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Germany’s Beating Heart: Berlin’s Turbulent Past Gives Rise to Exuberant Culture

September 17, 2014
by Christine Schoefer
A view of Berlin

“Berlin ist eine Reise wert”—Berlin is worth a trip. That tepid marketing blurb from the 1950s was meant to lure reluctant tourists to the divided city still recovering from the devastation of World War II. No such encouragement is needed today. Twenty-five years after the destruction of the infamous Berlin Wall, tourism is a leading industry in Germany’s booming capital. Last year alone, more than 11 million people visited.

Few of these visitors fall in love with Berlin the way they might fall for, say, Paris or Barcelona or any of the other great romantic cities of Europe. Yet many are strangely stirred by it, made ruminative by the experience. That’s because inside the boomtown, there is a ghost town. Berlin is still haunted by the past, by spirits that call upon the visitor to consider not just beautiful sights, but big issues—war and persecution, protest and resistance, guilt and atonement.

I was born in Berlin, and though I have happily lived in the Bay Area for more than three decades, I return often to the city, where I can muse on the healing balm of passing time, and revel in the spirit of transformation. As much as anything, Berlin is a city of radical change, having completely transformed itself at least six times in the last century and a half. And when I wander the streets of my birthplace, I am an archeologist, excavating the historical layers that are the foundation of the now-hip metropolis.

The boundary near Checkpoint Charlie
Boundary post near Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin was the capital of Prussia until 1871, and some of the most famous tourist attractions—the Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessäule, and the Museumsinsel—date to that era. Germany became a nation in 1871, with Berlin the imperial capital. The metropolis was internationally known for its burgeoning industry and bellicose politics, for its scientific innovations and avant-garde culture, for its strong military and its imperial pomp. Its population had exploded to almost 2 million people, most of them working-class. The Reichstag was built in 1894 as the seat of government for the newly established German Reich.

After Germany was defeated in World War I, the democratic Weimar Republic was established. The country was on the brink of economic collapse, and Berlin—its people demoralized by hyperinflation, unemployment, and hunger—became a hotbed of social and political unrest. General strikes paralyzed production; street battles raged between Communists and Freikorps right-wing militias. To escape the political turmoil, the National Assembly moved to the small town of Weimar, but Berlin remained the beating heart of Germany, flourishing in spite of—or perhaps due to—the intense political battles fought in the city’s streets and meeting halls.

“Im­possible to re­build this city,” an Amer­ic­an of­ficer ex­claimed after driv­ing through the city’s bombed-out streets. “Let’s build a new Ber­lin some­place else.”

Berlin became the center of the Third Reich after Hitler took power in 1933. The Führer envisioned making Berlin into the world capital Germania, a grid of monolithic buildings and avenues modeled on ancient Rome. Instead, the once proud capital was reduced to rubble; only a few Nazi structures still stand. When, as a child, I swam in the pool next to the Olympic stadium, or accompanied my great-aunt to offices in the massive administrative buildings at Fehrbelliner Platz, I had no idea what these buildings symbolized.

The year 1945 was the so-called Hour Zero: All of Germany, including Berlin, was in ruins.

“Impossible to rebuild this city,” an American officer is said to have exclaimed after driving through the city’s bombed-out streets. “Let’s build a new Berlin someplace else.” The city stayed where it was, but its population was forever changed. Before the Third Reich, Berlin had Germany’s largest Jewish community. In 1945, only a few thousand Jews remained. Those who had not fled were murdered by the state, alongside political opponents, the openly gay, the disabled, and others deemed inferior to the “master race.”

After the war, determined to prevent another rise of German power, the victorious Allies divided the country and its former capital into four zones of occupation. These administrative districts were almost immediately consolidated into Eastern and Western Zones, with the Soviets in the East, and the French, English, and Americans in the West. The divide was not only geographical but ideological—what Churchill coined the Iron Curtain.

Whenev­er I crossed to East Ber­lin, I real­ized that the city smelled dif­fer­ent on the oth­er side: The odors were of brown coal and two-stroke en­gines and the harsh cleansers used in pub­lic build­ings.

