A photo-essay on the German capital in six parts.

3. Alt und Neu

Crossing the vanished wall in early '98, it was easy to tell where it had been eight years before. The solid buildings of Mitte, once the centre of pre-war Berlin, still spoke of forty years of the DDR: their lines recognisably modern, but their line of descent tilted slightly askew. The clear winter skies challenged my Western stereotypes by painting blue where I half expected grey, but the buildings compensated for that. East German architecture was intended to exalt the People, but people seemed to shrink in these streets, in numbers and into themselves. They huddled in their leather jackets and strode rather than strolled, keen to be somewhere else. There wasn't much to do in Mitte but look around, and Berliners had already looked.

Today Mitte is one of the least recognisable parts of the city, transformed into a fashionable shopping district: home to expensive hotels, new government buildings, and the restored heart of 19th century Berlin. When we walked around it in 1998, the museums were still black with soot and peppered with bullet holes. Now they're clean and classical once more, the tape erased backwards over the past hundred years.

Alte Nationalgalerie, January 1998 and June 2002.

There's something unsettling about the transformation, as if the depradations and aspirations of three generations are being polished off in the process. History is being rewritten, not in books that nobody reads, but on the walls that everybody sees. But perhaps this is only fair, now that those generations are history; why should the only erasing be done by bombs? Young Berliners have enough reminders of the past. Who wants to live among ruins for the sake of curious tourists?

Tourists who are curious have enough reminders, too. Walk a few blocks out of Mitte or the Museumsinsel and the streets of the east dissolve into dereliction before your eyes—though they're already being colonised around the edges, and slowly repaired. Mitte itself is dominated by the TV tower near Alexanderplatz, a funky Sputnik-on-a-stick that prompts a curious sense of techno-nostalgia. There are still revolutionary mosaics, streets named after socialist heroes, and statues of Marx and Engels to be found. And every traffic light features the Ampelmann [offsite link], the fedora-sporting stop-go man crucified in red every thirty seconds.

A few S-Bahn stops to the south is East Berlin's once-largest tourist attraction: Treptower Park, built by Stalin to honour the Soviet dead. It's now all but devoid of visitors, and the main gateway is covered with scaffolding for repairs. At the opposite end of a vast garden flanked on either side by bas reliefs of tanks and troops, an enormous bronze soldier stands on a mound, sword in hand, child in arm, and swastika crushed underfoot. Subtle it ain't, but impressive it is, and deserves more than its marginal tourist status.

On the opposite side of the city is one of the few remaining relics of the opposite extreme of politics: the Olympic Stadium of Hitler's 1936 games. It's still in use, and looks much as it did when Leni Riefenstahl filmed it, with the obvious exception of any Nazi symbols (long-since removed). In the right light, the concrete pillars at the entrance still evoke their origins. For how much longer is less certain: the stadium is currently closed for 'modernisation'.

For those exploring Berlin's history, though, the beginning and end point is the Reichstag. Built under the Kaisers, seat of the Weimar Republic, burned by the Nazis, never used by them (how important that was for its future rehabilitation), bombed in the war, rebuilt in view of the wall, and rebuilt again after the wall was gone. Norman Foster's new dome is its grandest feature, its dozens of mirrors splicing each visitor into the sky a hundred different ways, but just as significant is the repaired lettering on the original facade: DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE.

For the German people, your republican legacy renewed, its enemies rejected. For the German people, your history acknowledged, considered, celebrated and, where necessary, condemned; rebuilt, and transcended. Für Dem Deutschen Volke, a symbol of what you can be.

Reichstag Dome. Photo by Jane Ewins.

24 July 2002 · >>next>>

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