Berlin

It is now an unmarked grave. Each day, cars roll and crunch over the brown gravel where the body was last seen almost seventy-five years ago; unknowing feet turn and march over it in every direction, heading out onto the road for work, or shuffle along to one of the surrounding high-rise flats, heading home. To most citizens of Berlin, this place is not an unmarked grave; it is a residential car park. And that, rather sensibly, is the way the German government likes to keep things, for the site of the Fuehrerbunker, and the cremation, should not become hallowed ground for the present day, which has its own problems to deal with.

Besides, Berlin, where I spent a few days this winter, demands visiting for reasons other than a haunted car park. To my eyes, the city is best seen at night. I remember walking on footbridge over the river Spree, away from Museum Island. Although I admired the Greek and Etruscan collections I saw there, it was, instead, the slanting of shadows across the grand old university buildings overlooking that river, with their narrow vertical windows peeping from the recesses of a solemn, prison-like façade. This, I remembered, is the city of German Expressionism; of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of silent filmmaking, Metropolis (1927).

I remember walking back to my room in East Berlin, after an evening at a jazz club; walking across courtyards and along highstreets, where, between the glowing cocktail bar and the family restaurant, loners sat comfortably in cafes, snug in their gloves and coats. Of course I enjoyed the performance at the jazz club, and I shall come back to it later. But what I liked, here, is the atmosphere of a grown-up European city, at ease with itself. What a lovely city at last!

I now have a confession to make. Germany in the past never held any special attractions for me, and the record of my European travels will show that I have circumnavigated the country as I went for other far-flung choices, such as Greece and Russia. So my purpose in flying to Berlin this December was to rid myself of this half-willed ignorance. Yet I could not have chosen a more unkindly month for the city to showcase itself to me. This is how Christopher Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), describes the city during the winter of 1932-33:

‘The dead cold grips the town in utter silence, like the silence of intense midday summer heat. In the cold the town seems actually to contract, to dwindle to a small black dot, scarcely larger than hundreds of other dots, isolated and hard to find, on the enormous European map’.

Much of what I have read about Germany, about Berlin, has been from the perspective of expats. This is only partly a testament to Weimar Berlin, a famously tolerant bohemian city, which attracted expatriates and other aliens. But Isherwood adds to this description of Berlin that it ‘is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching’. Its warmth during the winter time, he says, is an illusion: it is ‘cold and cruel and dead’. Isherwood was writing about the time (1930-1933) just before he left the city, where he had lived and paid his rent as an English tutor. You do not need me to tell you that it is clear Isherwood was tired of life in Berlin. For him, the buildings along the civic streets, namely Unter den Linden, were ‘pompous’, with ‘flashes of hysteria’ behind the grey Prussian façades. He knew what was coming.

***

What Isherwood registered in this novel was the rise of a far greater menace than anything we know in the present. However, I did note down, in my brief stay, an incident which tells us something about the inner life of the city as experienced by the expatriates of modern-day Berlin.

I met a young woman from Siberia (let’s call her Klara), a qualified teacher, who was staying with her family in a hostel until she could apply for permanent residency in Germany (she herself was half German). One day, Klara had made an appointment at the local job centre, in a suburban district twenty miles from the city centre. Her purpose was to acquire a place on the integration course: one of the first steps towards becoming a resident. Sitting opposite her agent, a middle-aged man with his legs crossed, she noticed how he flicked carelessly, even aggressively, through her papers. For a time, he neglected to acknowledge her presence. One of his first questions: ‘So, you’re after money are you?’

After receiving an answer to the contrary from this contemptible immigrant, the agent spoke to Klara in rapid Deutsche, in order that she could not follow him with her able but trembling grasp of the language. She politely – for Klara’s manners were old-world, immaculate – asked him to slow down. He put the papers aside, leaned over the desk, and repeated what he had said in a sneeringly long-drawn manner, screwing up his eyes and nose at her as he did so. Klara left this travestied interview tearful and exhausted, and was, at least, comforted by the man’s colleagues, who knew him. Pompous, indeed; and with flashes of hysteria.

