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The Once and Future Berlin

Sunday, April 1, 2001

When the Berlin Wall came crumbling down in 1989, there was an electricity in the air over the city. The champagne was flowing freely. West Berliners and East Berliners, when they weren’t embracing each other and banging on the hoods of Trabants, were feverishly chipping away at the concrete that had separated them for almost 30 years. It was the end of a totalitarian regime and the chance, once again, to start anew. But 12 years later, to the disappointment of some (and to the relief of others), Berlin isn’t quite yet the center of power in Europe — at least not the way it was in its earlier incarnations this past century. Will it ever be? And if so, when?

Berlin, the city, stood at the crossroads of conflict in the twentieth century. Governments headquartered there were the instigators of two world wars and a campaign to eradicate an entire race of humans. The city went on to become the flashpoint of the Cold War. Thus Berlin’s future is a matter of more than local interest. There are those who believe, following the end of communism in Europe, that Berlin was finally set on a path toward normalization. That the last 100 years were an aberration. That this current regime is no Weimar Republic teetering on the brink of collapse. On the other hand, just as the communists and Nazis fought over the votes of the disgruntled in the 1920s, so too do the heirs of communism and Nazism today vie for those same disgruntled voters — those who yearn for the days of the gdr with all its welfare benefits and those who are unemployed and blame the Gastarbeiters for stealing their jobs. And with some frightening success — the pds (Party of Democratic Socialism) has made gains in the former East German states and in Berlin. In the eastern districts of the capital, in particular, this successor to the East German Communist Party has garnered 40 percent in recent elections. Meanwhile, the dvu (German People’s Union) has won a growing percentage of extreme right-wing votes in states like Saxony Anhalt (13 percent) and even in Berlin suburbs like Wedding (5 percent). Politicians who used to refer to the “Red” vote and the “Green” vote now talk openly about the “Brown” vote.

As Berlin goes, so goes Germany? There is reason to think so, ever since its inception as the German capital in 1871. And perhaps the many incarnations of Germany since this date account for why Berlin has never held fast to a single identity: The Garrison City. The New Athens. The German Chicago. Elektropolis. Babylon on the Spree. World City of the Future. Even Testicles of the West (according to Khrushchev). Maybe the only fitting description of Berlin is one offered by critic Karl Scheffler who, in 1910, described the city as condemned “forever to become and never to be.”

New Athens

Prior to German unification in 1871, Berlin was the embodiment of Prussian militarism. The city was a gigantic parade ground. The monuments that were built, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Siegessäule (Victory Column), were in one way or another related to war. In the mid-eighteenth century, Berlin was home to 20,000 soldiers — at a time when the population of the city totaled 100,000. (Thus it is unsurprising that Kaiser Friedrich’s calling Berlin “the new Athens” was unconvincing to outsiders.) After the Franco-Prussian War, Berlin had become a center of political and military power alongside London and Paris. But still, while the rest of Europe recognized German prowess on the battlefield, to call Berlin a city of culture and modernity was simply laughable: Despite the excessive amount of money and resources dedicated to building the largest army in Europe, Berlin paid little attention to the tiny details — such as its water and sewage treatment facilities.

In Berlin (Basic Books) author David Clay Large recounts a vivid passage from Socialist leader August Bebel’s memoirs:

Waste-water from the houses collected in the gutters running alongside the curbs and emitted a truly fearsome smell. . . . One evening I went with my wife to the Royal Theater. I was revolted when, between acts, I visited the room designated for the relief of men’s bodily needs. In the middle of the room stood a giant tub, and along the sides were chamber pots which each user had to empty himself into the communal pots.

