Swans Commentary » swans.com May 6, 2013  



Everybody's Berlin


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - May 6, 2013)   The River Spree hurries through Berlin offering excuses for trespassing. It doesn't belong. It's not welcome. Without the gravity of the Seine, Thames, or Liffey it still could have made Berlin a city nobly astride a waterway. But Berlin hadn't the patience, preferring sheer muscle power. Look at the Bode Museum in swollen 1900 Parisian style. The French had the sense to keep postprandial megalomania away from the banks of their gracious Seine. The Bode's overstuffed domes, where the Spree forks with the Kupfergraben, simply crush everything in sight. Compare Venice's magnificent Salute Church whose weight in a scale would be just as heavy as the Bode. It pats the Grand Canal on the back, urging it on into the Venetian Lagoon and to occident and orient beyond.

The Bode of course isn't Bode's. He was a scholarly museum director who lent it his politically correct name on the East German government's say so in 1956. The building was originally the Kaiser Friedrich III Museum. In 1945 Friedrich dismounted from his equestrian statue and his pose as a divine traffic cop. He entered the kingdom of rubble along with much of the museum and forty percent of Berlin. Pious restoration would eventually follow. It was mistaken, but less so than most of the commercial new building that went up from scratch in the city. Neither piety nor pandering to consumers would keep Berlin from its destiny as the European capital of absence.

Once-great cities that have become wasteland or no more than slums are not rare. We can go to sleep musing on the Queen of Sheba's Aksum, Khmer Anghor, or the Olmec's San Lorenzo. The absence of Berlin, however, where our fathers in uniform dropped bombs and drank beer, is a slap in the face that widens our eyes. We can't get over the numerous pasts of the place. In fantasy we still inhabit them.

Berlin always was a Johnny-come-lately. It hadn't the ancient roots of a typical European metropolis. Its propensity to postwar rebirths in new uniforms started when the Thirty Years' War destroyed a third of its houses and half its population. Even from 1701 as the Prussian capital it remained on the sidelines, Prussia itself being a mere country cousin of the major powers. Only in 1871 as the seat of the new German Empire did rapid advance begin. Considering Prussian taste for order, we should speak of an outsized goose step rather than a great leap forward.

Mark Twain nailed Berlin's up and down destiny in his letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune of April 3, 1892. His title, "The Chicago of Europe," didn't come from one of his tall stories. Chicago, burnt over by fire in 1871, became the fastest growing city ever. In the thirty years till 1900 its population increased more than fivefold. Berlin's population growth, more modest but exceptional in Europe, doubled between 1870 and 1895.

The Innocent Abroad reported the total disappearance of "the Berlin of the last century and the beginning of the present one. The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period [...] the city itself has no tradition and history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen. Chicago would seem venerable beside it; for there are many old-looking districts in Chicago, but not many in Berlin. The main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week, the rest of it has a just perceptibly graver tone, and looks as though it might be six or even eight months old."

Twain knew that while the numbers and dates of historians might bulk out the Berlins that had been, fantasy could do a more vivid job. For our great grandfathers Otto von Bismarck loomed up as the quintessential Berliner, a Prussian Junker who slept in uniform, aristocratic, aggressive, domineering, "the man of blood and iron." He was a prequel to Hollywood's Erich von Stroheim, who though Jewish on both sides and Austrian born, pearled his brow on celluloid into the 1950s with beads of strong, silent Prussian sweat.

That Berlin of starch and clicking heels endured along with spike-topped helmets until 1914 when Emperor Wilhelm II, Bismarck's bugbear, stumbled into "the Kaiser's war." Thirty-seven million deaths later, sung along to "Mademoiselle from Armentières" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," another Berlin appeared with a very different tune. At the center of Weimar culture, Berlin bubbled over with modernism. Its luminaries would go on to enlighten the world for decades. Many of them, like Albert Einstein, were Jews who at last obtained full access to German institutions.

For English speakers, Weimar Berlin became and remains a city not to be confused with the actual one that Hitler closed for business in 1933. It has a map of its own where Liza Minnelli's voice in Bob Fosse's Cabaret drowns out local chroniclers of the time like Alfred Döblin. The English author Christopher Isherwood did the job of packaging this Berlin as sin city for hung up Anglo-Saxons. Bertolt Brecht was only invited to the party by way of Kurt Weil's lyrics recycled for Broadway. Niceness castrated "Mack the Knife" and Lotte Lenya's cojones were too much for theatergoers in from Connecticut. It would take a quarter century for London and New York to digest Brecht's revolution in the theatre.

