Scenes from the Culture War

Berlin is a divided city: not a city divided between capitalists and communists, but instead a city divided between bohemians and yuppies. When the Berlin Wall fell, the eastern half of the city emptied out, and property was generally cheap. Artists, slackers, anarchists, and other bohemians filled in the void, and made the once-dreary east an increasingly area to live. And as everyone knows, once the starving artists make a neighborhood desirable, yuppies swoop in to buy property.

That’s exactly what’s happening in my Berlin neighborhood. Around the block from me on Schwedter Strasse, a gigantic, pricey, yuppie housing project known as Marthas Hof is going up.

This does not sit well with the pre-existing bohemians. One Saturday, protesters gathered outside my building for a march protesting Marthas Hof.

Personally, I think the party’s nearly over, and Berlin is destined to become a more bourgeois place.

Here’s what’s strange: the people protesting Marthas Hof (and other signs of change such as the redevelopment of the vacant land where the Berlin Wall stood) are actually the social conservatives. They’re the ones who don’t want Berlin to change.

Berlin / Berlin

Everybody knows that during the Cold War, Berlin was divided into East and West. East Berlin was the capital of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), an urban landscape of vast socialist tenements. West Berlin was an island, a stranded outpost of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD). Then the DDR collapsed, the two Germanies were reunified, and to the surprise of many, the German parliament decided to make Berlin the capital.

That decision was gutsy: “West” Berlin was in decent physical condition, but “East” Berlin was decidedly shabby. I visited Berlin for a few days when I was a college junior studying in Vienna. The train dropped me off in the east (which, when you think about it, makes sense, since the shortest route from Vienna to Berlin is through formerly communist Czechoslovakia and the former East Germany). I only dimly remember the train station, but I recall the U-Bahn pedestrian tunnels as empty, smelly, and potentially dangerous. I retreated to West Berlin, and that’s the Berlin I recall.

I was with a couple of fellow students, and we had ventured east to the Brandenburg Gate, the place where symbolically the two Berlins met. It was dark, and it was time for dinner, and my recollection of wandering further east along Unter den Linden was that it was nearly abandoned. Finding a restaurant was a problem. In hindsight, what had happened was that when the border opened, there was an exodus to the west. It wasn’t until later that business reestablished itself in the east of the city.

So what that means is that West Berlin is the center of the reunified city, right? Wrong. From the vantage of 2009, I think the answer is actually that the physical, economic, and cultural center is now shifting decidedly into what was East Berlin. That area that seemed so desolate is now a top destination. And the West… well, there some nice areas, but the longer I live here, the more I think the former West is second tier.

Pop quiz. As you know by now if you’re a regular reader, I live within a stone’s throw of the old Berlin Wall. I took one of the following photos a few blocks west of my apartment in the former French Sector. I took the other photo a few blocks east of my apartment in what was once East Berlin. Which photo depicts the former East, and which depicts the former West?

The drab housing blocks are in the former west, in what strikes me as a working class neighborhood. The stately apartment building is in the former East, just off Kollwitzplatz, one of the most desirable addresses in all of Berlin. If you guessed incorrectly, you haven’t absorbed how much the Berlin urban landscape and social order has changed since reunification.

Since 1991 when the decision was made to move the capital, Berlin has experienced a non-stop construction boom. I don’t know the whole history, but I suspect the reconstruction of Berlin has happened in three overlapping phases.

  1. The first matter of business was getting government buildings ready. (The renovated Reichstag represents just the tip of the administrative building iceberg.) While the government was erecting workspaces, there was a flood of private redevelopment of vacant properties. (A good example is Potsdamer Platz. Previously an area destroyed in the war that had never been rebuilt, it’s now chock full of gleaming new buildings, albeit with a few gaps to fill in its toothy smile.)
  2. The second wave was probably to renovate the landmarks. (The eastern end of Unter den Linden, where there are a number of imposing historic facades, is still being renovated. The Museum Island is pretty much finished. The last big project outstanding is rebuilding a long-destroyed Prussian palace.)
  3. Enough of the city has been pasted back together that my sense is that construction has shifted into a third phase: the redevelopment of private residential property. Everywhere I look, scaffoldings cover old facades (renovation) and new facades (under construction).

Here’s a scene on my street.

The building on the right is the face of the once and future Berlin. I don’t know the history of the building on the left, but I would not be surprised to learn that the damage to the façade dates to WWII. I sense strong reluctance to repair the scars of war, but I think it’s just a matter of time until the building on the left gets a facelift.

