Wednesday, September 9, 2009


"You know what the fellow said, in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Harry Lime - The Third Man

The famous line written and delivered by Orson Welles* in Carol Reed's film The Third Man could be considered to be the ultimate cynic's view of the world, especially coming from a character who is using the argument to justify his ghastly crimes. Yet in a broader sense there is a germ of truth to it given that conflict and suffering define the human experience in ways that peace and contentment do not.

Consider the fact that the Divine Comedy of Dante is popularly referred to as Dante's Inferno, not Dante's Paradiso, even though the story deals with both Heaven and Hell, not to mention Purgatory.

Nothing captures the imagination more than misery.

This is true of the urban experience. Cities contain both the best and the worst of humanity, the great cities only more so. This goes all the way back to Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world, part of the cradle of civilization, center of art, law and science. But Babylon still has bad connotations to this day implying the degenerate behavior found in big cities.

The great cities of the world all have had their share of decadence, heartbreak and misery.

Of all the cities that I have visited, none has had to overcome more of all three in the course of one human lifetime than Berlin. What is remarkable about Berlin is that while its rebirths have been wildly successful, the city has done very little to obfuscate its troubled to say the least, past. Everything is out in the open for all to see, scars (especially the scars) and all. And Berlin is all the better for it.

If you say that you were in Berlin at some point in your life you would have to specify exactly when, as there have been so many Berlins over the past century.

Those lucky enough to have been there in the 1920s and early 30s experienced a magnificent city during its golden age. Berlin was the center of cutting edge painting, literature, architecture, film, science, design, music, philosophy and education, just to name a few.

Harry Lime's comment certainly holds true for this period as much of the fervent creativity was born out of war and the sense of desperation Germany faced with enormous reparations owed to the victors of World War I. Staggering inflation wiped out the savings of most Germans. There was a kind of "let's face the music and dance" atmosphere that swept over the city at that time.

The music ended in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The cosmopolitan, irreverent, and slightly decadent Berliners were never very supportive of the Nazis. But their city was Germany's capital and it became the center of the storm during the one of the most horrible periods in human history, an enduring symbol for the most abominable regime the world has ever known.

Where pre-1933 Berlin will be remembered for the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Expressionism, Threepenny Opera and Marlene Dietrich, pre-war Berlin will always be remembered for Nazi Rallies, the Reichstag fire, book burnings, and Kristallnacht. During that time the talented but morally bankrupt Albert Speer was as Hitler's hand chosen architect, busy making no little plans of his own, redesigning a Berlin that was intended to be the imperial capital city of the Third Reich. "Take a good look, " Albert Einstein said to his wife as they left the old Berlin for good in 1932, "you'll never see it again."

Speer's imperial city never took shape as his plans were forever shelved when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Beginning that year the look of Berlin would change drastically as impenetrable bunkers were built throughout the city in anticipation of war. It's look would forever change a few years later.

The British began areal bombing as early as 1940, but Berlin remained more or less intact until late 1943 when the Battle of Berlin began. The Americans got into the act in February, 1944, and the Russians helped finish the work starting in January, 1945.

The bombing continued until April, 1945 when the Red Army marched into the city. All in all, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 civilians died in Berlin as a result of the bombing, a small amount compared to other bombed cities, due in large part to the bunkers. But the city was reduced to rubble. The death toll brought upon the world by the mass murderers who took their lives in their bunkers near the Brandenburg Gate will never be known, but estimates range between 50 and 70 million.

The spoils of war were split between the Allied powers as Germany was divided into four parts, English, French, American and Soviet. Berlin was situated, in the middle of the Russian sector, but since it was the capital and most important city, it too was split in four. Eventually the split became two as cold war tensions arose between the Soviet Union and the West. The part of Berlin not under Soviet hegemony became an island in the midst of Soviet controlled East Germany. Disputes with the West led the Soviets to blockade what became known as West Berlin. The western allied powers organized an airlift to supply the material needs of West Berliners. The Berlin Airlift was to last three years, from 1946 to 1949.

Remarkably through the tension, West and East Berlin remained one city with free access from one end to the other. This uneasy co-existence lasted through the fifties as over three million East Germans emigrated to the West through Berlin. To stop the hemorrhage, the East Germans constructed the infamous Berlin Wall that encircled West Berlin in 1961. Watchtowers with armed soldiers ensured that escape attempts would be met with deadly force. Between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989, 171 persons were shot while trying to cross the Wall.

