Read an Excerpt From Sinclair McKay’s ‘Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World’
Preface: ‘Every city has history, but Berlin has too much!’
Berlin is a naked city. It openly displays its wounds and scars. It wants you to see. The stone and the bricks along countless streets are pitted and pocked and scorched; bullet memories. These disfigurements are echoes of a vast, bloody trauma of which, for many years, Berliners were reluctant to speak openly. In the shadow of filthy genocide, it was taboo to suggest that they too were victims in Hitler’s war. The city itself is long healed, but those injuries are still stark: the old Friedrichsruhe brewery wall with a sunburst blast-pattern caused by heavy shelling; the bas-relief at the base of the nineteenth-century Victory Column, of Christ on the cross, pierced by shrapnel through the heart; the entrance portal to the bomb-crushed Anhalter railway station – Romanesque brick arches – now standing alone and leading only to empty air. In the Humboldthain, a rich park just north of the city centre, trees spring forth around a grim, vast, concrete fortress that, towards the end of the war, served as shelter, hospital and catacomb. Most famous is the shattered church tower, capped with metal, that stands over the busy Kurfürstendamm shopping street: the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The tower is almost all that remains of the turn-of-the-century original; one night in 1943, it was hit in a bombing raid and engulfed in flames (and, after the war, a new modernist church was constructed next to it). If you knew nothing of the history of this city, the initial sight of this strange tower would be disconcerting: what could be meant by this weird ruin preserved in the midst of an indifferent shopping concourse? Other European capitals acknowledge the dark past with elegantly aestheticized monuments; they seek to smooth the jagged edges of history. Not here.
Throughout the twentieth century, Berlin stood at the centre of a convulsing world. It alternately seduced and haunted the international imagination. The essence of the city seemed to be its sharp duality: the radiant boulevards, the cacophonous tenement blocks, the dark smoky citadels of hard industry, the bright surrounding waters and forests, the exultant pan-sexual cabarets, the stiff dignity of high opera, the colourful excesses of Dadaist artists, the grim uniformity of mass swastika processions. And with the advent of the Nazis came a steadily building drumbeat of death. Of the city’s Jewish population, most of those who had remained in Berlin under the Nazis – 80,000 people or so – were deported and murdered between 1941 and 1943. In addition, an estimated 25,000 Berliners were killed by Allied action in the final weeks of the war in 1945. But there was a continual proximity to fear, before and after, too: for anyone born in Berlin around the year 1900 – and who was then lucky enough to live on into the 1970s or 1980s – life in the city was an unending series of revolutions; a maelstrom of turmoil and insecurity. This spanned the reeling trauma of the First World War and the disease and violence that immediately followed; the sharp, vertiginous inrush of modern industry and the defiantly revolutionary architecture that mirrored it, roaring through once familiar streets and workplaces; the nausea of steep economic plunges, bringing destitution and hunger; then, the Nazi supremacy, the psychosis of genocide and the fires of war; and, finally, the heart of the city rent in two by competing ideologies. At the centre of these traumas were those weeks at the end of the war in spring 1945 when the devastation visited upon Berlin and its people was comparable to the infernal retributions of classical antiquity.
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The fall of Berlin in 1945 is one of those moments in history that stands like a lighthouse; the beam turns and sharply illuminates what came before and what came after. It was not just the squalid death of the man at the centre of the maelstrom, or the way in which his self- destruction in an underground bunker appeared to seep out and dissolve the foundations of the city itself. Nor is it a story that can be wholly understood as military history, since it is also a vast tapestry of ordinary civilian Berliners – greatly outnumbering the remaining soldiers who could no longer protect them – and their efforts to cling to their sanity as their lives were dislocated. It is also the story of those who had seen the warning shadows of this violence in the years beforehand. There were older Berliners in 1945 who had been there in the aftermath of the Great War and the failed German Revolution of 1918; who had already edged their way down icy streets transformed into sniper-canyons; who had already known chronic food shortages and unrelieved cold.
People do not live their lives in fixed eras; an epoch ends, yet the people continue – or try to continue – much as they did before. The recent history of Berlin is often viewed through fixed prisms of division: Wilhelmine, Weimar, Nazi, communist, each period hermetically sealed. Yet the lives of its citizens formed an uneasy continuum through all these different regimes; these were people who always struggled hard to adapt to a city that changed with whiplash velocity. What must all of these violent revolutions have seemed like to Berliners who simply wished to live and work and love? Those who grew up in the Weimar era, who then felt the shadow of the Nazis fall, then in the years afterwards saw their city occupied and dominated by other powers – how did their mental landscapes, their memories of particular neighbourhoods, remain firm when the physical urban landscape around them was in a constant state of bewildering mutation and demolition, to the extent that even some born in the city could no longer find their way to once- familiar streets.
‘Every city has history,’ observed leading Berlin architect David Chipperfield, ‘but Berlin has too much.'
[T]here is a quieter, more working-class enclave in the north-west – streets of glum and dusty-looking apartment blocks where, in a sense, something of the city’s essential historic heart has been captured. It lies in the offices of a remarkable endeavour. The Zeitzeugenbörse – a contemporary witness exchange – has been aiming to capture and record the voices of ordinary Berliners from right the way across the century: their lives and experiences through the traumas of the decades. The old sense that the German people had to suppress their own experiences of suffering had the unintended effect of creating a mass of historic dark matter: silence and obscurity when it came to certain epochal events. The wonderful academics and volunteers who run the Zeitzeugenbörse have been working in recent years to ensure that a generation of Berlin voices is never lost. It is these voices that can help guide us through a century both of terror and of stubborn fortitude.
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