Sunday, 4 October 2015

Resonating Impressions from Berlin, 2015

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large August 4th and I reproduce here because modern Germany is a central focus for That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013). I add a few more photos on this site.

A section of the Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photo by Bob Douglas)

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
– Helen Keller
Berlin from my experience is one of the most stimulating cities in the world. As a long-time teacher and student of modern German history, Berlin possesses a fascination for me. Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt: Memories of Guilt in Germany and Japan (1994) contrasts Germany’s efforts at reparation with Japan’s denial of its aggression during the war. Nowhere in Germany has any city taken more responsibility to address this vital issue than Berlin. For fiction, Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper (1983), where we meet a diverse gallery of characters from both sides of the Wall, and his novel set after reunification, Eduard’s Homecoming (2000) are both insightful portraits of different periods in Berlin’s history. In the latter, the protagonist returns home from California after he inherits property in what was East Berlin, and is forced to examine both his family history during the Nazi era and his own actions, questioning whether he is just another West German opportunist who is taking advantage of the misfortunes of East Germans.

I still regret that I never travelled there before November 1989. Nonetheless, I have visited the city three times: in the early 1990s shortly after the Wall, the most tangible symbol of the Cold War, came down; ten years later; and for over a week at the end of this summer. Each time, the city resembles, at least in part, an urban palimpsest as it physically and spiritually tries to remake itself after the ordeal of the Third Reich and the tensions of a divided city during the Cold War. For example, the first time we exited from the U-Bahn at the old city centre, Potsdamer Platz, the area was desolate grassland that had lain fallow during the Cold War because it was situated right along the Wall. The second time, modern architecture featuring the Sony Centre, a monolith of glass and steel with a huge tent-like conical roof, showcasing the history of German film (an exciting exhibition), began to spring up. Currently, the building boom with both commercial skyscrapers and high-end residential housing has turned the Platz into the business-entertainment centre of Berlin. And that is just one site, as cranes continue to operate throughout the city both building and renovating. As thrilling as the first two trips were, the latest was the richest in large part because I carried with me a copy of Berlin by Norbert Schürer (Interlink Books, 2015) and participated in four of the eight thematic, reasonably priced, walking tours offered by Insider Tour.
Berlin provides a companionable alternative from other travel books that I have used on a trip. Unlike the stodgy Michelin Guide books or the visually splashy Insight series, Berlin (also one volume in a series of city books) is organized around a selection of historically-grounded chapters on its geography and topography, a brief political and social history and its landmarks, which a reader might expect from a travel book, but it also features lively chapters on its literature, art, drama and film, religion, crime and vice, its migration and its suburbs. These chapters were particularly informative and most useful for cross referencing with the walks.

We originally chose the four-hour walk on the Cold War, but that was so rewarding that we signed up for the Third Reich, Modern Berlin, and the Potsdam Walks that included the accessible public transport system – bus, tram, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn – for which a daily, weekly or monthly pass can be purchased at the airport. The tour guides were well-educated, engaging and revealed their background and passion for Berlin as they introduced themselves at the beginning of the tour. My prior experience with local tour guides has been mixed: often providing a spiel consisting of arcane details that did not connect with their audience, or they pandered to their preconceptions as they offer a positive or innocuous view of their homeland. If they are asked unsettling questions that deviate from the message, they can become uncomfortable or occasionally hostile. Our tour guides, many expatriate Brits, one from Bulgaria, were all open to questions and discussion, and each had his own, sometimes different perspective. For example, the guide on the Cold War Walk shared mainly negative perspectives on the former GDR; whereas, the individual who accompanied us through Modern Berlin, did suggest that the GDR safety net and guaranteed work afforded more protection for the poor than for their counterparts in West Berlin. Furthermore, he noted that after the Wall came down in 1989 and the East German economy collapsed those who remained suffered worse material deprivation than they had under the GDR, though he did not diminish the more repressive features of former East Berlin.

