Reinventing Berlin

The only odd thing about Volkspark Prenzlauer Park is that it is hill – a geographical anomaly in a city built on swampland. Otherwise it looks like any city park should be, with poplars and pines and chestnuts, with meadows of wild buttercups, with benches and playing field, with a pond fringed by reeds and inhabited by moorhens – and a couple sunbathing naked, taking full advantage of the hot day in that July afternoon. Only that couple were present in the park, and they didn’t cringe away or cover themselves when I stepped in full view, a reminder of Berlin’s irreverential openness. I walked towards the summit, cutting straight up the hill. The ground appeared stony and rough and hard to me, but perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this if I didn’t know what lay under the grass: the detritus of World War II Berlin. All the rubble from bombed-out Berlin after the war had been heaped in this artificial hill in Hohenschonhausen, and a park created. It’s this fact that had lured me to the park, but history was buried and forgotten here – not even a memorial had been put up to explain how the hill came to be.  

 

It had been the same in other places I visited – historical notoriety had slipped away, or just didn’t match up. In Glienicker Brucke, the lovely metal bridge that links Berlin and Potsdam, renowned as the rendezvous point where the USSR and the USA exchanged captured spies, it was impossible to invoke the tense exchange of high-profile spies in this setting of lakes and parks. There were school children on picnics, couples on bicycles, gulls making a fuss, and a genial pollen-scented air. I lay down by the water’s edge, reading and napping – the world of Cold War Berlin couldn’t be further away. Across the city, Karlshorst was also deserted; the only person present was a guard languidly sitting by the gate, sweating profusely. Karlshorst had been, until 1994, the KGB’s international operations base, the vast complex where the CIA never managed, despite ingenious and daring attempts, to gain an earshot. Behind the guard, beyond the gate, grass had grown through the cracks in the cement, doors and windows were sagging or missing, and the interior seemed dim and blank and dusty. And across the street, the lovely bungalows of the KGB’s top-guard were starting to crumble.   

 

On another day I went to see what remains of The Wall, perhaps the most potent feature of my generation, symbolism of the greatest human tragedy of all: the walls of division we create, past and present. The Berlin Wall stretched for about 25km, but only scattered pieces survive: most of it was hacked away in the euphoria during the German reunification, and chunks of it sold as mementoes. (Something you put on the mantelpiece, with a note: This is part of the Berlin Wall.) The largest stretch that survived intact, perhaps a mile long, stands between the river Spree and an arterial traffic road, Muhlen Strasse. It is covered with graffiti – another Berlin specialty. A message says: “East Side Gallery – the largest open-air gallery in the world.” I strolled along the wall as traffic roared past. There were no other visitors. Even the travelers who had camped in old trucks and buses behind The Wall have left, and the area behind the wall was like a scrapyard, with heaps of rubble and corpses of cars. The Wall is covered with murals expressing political freedom, environmental doom, and the shades of human obsessions. The best mural shows Soviet Premier Brezhnev and East German leader Honecker locked in a mouth-to-mouth kiss, and the inscription, “God, help me survive this deadly love.”  

 

But The Wall, for all its symbolism, failed to stir any emotions in me other than boredom: it seemed like another historical leftover, like last-election posters no one bothered to remove. Berlin, I was finding out, buries its history well. It is a city on fast forward, and the past is only as good as its usefulness in the future. Yet this is not deliberate amnesia; it is just that the city is restless, ever metamorphosing. The city is now busy morphing into its new incarnation, finding another pivotal point in history, as always. This is how Berlin remains relevant – it reinvents itself. In the past 100 years Berlin reinvented itself five times, and it was almost destroyed completely twice in the world wars. Now the cliches about the city’s emerging role are bandied about recklessly – “from the city at the frontline to the bridge of Europe;” “the meeting place between east and west;” and so on – but you know the city is serious about its new role when you see the forest of construction cranes cluttering the cityscape. In the beginning of the 1990s, when the largest-ever urban renewal project was unveiled in Berlin, costing $116 billion, there were about 2,000 construction sites; ten years later, there was still 2,000 construction sites.  

 

The heart of the reconstruction could be found at Potsdamer Platz. In the 1920s and 1930s this was Europe’s busiest square, and the first place where traffic lights were installed. Then it was razed in the war, and during the Cold War it degenerated into poisoned open scrubland in the shadow of The Wall. Now it is a gleaming futuristic square, and once again one of Europe’s busiest, and it is amazing seeing it today when you remember that ten years ago there was nothing here, just a piece of dead land. During its construction in the 1990s, Potsdamer Platz was billed as “Europe’s largest construction site.” Now it feels like you’re entering the promised city: it is framed by two glass skyscrapers, which cost $2.3 billion, and behind them there is a straight run of office blocks, cinemas, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, cafes, restaurants, shops, all linked by a new underground train station. There is even an artificial lake, where office workers lounge during lunchtime.  