The dozen years of the Third Reich's Berlin never set our imaginations alight. Once we razed it and its inhabitants we felt decorum called for forgetting the place -- noblesse oblige. Moreover, the Nazi's themselves had out-fantasized us. Their Germania plan conjures up the most absent Berlin of all. Hitler concocted the project with his architect Albert Speer to make Berlin the world's capital. In the Fuehrer's own words, the new city would "only be comparable with ancient Egypt, Babylon or Rome. What is London, what is Paris by comparison!" Boulevards would be 120 meters wide and a People's Hall seating 180,000 would rise 350 meters under an immense dome. Sascha Keil, a present-day student of the subject, guesses at the reason behind the scheme that would have crushed the city once more. "Hitler never liked Berlin. He did not like it because only one quarter of its inhabitants voted for him in 1932/33. He did not like the wild parties that Berlin was famous for. He probably gave vent to his hatred of the Berliners by planning the construction of Germania."

There are innumerable ways of forgetting. One is to replay what has happened as a joke. Germany's division in two and the carve-up of Berlin into occupied zones made it into a ring for superpower shadow boxing. Berliners were the punch drunk mugs who took the real blows. Their mall rat descendants have decided to laugh off the city's Cold War trauma as high jinks in Palookaville. What was perhaps the most significant turning point of the twentieth century has become fodder for standup comedians in search of a career boost.

In Berlin today history repeats itself as commodification. The merchants squat in the temple of Checkpoint Charlie. Hustlers regret the destruction of the Wall that with toll booths could have been a New York High Line that made commercial sense. History lessons at the Brandenburg Gate are dispensed by supernumeraries clowning in the 1950 uniforms of the contending powers. This sort of thing reaches a peak in the DDR Museum, which purports to tell us all about life in the former East Germany or Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic, GDR.

The DDR Museum, tucked away on the riverside under the thumb of the hulking Berlin Cathedral, perfectly illustrates third millennial Berlin. Like all freak shows the DDR Museum's point is to prove the normality of ticket-buying gawkers. It's the rancid fruit of private enterprise, while the other museums of the city, some of them unequalled in the world, are funded by the state. State institutions interpreted the opening of the DDH Museum in 2006 as a first step in a campaign to privatize the whole museum system. Considering the mediocrity of the new museum, such a threat is ominous. The DDR manages to combine triviality with heavy didacticism and peddle the mix as innovation and "a hands on experience of history." The place is a fun house ideal for parents who want to check in the kids while they go off to do some serious shopping.

There is no reason why a museum collection shouldn't inform us about the German Democratic Republic whose forty-one year history, after all, more that doubled the life span of the Third Reich, knowledge of which never stops raining on us. There could be no better place for the collection, moreover, than in what was DDR's capital city, up against what were the German-German borders. However, to make sense of the exhibits, they would have to be set in a historical context. The new country had frontiers with the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and a taunting West Germany in a Europe exiting from the most destructive war in history. We would have to be given some light on the pressures this involved. The DDR Museum presents East Germany as some sort of settlement off on its own in a vacuum. It could be a crazy utopian commune set up on the moon.

We are shown the artifacts produced in East Germany as if they were the implements of primitives. Wouldn't a 1950s typewriter or automobile produced in the West be the object for just as facile laughter today? Does the Stasi listening bug exhibited to thrill us differ essentially from the unexhibited surveillance gadgets the C.I.A. uses? Recordings of police interrogations are offered as if such procedures were somehow unique to the DDR and not as old as law enforcement anywhere. An unobjectionable item on show is the reconstructed, typical, conceived for one occupant, East German prison cell. Meant to make us feel the weight of a police state, the cell would be considered luxurious by any prisoner today from Rome to Los Angeles in our "developed" countries' overcrowded jails.

The historian's code is to set out the facts, organize them, interpret them if necessary, and then let the reader or viewer make up his own mind. The DDR Museum hasn't the confidence to let this process play out. Repeatedly it tells us what to think about what it shows us. This can be hilarious. We are given to contemplate a large photograph of a Soviet satellite country's leader embracing his DDR opposite number on a diplomatic visit. Today we see similar scenes, with better made-up faces, regularly on television. Top European Union figures make their rounds or Hamid Karsai comes from Kabul to consult with President Obama. The DDR Museum, however, feels the need to inform us that the kisses exchanged by the elderly statesmen of Eastern Europe were pure hypocrisy. The Soviet satellite system, it says, was held together not by friendship, but by sheer force. Of course. Every drone sent over Pakistan is a billet doux and Angela Merkel's diktats to Greece mere valentines. Again, in a display about East German elections, it isn't enough to let us view the scene, the equipment involved, and an account of the operation. The Museum adds the comment that though East Germany had elections no real change ever resulted from them. It was hard not to roar with laughter on being told such stuff in the wake of recent U.S. and European elections where candidates had struggled to find issues to differ over and when once elected hastened to reaffirm the status quo.

