The New Berlin
BERLIN – A ride across East and West Berlin along the main boulevards is a voyage through the history of the last century with a look at the future. Memory lane recalls the collapsed imperial order followed by Hitler, his devastating Kristallnacht, a city devastated by Allied bombings followed by the Cold War and its ominous dividing Wall. The Rip van Winkle allegory would fit, but I will ignore the parable to look at the achievements that have resulted from East-West reunification 16 years ago.Since 1989 much of Germany’s talent and money has gone into the “New Berlin,” and it shows. Today, it is a hugely successful and innovative cultural center of Europe.
Returning to Berlin for a rainy, cold week this winter, my wife, Betsy, and I were prepared to find old ghosts and still-dilapidated buildings. Instead, we found a stylish city with youthful vigor and furious construction. The Hong Kong of the Continent? Whatever. Berlin is a poster child for democracy and capitalism.The old cityFresh Nordic air was blowing down the Kurfürstendamm and Unter den Linden, the old tree-lined shopping avenues. Only a tiny memorial and a few white wooden crosses remind visitors that this was the harsh dividing line between an oppressive, impoverished East and a free, prosperous West less than a generation ago.It is a remarkably peaceful, safe city. We did not encounter security checkpoints, which are so pervasive in the U.S.A., or pass a single metal detector in a week.In the swinging central area, our small hotel evoked the past. The Savoy, built in the 1920s in the fashionable Western district, was inhabited by Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo and the musical elite. It survived the cruel war, during which it housed Japan’s diplomats, only to become headquarters to the British in 1945.
As we arrived at the Savoy, the manager was about to set up a small exhibit on the district’s history in the lobby.”This was an elegant street with private mansions of the town’s Jewish business and cultural elite,” he told us. There is almost a sense of pride in younger Germans we met about the Jewish history.”We have Jewish guests from all over Europe and America to see their heritage,” the manager added.Forgetting has been a German preoccupation ever since the collapse of the Weimar Republic. But history has largely been relegated as a museum subject. Take the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. Most city tours start here. Marked with a plaque reminding visitors of Germany’s guilt, a towering glass building featuring religious relics and images of past glories stands next to the church.
A stranger place where the past is kept visible is the People’s Palace on a half-empty square. Once East Germany’s Parliament, the ugly example of Socialist Modernism, it is to be destroyed next July. While politicians argue about its fate, nostalgic musical shows and leftover art from the communist era fill up the space. Other mementos for the tourist trade include morbid relics of the Gestapo and the Stasi, the infamous communist secret police, and even a museum for Checkpoint Charlie.When asked about the remnants of The Wall, a young journalist reacted, “What wall? We are as much over the Iron Curtain days as our fathers got over fascist times after World War II – or as our grandfathers wrote off the Kaiser after their war.” Changing money, however, reminded me that in the 1920s one dollar was worth 4 trillion German marks. Today’s euro, controlled by German bankers, is up to $1.40. As a result, everything costs about 50 percent more if paid by dollars than three years ago.To cover a few pages from the collective national memory, we looked for a few old ornate palaces, universities, the emblematic Brandenburger Gate, the Protestant Dom church and the State Opera. They looked grand and familiar, as did the world-famous museums, but the rest of today’s Berlin is product of the last decade.
