‘Berlin, a skeleton which aches in the cold…’. That was how Christopher Isherwood described the city in his book Goodbye to Berlin about Germany in the first half of the 1930s as the Nazis were rising to power. When I arrived in Berlin in mid-winter the piercing cold was my own first impression. Under a sky like a heavy grey blanket, people walked with hurried steps. The squares and parks were empty and the trees bare. As I stood on the city’s threshold, I was perhaps over-expectant. I wished to understand the spirit of a city that had seen and experienced so much, and that I knew from Isherwood’s books and the films of Wenders and Fassbinder. Yet in that cold winter weather, Berlin was not revealing itself to anyone, mostly foreigners. That misty rainy morning, I stood in the famous Alexanderplatz. The square had been demolished in the early 1970s and rebuilt along totalitarian lines, with monotonous buildings lining the broad boulevards around it. Here is the imposing Fernsehturm, the television tower, one of the most important landmarks of the former East German capital. It was built in the late 1960s, when relations between East and West Berlin were at their most tense, as a rival to the television tower in West Berlin. One of the boulevards surrounding the square is the Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly known as the Stalinallee. The rebuilding of this boulevard to reflect the contrasting political system of the East began in the 1950s. I could not walk for long down this vast endless road, which at every step made me feel so very small. Perhaps the outsize scale was deliberately intended to create just this impression. A young man well wrapped up in his parka jacket singing Russian songs to the music of his guitar at the subway station lightened the atmosphere a little, but only an enormous steaming cup of hot coffee could warm me up now. I recalled Wender’s film Der Himmel Über Berlin (Wings of Desire), in which the angel Damiel comes down to earth, and because he is not mortal, does not understand life, its colours, tastes smells, or even love.
He is not satisfied with observing from a distance without participating in life and desires to be human so earnestly that his wish comes true. Once human, the first thing he does is buy a cup of coffee. Now I started to enjoy feeling the cold air striking my face, and map in hand, I entered the maze of streets which lead to Oranienburger Strasse. These streets with their elegant cafés, bars, boutiques, and small appealing restaurants, but nevertheless a half-finished look, are the door into the Bohemian world of Berlin. As soon as the Berlin Wall was demolished, people moved into the empty and derelict buildings. The studios and art galleries they opened have today made Berlin a center of alternative art and culture. The arts center in the former building of the famous pre-war Jewish department store Tacheles, the Hackesche Höfe cultural center consisting of numerous galleries, a theatre, cinema, and café, and Neue Synagogue, which contains a museum documenting Berlin’s Jewish community, are all on Oranienburger Strasse. Potsdamer Platz, which was reduced to rubble by bombing during the war, is the new commercial heart of Berlin, and with its modern cinemas and theatre complexes, expensive and elegant restaurants are reminiscent of New York. This square bears the labels of global giants like Mercedes and Sony. It has always been Berlin’s fate to be destroyed and rebuilt. When Brecht returned to the city in 1948 after its liberation from the Nazis by the tragic means of Allied bombing, he described it as ‘a heap of rubble.’ The city’s human losses during the war were appalling. Apart from the thousands of Jews who never returned from Hitler’s concentration camps, 80,000 Berliners lost their lives. Today Berlin is striving to be worthy of its status as the capital of reunited Germany. With East and West joined, its center of gravity is shifting eastwards. Once outlying neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, where there is a majority of Turkish inhabitants, have now become central areas. One of the most significant indicators of the way the center of the city has shifted to the east is the fact that parliament, which has moved here from Bonn, is housed in the Reichstag.
This imposing building was restored by Sir Norman Foster and opened in April 1999, leaving Bonn bereft. Berlin was reestablished as the German capital precisely ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is now in a state of dynamic flux, with new phenomena coming into being every day, and old ones disappearing. The celebrated Checkpoint Charlie where once Russian and American tanks came face to face, the demolition of the wall, joys, sorrows, and yellowing photographs are all part of the constant process of change. Where is East, and where is West? As Brecht said, ‘Thanks be to God everything passes quickly. Love and even grief. Where are the tears wept last night? Where is the snow that fell last year?’