Letter from Berlin: Wealth and Worry
Germans worry about not getting things right. What has happened to Germany’s much-vaunted German efficiency?
April 25, 2020
In 1891, Mark Twain brought his wife and three young daughters to live in Berlin for six months. He wrote of the German capital, “it’s a new city, the newest I have ever seen, the main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week.”
After much destruction and subsequent rebuilding periods, the long-divided city begun to emerge as a new Berlin. Three decades after German reunification in 1990, today’s Berlin is a fantastic place once again, vast in size — and as Twain observed– with the widest of thoroughfares.
Berlin’s twisted European identity and role
Berlin is again the biggest, most elegant city between Paris and Moscow. But it is strangely absent of the bustle of London or even Paris. Berlin is not a dominant European city. Perhaps it will never be.
Berlin is compelling, a mix of past and modern. It is a marriage of new and old, overlaid with transparency and intentional reminders of the cataclysmic Hitler period.
Stroling the restored main boulevard, Unter den Linden, it is readily apparent that the long building boom that started with unification is nearing completion. Only the reconstruction of the Schloss, the royal palace at the head of the Linden, remains.
The ruins of the baroque palace were bulldozed by the communists. The rebuilt palace will host the Humboldt Forum, a venue celebrating European unity.
Transparency in architecture as an appeal to a better future
Because Germans don’t fully trust themselves, transparency is the hallmark of the refurbished Reichstag or parliament. It is crowned by architect Norman Foster’s magnificent glass dome which allows visitors to spiral up to the top from where they can observe the deliberations beneath them.
Nearby is Europe’s most exciting train station, a glass tube encasing three levels of tracks, platforms and shopping arcades. Across a green space to the south is the ground hugging, lego-like concrete and glass cubes of the Federal Chancellery — the offices of Germany’s head of government.
Berlin is again a grand city but one with poignant reminders that this is no ordinary European capital.
Remorse and prosperity
Berliners willingly shoulder shame and remorse for what happened. Reminders of unspeakable crimes are everywhere. The long shadow of Adolph Hitler and the 12-year-long Nazi era clearly still hovers above all the polish and prosperity.
Near the iconic Brandenburg Gate is the city’s Holocaust Memorial, a five-acre space fitted with over 2,000 coffin-like rectangular slabs that commemorate the murdered Jews of Europe. It is a solemn, respectful place.
In addition, scattered across the city are 7,000 brass markers—stolpersteine/ stumble stones in German—on sidewalks near homes where Jewish Berliners lived. Each is inscribed with name, date of birth and date and place where he or she was murdered.
Outward success, inner nervousness
Outwardly, Germany is a huge success. Germans live better than at any time in history. They exhibit civic pride, style of living and basic civility beyond what is found in most places.
They consider themselves exemplars of European unity, which is basically true when compared to quite a few other EU nations. Most Germans certainly eschew nationalism. The rabid right wing is still small, despite the AfD’s rise.
But beneath the elegance and good life, I found angst in Berlin. With Britain now on the outside, there are worries about the EU’s future and its ability to compete with America and China.
There is also worry about what Germany will be like after Angela Merkel’s already 14-year-long tenure as chancellor draws to its inevitable close.
Vanishing economic glitter
There is also angst about German competence and infrastructure management. Friends call attention to the nine-year delay in completing a new Berlin airport, a bungled energy policy that abandoned nuclear in favor of fossil fuels and protests instead of celebrations in nearby Brandenburg after it was chosen by electric car maker Tesla as the site for its European Gigafactory.
“We can’t get seem to get things right,” goes the lament. What has happened to vaunted German efficiency?
Of paramount concern is worry about Germany’s still world-class auto industry. Fear abounds that VW, BMW and Daimler Benz were too slow in developing electric cars. A necessary restructuring of the industry is bound to result in many thousands of lost jobs.
An unfinished past
For me the most somber of Berlin’s reminders is the understated memorial in Opera Square where 250,000 books were burned in May 1933 by university students who came from all over Germany.
It wasn’t just Jewish authors who were condemned as subversive and anti-German. Into the flames went titles by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, HG Wells, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, among many others.
This suppression of free speech came only four months after Hitler became chancellor.
The memorial itself is a plexiglass rectangle flush to the ground in the center of the square. Peering through it one sees empty shelves that could accommodate a quarter million books.
From left: Television tower, old city hall and Schloss
Stolpersteine in Berlin
Opera Square, Unter den Linden, Berlin
Berlin is again the biggest, most elegant city between Paris and Moscow. But it is not a dominant European city -- perhaps it will never be.
Berlin is a marriage of new and old, overlaid with transparency and intentional reminders of the cataclysmic Hitler period.
Because Germans don’t fully trust themselves, transparency is the hallmark of the refurbished Reichstag or parliament.
Outwardly, Germany is a huge success. Germans live better than at any time in history. But beneath the elegance and good life, I found angst in Berlin.
There is worry in Germany what things will be like after Merkel’s already 14-year-long tenure as chancellor draws to its inevitable close.