Ghost Station (photo by Bob Douglas
What were some of the highlights from the tours? During the Cold War Walk, we entered the U-Bahn “ghost stations” that had been closed and sealed off as trains from West Berlin passed through East Berlin; passengers could only disembark once they returned to the West. The Wall Memorial includes the last piece of the original Wall, three guard towers and a pictorial display of some who died attempting to escape, and the no man’s land that lies between the outer and inner Walls where individuals bled to death as no one from the Western side could reach them. We stood on the wide boulevard, the Karl-Marx-Allee where we could gaze at the ugly apartment buildings, prefabricated Stalinist architecture that had fallen into a derelict state by 1989 and whose individual apartments were renovated in the 1990s at a cost higher than the construction of a new one. But the monotony was offset by the visually arresting Socialist Realist mural depicting education on the House of Teachers building. We heard stories about the insidious Stasi surveillance and the huge numbers who informed upon friends and family members. I mentioned the film, The Lives of Others, which was also highly recommended by the tour leader. Incidentally, Schürer also discusses the film in his chapter on Art, Drama and Cinema. Although his comments on films such as Wings of Desire,The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Billy Wilder’s comedy, One Two Three, were insightful, the same cannot be said for The Lives of Others, which he believes portrays the Stasi in a “somewhat romanticized guise” implying without stating that no hard-core Stasi officer could ever be humanized by reading a novel or listening to music, even though his discussion of the Stasi in a different chapter is informative. Before leaving the Cold War, I should note that few days later it was a thrill to walk across the bridge from Berlin to Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, the same bridge where spies were exchanged during the Cold War, a setting in several Le Carré novels, and in real life.

The mural on Haus des Lehrers (House of Teachers) in Berlin (Photo by Bob Douglas)

The Third Reich Walk began at the Benderblock, a huge building complex, which was once the main military headquarter of the German Army and is now in part Berlin’s German Resistance Museum. (During the walks, we were introduced to the museums and were encouraged to attend on our own.) Here we heard about the failed 20 July, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler by von Stauffenberg, and the courtyard was the site where he was executed by the Nazis; the same site was also used in the filming of Valkyrie that dramatizes this story. The guide was more supportive of the film than some critics, including Schürer, arguing that it was historically accurate except it never alludes to the fact that Stauffenberg was no democrat. I mention our visit there because the guide attempted to put a positive spin, wherever possible, on Berlin’s role during and after the Third Reich. He noted frequently that most Berliners were not enthusiastic about Hitler, and that they, perhaps more than other Germans, quietly attempted to assist persecuted Jews or their institutions. For instance, he related how, during Kristallnacht, the largest synagogue in Berlin was saved from destruction when a local police officer arrived on the scene in the early morning of 10 November and ordered the mob to disperse after acts of vandalism and arson. He drew his pistol, declaring that he would uphold the law requiring the protection of a national landmark, and the mob dispersed. This allowed the fire brigade access to extinguish the fire before it could spread to the actual building. I do not want to suggest that the guide minimized the horror. Indeed, he underscored it as he took us to the site where Hitler’s Reich Chancellery once stood, the building where Eichmann worked, and especially to the powerful Holocaust Memorial, “a field of over 2700 stelae in orderly rows but of varying heights” (Schürer). Wandering through this maze, it is hard not to feel a sense of disorientation and isolation as individuals appear and then disappear. The memorial is controversial because it honours only the Jews (there is a much smaller site nearby that remembers the Roma) and a subsidiary of one of the construction firms involved had produced Zyklon B, the lethal chemical used in the gas chambers. The guide invited our responses and provided his own indicating that the memorial’s best feature was that it provoked controversy. As we concluded the tour at the Topography of Terror, the bombed out remains of SS and Gestapo headquarters, a chilling site indeed with a vast array of disturbing photographs, our guide reminded us that history feeds into the present for contemporary Berliners. The example he provided was a recent announcement that neo-Nazis were staging a march to protest the entry of immigrants into Germany. Instead of banning the proceedings, the authorities advertised it and huge numbers showed up to provide a counter demonstration, a powerful display of how democracy can work.
The Holocaust Memorial (Photo by Bob Douglas)