This incident does not so much describe the people of Germany, or even Berlin, but , perhaps, the experience of the immigrant. Berlin, it should be said, remains a city of immigrants, and half of those whom I met were themselves far from home.

Rarely were any of them in love with their new surroundings; and none of them, without exception, liked the food. Not the Spaniard that I met, nor the American, nor the Canadian, nor the Syrian, nor the Siberian. I for one had many an enjoyable meal during my holiday in Berlin; but these include, among others, an Israeli dinner and a Russian breakfast. Even the currywurst is the concoction of air supplies dropped into West Berlin by the Allied Forces during the 1948 Soviet blockade. American catsup, I am told, French sausages, and British curry powder are the ingredients for the most famous of all Cold War snacks.  

For what strikes one about Germany is its successful appropriation of the best of other cultures. Appropriation is no bad thing in itself. Frederick the Great, that Prussian King who foresaw a unified Germany, had Potsdam Palace and its sloping gardens built to rival the beauties of Versailles. During my sojourn to the palace one morning, I identified the influence immediately and without the help of booklets. Translations of Shakespeare, too, were made so that Germany could call the playwright their own. Jazz – and let’s not forget techno – is as integral to Berlin as where its roots first lay. But appropriation is often the sign of a young country, which Germany certainly is. As a unified nation, it is younger even than the United States.

In my experience, young, successful nations have two distinct features. One is vulgarity. And there are occasional displays of vulgarity in Berlin, not to mention the advertisements written in English. In Alexanderplatz, for example, there is a squat clocktower displaying the times of world cities. It is decorated with a rotating solar-system. How typical, how wrong and stupid, of the German Democratic Republic who built this: for each of the nine planets are equidistant from the Sun. An egalitarian conception of the cosmos, you might say.

But second distinct feature of young and successful nations is the undeniable courtesy and enthusiasm of its citizens towards foreign travellers, which is something I found whenever I approached Berliners, at any time of the day. This applies to Potsdam, too, and Oranienburg, where I also ventured, which the home of a terrifying fact about the last world war. But the folks who live there now are utterly amiable.

***

Throughout the trip I asked myself why I had put back visiting Germany for so long. In truth, I believe it is because whereas Germany is, in spite of itself, such a successful, such an entirely triumphant nation, my taste in European cities is for the fallen, tragic ones: I mean Athens, with its greatness in the silent past, or Moscow and St Petersburg, recovering from a failed experiment. Whereas Germany savaged ancient Rome; it withstood a perilous Russian invasion; it was instrumental in the termination of Napoleon’s career; and it required all the world, twice, to prevent its aggressive expansion. Germany is the cause of tragic Europe, which, this past year, in Russia, Greece, Italy and France, I have been touring. Today, of course, Germany leads Europe, and the various causes behind this have often left me feeling rather cold towards it.

Sympathy with failure, then, formed part of my reason for this puzzling neglect, as well as, you might say, a perverse fondness for tragedy. (I am reminded now of Nabokov’s Pnin, who eats regularly at the ‘Egg and We’ restaurant out of ‘sheer sympathy with failure’. Incidentally, Nabokov was a Berliner during the 1920s. As an exile, he did not much like the city, yet it was here that he wrote his great Russian novels, which include sublime descriptions of the western parts of the city.)

All of this, I am glad to say, has changed. I hope not to say goodbye to Berlin. Not Isherwood, or the immigrants I met, or the rain-lashed German winter managed to confirm my prejudices. I suspect my new fondness for Berlin was binding after I had spent a couple of hours at the jazz club. It was pleasing to watch the band smiling at each other as they played; pleasing, even, not to understand the saxophonist’s anecdotes, spoken in German. Meanwhile I nursed a glass of native beer that was big enough for a Prussian, according to the bartender, but too small for a Bavarian. The music was fine indeed.

Across the courtyard from where the band played was the Faculty of Philosophy for Humboldt University. It was while studying at this university that Karl Marx gave up writing romantic poetry and began reconfiguring Hegelian dialectic. As I left the basement of the club – early, alas, for my flight was next morning – and headed out onto those Berlin streets, it was certainly not with a diminished sense of the poetic.

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