As I see it, Berlin is building (and building and building) its way towards normalcy, but for this to happen, some adjustments will be necessary. The former west is going to play second fiddle. There’s a poetic justice to this, in that the former East Germans feel that reunification was really more like a takeover. The price of imposing a new order is ceding the center to the East (or if you rather, conceding that the East is the center).

Our Berlin apartment

In case you're curious, here's what our Berlin apartment looks like on a sunny day (occasionally, that is).

Twenty years later

November 9 was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there were commemorations throughout the day.

Twenty years ago, Angela Merkel and thousands of other East Germans crossed over Bernholmer Bridge into West Berlin. To mark the anniversary, she walked across the bridge again, this time accompanied by Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa. To judge by the New York Times article, the scene looked like this:

Let me assure you, however, that the scene looked a lot more like this:

Give yourself bonus points if you recognized Gorby and Angie in my photo.

Later in the day there was a big celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. Giant domino stones (painted mostly by children, but also by luminaries such as Nelson Mandela) were placed up and down the street. Lech Walesa knocked the first stone over (get it?).

One of the stones wouldn't fall over, and that was intentional. It had been painted by a Korean artist, and the point was that Korea, like Germany previously, is divided, and that there are walls that still need to come down.


Last weekend, as E. attended a conference, I bummed around Cottbus for a day. It's another sleepy eastern German city.

To judge by the architecture, Cottbus must have been affluent and booming around 1900. There are many stately buildings of the era, including examples of Jugendstil (art nouveau).

Whenever I see Jugendstil in Germany I can't get past the thought that it's too heavy to be representative of the genre, though the motifs (vegetative patterns, sphinxes, etc.) are undeniable.

A local architectural highlight is the Jugendstil Staatstheater.

As it happened, shortly after we arrived there was an open rehearsal for an upcoming production of Antigone. I attended, along with about 100 others, which is fairly impressive for a cloudy Saturday morning. The event was billed as an experiment in marketing, and really was just an open rehearsal. The actors and directors worked on two scenes as we looked on, but the actors were barely off book, and the blocking was still taking shape, so it wasn't as if we were seeing anything close to the finished work.

(For theater buffs and dim-witted political scientists, that is an iron curtain, a metal wall that drops in the event of a theater fire to keep it from spreading. I noticed that a fire marshal attended even this rehearsal. German and Austrian fire marshals must be the most cultured people in the world, as one is required at every performance, just in case.)

Cottbus has some cute (though by European standards, ordinary) older architecture.

The highlight of modern architecture is this university campus building (a library, I think).

But if it looks like nothing is going on, it's because nothing is going on.

Treptower Park, Berlin

Neues Museum

The Neue Museum on Berlin's "museum island" was built between 1843 and 1855, and was one of the most notable buildings of Prussian Germany. In World War II it was bombed and pretty much destroyed.

Rather than tear it down, they left it as it was. That's not unusual in post-war Germany. For instance, the Frauenkirche in Dresden was left literally as a pile of rubble until they finally rebuilt it a few years ago. Here's the Neue Museum in 1980:

Then from 2003 to 2009, they put the Neue Museum back together again. Almost. And in October 2009, the museum opened to the public for the first time in 70 years. E. and I stood in line for a good hour to get inside on the first weekend.

The collection comprises mostly antiquities, but they are not the reason to visit. What's more interesting is the building itself, which is again complete, but which is essentially a stabilized version of its old ruined self.

The abraded walls look more like the ruins of Pompeii than a Prussian art gallery.

Many walls are rough brick. In its original state they would have been covered in plaster.

It's odd looking at fragments of antiquities in this space...

Where does the artifact end, and the museum begin? Is there any difference?

I am giving in to the undeniable fact that there is a Berlin aesthetic, and that this is it. The Berliners see their city, their space as an urban palimpsest, written upon and erased time and again. To paint the walls would be to deny history.

I'm reminded obliquely of my years in Austria. Despite having been as tangled up in the wars of the twentieth century as Germany was, Austria has a different notion of history. Like Germany, Austria was occupied by victors of WWII (and Vienna, like Berlin, was divided into sectors). It took Germany until 1989 to achieve a semblance of its former self. As such, it has a 20-year history. Austria, however, by declaring neutrality in 1955 achieved autonomy and normalcy much more handily, and as such has a 54-year history.

