One of the (regrettably few) benefits of growing old is the way in which incidents in one’s own biography intersect with phases of what passes for world history.

I have visited Berlin several times, but three visits stick out in recollection. The first was in the late 1950s after the Airlift but before the Wall; the second was in the mid-1980s; the third was in the summer of 1995. A different vision of Berlin emerged at each visit: frontier of freedom; repository of all the moral pathologies of the West; pressure cooker of the new Germany. Over each loomed the Brandenburg Gate, potent symbol of the pretensions and the futility of all human attempts to shape the flow of events.

I have never liked Berlin”after all, I’m Viennese. It is too big, too brash, and too intimately connected with the worst nightmares of this century. But on my first visit I was impressed with the plucky spirit of the Western part of the city, which in a few short years had passed from being the capital of the Nazi tyranny to being an outpost in the defense of freedom. It is not irrelevant that the Berliners were never particularly enamored of the Nazi regime. (Proportionally, there may well have been more Nazis in Vienna than in Berlin.) Hitler detested his own capital, and the Gestapo was much concerned over the political attitudes of its population. Many Berliners in turn looked on Nazism as a Bavarian disease that had engulfed their city. Still, this was the capital of the Third Reich, and for millions of its oppressed subjects the Brandenburg Gate loomed as a symbol of that oppression.

By the late 1950s it required an effort to visualize that earlier period, as indeed it did in other places in West Germany. On the surface, at any rate, the reminders of the Nazi era had been swept away (they came back somewhat later to haunt the German consciousness, but that is another story). The Brandenburg Gate now loomed on the border of a new and much more proximate tyranny. Berliners were the “Good Germans” doing their part in the defense of democracy.

I crossed over to East Berlin several times on my first visit, nervously clutching my then quite new American passport (citizens of the Western Allied nations were free to circulate in all parts of the city). At that time, before the Wall, one could take the U-Bahn, the Berlin subway, across the dividing line. The train always stopped for a long time before crossing. A loudspeaker announced repeatedly that we were now leaving the American Sector. All Western newspapers had disappeared before then. Where before there had been animated conversation, the train now became very silent. When it moved again, unsmiling officers of the Volkspolizei walked through, occasionally asking a passenger to produce identification papers. Communist propaganda slogans festooned the walls of the subway stations. One was conscious every moment that one had now passed into a very different world.

There was much more wartime destruction still visible in East Berlin than in the West. The city was shabbier, more dilapidated. Out of the general shabbiness rose the brand-new constructions of socialist architecture, notably the atrociously ugly buildings of the Stalin Allee and the government headquarters of the German Democratic Republic. Soviet officers in shining uniforms strutted around the streets, very much the imperial conquerors. There was no advertising, only banners and billboards bearing political messages. Conversations with strangers were brief and cautious. Even in crowded places there was much silence.

Upon returning to West Berlin there was always a palpable sense of relief. In the most literal sense, one was once again breathing the atmosphere of freedom. The noisy crowds on the Kurfuerstendamm, the flashy advertising, even the raunchy nightlife of West Berlin were part and parcel of this atmosphere. The sarcastic humor for which Berlin had always been known, its brashness and irreverence, went well with this frontier status. I vividly recall attending a cabaret and laughing helplessly as the comedians satirized Communist cant with surgical precision. Sometimes I had difficulties following the local references, not to mention the Berlin dialect, but my Viennese prejudices dissolved in a sentiment of democratic solidarity.

After the Wall went up, the West German government did everything it could to build up West Berlin as a showcase of democracy and prosperity. Part of the effort consisted of subsidizing all sorts of cultural and intellectual institutions. The city hosted a multitude of institutes, research centers, and other breeding grounds of the New Class. Ironically, the Free University, founded by courageous students who seceded from the Communist-dominated Humboldt University in the East, became a bastion of every kind of Marxist, neo-Marxist, and quasi-Marxist ideology. Because of the four-power agreement on the status of Berlin, young men residing in West Berlin were not subject to the military draft in the Federal Republic. Since anyone could freely move there from the West, the city became a haven for young men seeking to avoid the draft, many of them for political reasons. As a result of all this, West Berlin became a repository for every ideological inanity of the post-1960s West. It was still possible to have a sane conversation with the odd taxi driver or Turkish hotel employee, but as soon as one moved into academic circles one was engulfed in an atmosphere of pervasive spiritual lunacy.

