Monday, March 30, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (1)

1. The Reichstag at Midnight

If this were Paris, it would be the Champs Elysees; but this is Berlin, and the broad avenue before me is Unter den Linden, the grand esplanade of imperial Berlin.

It runs from the Museumsinsul, a cluster of five major museums on a narrow island in the Spree River, at the one end, to the Brandenburg Gate at the other. In between is the German Historical Museum, the Staatsoper, brightly lit automobile showrooms, name brand stores, handsome government buildings, the Deutsche Guggenheim and Komische Oper, the Russian Embassy with its stunning stained glass mural lit from inside. At the western terminus, Pariser Platz, across from the Adlon Hotel and the American Embassy, in the lee of the Brandenburg Gate, is Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Haagen Dasz, and the Kennedy Museum.

Because it is late almost everything is closed, except for Starbucks, where I get a mocha to go because the girl behind the counter says they are closing soon.

In the Kennedy museum's window a flat-screen television plays images of Camelot. The collection includes JFK's monogrammed leather suitcase, a photo of JFK in an open limousine in front of the Brandenburg Gate -- his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" visit -- the crocodile Herm├Ęs briefcase he was using the day he was assassinated in Dallas, and one of Jackie's pillbox hats.

Lit up, the Brandenburg Gate looks new. It is not old by Venice standards; it was completed in 1791 and fully restored, as was much of east Berlin after the fall of the wall in 1989. It was one of several gates into Berlin during the reign of the kings of rich, autocratic Prussia. Atop the gate is a statue of the Roman goddess of Victory in a chariot drawn by four horses. They are echoes of the quadri of San Marco, which are attributed to the 4th c. BC sculptor Lysippos and were dragged back to Venice after the Fourth Crusade in 1205. Napoleon took those and these, from the Brandenburg Gate, back to Paris with him, fortunately only temporarily in the long span of history.

It is late March; a cold wind blows through the white Doric columns of the gate. Beyond is Strasse des XVII Juni which continues the line of Unter den Linden through the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park. I really should go back to my hotel, but it is my first night in Berlin and Unter den Linden is magical, while the iconic Brandenburg Gate stirs memories of the calamitous twentieth century and I am both excited and apprehensive. I have always wanted to visit Berlin, but its imperial roots and Nazi branches terrify me, an American Jew, just as its sheer physical beauty is blowing me away.

To my right is the massive bulk of the Reichstag building. Atop the 19c torso is a splendid, brightly-lit glass dome. It is after 9pm and I can clearly see people inside.

The queue on the monumental front steps is full of students, German and American, and middle-aged couples, mostly German. ("Germans are very orderly, but they don't know how to queue," one of the German students explains in perfect English to a British student beside him. He has a point.) The Reichstag is free and it is open from 8am to midnight (last entry 10pm). Inside you empty your pockets and pass through metal detectors and then go up to the roof in elevators. In the center of the roof is a glass Guggenheim Museum in the sky; double helix ramps wind up to the pinnacle, the dome's oculus, and down again.

A mirrored cone sprouts from the center of the dome, a silver ginger plant of massive proportions, which reflects light down into the glass-roofed legislative chamber below. The structure, by British architect Norman Foster, is brilliant. Beyond the glass is the spectacular 360-degree view of Berlin at night, a phosphorescent sea of light. Except for the Fernsehturm, the 1200-ft tall television tower rising up in the east at Alexanderplatz, and Helmut Jahn's Sony Center to the south, at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin has a relatively low profile, low and vast, the lights spreading out to the horizons, like LA without the hills and mountains. The oculus above is wide open and the wooden bench beneath is soaked with rain, but the white clouds blow quickly across the black sky leaving an open field of faint stars.

Around the glass roof of the legislative chamber is a ring of historical photographs. They tell the whole story: the origins of the Reichstag building as the imperial parliament, ruled by the Kaiser and run by the Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck; the abdication of the Kaiser and the founding of the Republic in the aftermath of the WWI; the fire that the Nazis blamed on the Communists in a successful play for power resulting in the passing of the infamous Enabling Act at Hitler's request.

The placards are simple and eloquent:

After the burning of the Reichstag parliament meets at the Kroll Opera House where the "Enabling Act" is passed by which legislation the Parliament deprives itself of its own powers. Only the Social Democrats oppose the Act; the Communists have already all been arrested.

Next to a photo of the burned-out Reichstag building: Burning of the Reichstag, February 27, 1933. Hitler, as Chancellor, uses the burning of the Reichstag as an excuse to rescind basic rights and establish the first concentration camps.

The text goes on to explain that the Nazis themselves were complicit in the fire.

If you had been standing on this same spot 64 years ago -- as old as I am this year -- you would be looking at the smouldering ruins of a great city ruined by monsters and leveled by the most devastating war the world has ever seen.