In the end, talking of cities, we can't get away from James Donald's reflection. The theorist and lover of cities wrote in Imagining the Modern City, (1999), "Our experience of the real -- specifically, the real of the city -- is always imagined,...poetic." Outsiders fantasizing Berlin's comings and goings have been profligate. But isn't that the way of poets? Let's accelerate on William Blake's "road of excess" and imagine the elements of Berlin today rearranged to make our lives more meaningful, bright with a less commercial sheen.

We will forego a hub. The die having been cast, Berlin can't be contorted so as to radiate from a center. We also will have to concede that the neglected River Spree can't for a host of reasons be promoted and add savor to a municipal area of nine hundred square kilometers. Better to delight in the uncrowded space history and catastrophe has bequeathed. Parks are everywhere and public transport superb. Let the three points of an ideal triangle keep triviality at bay in our fantasy Berlin.

Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie is one sacred spot any secularist would want to mark with a cross on his map. It was the last building the architect completed before his death in 1969 and closed the Berlin circle of his life that began when he arrived from his native Aachen in 1905. Prominence came when he designed the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exhibition of Barcelona. A year later he became director of the Bauhaus, the institutional wellspring from which modernism in art and design would flow.

Times were as troubled in Germany as in Spain and Mies was challenged by students who wanted more radical politics along with his teaching on form and function. Opposition also came from powerful conservatives who considered modernism unGerman. After the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1932, Mies kept building while the German storm gathered. As modern design took root in America, his reputation grew there and he moved to Chicago in 1938. His back-to-basics approach as a teacher reorganized architectural education while as an architect he brought elegance to the city as no one before him.

The glass and steel Neue Nationalgaleie has been said to suggest a modernist Buddhist temple. It is certainly a place of worship, but what it prays to is light, proportion and spatial volumes. Though poised on a slope, domination has no part of its design. For a lifetime Mies strove to let nature into his buildings. He had no desire that they browbeat us. Instead they sweep us along with him in his search for something we might call, till we find better words, space that's both boundless and seizable. In the modernist drive to make form and materials serve function, Mies never forgot beauty. That's why his serene creation, the crown on his life's work, stands at the apex of our Berlin triangle.

From under its layer of dust Bertolt-Brecht Platz speaks of another light, the harsh glare of the playwright's reasoning. In a niche of a rag-taggle quarter by the river, Brecht's theatre remains, like his plays, thoroughly out of place. The Berliner Ensemble's building in ribbony Baroque style remains the wry joke it was in 1949 when Brecht returned to Berlin. In their infinite wisdom or simple forgetfulness, neither power, East or West, ever removed the frivolity of its façade. It has perdured even as the strength of the company it houses has slackened. The cooking served thereabouts, however, is still the sort Brecht relished and, some say, had as much to do with luring him back from the United States as the threats of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It's a relief to know, by the way, that not he but only the round head of his statue has to stare across the Spree at a flashy new shopping mall. It's hard to imagine Helene Weigel, his wife and the first Mother Courage, over there in the neon for any other reason but to plant a bomb.

At the third vertex of our imagined Berlin triangle stands the Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum Berlin). It isn't the first Jewish Museum in the city. The Nazis closed another in 1938. In the 1990s the architect Daniel Libeskind integrated a homey Baroque building into a violent, overpowering construction that absolutely refuses to be overlooked. It could be a naysaying comment on the unearthly glow of Mies van der Rohe's very German idealism. The structure has acquired the sobriquet of "Blitz" and could be taken for, among other things, a counterattack on the perpetrators of Jewish persecutions and murders in the 1930s and WWII.

Somewhat to his relief, however, the visitor discovers that the overall message of the Museum's interior turns out to be at odds with the fortress like outer casing. The content evokes a thousand years of interaction between Jews and their fellow Berliners. This reminder of the immense contribution of Jews to the culture of Berlin, Germany, Europe and the world makes Libeskind's design appear obsessive and partial. Yiddish culture never hid behind walls. It flowed outward and, obstructed or not, enriched whatever it touched. In changed forms, it continues to do so. By isolating Jewish experience of the mid-twentieth century in an anxious metal strongbox, the architect diminishes rather than increases our awareness of what we owe Jews.

Or such are the views of one traveler who took his imagination with him on his visit to Berlin.


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Published May 6, 2013