards as being one of wanting to help people do what was in their best interests. Probably they thought the same. When just a few weeks later my father explained that one such would-be swimmer had been shot by the guards on entering the water, I did think that their particular service of helping citizens had been taken beyond reasonable limits, and as a three-year-old I changed my views.

But right then, East Germany was haemorrhaging citizens. By the end of the 1950s over two million people had fled their republic to seek a new life in ours. And so in August 1961 the most porous part of the East-West frontier – the divided city of Berlin – was closed with the erection of a wall that surrounded the western enclave. Even then, there continued to be regular (and often ingenious, but also often fatal) attempts to flee from the East to the West, including continuing attempts at the River Elbe where I walked as a child.

Today, November 9, marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; or to put it more accurately, of the decision by the East German authorities (who were at that point in serious difficulty) to open the wall to informal transit in both directions. Not long afterwards the Wall did come down, and not long afterwards again East and West Germany were reunited. And as we know, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama declared at that time that we had reached ‘the end of history‘: the competition between ideologies was over for ever, and the West’s liberal capitalism had won.

Of course history didn’t end – and for the record and to be fair, Fukuyama has developed a much more nuanced view of international affairs since then, indeed last year he supported Barack Obama’s successful bid for the US presidency. There is, it is true, no longer a recognisable global ideological conflict between a capitalist and a socialist world view; but this has given way to lots of other conflicts, some of them very hard to contain in philosophical terms. The events of September 11, 2001, and what followed them were infinitely more alarming in many ways than the articulated and feared threats of the Cold War that, at least in Europe, never produced any actual conflict. Meanwhile in the states of the former East Germany, which often have had to suffer greater economic and social problems than the former West, a significant minority have started to feel some nostalgia for the old times, a condition that has been called ‘Ostalgie’ (a contraction of ‘East Nostalgia’).

Whatever may be the view of it now, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the very greatest iconic moments in history, unforgettable to all those who saw it, even if just on a television screen. Even if it made no clear statements about ideologies, it did declare that attempts by a state to suppress its own citizens could not work for ever. But it did not solve all of Germany’s problems for all time, never mind the world’s. Over the years, governments have increasingly failed to deliver a vision of where they think we should go. Economic boom conditions dulled some of the questions about vision, but they have now returned with a vengeance. So the right mood for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall is not one of triumph and self-satisfaction, but one of re-appraisal of what western developed countries have been doing, and what they intend to do now.

That’s a job for all of us, and the time is right for it.