I wander Berlin and I see the clutter and damage of the 20th century everywhere. They're just now getting around to putting the place back together again. The Austrians were probably this far along by 1960.

One German perspective is that the Austrian history is in fact not resolved at all. The Austrians (so this line of thinking goes) think that because they were annexed they can wash their hands of their full and pliant participation in the Nazi regime. They dusted themselves off more quickly, but they've not faced the skeletons in the closet.

But the Germans, it seems to me, wallow arrogantly in their historical guilt. The reopened Neue Museum doesn't say: "We've cleaned up, and we're back to normal." Instead it says: "We have monumentalized our destruction. We will neither forget it ourselves, because we did awful things, nor let you forget it, because you did this to us."

Useful generalizations

The western part of Germany pays for the eastern part of Germany (through a subsidy for former East Germans). The southern part of Germany pays for the northern part of Germany (because Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are where the industrial activity happens).

Bavaria alone has a "GNP" of over 400 billion Euros. Is it any wonder that Bavarians think of themselves as Bavarians first, Germans second?

In Munich everyone is well off. In Berlin everyone is doing poorly economically. In Cologne everyone is middle class. In Hamburg there's a big split between the rich and the poor.

It's raining babies

One of the most blatantly obvious things to note about Berlin is that there are babies everywhere you turn. I don't have a proper explanation for how or why this is happening. Germany's birth rate, as you can see in this New York Times graphic, is dropping like a brick:

The New York Times article says that the perception that Prenzlauer Berg (my neighborhood) is the neighborhood with the most children in Europe is false. “If you look at the different quarters of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg has one of the lowest birthrates.” Maybe. But that doesn't change my perception of the matter, because I feel like I've never before encountered so many babies in one place.

A different measure of the baby boom is this: According to Der Tagesspiegel, in 2007, for the first time since World War II, there were more births than deaths in Berlin.

Here's a photo I took in my neighborhood (near Eberwalderstr. U-Bahn, for sticklers) on a recent afternoon. I count five baby buggies, and two Laufräder (pedal-less bikes for little tots). No, this isn't a baby buggy outlet store. This is a typical cafe on a typical day, crammed with mommies with babies.

Day Trip to Wittenberg

Wittenberg's obvious claim to fame is that it is the place where the Protestant Reformation began. It's a cute albeit sleepy town.

This is the place, though not the original door, where Luther nailed his 95 theses.

Speaking of the problems of Catholicism, one of Wittenberg's more dubious claims to fame is this Jewish Pig. I'll let Martin Luther be our tour guide. "Here in Wittenberg on our parish church a pig is carved in stone. Beneath it piglets and Jews are nursing. Behind the pig there's a rabbi, who while lifting the pig's right leg, and with his left hand pulling its tail, is bent over and peering assiduously at a Talmud, as though he hopes to read something trenchant." (Source.)

Wittenberg benefits from UNSESO Heritage Site Status, and much of the city looks spiffy, but some of the city looks like the semi-abandoned Eastern German city that it is.

Venture away from the historic town center, and the architecture looks a good deal more bland and Soviet.

Nearby, they had the late Viennese artist Friedrich Hundertwasser redo the facade of a school, which, whether you like it or don't, is a reprieve from the rectangular housing projects.

E. however was not impressed.

A Pretty Good Waffle

At a waffle joint on our block.

Funny Portable Toilets

The Giants in Berlin

Among the events marking the 20th anniversary of German reunification was a street performance dubbed the Giants in Berlin. This XXL puppet show by the French company Royal de Luxe was supposedly a fairy tale of reunion. Why a girl in a raincoat represents the East, and a man in a diving suit represents the West, I just don't know. (Actually I do: it was too expensive to make new puppets, so they recycled some old ones.) Regardless, it was a fun and impressive spectacle.

The best part of the show was watching the Lilliputians form human chains to make the giant's limbs move. These photos give you the general idea, but the video is even better.

I take back what I said. This is the best part of the show.

Berlin Wall

Yesterday, I stumbled onto a fantastic website documenting the Berlin Wall. It's in German, but the map feature is intuitive, so you can probably follow your nose even without German.

The two photos below were both taken around 1988-1989 (probably just before the collapse of East Germany). In the first photo, the building in the center is the building where we are now living. Our unit is one floor below the top floor, just to the right of the lamppost in the foreground.

In this second photo, the building we now live in is directly behind the watch tower. (Our unit is around the corner, and not visible from this angle.)

The contrast between then and now is breathtaking. Here's the street scene outside my window today: