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?
#1 by satinandsand on January 23, 2011 - 11:28 pm
What a great travel piece! You have set the bar very high and I will put Berlin at the top of my “places to visit” wish list.
#2 by Matt Voigts on January 25, 2011 - 12:40 am
Thank you very much! Berlin’s a great city to take time to explore; I was lucky enough to be able to stay about 3 weeks. If you make it there, enjoy!
#3 by Laura on January 24, 2011 - 12:27 am
I’m enjoying this tour of Berlin — thanks for writing it, Matt!
#4 by Matt Voigts on January 25, 2011 - 12:33 am
Thanks for reading!
#5 by julianhoffman on February 26, 2011 - 3:52 pm
I’ve been meaning to get back to this post for a while now. I love the juxtapositions you bring up throughout it, right down to the ludicrous idea of spending 10 Euros for a bit of, almost certainly, inauthentic concrete! That rather neatly summed up our strange world for me!
What I also wanted to mention is the issue of smiling in photographs that you raise in the last paragraph. To this day, one of my strangest and inexplicable experiences is of being at Auschwitz and Birkenau and watching friends, lovers and familes standing before one of the firing walls and smiling for photographs like they were at Disneyland. I sat there for about an hour, oddly fascinated by the endless stream of people posing themselves in front of one of the planet’s most horrific places in order to presumably authenticate their presence there – like a trophy or souvenir to show off back home. I’ve never been able to unravel the meanings behind the smiles, but they left me feeling as bewildered and sorrowful as the concentration camp itself.
Many thanks for the link to your latest piece, Matt. Much appreciated, and hope all is well with you.
#6 by Matt Voigts on March 2, 2011 - 1:05 am
Always great to have you reading, and I’ve very much enjoyed your accounts of this great city, as well. Rest assured, I’ll be reading in the future. Of your second post, I particularly enjoyed reading what you wrote on the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. As much as my piece focuses on the divisions in what I see the church as appearing to honor, I do feel art has a tremendous and genuine ability to connect with people across their differences. The new chapel – with all its gifts from nations, not least among them the blue glass itself – has a tranquil and honest mood about it that you’ve captured quite vividly: as a piece of art and house of worship that has potential to heal. And I am ever impressed by the dedication of those who worshiped in the original building’s ruins.
As for the smiling, I have hope that later, when people look over their pictures, they might take some time to contemplate what they may have missed in the moment. It took me almost six years after visiting Berlin before I wrote about it at length. In the meantime, I hope I learned something more – and the next time I’m in Europe, I’m sure there will be more to understand.