The Germans of today seem mindful of this. They are facing the past squarely. The story is clear and concise.

Using the shaky constitutional basis of a fledgling and tottering Republic, the Nazis engineered a coup that enabled Hitler to suspend the legal framework and rule unopposed. But the constitution and the legal framework were only 15 years old at the time, easily undone with neither habit nor tradition to protect them, and before that lay centuries of monarchies stretching back to the Holy Roman Empire, their parliamentary institutions mere window-dressing to the absolute authority of king and kaiser. The disastrous Republic was merely an interlude between a kaiser and a dictator. The habits of democracy had no time to take root and spread, especially in the countryside where Marx's "idiocy of rural life" reigned.

The composition of the Reichstag numerically favored the most backward rural regions of the country. The dynamic cities, like Berlin, bursting with technological innovation, were chronically underrepresented, making the Reichstag unrepresentatively conservative. Prior to the fire the Nazis had a third of seats. Their purge of the Communists and intimidation of the Social Democrats gave them the numbers they needed to pass the Enabling Act. With the Enabling Act, German democracy slit its own throat.

The question then becomes, how did the majority of Germans come to embrace the Nazis?

I'm not sure we can know the answer. History is a large part of it; circumstance another; national character another. One thing is certain: there are three generations since the war and the partitioning of Berlin, this democracy is four times as old and judging from Berlin today, I would say that it has taken root and, since reunification, both the physical city and the psychic city have become something powerfully modern and forward-looking. Can lightening strike twice? It's a moot question, but one thing is certain. No longer in the same way.

From the Reichstag, I walk past the Brandenburg Gate along along Ebertstrasse. On my left, surrounded by new hotels and restaurants and office buildings is a low, undulating field of shadow. It is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin's holocaust memorial, a 5 acre field of white concrete slabs, identical in length and width but varying in height. They are uniformly covered in a white anti-grafitti substance called Protectosil, which created a controversy since its manufacturer, Degussa, had worked with the Nazis to produce Zykon B, the gas used to murder Jews. After a raging public controversy the decision was made to continue using the Protectosil. Henryk Broder, Polish-born German journalist wrote that "the Jews don't need this memorial, and they are not prepared to designate a pig sty as kosher."

But the memorial stands, visited by thousands of people. The outside slabs barely come up to your calves but as you walk into the interior they rise up around you like sarcrophagi, like tombstones, like a maze of prison walls, the corridors tight and dark, and then slowly descend again to toward the edges opening out onto the lights of the bustling city.

It is a strange memorial, strangely anonymous, the stones plain, clean and unmarked. Below, in the Place of Information, the names of all known Jewish holocaust victims are recorded.

The controversy over the Protectosil was public and vociferous, the decisions heatedly argued and painfully considered. The issues remain on the front burner. But even the name of the memorial is revealing; the verb here, as elsewhere, is "murdered." Today's Germans are not afraid to speak its true name. I was discussing this with an Australian friend whose son lives in Japan with his Japanese wife and child. She remarked that the Japanese still deny their own atrocities during World War 2; it is neither taught nor discussed. Kept in the closet, it cannot be exorcised.

The Germans are facing it. This memorial stands beside the Brandenburg Gate, the most iconic site in the city, in the architectural, political and cultural center of Berlin. The concrete slabs stand for the vanished Jews of Berlin, but a few remain, and others have returned, among them none more internationally prominent than conductor Daniel Barenboim who, from the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, runs an amazing musical empire, which along with the Berlin Philharmonic (under the leadership of the British conductor Simon Rattle), keep Berlin at the center of the world's musical stage.

As I walk down Unter den Linden toward my hotel, just ahead of me three people are chatting loudly; they are young, Embassy well-dressed, and American, two women and a man in a dark wool overcoat, well into his beers. He says loudly, "And I'm like, what Embassy do you work in!? Oh, you're going to die." They laugh like doctors telling operating room jokes.

Brave New World.

[Food note: There is a cafe on the Reichstag roof; it is open until midnight. I went in because the currywurst I ate when I got off the plane would not hold me through the night. This cafe, however, is not a soup and sandwich kind of place; it is crystal and linen and small servings of exquisite things kind of place in a striking modern interior with a terrace looking east. I had a truly amusing amusebouche with a glass of Reisling. The basket of light and dark bread came with three tasty spreads. My fish soup had large chunks of succulent fish, and my cheese plate featured four beautiful, varied cheeses and an especially awesome dollop of gingery fig jam that I probably could have eaten a tub of... The crowd was international bourgeois, mostly suits and ties, a few sweaters and jeans, and me, who looked like I had just wandered in by mistake, which I had.]

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