During my visit in the 1980s, I went to both a museum that had been set up near Checkpoint Charlie and a West Berlin cabaret. The museum showed various stages in the history of the Wall, commemorating famous escapes”through tunnels, hidden compartments in automobiles, and even a balloon. One block from the museum was the Wall itself, that obscene brutality cutting through the living fabric of the city. Flowers marked the spot where a would-be escapee had been shot to death by the Communist border guards. One could look at the guards standing on top of a watch tower on the other side, just feet away. They looked back with binoculars. One was very conscious of standing on the edge of a gigantic and ominously threatening empire that stretched from here to the outermost ends of Asia.

Things were very different that evening at the cabaret, a crowded, dimly lit place, filled with middle-aged hippies, men with unkempt beards and women wearing Peruvian ponchos. Unlike my cabaret experience in the 1950s, in the satire of the 1980s there was not a single reference to the Communist East only a ten-minute walk away. Every barb was directed at the Federal Republic and its society. The comics’ portrait was one of unmitigated evil”a society marked by neo-fascism, American imperialism, phallocracy, homophobia, and environmental destruction. It was as if the Wall did not exist.

Berlin in 1995 is yet another world. Straddling the old border is what must easily be the largest construction site in the world. An entire new government quarter is going up around the old Reichstag (recently wrapped and unwrapped in the Christos’ postmodernist mega-joke), but also hotels, office blocks, apartment buildings, and the new European headquarters of Sony. East Berlin, or at any rate much of it, is booming. Everywhere are the paraphernalia of reconstruction and renovation. A decade or so from now this will be one of the most monumental capitals of Europe (a dubious international asset for Germany, I would think). The old Stalinist-style buildings stand empty, awaiting demolition and revamping. Here and there, in Berlin Mitte, one comes on a few places still intact from the remoter past-Prussian, sober, Protestant”as around the Opera and the Cathedral. But on the whole it is as if the Kurfuerstendamm had exploded to incorporate the entire city with its showy prosperity and neo-European with-it-ness.

For all I know there are still people muttering Marxist incantations in obscure corners of the Free University, but they no longer determine the atmosphere of the city. In East Berlin (though less so than in other parts of ex-Communist Germany) one can still hear expressions of resentment against the dominance of the “Wessis.” As in this typically “Ossi” joke: “Why are the Chinese always smiling? Because they still have their wall.” An imaginative entrepreneur has actually put up a theme park, where visitors can experience daily life in the German Democratic Republic (including encounters with grim officers of the Volkspolizei). By all accounts, this nostalgia is waning. Reunification is becoming a success story. Soon it will be as difficult to imagine the scenes of the Communist era as it had been, in the 1950s, to visualize the Nazis. A new, powerful Germany is taking shape here. It is a vast improvement over everything that preceded it in this century. Yet, somehow, one contemplates it with less than undivided joy.

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, Soviet soldiers were selling bits and pieces of their uniforms for the benefit of Western tourists. Right at the Brandenburg Gate, there is still a set of stalls selling this stuff, manned by rather wild-looking men speaking an esoteric language. When asked, one answered, improbably, that he was Pakistani. The men look as if they came from the Caucasus region, perhaps Azerbaijan, or Chechen. One can buy caps and insignia of the Soviet Army and the East German Volksarmee, Communist banners and party pins, postage stamps and currency of the German Democratic Republic. There are few takers.


Peter L. Berger is Director of the Center for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.

Articles by Peter L. Berger

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