This period marked two notable visits from U.S. presidents. John F, Kennedy visited Berlin on June 26, 1963 where he delivered his beloved show of solidarity.*

Ronald Reagan on June 12,1987 standing before the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate directly addressed his Soviet counterpart when he said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Two years later, Mr. Gorbachev did exactly that.

The reasons for the Fall of the Soviet Union are numerous and will be debated forever but on November 9, 1989, the extant East German government announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany. Thousands took the opportunity to chip away at the wall as a shameful period in history came to an abrupt end.

What followed was a period of tremendous exuberance on both sides as two cities became one again. Germany officially reunited on October 3, 1990.

The exuberance did not last long. The forty four year period of division between the two cities was profound. East Berliners flooded into West, looking for opportunities that never existed for them. Economically the Easterners were far behind their counterparts and the German government was forced to create some kind of equilibrium, work that goes on to this day. Not long after the wall came down, chants of "put it back up" could be heard all over town, at least under people's breath.

That of course did not happen. What did happen was a tremendous construction boom. Tower cranes sprouted up like weeds all over the former East Berlin, especially in the formidable area once occupied by the Wall where complete desolation was replaced by new buildings, parks and boulevards.

Today Berlin is back to its prominence as one of Europe's cultural meccas. It is also the capital of Germany once again.

My father and I were both in Berlin. He spent much of the war there as a conscripted laborer from occupied Czechoslovakia. I was there in 1993 four years after the Wall came down. We were in two entirely different cities.

I had very personal reasons for visiting beyond being a tourist. All through my childhood my father made me very much aware of the war and its aftermath when the Soviet Union dominated Central and Eastern Europe. Going to the city where my father spent a formative part of his life was a pilgrimage of sorts.

The first thing I did in Berlin was go for a long walk. The walk I took would not have been possible four years earlier as my route would take me through the Brandenburg Gate from West to East Berlin.

Everything that I passed along the way held tremendous historical significance.
  • The Tiergarten, the enormous park in Central Berlin that was stripped barren during the war as the trees were used for firewood.
  • Strasse des 17 Juni, the grand boulevard through the Tiergarten, named after an uprising of East Germans on that date in 1953.
  • Siegessaule, the winged victory monument standing atop a massive column, an iconic symbol of Berlin.
  • The Russian World War II Memorial, which strangely enough is in West Berlin.
  • The Reichstag, the former and now current home of the German government whose burning was significant in the events that led to the rise to power of the Nazis.
  • The Brandenburg Gate, the last remaining entrance gate into the old city which ironically was closed when the Wall was built around it.
  • Fragments of the Wall itself.
  • Hitler's bunker.
  • Unter den Linden, Berlin's most famous street named after the trees that line it. Along UdL are some of Berlin's most important pre-war buildings, many of them by the city's preeminent early 19th Century architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
  • Humboldt University whose alumni and faculty list reads like a who's who of German philosophy, political thought and science.
  • Museum Island, one of the world's greatest collection of cultural institutions.
  • Alexanderplatz, the great public square, once along with with Potsdamer Platz was one of the great nightlife centers of the city. Today it is the home of the Fernsheturm, the giant TV tower, pride of the East Germans as it is the tallest structure in all of Berlin.
All this during only my first two hours in Berlin!

In crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin through the Brandenberg Gate it becomes immediately apparent that the area directly east of the Gate, along Unter den Linden is the heart of the city. The area west of the Gate was once the suburbs. As a parochial comparison, think of a wall built along North Avenue in Chicago that would prevent anyone living north of it from access to the Loop. A mere inconvenience when you consider the real tragedy of the wall, the permanent separation of families and loved ones.

My most vivid memory of Berlin was a visit to the lovely neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin. The neighborhood was traditionally working class and bohemian is atmosphere. As it was slightly off the beaten path it didn't get much attention from the Nazis, even the bombers left it pretty much in tact. I stumbled upon the Jewish cemetery. The caretaker and I were the only people in the cemetery. He provided me with a Kippah to cover my head. It was a cold and clear December morning, the only day during my trip when the sun shone, but it barely cleared the tops of the surrounding buildings. I walked in this sacred space among the earthly remains of the people who belonged to a culture that was destroyed after their departure from this earth. Being among the inhabitants of a magnificent city in a magnificent time made me forget for a moment about the abject terror that their descendants experienced. I was filled with a sense of peace that had escaped me during the rest of my trip.