Perhaps what was most valuable about the Walks on Modern Berlin and Potsdam was the accent on historical migration patterns and the current multiculturalism. From the Great Jewish Square – at one time the ghetto – in the Mitte district where today colourful graffiti abounds, the Russian dachas, Norwegian houses and Dutch quarters in Potsdam, the gentrification in the Neukolln district where higher rents are driving out indigenous people, to the Kreuzberg area where a large percentage of people of Turkish descent live and a squatters site where the most recent refugees spent time, we became aware of both the richness of the history and the vast changes taking place today. I should also include the Russian community, whose culture from food, drink and smoking the shisha or water pipe, was on display in the Charlottenburg district in the vicinity of our hotel.

Russian dacha in Potsdam (photo by Bob Douglas)

Schürer, who has spent a large part of his life living in several of Berlin’s districts, is a helpful guide in illuminating these seismic shifts. He both complements and deepens what we heard from our tour leaders and on occasion challenges their perceptions. His discussion of the difficulties and discrimination experienced by the one-time Turkish guest workers is one of the best parts of his book. Although we were told that the building of the Wall contributed to the demand for foreign workers, Schurer more persuasively argues that the booming economy of the 1950s required outside workers. It may be true that the Turkish workers contributed to their own isolation by not integrating sufficiently and travelling back to Turkey to find Turkish wives but Schürer points out that the demands for female labour provided opportunities for them to escape a restrictive culture. By the late 1990s tensions began to subside as Turks increasingly became entrepreneurs and after 2000 were able to take advantage of the more liberal citizenship laws. Currently, we learn that the Turkish community is working with the gay community to assist the latest wave of refugees. (I should note that Schürer, in an otherwise fine account of the history of Potsdam, makes a factual error when he writes that Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met for the 1945 Potsdam Conference that negotiated the terms for ending World War II at the Cecilienhof Palace, the Tudor country house built in 1914 by Wilhelm II for his wife. Attlee, Truman and Stalin attended the Conference.)

Street Lights (1913) by Otto Dix, on display at the Berlin National Gallery.

Besides the walks, the aesthetic experiences in Berlin were powerful occasions. The most compelling visual arts show was at the Berlin National Gallery featuring the hugely popular “Impressionism-Expressionism: Art at a Turning Point” exhibition. Usually the mostly serene, pastel-coloured French Impressionists are contrasted with the emotionally intense darker-coloured German (and Scandinavian) Expressionists a generation later. But this exhibit highlighted their similarities and how the later artists were influenced by their earlier counterparts. Organized around different themes, the exhibition I think achieved its goal. But what I found most meaningful was how certain German Expressionist artists prefigured the cataclysms of the twentieth century. Consider Otto Dix’s 1913 Street Lights: an ordinary night scene, but this painting reminded me of the drawings that Dix executed while in the trenches during the Great War. A more conscious prescient effort is shown on the last theme, Premonitions of War, which included Samson Blinded by Lovis Corinth. By way of contrast, Hans Hermann’s 1894 delightful Potsdamer Platz is a poignant reminder of how that site was erased by the barbarities of the next century.

Hans Hermann, Potsdamer Platz (1894) showing at the Berlin National Gallery

We attended two concerts by internationally renowned visiting orchestras at the modern concert hall, the golden-tiled Philharmonie, one of the few landmarks, along with the state library across the street, that predate the breaching of the Wall. (The library was the site from where angels walked through the Wall and listened to anxious Berliners in Wings of Desire.) The San Francisco Orchestra highlighted a new piece, “Absolute Jest” by the California composer John Adams, which is his homage to Beethoven. It was written for the St. Laurence String Quartet and accompanied by the orchestra in a thrilling performance. Not surprisingly, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” that was originally dedicated to Napoleon, was later performed. The upbeat pieces and performances of that evening were in stark contrast to the moving and haunting Mahler's Ninth Symphony by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta that we heard two nights later. Composed at a difficult time in Mahler’s life, when his young daughter had recently died and he became aware that his faltering heart would likely cut his life short, the symphony with its quiet opening and slow, soft conclusion, is highlighted by several outstanding instrumental solos. The piece has been interpreted as a hymn to death, but I am more persuaded by the alternative view that it is an affirmation of life, that we must hold on to the beauties and joys of life as long as we can, even though they may be precarious and impermanent. The presence of this great orchestra, its renowned conductor and the astute program choices, which included Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Number 1, seemed to hold special resonance for the hugely appreciative audience.