 

Yet Potsdamer Platz is just a symbol, a statement even, that Berlin is reclaiming its former glory. It is not gaudy or showy – the Germans are beyond that – but I found it sterile, and too confident in its capitalist smirk, because the skyscrapers are owned by Daimler-Benz and Sony, the two largest German international companies. Never mind Potsdamer Platz. I was seeking, instead, the rough edge of frontline Berlin, because this is how Berlin has always commanded fear and admiration. In essence, I was seeking continuity, not a buried history. Given the reconstruction, the beginning of a new era Berliners called The Wende (The Change), would Berlin loose its soul? There were some good signs: the city still had an air of buzz and energy so fiery it felt like defiance. And the reconstruction, however radical and sweeping, hadn’t hidden the city’s grimy damaged look (and in East Berlin, some shrapnel-ridden facades). Besides, the contrasting architecture set-pieces that are so bullyish in Berlin were still here. A drive through Berlin took me past these architectural monuments of ideological expression, etched in stone – faithful imprints or representations of ideology: uniform Communism, brash Capitalism, callous Nazism, fairytale Royalty – all of them built with a whiff of triumph, for beyond their utilitarian necessities they sought a kind of immortality.   

 

What happened to the artists and political activists who became, during the Cold War, when Berlin was an island (that is, a pocket of the West surrounded by East Germany), the very image of Berlin? Back then they lived in Kreuzberg, the Turkish district, but reunification had opened a whole new territory, most of it more amenable to their living arrangements and inspiration. Many had moved to the former East Berlin districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg (which are now the new central east) like air into a vacuum, filling the worn old buildings that had survived the war and lay derelict ever since, and transforming them into chapels of post-modern art. Artists, by nature creatures with an affinity for the fringes and the frontlines and the grey areas, had found a natural home in Berlin during the Cold War; and, furthermore, it had been an easy city, a city propped by lavish and unlimited subsidies from the West German government. Now the subsidies have dried off, but the artists still pour in, now lured by the city’s artistic fame and excellence, and by duty: they have to have a hand in the great reshaping of Berlin.   

 

Many have their studios and squats and workshops scattered in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. The art here has the rough conceptual edge of post-modernism; it is no-bluff, undignified, crude, unpretentious, and angry art, and it seeks to express, by its presence and context and countenance, the tribulations and ugly truths of modern life. These are natural themes for Berlin artists; after all, these are the kind of people for whom hedonism and decadence isn’t just about indulging, but a lifestyle informed by philosophical and political convictions. Nothing is apolitical, nothing is flippant, which is why these artists are dead serious about their art, as devoted to their work as religious fanatics. Even the graffiti artists dedicate their life to their peculiar brand of outside art, and in the late 1990s, when the authorities decided that the ubiquitous graffiti was incongruous with the new image of a modern capitalist city, the graffiti artists had a fight on their hands. There was no question that they would lay down the spray can without a fight, and at night-time organized gangs of them fan out throughout the city to continue doing what they have always done, armed with pistols to confront the police who are looking for them. 

 

Berlin artists have an uncanny ability to keep one step ahead, and while the mainstream in Berlin is the alternative and radical elsewhere, the radical in Berlin gives the word a harder and more extraordinary meaning – perhaps another example of how Berlin constantly reinvents itself. Berlin, for example, is known for the Love Parade – a celebration of drugs and music and hedonism and openness – but when it became too famous, and started attracted young airy ravers from all over the world, it was time to move on: the Hate Parade came into being. It is held simultaneously with the Love Parade, and it winds down Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte, finishing with a clamour of hard beats and hooting horns and savage screams in front of the city hall, just for the political effect. The Hate Parade now embodies the politicized arm of dance music, the new underground. Here, in Mitte (perhaps it’s shut by the time you read this: this is Berlin, where things change fast), you can visit the Eimer, an illegal club located in a house that doesn’t exist officially (it’s shown as derelict land on official maps), and try dancing to Gabba or Gabber, the music that rattles your teeth and numbs you with its 250-plus beats per minute. It’s the Berlin version of the new underground, a furious music, because mainstream dance music has become too soft and meaningless.   

 

No – Berlin remains at the frontline, and that is the city’s allure. No longer a military frontline, of course; Berliners are fierce pacifists, and a current point of discourse among the intelligentsia is the trepidation that a reunified and reinvigorated Germany might once again build a powerful military and start meddling with other countries. If you’re an observer of German politics, you might think that this fear is unfounded and exaggerated. And a visit to the Reichstag will confirm this: it’s the most inclusive parliament in the world, its history (the history of Berlin) preserved in layers, serving as an illustration of the torturous road of German politics in the last one hundred years. In the renovation, Norman Foster, the celebrated British architect, wanted the Reichstag to perform two roles: to be the transparent and open heart of Germany’s democracy, and to be a testimony and reminder of 100 years of historical twists. Parts of the building gutted during the war were left deliberately gutted, and the missing dome was only replaced by a spherical glass dome – as an expression of transparent politics – and everything else was left as testimony; even the graffiti and messages engraved with coins or penknives were left untouched, as though in an archeological dig where artifacts are left in situ. It is, in a sense, like visiting a museum, and a potent living organ that illustrates how Berlin reinvents itself – not to banish its past as I had initially thought, but to remain at the frontline. 

  

© Victor Paul Borg. The above essay was published in a book anthology of travel essays about Europe.   

 

 

Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.

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