Bebel goes on to say that, “As a metropolis, Berlin did not emerge from a state of barbarism into civilization until after 1870.” By the time of Kaiser Wilhelm I’s death in spring 1888, Berlin was on the move, finally improving its sewage system, building the Technical University, an S-Bahn (elevated rail line), installing electric lamps and in a few places, telephones. Many Berliners also thought their city to be headed in a more cultural direction with the ascendancy of Wilhelm’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm — a patron of the arts and a supporter of better relations with Great Britain. Unfortunately, throat cancer claimed his life after a 99-day reign, and his alienated son, Wilhelm II, would succeed him as the last kaiser of Germany, ruling for the next 30 years and taking Berlin to new heights before plunging it into disaster.

The image of Berlin was something to which Wilhelm was sensitive. He utterly despised his uncle, Edward VII, king of England, who looked down on his nephew and his little city. Edward once called Wilhelm “the most brilliant failure in history” while Wilhelm complained that his uncle “treats me as if I were a little boy.” Large relates in his book that Wilhelm also believed his uncle’s family thought of Berlin as a “beastly hole,” and when the British royal family finally did pay a visit, they were shocked to discover “that Berlin actually had streets on which one could find hotels and big stores.”

When city planners in 1892 proposed that Berlin hold the next World’s Fair, Wilhelm bitterly responded by saying, “Berlin is not Paris. Paris is the great whorehouse of the world; therein lies its attraction independent of any exhibition. There is nothing in Berlin that can captivate the foreigner, except a few museums, castles, and soldiers.”

And so the kaiser’s inferiority complex would become the city’s. And Berlin’s drive towards modernity would then become relentless. At the turn of the century, electric streetcars were traveling side by side with automobiles. In 1902, a subway system was built. The center of activity became Potsdamer Platz, site of the first traffic light in all of Europe, and one of the busiest intersections in the world. As Brian Ladd explains in his brilliant Ghosts of Berlin (University of Chicago Press), “Potsdamer Platz was Berlin because Berlin was the city of bustle and speed.”

Elektropolis

From 1871 to 1900, Berlin’s identity as a city was as an up-and-comer, what many called “the youngest European city.” The technical advances in the span of 30 years were impressive. Berliners claimed their city had more electrical lighting than Paris itself. Among its residents, the city was often referred to as an “Elektropolis,” and more significantly, as a Weltstadt — a world city.

Again, most of the world remained skeptical. But some of this would change. In 1907, Kaiser Wilhelm was asked to offer financial backing for a new hotel not far from the Brandenburg Gate. The hotelier, Lorenz Adlon, was convinced that what the city needed to boost its reputation on the continent was a world-class hotel — something that would demonstrate, once and for all, that Berliners knew a luxury on a par with London’s Savoy, Paris’s Ritz. And he convinced the kaiser to back it with, in today’s money, roughly $250 million.

The Adlon proved a tremendous success. Unlike Wilhelm’s own residence, the hotel offered hot running water, baths in every room, telephones in every room, and an exotic water fountain in the lobby that was a gift from the maharaja. The restaurant would offer only the most sumptuous of meals, including oysters, duck confit, foie gras, and flaming desserts. In no time, visitors from around Europe and America would come to Berlin for its shops, its museums, and most of all, to live it up at the Adlon. Its guests soon ranged from Presidents Roosevelt and McKinley to Tsar Nicholas and his entourage. It was recognized as something world-class in a city long ignored.

Through the outbreak of World War I, Berlin was also known for its openness to outsiders — namely its acceptance of Jews, who had been banished from much of Eastern Europe. Of course, Jews were hardly treated as equals, still barred from most professions. But in banking, journalism, and retail, they thrived. Germans would even come to refer to a “Berlin-Jewish symbiosis.” In 1896 came the construction of a Jewish-owned department store, Wertheim. It featured 83 elevators and a glass-roofed atrium. Brian Ladd calls it “the crown jewel of the main shopping street.” In 1907, Jewish businessman Hermann Tietz would build his famous Kaufhaus des Westens (department store of the West). By the 1920s, the Jewish population in Berlin numbered roughly 170,000 (one-third of all Jews living in Germany). It was this very notion of tolerance that caused many to remain in Berlin well into the 1930s and early ’40s. And when they realized their city was to become “Jew-Free,” it was too late.

