'Beautifully Grim' - Why is everyone so fascinated by Berlin?
‘Those who are late sit at the front,’ chuckled the receptionist at the German Embassy in London on Thursday when I arrived at 7.03pm for an event that was scheduled to begin at 7.00pm. I probably imagined the mild schadenfreude with which she ushered me upstairs where the Ambassador was just introducing the speakers to a packed room full of expectant faces many of which now turned my way. In the front row, David Lidington, former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, smiled and patted the seat next to him. ‘Fair enough,’ the German part of me thought, ‘she who is late sits at the front.’ The British part of me was too mortified to think.
I quickly got over the embarrassing start to the evening as a fascinating conversation unravelled about a city that has always been in my life: Berlin.
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Annette Dittert, Senior Correspondent for the German public broadcaster ARD in London was interviewing the Germanophile author and journalist John Kampfner. They were talking about Kampfner’s new book: ‘In Search of Berlin’ which tells the history of the German capital city in sixteen chapters (see my review in The Times here).
Both Dittert and Kampfner have spent a lot of time in Berlin, including stints before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both know the city well and are fascinated by its never-ending reinvention. I found myself nodding a lot as Berlin’s sometimes painfully awkward process of coming to terms with its own history was discussed.
There is the reconstructed city palace, for instance, now the Humboldt Forum. In his book, John describes it as follows:
‘A faux baroque, contemporary multi-arts ‘meeting space’ was created on the site of what was once Berlin’s palace thanks to lobbying in the 1990s by a tractor entrepreneur from Hamburg. Everyone has their own reason to dislike it. Some find the building distasteful. The inside is variously described as a Prussian Disneyland and Dubai airport. The contents have been the object of derision for political correctness or fury for a failure fully to show due sensitivity to the decolonization debate. Nobody knows who is in charge. Many regret that it exists at all, insisting that its predecessor building could have been renovated and kept.’
The palace is a physical manifestation of Berlin’s perpetual identity crisis: Carefully (but not fully) recreated Prussian glamour surrounds exhibitions which seek to address German colonialism while the entire ensemble has wiped out the East German regime’s monument to its own ambitions for Berlin: the Palace of the Republic.
This is also the kind of thing British visitors to the German capital refer to when they say: ‘there is just so much history in Berlin.’ Berlin continues to captivate historically minded Brits by having been the focal point of Germany’s troubled 20th century.
It was Hitler’s capital. Even an Austrian who launched his rise to power in the Bavarian capital of Munich was captivated by Berlin and fantasised about its transformation into the ‘World Capital Germania’ well into the last days of the terrible war he had launched and lost. Many tourists today come to Berlin to see bullet holes in the Brandenburg Gate or the remnants of Sachsenhausen concentration camp.