Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (3)

3. Red Berlin: A House Divided

The Wall was a strange historical anomaly.

Berlin sits deep inside the former German Democratic Republic. After the partitioning of the city at the end of WW2, families that formerly lived in different neighborhoods suddenly lived in different cities. West Berliners who had lived in the cosmopolitan capital of Germany were suddenly residents of an island encircled by the Cold War enemy. East Berliners were now residents of another country. You could no longer simply go crosstown to visit Grandma or Aunt Josephine or your old friend from high school; at the limits of the western sector you stepped into another world.

It didn't take long for West Berlin to become the hole through which refugees not only from East Berlin, but from throughout the GDR and the rest of Soviet Europe, attempted to flee. As the Federal Republic -- West Germany -- became the much-vaunted post-war "Economic Miracle," rebuilding its economy with industry and technology and trade, East Germany began to fear a serious Brain Drain. Their best and brightest, young and eager to be part of the Economic Miracle, were fleeing west, along with those who wanted to reunite their families or simply were not interested in living in the socialist east. By 1961 almost 20% of the East German population had defected to the west.

The East Germans and Soviets called the wall an "anti-Fascist protective rampart" ("antifaschistischer Schutzwall") -- good Orwellian language here -- to protect itself from Western agents and aggression. But it was really built to staunch the flow of East Germans to the west; to keep people in, not out. The first wall, dividing the two Germanys, was begun in 1952, but it did little good as long as Berlin remained a permeable membrane between east and west. The Berlin Wall, encircling West Berlin, began as a wire fence in 1961, became a concrete wall in 1965 and by 1975 was an elaborate fortified Border Wall. A "dead zone" was created in front of the wall, houses and streets razed to create an artillery-protected No Man's Land.

The odd line of the Wall is mapped on billboards along Friedrichstrasse, south of Unter den Linden, where Check-Point Charlie is preserved, one of the openings between the American and Russian sectors. Today Friedrichstrasse is like Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and the guard hut in the center of the intersection, once deadly and menacing, looks quaint and anachronistic.

Between 1965 and 1969, at the same time the wire fencing was being replaced with concrete and West Germany was amazing the world with its economic recovery, the GDR built the Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz subway station. The 1,200-foot high television tower still dominates the Berlin sky at night; it is the fourth tallest free-standing structure in Europe and was intended to be the symbol of the GDR's own postwar might.

But like all the gigantesque Socialist architecture, it hasn't aged well. It is brash and ugly and yet strangely wonderful, a glittering Sputnik skewered on a giant toothpick, and, at night, it is a thing of beauty, especially hovering like a spectral minaret behind the domes of the imperial cathedral at the head of Unter den Linden.

Because the light refracts on the surface of its silver sphere in the shape of a cross, it was often referred to in the west as "the Pope's Revenge." At night it is luminous and unearthly, high above the city. It is no longer a symbol of the East; it is a symbol of the reunited city itself, because here in Berlin not only did the Nazis fall, but the Communists fell as well, and what arises from all those strange ashes is a heady cocktail of post-twentieth century modernist politics.

The elevator to the top of the Fernsehturm is swift. On the ticket -- 10Euros -- are the salient facts: total height, 368m, Restaurant Telecafe, 207m, observation floor, 203m; there are 986 steps in the staircase up, and the elevator rises at 6 meters per second.

You step out of the elevator onto the observation floor. Walking around it, the city unfolds like a street map beneath you, the avenues and rivers etched in lights. It also gives you a greater appreciation for the extent of the 125-mile-long Wall that encircled West Berlin.

Whereas the carpet of light seemed endless from the Reichstag Dome, from the top of the TV tower you can see the dark lapping in at the edges, and you can follow the line of Under den Linden and KarlMarx Allee and Kurfurstendamm. The Sony Center at Potsdammer Platz rises like a solar flare from what was once the largest tract of urban desolation in the developed world. Beyond, the city lights edge the contours of the Tiergarten at Berlin's center.

Like all iconic high places -- the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle -- the view is an end in itself; the building doesn't need any further excuse. It's purpose is to awe us, and it does.

But the interior also has that Star Trek deja vu of an already outdated future, entirely outdone by the stunning architecture that has risen since the fall of the Wall. The observation floor is filled with suitably awestruck gawkers moving slowly in the great circle; photomaps are placed strategically along the route to identify the avenues and landmarks below. Up a stairway, on the second level, is a restaurant, which -- in case you haven't guessed by now -- revolves, at the rate of two complete revolutions per hour (upgraded from the original one rph), like those atop every Hyatt Hotel in every downtown from the 1970s onward. This may have been the first, but it certainly was not the last.

The Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden is another instance of the Soviet style, which is unique and ahistorical, neither modern nor period. It lives in the netherworld of monuments to vanished history, notable not for their style but for their size, like the pyramids without their cosmic impact. What does stand out, however, especially at night when lighted from within, is the enormous stained glass mural, a view of a large steeple rising up from a city street in front of a sky of futurist clouds. A rainbow arches over the steeple. It is uniquely beautiful. Around the corner, on Wilhelmstrasse, the British Embassy is a humorless postmodern concrete fortress (opened in 2000) and the American Embassy on Pariser Platz looks like a modern five-star hotel. It is the curious interpenetration of all these elements that make Berlin what it is.

Great cities can dazzle us with their scale alone. But they are all big; what differentiates one from the other is not their size, the height of their buildings or the length of their avenues, but their unique character, that blend of the things and people in them, their pasts and their futures, their culture and their ambience.

I am sitting alone at a large table slowly revolving in space high above a vast sea of lights. I am eating something that seems German enough, delicious meatballs with sour cream and potatoes and beets and a huge schooner of beer. At the table next to mine there is a group of four German women; girlfriends, having a night out. They are almost oblivious to where they are; almost, but not quite. They are middle aged and they are having a great time. They may have eaten dinner, but now they are drinking wine and eating elaborate desserts, laughing and chatting.

Twenty years ago these friends might have been separated from each other like prisoners in different cell blocks; divided by politics and economics and ideology and border patrols. But that is no longer the case; they are citizens of the most cosmopolitan of cities, having a night out atop the tall tower that no longer means what it once meant and has become a fun if slightly camp place for drinks and conversation.


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