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13 November 1998updated 13 Oct 2021 12:43pm

The city of buried secrets

Near your left foot, the Hitler bunker; by your right heel, the Gestapo torture chambers. Christophe

By Christopher Hope

A decade back – before the fall – Berlin was a stump of a city, heavy with history, noisy with ghosts. Squeezed tight into its concrete straitjacket – the Wall. It was odd for a visitor to find that West Berliners did not much notice the Wall. They left that to foreigners who gaped at the double-barrelled concrete corridor, and the minefield laid between inner and outer walls, the observation towers, the armed guards. Native Berliners pretended there was nothing strange about being strangled. “What are you staring at?” a line scrawled on the concrete demanded of gawpers like me. “Have you never seen a wall before?”

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Weird, yes. But that is nothing new. Being weird is something Berlin does well; it is a city of buried secrets, a murder-mystery. It is one of the best ghost stories ever told. Here and there you can still pick up clues, signs, scars. Above a doorway, down a side-street, besides banks and boutiques, the tell-tale pockmarks of bullets and shrapnel – 50 years after the guns fell silent.

But then Berlin wears its history on its skin. Everywhere there are reminders of the great cataclysm. A scrap of portico from the Old Synagogue, burnt down just before the war, is cemented into brickwork across the road from the plush comfort of the Kempinski Hotel. Listen, and you will hear competing cries floating across the narrow width of Fasanenstrasse: the dead call for justice, and the living call for room service.These are just some of the street cries of Berlin. Even the streetwalkers, in their tall white boots and leather shorts, out on creaking nightly patrols along the Kurfurstendamm, have their laconic call “Bizniz? Bizniz?”.

Berlin is a city built on sand; it shifts. Dig down a metre or so and you hit water. That’s the reason for the big metal pipes high above your head, painted red or blue or green, racing here and there. They look like modernist whimsy, an architectural prank. In fact they’re there to suck up water and spew it back into lakes, rivers and canals that weave through the city.

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Not that a little wit, a touch of lightness, would be unwelcome. Because Berlin has been constantly assaulted by its architects. Bismarck had dreams of the Champs-Elysees when he built the great Parisian boulevard of the Kurfurstendamm. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, had perverse dreams of imperial Rome when he redesigned the capital of the Third Reich. And the developers of the fifties and sixties, who did more damage to Berlin than Allied bombs, had the future in mind when they raised the ugly rain-streaked concrete boxes of their generation.

But all that was before the fall. Until ten years ago, everyone knew where the future was – it was on hold; the Wall held it back. Then the Wall came down: I was lucky to be in town and I remember the sound it made. The chink of steel on concrete. Bands of “woodpeckers” perched on the wall with tiny hammers, tapping away day and night, until they had taken it to pieces.

Now, after the fall, everything is changing in Berlin, and parts of the city, like elements of the German imagination, so long frozen, are moving again. It’s an odd feeling – the shift, the thaw. But it is everywhere apparent. Even in politics, things are rolling. When Germans chose a new government recently, the mood among Berliners seemed to be delighted trepidation. Watching the television pictures when Gerhard Schroder was sworn in as the new chancellor, I thought he looked faintly surprised when President Roman Herzog confirmed his appointment. And rather relieved. As if the former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, might suddenly change his mind about handing over power, and boot the upstart off the premises.

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Next year the government returns to Berlin, the new capital of a unified Germany. The Reichstag is being readied, it wears a new and beautiful glass dome on its head, not unlike a transparent yarmulka. Potsdamerplatz is a forest of cranes, and they stand, as cranes do, on one leg and dip their beaks into the sandy soil. New government offices grow like honeycombs.

But in Berlin appearances are treacherous. For the decades of the cold war Potsdamerplatz was a muddy field not far from Checkpoint Charlie, a place of ruined embassies and rabbits. Now it is the busiest building site in Europe. It is the future. But not for the first time. It has been the future before. In the thirties it was teeming with buses, cars and trams, it pioneered the traffic jam.