Weltstadt

Nevertheless, in the years before 1914, Berlin had become a teeming metropolis. Many Berliners now reflect on the turn of the century with great nostalgia, as a time when the city could do no wrong. The economy was booming, its image as a Weltstadt rapidly gaining popularity. It was cosmopolitan, tolerant, well-read (claiming to have more newspapers than London), and even borderline decadent (David Clay Large observes that on the eve of World War I, Berlin had approximately 40 gay bars and an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 male prostitutes). When Berliners are asked today to recall their city’s better times, many jump the hundred years to this era, when the future couldn’t have been any brighter.

Whereupon Kaiser Wilhelm announced from his balcony that the nation was going to war against Russia. At the outset, the city exuded confidence. The thousands who crowded before the kaiser to listen to his declaration of war were ecstatic. (Even the Socialists and the Association of German Jews supported the cause.) Pubs remained open late on the night of the announcement in order to further the celebrations. Soon, mobs of Germans descended on the Russian embassy, pelting it with rocks and assaulting the ambassador and his family all the way to the station. And while the Russians made it back safely, as Large writes, “their treatment was an ugly example of the xenophobic frenzy awakened by the prospect of war.”

The war that many assumed would last a few short months would drag on for four years, and Berlin would soon begin to suffer the effects of shortages in supplies and food. As the death toll mounted, the population began to weary of the cause. The press started in on the kaiser and his series of poor military judgments, and the kaiser in turn would blame his woes on the Jewish press. But signs of a losing struggle were everywhere: As soon as horses dropped dead, a crowd of Berliners gathered around to carve up the carcasses for food. Zoo elephants drew coal carts. Soldiers were to be shot if they uttered the word “defeat.” By war’s end, epidemics were breaking out through much of the city — Spanish influenza took almost 2,000 lives on a single day. The residents had had enough of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his grand ambitions. He was finally forced to flee to Holland, ending 500 years of Hohenzollern rule.

The ensuing Weimar Republic government was offered the opportunity to do things right, a second chance to embrace democratic institutions. But this chance was hampered by insurmountable political and economic obstacles. The cost of the war, through the Treaty of Versailles, was enormous — a loss of 13 percent of Germany’s territory (10 percent of its population), foreign occupation of the Rhineland, and a disbanding of much of the military, to name just a few of the conditions. The reparations, however, were far worse, totaling 132 billion gold marks — the equivalent, as Berlin newspapers quickly cited, of paying an annual 2.5 billion marks until 1966, then 1.5 billion through 1988.

At the same time, the country was struck by hyperinflation. In 1920, the mark stood at 99 to the dollar. A year later, it was at 263. By the end of 1922, one U.S. dollar was worth 7,368 marks. The year after that, the same dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. Economically, the Weimar government didn’t stand a chance.

Babylon on the Spree

The political backlash to Versailles and hyperinflation was swift. Political assassinations became commonplace, from Center Party politician Matthias Erzberger to Jewish Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau to communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemberg. In the city streets, members of the extreme left Independent Party of Democratic Socialism (upds) collided with the far right Freikorps (whose banner was already the swastika, even before Hitler adopted it).

Electorally, the left made the greater gains: In 1919, the socialists captured 36 percent of the vote in Berlin. In the 1925 presidential election, two years after Adolf Hitler’s failed beerhall putsch, the city voted for centrist/liberal candidate Wilhelm Marx, who outpolled conservative Paul von Hindenburg 53 percent to 37 percent. But in terms of sheer brute force, it was the far right that made the greatest gains. From 1918 to 1922, the left was held responsible for about 30 political slayings throughout the city; the right, represented by the fearsome Freikorps, is counted as having committed 354 murders. Since they couldn’t win the elections, they would win the body counts.

