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

1. Eingang

I've been trying to think my way into talking about Berlin, and it's difficult. I doubt there's a city on Earth that carries as much disturbing mental baggage for English-speakers, even (or especially) those who've never been there. Trying to overcome that, to unpick the threads of twentieth century history that weave through its streets and look at it as new twenty-first century cloth, is not only a daunting task but one that carries substantial risks of being misunderstood. And with a city of so many layers, not neatly stratified like sedimentary rock but twisted and folded together by tectonic historic forces, it's hard to know where to begin.

The temptation to skip it is strong (what do you care? who are 'you', anyway? this is a weblog, isn't it? where's the links?), but these are stories I have to tell myself, and this is where I do that. Berlin is one of a very few cities that I can imagine myself into: in a parallel universe, there's a Rory who learnt German, and he lives there. Those sorts of feelings aren't explained by a few snapshots of striking buildings, a few words about a pleasant few days wandering its streets. In cases like this (and London, San Francisco, Melbourne), explaining my fascination with the place becomes an exercise in autobiography, even though it's not 'my' place. Writing about a week in Berlin demands more than writing about what I saw during that week.

Writing effusively about Berlin here, in Britain, even sixty years after the blitz, also feels somewhat subversive. Just last week this country was divided over a commercial by anti-euro campaigners featuring comedian Rik Mayall dressed as Adolf Hitler. A tad tasteless to compare the EU to the Third Reich?, some asked. No, no, no, came the reply: it's all part of a long comedic tradition stretching back to Fawlty Towers and Spike Milligan.

But Spike fought against Hitler, and his mockery of him was part of coming to terms with that fight: he wrote half a dozen books of war memoirs. Basil Fawlty goosestepped through his dining room in 1975, not 2002, and Cleese was laughing not at Germany but at the English obsession with the war. In 1975, his audience consisted of people who had fought or grown up during wartime, and others (like him) who had grown up hearing about it from their parents. In 2002, who is Mayall's audience? A generation raised on Fawlty Towers repeats?

In the warm orange carriages of the U-Bahn, wind blowing through the windows from the black tunnels outside, I would look around the faces of Berlin and think: she was ten when the Wall came down; he was born when the Wall was built; those two, with their grey hair and creased faces, were six when Hitler died. They're not all blameless: modern Germany has its unrest, its racial tensions, its neo-Nazis. So does modern Britain. So does modern Australia. But these people—the bulk of those who live there now, today—didn't launch the V2s.

I'll come back to that thought later, but over the next couple of days will wander away from it for a while, to try to keep to the Now before circling back to Then. And Berlin is more Now than just about anywhere else.

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

17 July 2002 · >>next>>

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