Archive for January, 2011
In the late 1800s, Germany was a new and unstable country, the challenges of united empire scattering many of its citizens (my own ancestors included) to places like rural Iowa. Berlin – home of the ruling Prussian dynasty, the Hohenzollern family – was its capital. Though there had been settlements at that spot on the Spree since around 1200, Berlin’s status as a great ‘world city’ was to come soon thereafter with the rise of modernity – urbanization, mechanization, industrialization, mass production, crowded buildings and the anomie that comes when you have so many neighbors you don’t care to know any of them.
If I think of a similarity between the rural Midwest of today and Germany’s great metropolis, it is that the streets of both faces forward from those boom years and depressions of the late 1800s. In small town America, the look manifests in the neighborhoods of massive Victorian homes that look either well-kept or uninhabited; and in the downtowns, with contemporary shops below and apartments above which still often have many fixtures, radiators, ceilings, doorways, and molding that date to the buildings’ founding. In Berlin, you can see it in the city’s limited indulgence in the Old World myth. Places like the Nikolaiviertel – a remnant of the old village of Cölln, restored after the war by the DDR with liberal use of concrete slabbing – look out of place, the accumulation of whims of the eras overshadowing pretensions of age.
When compared architecturally with other famous European cities, Berlin didn’t have as much of an idealized history to look back to, tethered by a hillside Acropolis; its defining cultural glories were modern and their ruins of concrete, metal and glass. More often than not, the city has had to deal with them practically rather than rope them off and wait for tourists. Germany, of course, has to live with its history, something countries aren’t apt to do unless forced; whatever in the past could be positively idealized was largely eclipsed in the later 20th century by the horrors of the 1930s and 40s. It’s a testament to Berlin that with every dramatic change it built something new on top of the remnants of the old, and with them found a new existence and vitality. As much as these two posts (and a third coming) may feel like they indulge some unflattering aspects of Berlin’s history, you’ll have to take it on good faith that there’s no city in Europe I’d rather revisit.
Berlin, Part II: Snackpoint Charlie
After World War II, four Allies – France, Britain, America, and the USSR – set about redefining what was already Europe’s newest great city. While West Germany moved its capital to Bonn, large memorials rose in Eastern Berlin as the leaders of the newly-founded Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) sought to distance their nation’s identity from Nazism. Their strategy: lose the new country in the great Soviet collective. The architectural remembrances of the period emphasize grandeur and the sacrifice of the conquerors, as in the massive memorial at Treptow. There, overlooking the graves of 5,000 soldiers who died conquering the city, is a 40-foot-tall statue of the best of all possible representatives . In one hand is a child, and in the other a sword, smashing the swastika on which he stands. The paved path to the memorial is guarded by kneeling soldiers, their backs to representations of the Soviet flag allegedly built from from the ruins of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery.The panels that surround the graves tell the story of the Communist revolution, visually situating the battle, the sacrifice, and the DDR not in German history but the Soviet story.
The Eastern version of events, of course, was headed for a reckoning, even as its visual imprint would be unmistakable. The Alexanderplatz – former glory of Weimar nightlife, current DDR city planning leftover – was rebuilt to broad, vacant, sparse concrete, crowned by the Fernsehturm (Television Tower), shown above reflected in the Palast der Republik. Designed to be seen from the other side of the Wall, it was, of course, a functional display of power (as was the Stadtschloss on whose ruins the Palast is built or, for that matter, any other state building or monument). Rather than inspiring awe, the structure was variously nicknamed “Walter Ulbricht’s Last Erection” and the “Telespargel” (TV asparagus). While some (Ronald Reagan included, at 23:00) read religious significance into the sparkly cross that the sun shines on the tower’s bulb, the satellite antennas near its base, humorously half-lost in translation, suggest an opposite allegiance well into 2005. As a whole, the Alex and its DDR mixture of pomp and minimalism elicited strongly negative reactions by Berliners I talked to, seemingly only loved by the young punks who congregate around its fountain.
Memorials dot around the commercial districts and urban homescapes. Outward from the Alex extends the Karl-Marx-Alle, another sparse, functional, blocky DDR residential street. In the northeastern suburb of Prenzlauer Berg, the memorial to Communist martyr Ernst Thalmann – fist held high in power and defiance – is sandwiched between two eras of questionable housing: DDR apartments over his shoulder, his face toward a mietskaserne, the lively if disease-ridden industrial/residential ‘rental barracks’ of the late 19th century. The DDR government that installed the sculpture cared enough about its appearance then that they wired its nose for heat to prevent awkward snow collection and dripping, though by 2005 its only visitors seemed to be graffiti artists and college kids on tour.