Despite the political ferment, Berlin in the 1920s became known for its Weimar culture of decadence. The Hotel Adlon thrived, even without a monarchy — this time with a large influx of foreign guests like Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin. Large’s Berlin gives an account of writer Robert McAlmon’s night on the town with his friends:

McAlmon and his crowd moved on to the Adlon where they gorged on “cocktails, paté de foie gras, three bottles of wine, pheasant, Russian eggs . . . .” Then it was on to the Germania Palast and drinks. . . . For a break they went outside and snorted cocaine. . . . [T]hey ended their tour at the Oh la la!, a lesbian bar that did not open until 6 am. There they watched nude dancers, drank champagne, took some more drugs, and finally vomited it all up on the floor.

Americans with every fetish could come to Berlin and satisfy their urges on the cheap. Police estimated that prostitutes in the 1920s numbered over 25,000 — many were preteen girls and high school boys. There were approximately 10,000 pimps. This was Babylon on the Spree.

While foreigners could live luxuriously for a short while, after they got bored, they simply packed up and left. The Berliners starving on the street could not. They were stuck there, deprived and resentful. It was a disparity in lifestyle that was bound to create a backlash. In 1928, a Nazi propaganda sheet called Berlin “a melting pot of everything that is evil — prostitution, drinking houses, cinemas, Marxism, Jews, strippers, negroes dancing.” It was one of the Nazis’ major selling points in its campaign to restore “purity” to the city and the nation. The other selling point was the Treaty of Versailles, already an object of indignation among Germans. Hitler subscribed to a theory about the treaty known as the Dolchstoss, or “stab in the back.” As Alexandra Richie relates in her mammoth history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis (Carroll & Graff), this explanation for Germany’s defeat rested on blaming not the military but “saboteurs, the gangsters, the war profiteers, the Socialists and Jews who populated Berlin.”

Hitler and his brownshirts needed to wait only a few years for conditions to deteriorate before they could seize power. By 1932, unemployment in Berlin stood at more than half a million and worsening. Once the communists forged a (temporary) alliance with the Nazis against the government, it was only a matter of time before the Weimar Republic was toppled. In January 1933 President Hindenburg found himself appointing Adolf Hitler chancellor of the Reich.

World City of the Future

It was the Führer’s intent that Berlin no longer be known as Babylon on the Spree, but rather the “World City of the Future.” He explained: “What is ugly in Berlin, we shall remove, and Berlin shall now be given the very best that can be made.” And when visitors entered his chancellory, they should “have the feeling that they are visiting the masters of the world.” His architect, Albert Speer, would rebuild the nation’s capital with an emphasis on axial orientation and, in David Clay Large’s words, “hyperthyroid neoclassicism.”

Those who stood in the way of the new Berlin would simply have to disappear. From the time of Hitler’s arrival in 1933 to his suicide in 1945, more than 50,000 Berliners — Jews, communists, and other assorted political prisoners — would be deported, roughly 35,000 of them straight to Auschwitz. As late as 1942, Hitler’s elite SS concluded that Berlin was not doing enough to eradicate its Jews, so much so the SS actually brought in “experts” from Vienna — a city that had practically wiped out its Jewish population.

In one of the greatest public relations schemes of the century, the 1936 Olympics, Hitler tried to impress the world by emphasizing his city’s efficiency and modernity, not its anti-Semitism. During that time, Jews enjoyed temporary freedoms, and the placards condemning them and urging boycotts came down. The most extreme anti-Jewish publications were missing from newsstands. (Indeed, the authorities even let prostitutes ply their trade again.) But once the games ended and the tourists left, it was back to the business of purifying the city.

The City of the Future was not to be. The German invasion of Poland and the start of World War II marked the beginning of the end of the Führer’s dream of Germania. His hope for a “Hall of the People,” with a proposed volume sixteen times that of St. Peter’s in Rome and towering 954 feet above the city, would never come to pass. Part of Speer’s project involved the clearing away of old buildings, a task that was accomplished by allied bombing. The effort to rebuild, however, never came about, since resources were needed elsewhere for the Reich’s war effort.

