Berlin: The Imperial Impulse in City Planning

Humboldt Forum.jpg

"He who controls Berlin, controls Germany, and who controls Germany, controls Europe." V.I. Lenin (but also attributed to Karl Marx, and sometimes to Otto von Bismarck)

About the time that Syrian refugees were on the march to Germany’s safe havens, I spent a few days in Berlin, which is not only the capital of reunified Germany, but the unofficial capital of the European Union, as well as being hipster ground zero.

The Europe that united under the EU — the New Europe — was predicated on a weak, federal Germany surrounded by strong members such as France, Britain, and Italy. On paper, the EU has its headquarters in Brussels and, for one week a month, in Strasbourg (to placate the envious French). But the Union's power emanates from Berlin, where Angela Merkel — the latest Iron Chancellor — has made most of the EU decisions concerning the Greek bailout and Syrian emigrants. The EU has become a ward of the Teutonic Knights, where solvency and peace come only from German diktats.

Does the modern city of Berlin speak about a resurgent Germany (über alles, so to speak), or about the ability of the Union to tame the excesses of German nationalism?

Since Germany united in 1989 the success of reunification has often been measured in the bright lights and new buildings that have spread across Berlin, from West to East. Once a Cold War no-man’s land, the Potsdamer Platz is now a crossroads on Architectural Digest walking-tour maps, while the worker housing in the East has been recycled into studios and sidewalk bistros for hi-tech executives and skateboarders.

For the past twenty years, I have believed that a healthy and vibrant Berlin could only mean good things for the European Union. It meant that reunified Germany was working, that Russia was at bay, and that in the New Europe there were enough new jobs to service the debt on the leveraged buyout of Eastern Europe.

On this trip to Berlin, however, I glimpsed the other side of the German coin, which is that as Germany succeeds — economically and politically — the European dream will become ever more distant.

What did I see in Berlin that made me doubt the future of the European Union?

On the surface, Berlin is a success story, with open-topped tourist buses crisscrossing the city and new restaurants. Old working-class neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg have gotten facelifts, and the city’s infrastructure of railroad stations, banks, and conference centers glistens.

In other, more subtle ways, however, the city seems to be fulfilling the dreams of Adolf Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, to turn Berlin into a capital of the thousand year Reich, even if, for now, it is a dream of admirable intentions.

Take the $600 million gilded palace of the Humboldt Forum that is being built on Museum Island, just off Unter den Linden, the imperial boulevard of Prussian dreams.

Swathed in marble frontage, the reconstructed palace dwarfs much that is nearby, including several classical museums. The web site descriptions make it sound like an elaborate visitors’ center, however, with nebulous goals:

The Humboldt Forum is a novel centre for exhibitions, events, and human encounter in the heart of Berlin. Museums, a library and a university will pool their competencies and create a lively place where knowledge about the cultures of the world can grow and be exchanged. In this, the Humboldt Forum distinguishes itself from the traditional idea of the ethnographic museum.

It's difficult not to recall that Hitler, when he spoke to Speer about the purpose of the nearby New Reich Chancellery on Voss Strasse, said, “On the long walk from the entrance to reception hall they’ll get a taste of the power and grandeur of the German Reich!”

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On this trip, I had the use of a bicycle — until it was stolen — to ride around the city, including along Unter den Linden. Graffiti is still visible on the last fragments of the Wall; elsewhere, I came across some posters of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), with turbaned immigrants and the tag line: “Have a good flight home.”

I first saw united Berlin in December 1989, a month after the Wall came down, when it was a city in liquidation. As if in the Berlin airlift, I flew on a Pan American jet from Frankfurt, and in a friend’s small Trabant toured West and East Berlin, which felt, respectively, like Manhattan and Brooklyn, in the days before gentrification. The Kurfürstendamm had the brand-name franchises of New York’s Fifth Avenue, while East Berlin felt like the far reaches of Bensonhurst.

This time, on foot (post-bike theft), I saw a united Berlin, but one with many cracks in the sidewalks. I found a street on which the English writer Christopher Isherwood, whose fiction inspired the play and movie Cabaret, had lived. His building was destroyed in the war, and the replacement speaks of the temporary housing that became permanent. If writing now about the city’s decadence, he might describe its bureaucracies — Humboldt is run by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation — rather than its cabarets.

Another thing I did was go around to Berlin's bookstores, and was surprised at how mediocre many were. Yes, they had book club novels and Hitler histories, but everything looked second-hand, not fresh off presses with any new ideas about the European Union, Mrs. Merkel, or Berlin. Has Germany discovered the end of history?

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Before the bike vanished, I did take it up and down the Wilhelmstrasse to see what remains of Hitler’s and Bismarck’s Berlin. The city doesn’t have much from Bismarck's era as the head of the German government. He wanted Berlin at the head of a unified Germany. When he got what he wanted in 1871, he realized (although it was too late for him to do much about it) he had the rest of Europe as his enemies.

Likewise, the imperial masquerade of Speer’s Berlin went up in the smoke of the World War II. Hitler mandated him to draw boulevards wider than the Champs-Élysées, and reception halls vaster then the cathedral at Rheims. It was to have been Rome on steroids.

In his memoirs, published in the 1970s, Speer describes a Hitler consumed with architectural ambitions, as if his military and political aggression was just to make the world safe for his city planning. The two spent countless hours discussing castles in the air, or an imperial way from the south Berlin station to a Great Hall near the Reichstag.

There was to have been an oversized Arch of Triumph, and various Nazi ministries housed behind those faceless façades of National Socialism that spoke of government by diktat. Looking back on his dreams, however, Speer wrote of the Grunewald forest, “Of the whole vast project for the reshaping of Berlin, these deciduous trees are all that have remained.”

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author most recently of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2015. He lives in Switzerland.

Flickr photo by Nigel Swales: Billboard announcing construction on the now-completed Schlossplatz - Berliner Schloss (Humboldt Forum); a modern building housing museums and offices, but with the façade of the original city palace.