Most American tourists consider Berlin way off the beaten path and go instead to Germany’s famous castles, the Baroque cities and the Bavarian Alps. “The capital is all about politics and finance,” they say. The 3.5 million Berliners would vehemently disagree. They would rightly point to the city’s cultural life, which approaches its fame in the 1920s when Einstein, Brecht, Zweig, Mahler and Richard Strauss defined it.The vast expansion created strange sites, some pleasingly inviting. But in the effort to stay away from uniformity and authoritarian styles of the past, some building blocks turned into kitsch. Once the birthplace of modern European architecture, Berlin is again a Mecca for big names such as I.M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. Two or three new museums are opening each year since the fall of the Wall. We looked suspiciously at the additional announcements for 2005. It is already tough to pick from the 175 existing museums. After some homework we have selected the Pergamon Museum and the Egyptian Museum (with the hypnotic bust of Nefertiti) as starters.The week allowed us to add two more big ones housing antiquities, the classic-style National Gallery and the Gemäldegalerie, one of the greatest collections of European paintings from the 13th to the 18th century. Except for a few sleepy guards, the huge, rich museums were mostly empty even on Sunday. We also paid short visits to Die Brücke (labeled “degenerate art” by Hitler) housing examples of the expressionist era. There is a new Jewish Museum in a glass and metal building by Daniel Liebeskind. It features German-Jewish history from the end of the Roman Age. But this and the remaining 170 museums will have to wait until we return for a longer visit.
The Pergamon Museum’s altar and Ishtar Gate of Babylon alone are worth a trip to Berlin. They were on Betsy’s wish list ever since our first visit to Turkey, where Greek and Roman art proved incomplete without seeing these masterpieces. Passing through a maze of actual streets and squares lifted by German archeologists from ancient cities and reassembled here is an unforgettable “trip.”To take advantage of the unparalleled musical life here, we ordered tickets ahead by Internet for a top Russian ballet group’s “Cinderella” at the ornate State Opera Unter den Linden. Three opera houses perform German, Italian, Russian and other classics. Eight symphony orchestras and plays on 150 stages are advertising their programs for 2005-6. The music has changed, though. In Hitler’s time, works of Jewish composers like Mahler or Mendelssohn were banned. But Bach, Beethoven and Wagner were “purely Germanic,” and they still lead Berlin’s repertory. Then there are the old kabaretts. With little resemblance to their famed forefathers in the ’20s, most funky clubs, varieté shows and Eurotrash are no longer visited by foreigners. So it is also with the many legalized gathering places for prostitutes.
To see a relic of the Prussian era, we stopped by the Adlon, still the Grand Hotel (it inspired the original film), just as it was when Chaplin, Einstein and Marlene Dietrich frequented it. Gently reconstructed to mimic its Weimar Republic look, it is the place to stay if the 500-plus euro room price is no obstacle. I remembered it once had a “mineral water menu” and sure, the Adlon’s restaurant still offers 42 varieties from 18 countries.An ongoing rebirthSo much for Old Berlin. The symbol of the New Berlin is the rehabilitated Reichstag. The 1933 fire that engulfed this huge Parliament was the fascists’ excuse to clamp an iron grip on the country as the Continent’s dark pages began. The wrecked dome was later replaced with “democratically transparent” glass and the pockmarked facade with a sparkling entrance.Statistics is part of life here and a lot of them came from Berlin’s efficient marketing executives, who told us the number of dead in the Jewish cemetery (115,000), the length of the tramways (5,210 km), the animal species in the zoo (1,400), the articles on sale in the KaDeWe department store (380,000) and the basic sausage types (1,200).No longer an “island city” on a divided Continent between Moscow and Paris, Berlin is the red-hot source of creative ideas in the European Union. It is no longer secretive, bland or boring, no longer a gastronomic no-man’s land and no longer guilt-ridden.
In the artsy, lighthearted and mercurial metropolis there are still ghosts to be found. It is hard to forget that it has catered to the troops of Emperors, the SS, the USSR, the agents of the Gestapo, the NKVD as well as the CIA, French and British spies. But the wars, fires, bombs and demolition provided space and perhaps inspiration to build an almost entirely new city. Thus, Berlin has dedicated the year 2005 to its stylish architectural profile that is bound to catapult it (again) to the top of travel destinations. We found good reasons to celebrate the rebirth and spirit of a grand city. We have seen the future in a place where one should not ignore the past.Paul and Elizabeth Fabry are old/part-timers of Aspen. His reports on other European cities have appeared many times before in the Times Weekly, and also in book form (www.traveldetours.com).
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