Thursday, 29 March 2018

Stubborn Stains



Like a water-stain on a ceiling which is impossible to paint out, it seems the past will leak through pretty much any attempt to obliterate it. Perhaps especially in a city like Berlin, where terrible, terrible things have happened within living memory, some carried out in secret, some in plain sight, and others inflicted indiscriminately upon the entire population. It's as if the more destruction is heaped upon a place, the more insistently the past tries to return, like the photinia weeds that apparently sprang up all over the rubble heaps after 1945. Later in the year I may be visiting the spot on the planet known serially as St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad / St. Petersburg, which must be the test case and type specimen of such a theory. The infernal twinning by transformative obliteration between these two cities is not entirely accidental, of course.

Since reunification and the re-establishing of Berlin as Germany's capital, an amazing amount of rebuilding and re-configuring has taken place, and the character of entire city quarters has been changed. Although often, it seems, these transformations are merely the latest phase in a history of dramatic changes. Take the current glitzification of Potsdamer Platz, not so long ago a dead zone between East and West with the Wall running straight through it, and yet not so long before that one of the busiest and most iconic traffic intersections in Europe. And yet Berlin has done the right thing, surely, in leaving its most ghastly secrets exposed to public scrutiny, rather than attempting to ignore or hide them. I will write about the Jewish Museum and the various memorials to victims of the Nazis in a separate post. But certain plots of prime central real estate have been left barren, acknowledgement that these bore stains which could never have been painted over, such as the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS on Wilhelmstrasse, now an expanse of ground simply covered by grey stone chippings, and occupied only by an unsensationalised yet unflinchingly informative museum and library, with the oddly non-institutional name The Topography of Terror.

Inside the Topography of Terror

Museum Island

Osloer Strasse

Everywhere you look, there are cranes; everywhere, buildings are swathed in protective sheeting and undergoing refurbishment. Like central London, the plate-glass temples of global capital are dominating the skyline, in what seems like a similarly unplanned, unregulated free-for-all. But each new building project in Berlin does require, in one of those wonderful German compound words, a Kampfmittelfreiheitsbescheinigung; that is, a certification that the site is kinda-sorta free of explosives. Seventy years on, there are still an estimated 2,000-4,000 tons of unexploded ordnance buried beneath Berlin, a stratum of the past that continually leaches into the present in small but deadly doses: even now around 10-15 bombs a year, plus the smaller stuff that was shot, lobbed, and abandoned in the intense street-battles of 1945. You might say that Berlin is like a concentrated compound of London and Northern France: a few square miles that have been intensively bombed, shelled, and then fought over, house by house. With the result that by 1946 the city was largely a heap of rubble, haunted by the gangs of so-called Trümmerfrauen ("rubble women"), pulling down, breaking, sorting, and clearing up the ruins.

Apparently, the highest place in Berlin is the Teufelsberg, a hill rising 80 metres above the surrounding Grunewald forest, and entirely constructed out 75 million cubic metres of rubble and debris, dumped on top of an indestructible former military academy designed by Albert Speer. Such rubble hills, known as Schuttberge or Trümmerberge, exist outside most major German towns that suffered bomb damage: Berlin's just happens to be the biggest by far, partly because – owing to the containment of the Western sectors by the Soviet Zone – it all had to be dumped within the boundaries of West Berlin.

This raises an interesting question of perspective that I often encountered in my short three-day visit. Descriptions of the pre-1989 division of Germany often talk as if those in East Berlin were trapped behind the Berlin Wall. Whereas, obviously, in fact they were free to move anywhere within East Germany, and if anyone was "trapped" behind a wall it was surely the West Berliners. Yes, there will have been those in the East who yearned for a different lifestyle, or to re-unite arbitrarily divided families, and to them West Berlin must have appeared like a tantalising portal, but travel between West and East was possible and in both directions, even if under certain constraints.

I am not surprised that Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) is now a thing. The social benefits of life in the GDR were not altogether illusory – full employment, equality in healthcare, childcare and education, subsidised food and transport, even if the, ah, Neighbourhood Watch arrangements had got completely out of hand – and the downsides of consumer capitalism rarely feature on the glitzy billboards of the new Potsdamer Platz. That some of the most intense anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist activism once took place in the shadow of the Wall, but on the Western side, in the run-down areas that are now being intensively gentrified, is ironic, to say the least. And perhaps just another one of those stains that will eventually work its way back to the surface.

Checkpoint Charlie

"Hands off Wedding!"


Anonymous said...

Very interesting observations by a non-German! It seems to me that you engaged yourself quite a bit with our (i.e. German) postwar history. Some remarks:

- How the anti-capitalist/anarchist subculture came to Berlin: That's actually an easy one. As you probably know, we had conscription in Germany until recently. As an anti-system dissident and/or pacifist you had three alternatives to avoid the draft call. First, become a conscientious objector. That was what the bourgeois wannabees did (I served 20 months in a nursing home, btw). This left two choices for the more serious revolutionary: Become framed by the MP, stand trial and be sentenced to 3-6 months under parole - or emigrate to West-Berlin. Due to the Four Power Agreement about Berlin, there was no conscription here. But, you had to stay there until you were 32 - from that age, you were exempt from conscription. This is the reason for the anti-capitalist scene in Berlin - it served as a magnet for these guys. Of course, a real-reason revolutionary obeyed the draft call in order to learn how to handle a rifle, but that's a tale for another day.

- About "Ostalgie": In 1968, West-Germany experienced an upheaval, which resulted in shaking off the remains of the authoritarian Adenauer government, and eventually became the moderately progressive nation it is today. Obviously, nothing like this happened in the GDR. As a result, the liberal and left-liberal parties of West-German origin are still rather weak in eastern Germany. The political scene in the east German states is dominated by "Die Linke" (a straight left-wing party which originates from the remains of the GDR socialist state-party SED and left dissidents from the west-German SPD), and the far right-wing AfD. If there were elections in the state Sachsen today, it would not be possible to form a state government which doesn't involve the AfD. The wage inequality between east and west Germany doesn't help here: Right now, a given position in the east earns about 75% of the wage paid in the west. For this reason, a lot of the well-educated people go to the west. A seizable percentage of the remaining population yearns for a mixture between the GDR, Adenauer Germany and the Reich.

- Garbage on the street (picture "Osloer Straße"): Not necessarily wild dumping. In Germany, if you have bulky garbage which doesn't fit the wastebin and which you can't haul to the recycling yard yourself, you'll just call the local recycling authority and make an appointment. On the given date, you put the garbage on the sidewalk and the garbage truck will pick it up. It's called Sperrmüll.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Thanks for these comments -- I was rather hoping you might chip in and add some actual knowledge to my speculations!

I'd forgotten about the draft issue -- back in the days when I was squatting London I knew several Germans who were, effectively, in hiding from either the draft or, um, the police. It was one of them who uttered the immortal words, "I consider war to be an outdated form of communication", which blew my mind at the time, being a perspective I had never before considered.

More baseless speculation to come... Please correct and expand as necessary!