There is no city more dear to my heart than Berlin. I am sitting on an ICE train heading to Cologne, after a superb five days in Berlin with 13 wonderful students. Later we move on to Munich, but being here has reaffirmed how special Berlin is for me.
Berlin’s personality is unique. Open, tolerant, diverse, left-libertarian, friendly, exciting, dynamic, and accepting. Even the Nazis couldn’t control Berlin, at least until the war started and discipline became strictly enforced. From the wild cabaret scenes of the 20’s to the love parades of recent years, Berlin rejects conformity, flaunts tradition, and runs to its own beat.
Berlin’s history is profound. I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of Berlin between the wars (check out the book “Before the Deluge” by Otto Friedrichs), but my life has been personally touched by Berlin more than any other city.
German politics is my research specialty and I was lucky to be in grad school just ready to start working on my dissertation when the wall came down. I had been in Berlin in the summer of 1989, during the last days of “old” normality before everything changed. I didn’t know it at the time; I almost didn’t pay the extra money to trek through East Germany and visit Berlin, figuring I could see the wall “next time.” That was in August.
That November, the wall would come down. By late August the stream of refugees coming into Germany via Hungry would begin the crisis that would ultimately cause the collapse of the East bloc and end the cold war. In those early August days in Berlin, none of that was expected.
I walked the streets of East Berlin and felt the absurdity of a great city so divided. I stood along time at the edge of Unter den Linden street, looking out at the Brandenburg gate, and a platform on the other side where people could lock in from the West to the East. That night, back in my hotel in the West, I reflected on how tragic the fate of Berlin was.
In November I literally had tears streaming down my face as I watched the scenes on November 9th when the unthinkable happened – the wall opened and people were dancing on it, starting the process of destroying it. Visiting the musems and memorials to the wall – the East Side Gallery and the memorial near Nordbahnhof, I’m still moved. The wall stood only 28 years; it’s been down almost as long as it had stood. It is just an odd part of history – but once it symbolized the Cold War and the inhumanity of the Soviet style system.
I lived in Berlin working on my dissertation for three months in 1991, going to East Berlin and observing the old Communist party having a demonstration a year after Germany unified – Gregor Gysi and other prominent members of the new PDS spoke.
It was a strange time. Unification had happened, but the differences were still stark. I would explore portions of East Berlin, observing the life there, and I got to know West Berlin better, enjoying its unique personality. I interviewed people all over East Germany as they dealt with trying to cope with and shape the changes coming at them faster than they could handle. Now that a generation has passed, that once obvious Wessi/Ossi divide has faded. Berlin feels like one, unified city.
Since then I’ve been back many times: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2010, 2012, 2014, and now 2016. The changes in the city during that time have been remarkable. The physical and cultural markings of the division have faded. Now they exist primarily as history. The students try to grapple with the scenes I paint of the past – rows of modern buildings on space empty and forbidding just 30 years ago.
It shocks me sometimes to see the row of bricks showing the old location stopping because have been built where the wall once stood. I recall looking over Potsdamer Platz which was filled with cranes as they started a massive project to build where the wall had been, and rebuild areas near the wall – areas considered undesirable due to the wall’s proximity, but now were prime real estate in the newly unified city.
I talk about how I had to go to the Lehrter Bahnhof to get a package – a sleepy S-Bahn station, run down, near the wall. It’s gone, replaced by the multi-level modern glass train station/mall, the new “Hauptbahnhof” (main train station). I describe how I could observe the wrapped Reichstag from the S-Bahn in 1995, as Christo’s wrapping glistened different hues and tones of light. Now rows of new buildings block the view from the S-Bahn; the landscape has been completely changed.
Beyond the history, Berlin is also a city of neighborhoods, each with its own taste and rhythm. I went with students for a walk near our hotel, we found a Vietnamese restaurant overlooking a canal, the streets were alive, the air fresh. So Berlin!
For the students, Berlin is huge, difficult to navigate, a “big city.” And indeed, it takes time to get to know it – and as a guest, I only understand a minuscule portion of what Berlin is in its entirety. I’ve been here enough to feel comfortable in the city, to appreciate it’s personality, and feel a strong attachment. Oh, if only like Marlene Dietrich I could keep a “Koffer in Berlin” (a suitcase in Berlin). But now it’s on to Cologne!