Berlin is a beautiful city and much of it is very new, but it looks old: it is long-established and aged but with the paint still wet.
The first time I visited was not long after the Wall fell, and where the Wall and the Death Strip had been, there was a gash through the city, increasingly filled with bulldozers as a sign of the future, but the East was still a separate city. I could hardly recognise the place less than thirty years afterwards, and it has changed even more since. The old East Berlin was a wreck of poorly built and neglected buildings, and the place where the wall had been was a wasteland, One of the old hubs of the Imperial city, Potsdamer Platz, was a desert. Now, all trace has gone, or almost all; the city surges back and forth across the old divide that is not there. Under den Linden is once again a Belle Epoch street as it was in Imperial days, of commerce and diplomacy, and Potsdamer Platz is a new-old hub of the commercial, social city. Some sections of the wall stand there as a monument, and the platform on which Kennedy and Reagan spoke, but they are out of place, leaving what went before unimaginable.
One part of the city is silent: the new ‘Bundesdorf’ around the Reichstag and the Kanzlerei. Tourists and activists bumble around and wave banners in the midst of the day – I saw Peruvian pan-pipes with an Inca nationalist flag, and some group promoting a mystic conspiracy theory and all sorts I could hardly describe, but all in a narrow space by the Brandenburg Gate, where the cameras are. In the wide, modern park before the Reichstag all was quiet (apart from a small band of Alt-Jugend types once with a Prussian state flag: had they flown a Nazi flag they would have been arrested), in the beating heart of one of Europe’s biggest cities, between the main station and the axis thoroughfare. There was no traffic, but then it is tucked beside the river and there is only a pedestrian bridge. It is eerie in the silence. This would be unimaginable in a natural city.
The Reichstag is stately and magnificent, even with the Norman Foster additions (which were toned down at the insistence of the German government commission). The Imperial building is no more than a shell and all inside and on top is Foster’s work: after the Reichstag Fire in 1933 little was left, and such as survived the fire was mauled by British bombs, and such as survived that was destroyed by the Soviets. The four towers at each corner stand for the four kingdoms within the German Empire: Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg, and carvings run like tapestry down the surfaces in honour of the Princes of Germany now united.
From those towers fly huge flags – the German flag of black-red-gold, and the blue European flag.
That is the oddest thing to British eyes: at the very heart of the German state, the European Union flag being flown, and it is flow over the Kanzlerei, the Chancellor’s office / residence also. Looking into the very chamber of the Bundestag, the European ring of stars is given equal status with the German national flag. Even before Brexit that would have been unthinkable in London.
Politics in Germany is not normal, by Anglosphere standards, and that may be a good thing as we have seen what happens to German culture when left to its own devices. The pathology behind for the ways of Germany’s politicians may be another article. Now, they face each day afresh. As I write, political parties with little in common are trying to thrash out a coalition of impossible contradictions to form some sort of government and issue the commands that the Bundestag will rubber-stamp over the next few years, and they consider this normal. It is not Weimar though, thank goodness, and life will go on.
The Bundesdorf is a silent quarter still, beside a vibrant, noisy city. Berlin was created as a capital city, built in a swamp for a Mediaeval frontier Margrave; it grew great as a city for a King with a fresh crown, and grew as his Prussia grew. It exists for rulers and is shaped by them; it was shattered into burnt ruins because of a twisted ruler and has been rebuilt from ruins because it has to be a capital but its life is beyond that cloistered set.
The miraculous rebirth of the city is in part thanks to the politicians, but largely because their intervention was to lift restrictions and taxes. Unbound, developers could build, and they did, sweeping away the ruins of the past and creating a new-old city. Shining office buildings and apartment blocks have appeared as if overnight, because there is profit in providing the best. I also spotted in corners though shipping-container homes stacked high, possibly temporary – I hope so. All the glass and freshness still speaks of hope and enterprise, allowed to run free over a city.
At the same time, the past is being restored: the old Hotel Adlon inside the Brandenburg Gate was recreated from nothing, and the Stadtschloss, the Kings’ town palace, has been too, the latter with generous if unwilling contributions from taxpayers all over Germany. (The Crown Prince is not to be allowed to live there though: it is a museum; he has to slum it in Potsdam.) It looks as if Berliners are puzzled about whether to look at the past or the future and are getting the best of both. The Stadtschloss is new-built as a centuries-old building.
Breathless change has its blow-backs. The voters of the city have voted by over 50% to expropriate private corporate landlords and hand their property to a faceless bureaucracy. That is foolishness. They experiment with rent-controls too, which we all know are the best way to destroy a city short of bombing – but Berlin knows all about that.
This regeneration by free enterprise has made a broken city flourish It is a lesson to the world.
Other cities in Germany have grown big and prosperous, but they are not the same, having different roots. The federal system imposed on Germany after the War was meant to spread power all over the country and allow local towns to stand on their own, and they do well but Berlin is unique.