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 Ostensibly forward-thinking, the architecture was called a poor imitation of outdated modernities of the past.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.
Click here or on the picture above for more images I took of the city
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:
As stones on the streets where they used to live.
As plaques where their homes once were.
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.
#1 by David Kordahl on January 14, 2011 - 3:05 am
V. nice writeup, Matt. I like the meaning-packed net-dependent sentence early on:
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.
The # of hyperlinks tucked in there makes me suspect that it just might’ve taken a half-hour to construct.
#2 by julianhoffman on January 23, 2011 - 6:12 pm
Deeply fascinating post, Matt. I learned a great deal from it and your images illuminate the narrative that you develop so well. The idea that the “aesthetics of the city are often the substance of world history” reaches perhaps its perfect example in Berlin. And the first quote from Ruth Andreas-Friedrich is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read; I feel that I could be haunted by it for some time. Terrific work and looking forward to reading more.
#3 by Matt Voigts on January 23, 2011 - 11:54 pm
Thank you very much for your kind feedback! There’s a lot about Berlin that can haunt someone, but that diary entry, is something that I, too, think distills so much about the horror of that time. Part 2 is finished, and a third entry should be along sometime in the coming weeks. I also look forward to seeing where you next pick up the story of Germany’s ever-developing metropolis.
#4 by Denny on April 10, 2013 - 7:59 pm
Thanks for sharing these experiences. Well done! I wish we had more of this on the internet–relaxed, insightful, and perceptive interpretive descriptions of the wonder that is to be found on the planet in isolated pockets here and there…all done outside the frantic pace normally associated with internet musings…
As someone who had the privilege of meeting you last summer, and sharing a few impromptu guitar “licks”, I must say that I think you’re on the right track, in terms placing value on honestly and straightforwardly describing the human condition and the places we each identify with (and, most importantly, why we identify with them)…we each have our “la patria” and I believe it is central to our very being….understanding the value of our own la patria is a first step in understanding and respecting our fellow Homo Sapiens…
I’m envious of your freedom to travel, to put it bluntly…in my younger days I traveled as often as my budget allowed, and each new place I visited broadened my intellectual horizon immeasurably…I’m now relatively “in place” with family and professional responsibilities, which have added meaning to my life, but remember the wonderful freedom I felt when I had all I owned in a backpack….keep up the good work my friend!…travel for me and share what you see, hear and learn…you have a keen “voice” and “eye” and your efforts are much appreciated!
#5 by Matt Voigts on May 1, 2013 - 8:38 am
Denny – thanks for taking the time to write, and saying such thoroughly kind, encouraging things! I do try…I’m assuming I met you at the Storm Lake jams?
I indeed count myself lucky to have had a great many opportunities to travel lately. I wish I had more time to write about them, though the stuff that tends to wind its way to these blogs tends to be (as you’ve noted) written at a dense, rather un-blog-like pace. I like the results but tend to have to let it marinate for a while. In the meantime, the more immediate impressions tend to migrate to Facebook, on which you’re welcome to add me. Right now I’m near Melaka, staying with a family whose daughter was an exchange student in my Iowa hometown; mutual friends introduced us when they find out I was traveling to her part of Malaysia. As I’ve been on the road this time, my best experiences have been staying with old and new friends, as well as with people I’ve met through the website Couch Surfing. If you’d like the travel experience but aren’t in a position to do so, consider joining Couch Surfing and hosting – I’ve met a few people there who specifically did it to ‘bring the world’ to their families.