Then in 1949, two separate countries were founded: the Federal Republic of Germany, based on the American model of liberal democracy and capitalism, and the German Democratic Republic, based on the Soviet model of state socialism. Berlin, situated in the heart of East Germany, became two cities. East Berlin was proclaimed the capital of the GDR, and the Federal Republic made Bonn its new capital. West Berlin became the easternmost outpost of the West. And for 44 years, a divided Berlin was the primary setting of East–West confrontation—and political thrillers and top-secret plots.

During the ’50s, thousands of refugees fled East Germany every day, most of them via West Berlin. To stop the exodus that endangered the survival of the new socialist state, East German authorities built the Berlin Wall in 1961. It was actually two walls: one fortified the border between the two countries; the other surrounded West Berlin, making it a Western island in East Germany and cutting the city and all of its services—transit lines, sewer pipes, communications, etc.—in two. All travel in and out of West Berlin passed through three transit “corridors” with border checkpoints at each end.

The so-called economic miracle (fueled by currency reform, the Marshall Plan, and the Germans’ legendary work ethic) was mostly limited to the Federal Republic. As industry and manufacturing fled the city for Western towns, West Berlin became a world unto itself, largely removed from West German rules and aspirations but heavily subsidized by the state. The remaining population was a mix of old-time Berliners, mostly working-class, and young Germans who explored alternative lifestyles. Because the city was exempt from national military conscription, it became a refuge for young men avoiding the draft. Cultural rebellion and left-wing politics, student protests, and the women’s movement all shaped the city’s culture. An influx of eastern Mediterranean workers brought ethnic diversity.

Wrapped Reichstag, photo by Wolfgang Volz

Meanwhile, the other Berlin consolidated its status as the political and administrative center of East Germany. Somber and repressive, East Berlin nevertheless had its own protest movement: writers and musicians, philosophers and scientists met in private circles to discuss liberation politics beyond the East-West dichotomy that shaped world affairs. The heirs of these dissidents were the protestors who eventually led the mass demonstrations that toppled the Wall.

The people of East and West Berlin learned to live with the Wall as a wound from WW II, but they never stopped looking to the other side, the other life. East Germans watched West German television, West Germans visited their relatives in the East. Whenever I crossed the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint to conduct research in East Berlin, I realized that the city smelled different on the other side: The odors were of brown coal and two-stroke engines and the harsh cleansers used in public buildings. But the brash dialect and the notoriously acerbic Berlin humor were the same on both sides of the Wall.

And then, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. East German authorities gave in to pressure from mass protests and opened the border. Berlin rejoiced in its wholeness. The Wall was demolished by heavy equipment and hammered into chunks by Berliners themselves; a small piece of it sits on my bookshelf.

The year 1995 saw an artist­ic cleans­ing when the renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the en­tire build­ing in sil­ver fab­ric. For 14 days, the Reich­stag was co­cooned so that a new spir­it might emerge.

To appreciate how much Berlin has changed, before the Wall and since, the visitor is directed to Potsdamer Platz. At one time in history, this was the busiest traffic hub in all of Europe, lined with famous department stores, restaurants, and hotels. Political figures, artists, writers, and publicists met in cafés to work and mingle. In the days of the Third Reich, swastika flags and banners changed the appearance of the Platz, and Nazi persecution transformed its vibrant cultural life. Allied bombing raids during the war leveled buildings and tore up the streets. Potsdamer Platz was rendered a wasteland, and the border between East and West Berlin cut right through its center.

When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, it created a dead end on the Western side and a high-security tract on the Eastern side, guarded by sentries in towers. After 1989, the desolate property was sold to development consortia that turned Potsdamer Platz into the futuristic city center we see today. Apart from a few crumbling fragments, only a double line of cobblestones snaking across the bustling streets and intersections mark the path of the former partition.

Not far from Potsdamer Platz, near the banks of the Spree, stands the Reichstag. Bombed during World War II, the parliament building was beautifully reconstructed in 1999, after Germany’s second unification. The stunning glass cupola allows light to flood the entire building, including the plenary chambers of the German Bundestag. Beautiful, yes. It is also a potent symbol of the political transparency missing during fascist and communist regimes.

