Living History in Berlin

berlin wall

From Berlin's East Side Gallery -- the former wall. "Politics is the continuation of war by other meeans."

In 1991 I was interviewing a political activist in Schwerin, a city from former East Germany.    People were starting to notice the unexpected difficulties in bringing two cultures together, as “die Mauer in Kopf” (the wall in the head) continued despite the falling of the material Berlin wall.  Germany had unified in 1990, but the people were being divided into Ossi vs. Wessi, East vs. West.  The easterners resented the “better than thou” attitude of the westerners, who they considered arrogant.   The westerners resented the over $1 trillion dollars spent to rebuild a country of 16 million people, especially as the “Ossis” seemed not to appreciate it.  “Check back in 20 years, it will take a generation,” the activist told me.   That was almost twenty years ago.

It is hard to believe this is the same city I saw for the first time back in 1989.  As I have noted in this blog before, the fall of the wall was for me one of the most emotional and powerful historic events in my life time.    Some snippets that strike me now:

1)   Hauptbahnhof.  The main train station is a five level modern sleek station with shops, escalators, and an aesthetic that embodies the “new” in post-wall Berlin.   Trains come and go on the diverse levels, a different feel that traditional stations.  Yet when I first went to the “Lehrter Stadtbahnhof,” it was a sleepy S-Bahn station (public transportation), the last stop before heading across the wall to Friedrichstrasse.   It was therefore quiet, small, and non-descript.   That is gone completely.  A Hauptbahnhof has risen up where the small S-Bahnhof once stood.

2)  Reichstag area: In 1995 I had the luck to see the “wrapped Reichstag” from the artist Christo.  It was an amazing exhibit.   Then in 2003 I went to the top of the glass dome for the first time, it had been remodeled and put back into use for the parliament.  Yet the big change is the maze of buildings that have arisen.  Back in 1995 one had a clear view of the Reichstag from the S-Bahn, and you could easily see Christo’s work glistening in the sun.  Now buildings hide the Reichstag, all of them new, modern and clean.  The whole region that was once barren is now home to a vast governmental sector, crowned by an immense Chancellory building.  Once it was a museum and a lot of empty space.

reichstag dome

The glass dome atop the Reichstag building, taken from the roof of the building

3)  Potsdamer platz. While I was amazed as early as 1995 by the growth in this once empty area along the wall, the building done where “no man’s land” once dominated is unbelievable — and it keeps going.   It isn’t the most beautiful urban landscape — very corporate, with sort of a Times Square feel — but it dominates the center of Berlin.    It is immense, exudes wealth, and clearly brand new.  When I went to Potsdamer Platz in 1989 I had followed the wall from the Brandenburg gate, and it had a small snack cart and shop, with otherwise mostly empty space.  It’s now a different world.

4) The Holocaust Memorial.   From 1995 on, I saw signs of a future holocaust memorial, but even as late as 2003 nothing was there.   Obviously, such memorials can be controversial.  But now there is an abstract but powerful set of over 2700 concrete blocks, some taller than people, each a different shape, on land that is uneven.   When you walk through it is physically uncomfortable and odd.   Nothing stated on it says anything about why it is there — for that you have to find the entrance to the underground information center.   Again, an entirely new Berlin.

5) Potsdam. Outside of Berlin the  city of Potsdam has been completely remade, starting with the main train station.    Besides the loss of old Communist buildings, the station is modern and sleek, though it was odd to see Dunkin Donuts and Subway there (sorry, Subway, but you can’t compete with Doner Kebabs!)   It was also odd to read in the city center that Hooters is coming to Potsdam.   That’s globalization, I guess!

Potsdam stadt

I could go on; the world is much different than it was back in the eighties.   This is true everywhere, but Berlin is just change on steriods, as cranes and construction sites still dot the city as the transformation continues.    A subterranean parking center is being built on Alexanderplatz, where reconstruction has added buildings and made the place almost unrecognizable.  From the early Doner Kebab mobil stands, to the shacks, and now to the permanent shops, the old East Berlin central square has taken on a new character.

To be sure, there is poverty here as well.   Go outside the central areas, and the old apartment buildings still have a socialist feel, despite paint jobs and renovations.   The East is still obviously the East, even as the stark differences in appearance are fading.  In 1991 it was easy to guess who was from the East and who from the West; that’s no longer the case.

Nonetheless, I’ve witnessed  and lived history in my relationship with Germany and Berlin.   The world I knew is gone, Berlin is not the same city I experienced in 1989 (and 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2003).   Seeing it change and then having a seven year gap between the last visits reinforce how drama of this transformation.

When I was young, history was in the past, something I had not experienced.   No more.  I’ve lived history.  I’ve been in divided Berlin, I’ve crossed over from West to East at Friedrichstrassse.  I saw a post-Communist rally with Gregor Gysi speaking a year after unification, I’ve watched Potsdamer Platz get reborn, saw the old, wrapped and new Reichstags, and now experience 21st Century Berlin.

At the Neue  Nationalgalerie Thursday I saw an exhibit called “Modern Times,” or Moderne Zeiten, covering the years from 1900 to 1945.  It ended with paintings depicting the rise of national socialism and the horror of the war, with a destroyed Germany at the end.   Powerful and moving, it placed my experience of Berlin and German history in context.  This is an on-going story with tragedy alongside glory.

What I enjoyed most at the museum was a 65 minute film Sinfonie einer Grossstadt (Symphony of a City), which showed events from an average day in Berlin, filmed in June 1927.   I intended to watch just a few minutes, but was mesmerized into viewing the entire show.  That was during a period of relative optimism in post-WWI Berlin, before the great depression.   People went through life in a very different Berlin — yet in many ways it is indeed the same city.   Trains, trams and early cars coexisted with pedestrians, playing children, and life played out on the same streets we walk today.  Yet that Berlin is long gone, even as remnants shape the present.

So walking through Berlin in 2010 I realize this is also just a piece of history.  Everything will change, there will be trauma, there will be joy.   That’s the way history unfolds.    1933 exists in history, as does 1989.    Appreciating the sites, sounds, and tastes of this moment is a unique glimpse into one episode of the long story of Berlin.  One can visit cities and simply experience the present.   It is a powerful and moving experience to travel through time as one embraces the present.  A sense of the past, a glimpse of the future, and the immediacy of the now mingle together; that is Berlin.

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