The German language is a pretty blunt instrument of communication. The vocabulary is direct and to the point. So I hope the natives won’t object that I utilize that straightforward approach in my opening description of Berlin – the Ugly City. If Paris is the city of light, then Berlin is the city of darkness. A largely brutalist expression of architecture in both the east and west parts of the city. Although, for obvious reasons, more so in the east. But Berlin is about function rather than finery or frivolity. So that’s okay. And whilst giants of literature and science have plied their trade here, most visitors come for the history, not the culture. That is certainly why I visited this week.
It’s a history dominated by a single man, and the evidence of his existence is etched into every square metre of the city centre. Although you’ll see only a few sign posts acknowledging that fact. The architecture is the first giveaway. The modern concrete blocks, laid down in the 50s, 60s and 70s to fill the holes made by tens of thousands of tons of British and US high explosives, dropped from the skies, day and night, for several years. With the additional destruction of the Soviet attack, the Battle of Berlin, thrown in for good measure. The end result was something of a modern version of Carthage.
Here and there, an older building survives. Or rather, was restored. But they still bear the scars of war. Magnificent columns riddled with bullet holes. Monuments so blackened from the soot of fires that cleaning them is not possible. Then there is the Reichstag, the crowning glory of German reunification, risen from the ashes of 1945, but with constant reminders of the buildings violent history. Photograph displays throughout the interior show the story of the Reichstag. Russian graffiti has been preserved. Then there is that magnificent dome on top, the contrast between the old and the new.
The history that visitors come to see doesn’t end in 1945, of course. In the eastern half of the city, the swastika was simply replaced with the hammer and sickle, the war changed from world to cold, and an oppressive and brutal leadership carried on the work of their predecessors. Most of the key sites in Berlin lie in the eastern half. What was until 25 odd years ago, the capital of East Germany. Architecturally, an even bigger mess than the western side. I think it is fair to say that the city is yet to fully recover from either the World War or Cold War, both physically and mentally.
Berlin can also claim to be the birthplace of modern political correctness. The art of conversation without offence. Given the very delicate nature of the city’s history, it is not surprising that this is so. How to discuss the finer points of the Gestapo and Stasi without upsetting anyone? There are laws outlawing holocaust denial and use of Nazi symbols. Like a recovering alcoholic, there is the fear that just one sip from the forbidden cup will see Berlin swathed in fascist emblems once more.
I pre-booked a tour of the Reichstag. We were guided round by a grandfatherly figure with as monotone a voice as you will ever hear, and a habit of finishing ever sentence with ‘ya’. He was informative. But he did something that I didn’t hear from any other German during my short stay. When talking about the war, he used we and us, rather than they and them. Germans instead of Nazis. I noticed it, but whether anyone else did I cannot say. But he left his feelings open to interpretation by doing so. When reading signs or listening to Germans on the subject of the war, there seems to be a deliberate effort at disassociation. And I can’t say that I blame them.
Click here to see my Berlin album on Flickr.