Aerial bombing hit Berlin as early as 1940, though fatalities that year numbered less than 300. But with each passing year, more and more bombs began to rain down, destroying the factories, residences, historic sites, the vaunted transportation system, and eventually the centers of control and communication. As the war progressed, Berliners grew disillusioned with their leader’s dreams and ambitions. When all around them was death and destruction, much of the city simply hoped for an end.

Flashpoint

That end would come with the arrival of the Soviet army in April of 1945. But if any Berliners thought the Soviets would bring an end to their misery, they were sorely mistaken. Filled with hatred for a country that had ravaged their homeland, the Soviets were determined to exact vengeance. And with the Americans and the British lagging behind to the west, the Red Army had two months to plunder and rape as much as was physically possible.

As punishment for starting the war, no simple treaty would suffice. No one German government would be permitted. The nation was to be divided among the allies. And the capital city would likewise be divided, though deep within the Soviet occupation zone of East Germany. For once, Berlin had no identity. Its future would be dictated by foreigners. Soon the western part of the city became “Showcase Berlin” — a demonstration of capitalism at its best. The east became the “Showpiece of Real Existing Socialism.” For the residents of East Berlin, reeducation was a priority. Children in schools learned that they and their parents had fought valiantly alongside the Russians against the fascists of the West. Hitler was propelled to power thanks to greedy capitalists.

West Berlin’s emphasis, on the other hand, was on freedom. Its leaders needed to present to the rest of the world the “Free City.” Rather than deny any involvement with national socialism, West Berlin’s new identity was rooted in the resistance and its victims, those whom the Nazis persecuted and martyred, such as the plotters of the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Hitler. The only common identity the two cities shared was as a flashpoint of the Cold War. Even the Berlin Wall, erected by the East Germans in August 1961, was perceived differently by both sides. While the West openly called it a wall and a barrier to freedom and even encouraged graffiti as an expression of protest, the East referred to it as the “antifascist protective rampart.” Citizens in East Berlin were told to ignore its existence, to look the other way.

From 1961 to 1989, the divided city would maintain separate identities, as champion of freedom and as “democratic republic.” But with the fall of the wall in 1989, Berlin suddenly found itself with another chance to do things right. The city, like the nation, was finally brought together, and soon Berlin found itself again in the role of capital city. Since reunification, the German government has spent billions rebuilding the eastern part of the city and the lives of those who lived there. Dilapidated buildings needed repair or demolition, social services needed to be extended to the newly unemployed. Though Rome wasn’t built in a day, many Germans thought Berlin could be built in a decade, finally completing the tortured process of normalization as a great world capital — a status glimpsed only briefly at the turn of the twentieth century.

Berlin 2001

On a visit to Berlin in February, I found a city that was still a gigantic construction yard — cranes having become a permanent fixture of the cityscape. The Adlon was rebuilt in 1997, amid much fanfare. It had burned down during the Red Army’s occupation. Lorenz Adlon’s descendants insisted the hotel should only be built when the city was one. And so, 90 years after its first opening, the Adlon was back — as lavish as ever. “Berlin is now the fourth most visited city in Europe by foreigners, only behind London, Paris, and Rome,” the Adlon’s communications director, Sabine Held, tells me. “We want to be third.” Asked what image the city wants to convey now, Held admitted that that would have to be the heady days of Weimar. (“Why would you want to bring that back?” asks Franziska Lang, a Berlin archaeologist. “Weimar was a terrible time. We should be looking forward, not backward.”)

Across from the Adlon, the French embassy is being erected. On the same block as the hotel is the new British embassy. Down the block on Unter den Linden is the Russian embassy. “We’ve got over 100 embassies setting up shop in and around Berlin. Of course we are a Weltstadt,” says the speaker of the Berlin senate, Michael-Andreas Butz. “We are international too — the roof of our very own Reichstag was designed by Sir Norman Foster. Imagine if a German was to redesign Westminster Abbey?”