As the leadership changed, so did some of the memorials. The Neue Wache is adorned outside with Doric columns, the classic sign of empire and ancient history (despite being built in 1816). The Soviets turned the former guardhouse into another statement of sacrifice, their version of the tomb of the unknown soldier, complete with eternal flame. After reunification, the flame was replaced by a variation on a Kathe Kollwitz statue: inspired by air raids, it depicts a mother holding her dead son. Dedicated to all victims of war, the statue is alone in the otherwise empty building, illuminated by the gateway at the columns and a shaft of light from the ceiling. I believe it is one of the most emotionally affecting monuments in the city: a repurposing of a function of armament for a statement of peace, as well as architectural pretension for effective minimalism.
A few weeks later, in a small town outside Dresden a friend’s father would tell me that it was Joan Baez that first exposed him to ‘western culture. While pop culture didn’t travel much the other way around (Wolf Bierman who?) – or at least, didn’t make it as far as America – The Wall itself was the great pop symbol of the divide. That’s part of the reason why, of the pictures I took at the East Side Gallery – one of the few remaining substantial sections of the divider – I chose to upload this small 007 over murals with directly weightier themes. Growing up in the 90’s on a steady diet of campy spy thrillers, the Wall didn’t seem like a symbol of oppression so much as paperback novel excitement. So far removed from its function, the Wall seemed to exist purely as symbol: the West’s very own Cold War Monument, erected by the Communists themselves. One wonders how many tourists think Berlin ought to have kept the thing up, just for old time’s sake.
Checkpoint Charlie plays directly into the Cold War’s pop image: once a feared border crossing, it is now the site of a breezy, commercially-operated ‘spy museum’ emphasizing all the ingenious ways people used to sneak through. Across the street is a food court (below) while a memorial with crosses commemorating those who died at the crossing – which in 2005 was already competing for your attention with surrounding billboards – removed the year after I visited to make room for development. The Soviet memorials stay long after their usefulness as propaganda has diminished. The memory of those who, twenty years ago, the West would have gladly appropriated as martyrs is paved over in service of the open market. Today, even Eastern nostalgia has taken an ironically commercial pitch as bottled Trabi fumes sell on Ebay, and Western news sources report on it in part, for those same reasons: nostalgia and commerce.
Back at my old high school, a display case (otherwise full of sports trophies and memorabilia) has a chunk of the wall, sent by a graduate who was stationed in Germany as a soldier when it came down. Perhaps a foot or two square, awkwardly broken off, it has no graffiti but many metal struts poking from the concrete. Myself, I bought a small piece in Berlin in 2005; its flat side is as bright as if were painted the day before I bought it. It is, of course, unlikely original. I bought it because I could think of no better symbol of the victory of capitalism than spending 10 euros on a useless concrete chip the size of a quarter.
Young women costumed as border guards were holding flags and getting their picture taken at the Checkpoint Charlie station itself on the road median. The place was one in a long line around Berlin where I wondered whether to smile in photographs. It’s very American to smile in photographs, and it tends to look awkward if you don’t. At a concentration camp smiling in the photo is obviously verboten – but what do you do at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, functional engines of both oppression and cheap spy paperbacks? If comedy is tragedy plus time, then is kitsch idealism plus dissonance?
A Historical Tour of the City by Way of Its Architecture
In 2008, three years after I visited Berlin, deconstruction of the Palast der Republik was completed. The building once housed restaurants, a dance hall, and the East German legislature – all, theoretically, at least – accessible to the public. However the building functioned, it was symbolically-rich as a monument to non-representative government-as-theater. The blocky outside had been plated with 88,000 square feet of copper-tinted glass – transparent in ideal but obfuscating in practice. Ostensibly forward-thinking, the architecture was called a poor imitation of outdated modernities of the past. Since Reunification in 1990, it had sat unused due to the danger posed by the asbestos sprayed on the steel of the structure during its construction, the removal of which gutted the interior. In 2002 the government gave the official order to prepare for demolition.
