Berlin … where extremes meet
By Elspeth Crocket, Arts and Culture correspondent
I recently spent a weekend in Berlin with my daughter, Jennifer, a very welcome return to Germany for me. It is a country I have loved for most of my life and whose post-war democratic system I hugely admire. I lived and worked in a variety of German towns in the seventies but had not been back for forty years and had never been to Berlin. To say historical currents run deep there is an understatement. I have been thinking about the changes an East Berlin centenarian might have seen. A man or woman born in 1918 would, for a short time, have been a subject of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which was replaced by a republic shortly afterwards.
Like their British contemporaries, their family would likely have been mourning relatives lost in the First World War or perhaps others who died in the flu epidemic which devastated Europe’s weakened population shortly afterwards. They would have lived through the communist Sparticist risings and the murder of its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Later in the twenties they might have been among the half a million Berliners who attended the funeral of Jewish foreign minister Walther Rathenau, murdered by the far-right Freikorps. Their childhood would have been spent during the years of hyperinflation, when it took over 4 trillion marks to buy one American dollar and people set of with wheelbarrows stuffed with high denominational notes to buy a loaf of bread.
As teenagers these centenarians would have witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the persecution of the Jews, the seizure of democracy and imposition of terror and the ultimate devastation of Berlin at the end of the Second World War. Female centenarians might have been among the countless women of all ages raped by the advancing Soviet troops or may have been one of the Truemmerfrauen (rubble-women) who cleared bombed building sites with their bare hands since so many men were dead or still in captivity. All East Berliners would have woken up one Sunday in August 1961 to find that a wall was being built across their city. They were to be imprisoned behind this wall for twenty-eight years till it finally came down in 1989 and they became citizens of the German Federal Republic. All of this would have impinged on their lives, whether they were politically active or not.
Yet, surprisingly, history is not overwhelming in Berlin. It is a city fashioned on a human scale. Buildings tend to be low, or of medium height and population density is far less concentrated than in many capital cities. There are large areas of greenery, from the extensive Tiergarten park to tree-lined boulevards and lovely walks along the Spree. It is a curiously quiet city, easy to relax in and welcoming to visitors.
Contrasts abound, manifestations of the best and worst in human nature. At the eastern end of Unter den Linden, the wide boulevard running down from the Brandenburg Gate, stands a statue of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a king renowned not just for his military prowess, but for his tolerance, love of books and commitment to a free press. To his left is the Humboldt University, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt and alma mater to twenty-nine Nobel prize winners. To Frederick’s right is a beautiful square, the Bebelplatz, where Nazi students from the Humboldt university held the notorious book-burnings of 1933. Twenty thousand volumes by Jewish authors covering all branches of human knowledge were destroyed. In the middle of the square is a memorial, a glass panel in the ground. The glass is semi-opaque, but if you look through it you can just see the outline of rows of empty book-shelves, enough to hold twenty thousand books.
This is one of the reasons I love post-war Germany. It has acknowledged and confronted its Nazi past. Nothing has been swept under the carpet, it’s all out there in the open. In Berlin you can visit a museum of the Nazi terror, housed in the former Gestapo headquarters – my daughter and I thought of going, but ultimately didn’t have the stomach. We did, though, visit the Reichstag, rebuilt and transformed, with its stunning Norman Foster glass dome.
The Germans, with resilience and determination, have built up a fine, modern European democracy, open and welcoming. Its democratic structures put the archaic Westminster system to shame. An old Berlin song tells us “Berlin ist eine Reise wert” (Berlin is worth a journey). That’s putting it mildly. Go there, you’ll love it