No one doubts that the Berlin Mitte district (which the wall had split), and particularly Pariser Platz on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, have made phenomenal improvements. The center of the city has indeed shifted back to its historic location. And ghostly Friedrichstrasse in the former East is now competing against Kurfürstendamm in the West as a shopping and dining street. But parts of old East Berlin are still in need of much attention. And in the suburbs, where unemployment remains high, much reeducation of the “reeducated” is necessary. One member of the Berlin parliament who has gone to a few outlying neighborhoods to talk about democracy and freedom is Özcan Mutlu, a Turkish representative from Kreuzberg — one of Berlin’s minority-majority districts. “I couldn’t understand why I needed a police escort to visit a high school,” says Mutlu. “But when I arrived, I realized every one of these 15-year-olds was a skinhead. They couldn’t have cared less about democracy. They just kept shouting, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘Why are you in our country?’” Mutlu grows frustrated, saying, “Unemployment among the small Turkish minority is in double digits, more than that among the native Germans. Can’t they add?” He explains that despite a new generation being born after 1989, their parents, who lived underneath the gdr’s welfare blanket, only tell them that life was much better. And a few older Germans tell these kids life was even better than that in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, city officials intend to rebuild the ancient Prussian residence destroyed during the last war and at the same time tear down the gdr’s Palace of the Republic. Both decisions have caused an eruption from every corner of Berlin. It has become a raging debate over both identity and the direction the city should be going. Says Butz, “Prussia is a part of our history. And there’s nothing really wrong with Prussian traditions. We are . . . [and here he pauses to come up with something positive] . . . punctual. Yes?” He also says that it is only natural for Germans to want back some measure of pride and patriotism. (“Patriotism?” asks Caroline Fetscher, a columnist with Tagesspiegel. “I just don’t think a people responsible for killing two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population has any business engaging in patriotism.” She adds, “Your Statue of Liberty and our Siegessäule are not exactly the same things.”)

The drive to tear down the Palace of the Republic is perceived by many East Germans as an act of arrogance by the Wessis. To those who lived under the communist regime, this is tantamount to erasing their history. Berliners ran into a similar problem when construction uncovered remnants of the headquarters of the ss, Gestapo, and the sd (ss security service). No one was quite sure what to do. Paving it over would be seen by some as an attempt to wipe away the city’s past crimes — an act of denial. Others saw a memorial over the site as focusing too much on the victims and not enough on the perpetrators. To date, the city block that once housed the killing apparatus of the Third Reich remains partially uncovered and kept as an exhibit entitled “Topography of Terror.” And just a few feet away from this excavation is one of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall.

Layers upon layers of history. A burden hard to fathom. And despite all that, almost all the Berliners I spoke with sounded optimistic. Take David Gill, a lawyer from East Germany who at the age of 23 was appointed head of the committee overseeing the newly released Stasi (East German secret police) files. He couldn’t feel better: “Sure we have our problems. But if you were to tell me in 1990 that, having been raised in a communist country, barred from studying law because my degree was from a religious school, that I could one day become a lawyer and visit the world and live freely, I just simply would not have believed you.” Özcan Mutlu asks, “In 10 years’ time? I am a pessimist. Rising debt is going to kill us.” But on further reflection, he admits, “even though we have this skinhead problem and debts to repay, there is no other city I would rather live in. Well, except maybe New York or Istanbul. But Berlin is where it’s at. Years from now, I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, ‘Hey! I was there! I saw it all happen and did something about it.’”

Nor is this merely elite sentiment. A cab driver from the western suburb of Charlottenburg says, “Sure we’ve got problems—like immigration. People with no concept of capitalism who come to Germany expecting to get rich. But are things going to get better? Absolutely. It’ll all happen.”

And so Berlin in 2001 is finding its way out of the darkness of its past — still becoming, not quite being. In a way, it’s 1900 again. Berlin can still be called “the youngest European city.” The slate is clean. The choice of what comes next is Berlin’s alone, and the city has a chance to get the next hundred years right.