Explosions and firefights reset Berlin’s buildings and culture in 1945, when the British and Americans in the air and Soviets on the ground reduced the city rubble. Demolitions were a way of life for Berlin and a motif in popular culture – set to music of Western-influenced hard rock band the Pudhys, they open the East Side classic The Legend of Paul and Paula, a movie a former easterner (roommate of a friend of a friend) I met responded with a surprising level of enthusiastic intrigue that an American had heard of. It wasn’t that Yanks (or, to be likely, Yanks taking a college course on Berlin) hadn’t watched it, but rather that the film was such an object of the former Eastern state that he wondered how it could root itself in the West, even 15 years after the Wall came down. Though the mass-produced culture of the 20th century and beyond is theoretically available without limits (some significant exceptions noted), tastes change so fast there’s often little incentive to go back and revisit what is missed, let alone decipher its meaning. Architecture is subject to the same whims – it just has a tendency to stick around a bit more conspicuously. In the case of Berlin, the aesthetics of the city are often the substance of world history.
It’s not that Berlin’s history is written on its buildings and streets any more than other cities; it’s just, perhaps, that the city has so much of it. Berlin was ground zero for nearly every shift in the twentieth century: The Great War, the seat of modernism and the archetypal metropolis, the city that was literally divided by the Iron Curtain interrupted by another grid-resetting World War right in the middle of everything.
While the old East German capital building was being dismantled from the inside, spread out in front of it were much older ruins – the unearthed tile walls of the basement of the Stadtschloss, slated for preservation and perhaps eventual reconstruction.
In 2005, one ruin of Museum Island was being dismantled, while the other was pleading to be restored. It’s likely someday, they will have changed places.
Part One: 1945, By Way of 2005
In the spring of 1945, Berlin was in ruins. An estimated third of the city’s buildings were not habitable, while around half had sustained damage by the 300-some air raids of the RAF and US forces throughout the war. The Reich’s leadership was figuratively or literally underground or dead in some combination. Getting messages, let alone food, across town was a challenge. There was no running water, and washrooms were sealed off due to their lack of practical usability for much except suicide. David Clay Large, in his history Berlin, said the city’ “seemed once more a collection of villages than an integrated metropolis.” In shelters, families huddled together to survive, while those willing and able busied themselves in what final sensual indulgences they could find, waiting for the end of the world.
The Battle of Berlin , from the 16th of April through the 2nd of May, would do its damnedest to render the remainder of the city unusable . Berlin – once the center of sleek, mass-produced modernity – gave way to biology as the dead rotted and the conquering soldiers figuratively and literally violated the city. All living things and buildings suffered with the buildings; amidst the estimated 125,000 human dead, Pongo, the largest gorilla in Europe, was found stabbed at the Zoo. As Ruth Andreas-Friedrich described in her diary entry for May 6:
“Inche Zaun lives in Klein-Machnow. She is 18 years old and didn’t know anything about love. Now she knows everything. Over and over again, sixty times….
For four years Goebbels told us that the Russians would rape us. That they would rape and plunder, murder and pillage.
‘Atrocity propaganda!’ we said as we waited for the Allied liberators.
We don’t want to be disappointed now. We couldn’t bear it if Goebbels was right.”
It would be two months before the other the Allied powers arrived. In the meantime, the Soviet conquerors set about restoring and raiding, re-establishing the first subway line up and going (May 14), even as they shipped back to the fatherland what little was left of Berlin’s infrastructure. Amidst the rape and pillage of war, they re-established art, opening the city’s first postwar exhibition (May 17) and holding the first new concert Berlin Philhormonic (May 26).
The previous year, according to Large, Hitler’s ever-optimistic architect Albert Speer had noted “that the Allied bombers were accomplishing much of the demolition work that would be necessary for the realization of Germania, the envisaged Nazi capital of the future.” Now, under the leadership of the conquerors, the surviving locals – more women than men – began clearing the rubble.
The city was in ruins. Nazism was out. As Andreas-Friedrich describes ration card distribution on May 17:
“In dozens they come for attestations that they weren’t Nazis. They each find another excuse. Suddenly each one knows a Jew whom he claims to have given at least two kilograms of bread or ten pounds of potatoes. Each claims to have listened to foreign radio broadcasts. Each claims to have helped a persecuted person.
‘At the risk of my own life,’ most of these posthumous benefactors add with modest pride.”
I was in Berlin during May 2005, around the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe. In the fall, I’d be at the former Allied base city Kunming for the 60th anniversary of the end of that war in the Pacific. We arrived on the 8th, a Sunday set aside for commemoration, to seek our hostel amidst marches in the street. We had heard there were going to be neo-Nazi “protests” (as if they were they going to convince Germany to reverse its surrender?) at the Alexanderplatz, but there was so much opposition they had to cancel. We heard these marchers were part of that opposition in spirit, marching for the benevolent, presently non-controversial promotions of “peace” and “unity.”
