Berlin, heart of Europe

Fred Halliday
19 May 2005

In this month of commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, much of the world’s attention has focused on Berlin. The different names given to this event, however, reveal how the global combat of the 1940s is still deeply contested.

For Russians, as for their Soviet predecessor, it is the final victory over fascism; for American, British and French, it is the defeat of Nazi Germany; for (most) Germans it now seen as a liberation [having until recently been designated by the neutral term Kriegsende (“end of the war”)].

This shift is symptomatic of subtle changes in the German commemoration. Just as the square west of the Brandenburg Gate has been renamed after 18 March [the day in 1848 of a popular uprising against the monarchy, which produced the inspiring slogan repeated in 1989, Wir sind das Volk (“We are the people”)], so more stress is being put on the advent of democracy that 1945 made possible.

There is more attention too to the sufferings of Germans, as well as other peoples, in the war itself – a cause once confined to the Vertriebene, the right-wing groupings formed by post-1945 expellees that, during the cold war, demanded a return of lands and property lost in 1944-1945. Today, this issue has been taken up by the novelist Günter Grass, for example in his novel of the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy, Im Krebsgang (“Crabwalk”); it is associated above all with the now rebuilt city of Dresden, and has become accepted across much of the spectrum.

Memory, forgetting and recovery

From the perspective of Berlin, the commemoration of 1945 is marked by three layers of memory and forgetting. The first is that while Berlin is a city redolent with historical associations (more than any other European city except perhaps Rome) the evidence of these associations was long buried. Prussian-era imperial Germany began with the 1792 Brandenburg Gate itself, but many of its wide avenues and royal buildings are lifeless and dull. The only really outstanding architectural site in the whole greater Berlin area is beyond the city limits, the Sanssouci palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. And the mark of Nazism, expunged by war and politics, is far less evident than that of the imperial era.

The second is especially evident to someone who knew the city in the 1960s and 1970s: the disappearance of many of the signs and symbols of the cold war. The famous RIAS, the CIA radio station in the American sector, is gone; the urban transport system has long been reintegrated, and the once major crossing-point of Friedrichstrasse is now just another banal station.

Berlin’s central railway station, the Anhalter Bahnhof, is being reconstructed. Only a small section of the Berlin wall survives, and a chunk of it in Potsdamer Platz has a picture of Rosa Luxemburg and the words “I am not a terrorist”. The element of cultural nostalgia (Ostalgie) is reflected in adverts in Neues Deutschland – newspaper of the PDS, and once that of the ruling East German communist party – for weekend fairs selling goods from the DDR period.

The third forgetting is that of the city’s Jewish community. Before 1933 Berlin was home to around a third of Germany’s 550,000 Jews. Of this total over half escaped before 1939, and another 25,000 (most in mixed marriages) survived the war. Today, Berlin has a Jewish population of 100,000; 20,000 of them are descendants of pre-war Jews, the other 80,000 are immigrants from the east, especially Russia.

More recently, the fate of Berlin’s, and Germany’s, Jews has after years of silence and denial – and in parallel with the revival of the Jewish community – been recognised in two striking forms of commemoration. The first is the Jewish Museum, a dramatic building designed by Daniel Libeskind that conveys in its lighting and structure a sense of the gradual drawing of the Jewish community into a dark abyss. The second is a new memorial to the Jewish dead, the size of a large city bloc located near the Brandenburg Gate, consisting of an expanse of rectangular objects like broken trees abandoned by a flood.

The next sixty years

These three Berlin layers of the German past exist against the background of a Germany-in-Europe that is also trying painfully to look forward to the next sixty years. The most common observation overheard in the German capital is Hier gibt’s kein Geld mehr (“There is no more money here”). The city is indebted, unemployment is high, and (since 1995) Berliners have lost the cold-war-era advantage of lower income tax than the rest of Germany.

The attempts by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to reduce social expenditures are resented. There is growing concern, as in the rest of Europe, about the relocation of industries to east-central Europe and east Asia. Most Germans, and certainly most Berliners, look with unease at the future; some like Günter Grass regard unification as a major historical error.

This unease is matched by the extraordinary reshaping of Europe. The admission of the ten new states in 2004 has shifted the centre of gravity of the European Union to the east, with Berlin as its natural centre. Germany is beginning tentatively to play a more independent foreign policy role – resisting United States pressure to participate in the invasion of Iraq, playing a leading role in Asian tsunami relief, and seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

These trends are given greater importance by the onset of a crisis within the European Union. The British have split the EU with their policy on Iraq, the economic “stability pact” has disintegrated, and referendums in France and the Netherlands promise to crash the European constitutional train. The German parliament may have voted by 95% to endorse the constitution, but elsewhere the momentum of European integration has effectively been halted.

Thus, by default, the future of Europe is going to be determined by its largest and most central member. The paradox is that the violence and drama of Europe’s past century and a half have postponed but not reversed the trend towards European hegemony that was already becoming evident in 1900. With its diverse, rich and violent past, Germany’s capital is reclaiming its place at the centre of European affairs. It is time the rest of the continent – not least the often wilfully ignorant and chauvinist British – came to terms with a fundamentally welcome development.

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