Berlin’s an odd city. It’s a place where the past, present and future continually compete for your attention. When we arrived eight months ago, our first few weeks exploring our new home were disorienting. It was almost as if the sum of all Berlin’s parts didn’t quite make a whole. The history of the physically divided, post-1945 city left a hole. It might have a district called Mitte (middle) but it lacks a true centre, replaced instead by competing poles of influence.
In 1910, the German cultural commentator, Karl Scheffler, wrote that, “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.” Even today it continues to feel unfinished, a work in progress – literally, if you count the number of construction sites marked by giant cranes across the cityscape. The French politician, Jack Lang, summed this up in the pithy phrase, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” That might explain why trying to understand this city feels a little like trying to grasp mercury.
Despite the relentless pace of change, Germany’s enduring commitment not to ignore its history is found everywhere in Berlin – it’s almost impossible to avoid the reminders of past horrors, whether National Socialism or Soviet Communism. Except, that is, for the City Palace. Dating from the 15th century, this former Prussian palace was badly bombed in World War II. In the 1950s, the East German government demolished it and built the Palace of the Republic – a brutalist monstrosity of concrete and mirrored glass, and an ugly symbol of communist rule.
You’ll have to search for photos of the Palace of the Republic, because it too has been demolished. In a controversial decision, the newly unified German government decided to eradicate this vital part of the city’s communist legacy. Bizarrely, they did so to make way for a replica to be built of the original City Palace. A decision that sparked debate and accusations that part of Berlin’s historical memory was being erased. Admittedly, a memory that came with a humongous amount of asbestos.
The 21st century remake of the 15th century palace is well on the way to completion. We walked past it recently – it’s huge – and it will definitely be a dramatic addition to the city, reconnecting it to its royal Prussian roots. Ironically, this was something that was explicitly problematic about making Berlin the national capital and home of the government when the country was itself reconnected at the end of the Cold War. The fear of nostalgia for militarism was very powerful.
It’s unimaginable today, but at the time of German reunification in 1990 a choice had to be made. Which city would serve as the headquarters of the German government? Although it became the capital in 1990 as part of the reunification treaty, Berlin was by no means a dead cert. The ghosts of the past ever-present, many Germans feared moving the government to Berlin would threaten the post-war Federalist system that acted as a guarantor of peace and stability.
Berlin very nearly never became the seat of government. ‘A Small Town in Germany’, as John le Carré called Bonn in his 1968 spy thriller, had served as the capital of West Germany for decades. Then in 1991, the German Bundestag voted on whether to move the government back to Berlin. The vote was remarkably close – 338 for Berlin, 320 for Bonn. The rest is history, but it’s incredible to think what might have become of Berlin had the vote gone the other way.
*I read this phrase somewhere and now can’t remember where.