As the Third Reich went, Berlin hadn’t been all that Nazi-friendly. Berlin was a ‘world city’, internationally-minded, associated with Weimar indulgences, the Modernists and their ‘degenerate art’. In the 1932 election, it had the strongest percentage of votes against the National Socialist Party of any major city. When the Munich-rooted Nazis took the seat of power there in January 1933, architectural violence immediately followed with the Reichstag fire of February 27. While the Nazis may have, in fact, set the fire themselves, they blamed it on their rivals the Communists, and used it as a pretext to seize control of the press and clamp down on dissent.
After the war, it was the Communists who were in control of half the city and determining the fate of its charred buildings. In 1950, not long after the official formation of the new Deutsches Demokratisches Republik (DDR) government, leader Walter Ulbricht gave the order to dynamite the oldest seat of power still (half-)standing, the city palace, the much-loved Stadtschloss: former throne of the Hohenzollern family, rulers of Prussia.
The area was subsequently renamed Marx-Engels-Platz and, in 1973, construction of the Palast der Republik commenced on part of its former grounds.
Originally built in the late 1800s to house the government for the (also) then newly-unified nation, the Reichstag – Germany past and present parliament building – is itself a self-conscious book of eras. The pillars at the entrance show scarring from second world war, while a nearby monument of 96 stone plates pays testament to the politicians killed in the purges after the fire.The Nazis did not rebuild it following the fire, instead leaving the task for the Western government to begin and the unified Germany to finish. In the 1990s, the futuristic dome was added.
With the post-war reconstruction also came an erasure of most of the Nazi’s intentional architectural contributions. Gone was Hitler’s massive Reich’s Chancellery and its great gallery – twice the length of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors – a glorified entryway to Hitler’s office. Badly damaged, it was also torn down by the Soviets. What was to be the crowning icon of the Reich, the Volkshalle – great hall of the people, so big Speer worried about clouds forming in its dome – never was built.
The Nazis’ drab, blunt, and sturdy style, however, made it difficult to get rid of all architectural traces. The Olympia stadium, built for the 1936 games, is still in active use – albeit stripped of its statuary nods to Aryan dominance. Many of the flakturm – anti-aircraft towers – were just too damn hefty to make it worth the effort to take down, and have since been left to natural decay, abandoned, or re-purposed as a nightclub and art storehouse. The Former Air Ministry (pictured, 2005) and the Reichsbank have been utilized for offices by Germany’s subsequent governments. Elsewhere, when a particularly horrible history with no potential for practical use is unearthered, it becomes a monument – as with the basement cells of the of the former SS / Gesapo headquarters, currently the open-air “Topography of Terror” museum.
The people who are no longer there are themselves represented by architecture:
Shortly after we arrived in the city, the fences went down around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Every day, as the sun moves across the sky, the light plays amongst the memorial’s stone pillars changing the uneven grounds’ appearance almost by the minute. Wikipedia states that architect Peter Eisenman’s text says that “the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” The word we heard while we were there was that every stone was a different size to symbolize that every victim was unique. Opening week, as since, people were running across the stones, running between them, jogging, leaving flowers. Whatever the symbolism of the 2,711 stelae, it is a place of reflection as well as recreation. What does it mean, one wonders, the relationship between a place’s story and its use? And these histories that – like the memorial pillars – most of us alive today now view as abstract.
Within a block of the Holocaust Memorial is a nondescript apartment complex, we were told the site of the former Reich Chancellery. Beneath a children’s park in the center was the bunker where the man who – more than any other individual – bears responsibility for the Battle of Berlin committed suicide as the end of the world came to street level. We were told this park was the site, but the truth is it could have been anywhere within a block. Until 2006, despite all the signs, plaques, scars and history in Berlin, the location where the Nazi Party came to an end was not formally acknowledged, and I’m left to choose between my own geographic notes and the Internet’s. Buildings can be more permanent than people, but the legacy they leave changes like memories.
Note: While I’m not sure the etiquette of citations for internet journalism or whatever you want to call this, I’m operating on the assumption that everything I haven’t implicitly or explicitly cited is a verifiable historical fact in multiple sources – and hence, does not need to be encumbered by lengthy footnotes. I am grateful to the following books for background: Anthony Beever: The Fall of Berlin. David Clay Large: Berlin. Ruth Andreas-Friedrch: Battleground Berlin, and the 2004 DK travel guide to the city. And of course, Dr. Paul Hedeen, who led the academic courses that brought me to Berlin and was excellent as both a methodical and off-the-cuff aggregator of the history of the city.