Upon my return my father was anxious to hear what Berlin had become. He asked me two questions:

"Did you go to Potsdamer Platz?"

Potsdamer Platz back in the day (along with Alexanderplatz) was the commercial heart of the city and the center of nightlife, sort of like Herald Square and Times Square combined. It was probably the busiest intersection in Europe, the birthplace of the electric traffic light, or so it is said. My father was very candid late in his life about his time in Berlin. He was a young man in his early twenties living in a city where most of the young men were off at the front. You can fill in the blanks from there. Clearly he spent a lot of time at Potsdamer Platz. Life goes on, even during a world war.

Potzdamer Platz was hit particularly hard by the bombing due to its location in the vicinity of the Reich Chancellery and other government buildings. Unfortunately, after the war its location happened to be right on the border of the English, American and Soviet sections of town. When the Wall was built most of Potsdamer Platz was smack dab in the middle of the no man's land between both sides of the Wall. Literally nothing was there for 45 years. There is a particularly moving scene in Wim Winders' poetic film Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) where an old man in a dream like state wanders around the site of Potsdamer Platz where he recounts memories of his lost youth, "Where is Potsdamer Platz, it used to be here" he says. The man could have been my father.

When I was there the area was fenced off and tower cranes were abundant. Plans for the future were mapped out on the construction site. Today P.Platz is once again a happening place although from what I read and see in photographs, has not yet returned to its former glory.

"Did you see Anhalter Bahnhof?"

My father left Berlin as he put it, "on the last train out of the city." From the way he told it I always pictured a scene right out of Casablanca where my father as Rick waits in vain for his Ilsa as the train pulls out of the station. I don't know if there ever was an Ilsa in my father's case, my guess is there were many of them. Anyway the station where he hopped the last train was Anhalter Bahnhof, the tracks of which led him back home to Czechoslovakia.

Which is precisely why the station doesn't exist anymore. the headhouse of the grand station was in West Berlin and the tracks led to all points east, rending the station pointless. It stood as a hulking ruin until 1960 when it was demolished. The entrance portico of the once proud station survived and was preserved as a reminder of the Berliners, mostly Jewish, who embarked on their last journey, to
the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

I stuck up a conversation with a gentleman who was walking his dog (a pitbull named Trudi) in front of ruins of the station. He told me a little bit of the history of the area, pointing out in particular the bunker near the site. "They've been trying to get rid of it for years, " he told me "but to do it they would have to blow it up and if they did that, they would take with it the rest of the neighborhood!"

Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that this was the very bunker that protected my father during the air raids. After my return home he recalled a time when a woman began singing Stille Nacht and was soon joined by the entire group of people huddled together for safety as the bombs fell one Christmas Eve.

Here is a scene from Himmel über Berlin that shows the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof and what I believe is that bunker:

How do I begin to describe my feelings about Berlin? I must say that I have never felt such ambivalence for a place, loving it and hating it at the same time. Berlin is a city of exuberance and of ghosts, a progressive city that can never escape its past.

Reminders of the past are everywhere, be they monuments, photographs of the city before the war displayed in storefronts, plaques that describe terrible events, museums entirely dedicated to atrocities, architectural ruins that were preserved as reminders, or physical damage that was simply never repaired.

Yet the past flows together with a thriving, very much alive city that remains cutting edge in so many ways. That is the allure of Berlin. It's not an overtly beautiful city like Paris, or Prague. To find the beauty you need to dig beneath the surface and look in unexpected places. Through it all it remains a city of life that triumphs over tragedy, of good that transcends evil. The beauty of Berlin lies in the faces of the children of many cultures living in neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg and Kreutzberg. And it lives in the fervent hope that the future will be better than the past. There is a spirit and vitality in Berlin like no place else.

Nelson Algren wrote: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovlier lovlies, but never a lovely so real."

Of course he wrote that about Chicago. Add a broken arm and a black eye and you could say the same for Berlin.

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