The Berlin Philharmonie Concert Hall. (Photo by Bob Douglas)

While experiencing the history and culture of Berlin, two plays that we saw in London the week before came to mind. Given the mass state surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden and the increasing complexity and suspicion of ambiguity in our culture, the current adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 is most timely. The play takes the principles of Newspeak set out in the appendix about the censoring of language and turns it into a vital element, rendering a famous dystopian novel into a fresh new production. What is most compelling about this show is its framing with a circa 2050 book discussion of a journal written years before by Winston Smith, suggesting the Orwellian nightmare of Big Brother, the two-minute hate and the use of torture that are dramatized on stage have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Of course, we know on one level that these tableaux in different guises continue to operate. Yet if we consider one of the elements of what Orwell called Oldspeak, it is possible to hold contradictory ideas at the same time. What we are watching actually takes place in our world but we are freely watching it; we can discuss it and become actively engaged. I am reminded of our walks in Berlin where we heard how elements of the repressive past threaten to erupt in the present, but Berliners have the option of responding differently. At a squatters’ site, we were shown evidence of arson, an act of vandalism that outraged Berliners. That particular tour guide, whose politics offended some group members who believed that a tour of modern Berlin should be presented without politics, is actively involved in assisting refugees.

We also attended a performance of a gripping production of Our County’s Good, a 1988 drama by Timberlake Wertenbaker, itself based on the novel, The Playmaker, by Thomas Keneally. Set in an eighteenth century penal colony in Australia, transported convicts are allowed to rehearse and perform in a production of George Farquhar's 1706 play, The Recruiting Officer. Our County’s Good is about the transformative power of art – reminiscent of the Italian film Caesar Must Die in which long-term prisoners are given the opportunity to perform a Shakespearean play – where it becomes possible for a ragtag group of brutally-treated captives to conceive of a life radically different from their own wretched lives. We witness this process gradually occurring in the rehearsals as the outcasts assume a new and strange identity: they not only read the lines, they begin to internalize their roles and form a more intense bond with each other. One test for whether it is possible to find redemption through art occurs late in the play when one of the female cast members, one who has endured a ghastly life, refuses to answer whether she stole bread, a crime that would lead to her execution. She sees no reason for living and refuses to answer until the reform-minded British officer who has been directing the prisoners, urges her to reply for the sake of the play. The quiet dignity of her response is the most moving moment in the drama.

The grounds of Sanssouci (photo by Bob Douglas)
The power of transformative art underpins the German film, The Lives of Others mentioned above. Of course art serves other functions but sometimes it sadly only reinforces the ideological preconceptions or the worst human impulses of its audiences. This trip largely confirmed my worldview that art must be supplemented with a critically-informed historical outlook that speaks to the present and promotes greater understanding and integration. It also reinforced my view that history should not be selectively skewed for ideological purposes. When we were in Potsdam wandering the grounds of Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great who was a historical model for Hitler, our guide noted that Goebbels commissioned during the war a film about the Emperor that distorted his marital relations and more importantly, ignored his positive attitudes toward religious minorities and overly-emphasized his militarism. As our guide said in his concluding moving remarks, Frederick was in reality both a man of his time and ahead of his time. The challenge for us is to stay with that ambiguity, a complexity he suggested that can be extended on a macro level to Berlin and Germany itself. And recent revelations of a serious national scandal in its automobile industry only underscore that ambiguity.

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