Hitler rose to power after blaming Communists for setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933. Twelve years later, Soviet soldiers hoisted their red flag from the building’s destroyed roof to proclaim victory over the Nazi army. The year 1995 saw an artistic cleansing when the renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the entire building in silver fabric. For 14 days, the Reichstag was cocooned so that a new spirit might emerge. Inside the beautifully reconstructed building, the Soviet soldiers’ Cyrillic graffiti is preserved.

The Jew­ish del­is and cafés that have opened in Mitte and Schöne­berg bring to mind the vi­tal­ity of Jew­ish life that ended with the Third Reich. And the uni­formed po­lice­men guard­ing Jew­ish es­tab­lish­ments are a somber re­mind­er that fear of an­ti­semit­ism lingers in Ber­lin even today.

Berlin’s memorials tend to honor the victorious Allies—Americans, Russians, French, and British—who defeated Germany, because these were also liberators who vanquished the murderous regime that Germans themselves had brought to power. The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow, a district in former East Berlin, is an expansive 25-acre site that honors the 80,000 Russian soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin, and all the Russian soldiers who died in Hitler’s war. At the top of a stone stairway, a tall statue of a Soviet soldier stands proudly. Holding a child in one arm and an oversized sword over a broken swastika in the other hand, he is a symbol of liberation. Elaborately carved stone walls and sarcophagi surround the statue. These were reputedly constructed from the marble and granite that made up Hitler’s destroyed Chancellery.

Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) in western Berlin was created from war rubble, and it is the highest point in the Grunewald forest. Shielded from below by the canopies of old-growth trees, an abandoned multistoried espionage field station sprawls across the top of the mountain. From this location, American and British military personnel eavesdropped on East Berlin and Moscow between 1961 and 1989. Today, a dilapidated stairway leads through multiple stories and open rooms adorned with graffiti. The thick canvas that once covered the high domes at the top is badly torn; shreds flap in the wind.

Sometimes the vibrations of Berlin’s history are subtle. Those city center apartment buildings that survived WW II bombing raids exude the rock-solid confidence of Imperial Berlin. But when I take a closer look, I notice the pockmarks left by bullets and grenades during the final days of the war. What about the graffiti-adorned, windowless sides of apartment buildings that are bordered by an overgrown lot? Those are firewalls that were never meant to be exposed to the elements. The unkempt adjacent plots, so unexpected in the urban density, mark the spot where the neighboring buildings were bombed, their ruins cleared after the war by the “rubble women” who, in human chains, passed the debris down the line to be piled up and reused in the city’s reconstruction. The Jewish delis and cafés that have opened in Mitte and Schöneberg bring to mind the vitality of Jewish life that ended with the Third Reich. And the uniformed policemen guarding Jewish establishments are a somber reminder that fear of antisemitism lingers in Berlin even today.

The Kruezberg neighborhood of Berlin
Kreuzberg, once hemmed in by the Berlin Wall, is now a cultural mecca. Photo by Corinna Schoefer

I love the cast-iron water pumps on the sidewalks of busy streets because they are holdovers from the era of horse-drawn carriages. Here and there, small round paving stones peek through street surfaces, reminding me that double-decker buses, bicycles, streetcars, and Daimler taxicabs bumped along these cobblestone roads long before asphalt smoothed them out. I still read the Litfaßsäulen, the rotund pillars covered with publicity posters and advertising, just as I did as a child. And I love walking the streets at night. Not just because they are safe—which they are. But also because of the gas streetlights, nearly 44,000 of them, that bathe some sections of the city in a golden glow.

For peace and quiet, I go to Berlin’s famed cemetery, the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof. Here, Berlin’s legendary radicals from various periods rest within shouting distance of one another. Here are the 19th century philosopher Hegel and the Frankfurt School scholar Herbert Marcuse, and the literary luminaries who, like Marcuse, had to flee Germany during the Third Reich: Bertoldt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Heinrich Mann. Here are the radicals of divided Germany: anarchist Fritz Teufel from the West, and dissident Bärbel Bohley from the East.

What, I wonder, would they say about contemporary Berlin? 

Journalist Christine Schoefer is a native Berliner now living in the Bay Area.

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