Now the muddy wasteland is real estate once again. Mercedes and Sony have big plans: their new offices climb into the sky. Day and night the welders’ torches spill arcs of golden and sapphire sparks in the crisp autumn air. A huge billboard prophesies: “No place has more future!”. But the “place” referred to – the “platz” shown – is not Potsdamer, it is the roomy front seat of a Mercedes. This is not simply an ad; this is a mercantile prayer.

Another hoarding shows a green apple artfully masking a pair of naked loins. “Go on baby,” urges the headline, “light my fire.” This is not an invitation to one of Berlin’s many erotic resorts, such as Big Sexyland on Martin Lutherstrasse. It is an ad for Berlin Christian Radio.

Well, there you go. You can’t blame the church. With big business commanding the religious high ground, what can lowly collectors of souls do but go downmarket – and pitch for the loins.

But there is an air of dismayed doubt behind the bravado, and a sense of unease. It is hard to imagine that confident metropolitan old Berlin can ever be recaptured, despite graceful buildings by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The ghosts weigh too heavily. That is what causes the unease among the billboards, the admen, the engineers of dreams. After all, this is still Potsdamerplatz, and with it comes the knowledge that near my left foot is the Hitler bunker, and by my right heel, the Gestapo torture chambers. That’s the thing about Berlin, it throws great street parties, but you always get a few skeletons at the feast.

And, here and there, on Potsdamerplatz, a few scraps of the old Berlin Wall survive, so shrunken now, so modest, so disappointingly ordinary that visitors seeing it for the first time are taken aback. “Is that all?” The barrier where people died on the wire, which sliced in half the heart of Berlin, looks now like a threadbare fence from some poor allotment. Who can recapture its gaudy brutality?

But then Berlin is full of poignant remnants, stuck in the middle of nowhere. Not far away from the scraps of the Wall and a sadly diminished Checkpoint Charlie stand the remains of the Anhalter station. Once it was one of the busiest in the world. Frozen in time, its head has gone, the brickwork of its bombed porticoes shows like broken biscuits, and trees grow out of its roof.

So, yes, the government will leave Bonn and come back to Berlin next year. The question is, will Berlin come back to itself? In the recent general election the ruling Christian Democrats lost all their Berlin seats to the triumphant Social Democrats and the Greens. The red-green coalition is made up of new people for a new millennium. They are the future, it’s written into their job descriptions. They’re young. They do not remember the war. And, perhaps, they don’t much like remembering the Wall.

It is just as well, because their record on unification is pretty lousy. The Social Democrats agonised when the Wall came down; some went so far as to deplore the fall. Some wanted a kind of parallel state next door, with separate customs posts and passports – another Austria. The Greens went further. They wanted to keep the Wall – a view shared only by the Stasi, the Communist Party and the border guards. Now Berlin and a unified Germany is the prize handed to them by the jobless, weary, angry voters of the east.

Newspapers have been having fun digging up old pictures of new ministers, as they were back in 1968. Big hair, bright eyes, bell-bottoms. Flower power and lots of pills. They look like the usual suspects in a police line-up after a drugs bust. These are people who hung out with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and danced to the Beach Boys. Now they’re respectable middle-of-the-roaders; now they’re in power; worse still, now they’re in suits.

Schroder himself, once a student leader and firebrand, years ago had a soft spot for the German Democratic Republic of Erich Honecker. The new foreign minister, Joschka Fischer of the Greens, was born to man the barricades. The Greens were there to save the planet – and to do away with Nato.

Then came the election victory, and utopia was put on hold. What began with Marx or Rachel Carson ended in Armani or Hugo Boss. Fischer has been arriving in foreign capitals. He turns on the honour guard the droopy eyes of an agitated beagle, appalled to be welcomed by marching soldiers and military bands. One has the feeling that if a policeman tapped him on the shoulder Fischer would expect to be manhandled into the riot wagon.

Not long ago an American stuntman making a movie crashed his car into the Brandenburg Gate, that elegant door into the heart of Berlin. It was rather shocking because the portal is a sacred symbol. But Berliners seemed to take it in good part: they understand that Hollywood takes precedence over history.

Yet one has the feeling that Germany is ready to start making a little history of its own again. This is rather alarming, even to some Germans, but it looks inevitable. And Berlin is a good place to do it from; the city is a cautionary tale in itself.