I just spent a few days in Berlin, capital of the Federal Republic of Germany and according to the brochure, the largest city between Moscow and Paris, working on an HIV-related project; of which, as it is big enough to literally affect all of us, much more detail later. But meanwhile, I’d warrant that Berlin itself deserves a story.
Start with the obvious: if you enjoy urban beauty or the elegance of a perfect cityscape, book a flight to Paris. Berlin is, to be blunt, ugly. It doesn’t have the richly layered history of Rome or London, the gilded perfection of Saint Petersburg, the raw pulsing energy of Hong Kong or New York. Berlin is too young to be profound, too compromised to be innocent or exuberant. Its nightlife can be of an order of decadence to make the Marquis de Sade blush; but alas, the local metro goes to sleep at one A.M., incomprehensibly, leaving one with a Hobson’s choice of a very long walk or the use of taxis that are literally beige. That’s right: beige. Nothing says “I just had epic sex with twin Siberian gymnasts in front of a paying audience” quite as clearly as a beige Mercedes-Benz. It is to weep. On the other hand, the city’s Lord Mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is openly gay.
Until recently divided by the monstrous Berlin Wall – one of my earliest memories is standing in front of it, and understanding even as a tot that I was looking at something abhorrent – Berlin has not yet truly become one city. What it has done instead, assisted by the largesse of the German taxpayer, is nonetheless remarkable: acknowledge the darker sides of its history with a frankness probably without equal anywhere else. That begs the question of how it got to where it is today.
Few places have been as central to the tragedies of the last century than this lightly wooded spot of sand, lakes and gravel roughly the geographic size of New York City (with rather a bit less than half as many people, no coast and no skyscrapers). It began the century as the ostentatiously nouveaux-riche capital of Imperial Germany, ruled by a man we in the English-speaking world know simply as the Kaiser, Emperor William II. He qualifies as a tragedy of his own. This is the complete jackass that practically single-handedly strangled four centuries of European world pre-eminence by dragging every great power of his day into a war none of them wanted to fight all that much, and despite most of them being ruled by members of his immediate family. He began his career as monarch by firing his chancellor, Otto Prince Bismarck, the man who in 1871 handed William’s grandfather and namesake King William III of Prussia the crown of a shiny new German Empire and then kept the peace of Europe for decades. “Jackass” may be an excess of charity, come to think of it.
His dynasty, the House of Hohenzollern, produced competent, hard-working and occasionally brilliant kings of Prussia over the course of several centuries, then two quite serviceable German emperors, but apparently had precious little left by way of talent, taste or administrative ability in the genetic larder for poor William. Those imperial buildings still standing, tragically mainly his, breathe an air more at home in a nightmare Las Vegas than the smaller, merely royal and more humanly modest Berlin that was the capital of the kingdom of Prussia. The aesthetic difference is roughly that between Wagner at his most loud and Mozart at his more sublime. What remains of Royal Berlin is one of the jewels of Europe. Imperial Berlin was then and is today a continental eyesore.
Empire and kingdom both fell in the course of a single day at the end of the Great War, the 9th of November 1918, as Germany’s armies disintegrated in defeat on the bloody fields of northern France. In the Commonwealth, this date is marked as Armistice Day; in Berlin, it saw the birth of the first German Republic, declared in a mix of exuberance, confusion and despair from the balcony of one of those Imperial buildings, the Reichstag or Imperial Parliament. There’s a certain irony inherent in the fact that this happened more or less by accident; the emperor had fled the capital for the Netherlands a day previously (maybe to avoid the fate of his cousin, the Czar, recently shot by the Bolsheviki), the crown prince refused the throne, no other male members of the Imperial House in the line of succession were to be found, and a republic was essentially the only option left that might prevent the full collapse not just of the already crumbling government, but of the state itself.
That republic, colloquially known simply as Weimar, was not long for this earth. It did manage to preserve the Reich as a united state, but never gained the broad legitimacy required to sustain itself. However, in fourteen short years it brought into being one of the great brilliant fireworks of human civilization, the sudden and gorgeous flowering of a new modern age. Modern cinema wasn’t born in Hollywood; its cradle rocked in Babelsberg. Without those few years in faraway Berlin, New York City’s iconic MoMA would be as interesting as a barn. A defeated, impoverished republican capital became the Chicago of Europe, a marvel of the world entirely beyond the imagination or capacity of imperial Berlin. And equally something contemporary, democratic Berlin would like to be again, but presently is not – and likely never will be.
Consider the losses: Albert Einstein, Theodor Adorno, Walter Gropius, Greta Garbo, Mies van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder and too many others to count. No modern city since the sack of Constantinople has lost so much talent, so quickly; with one obvious exception: New York City in the age of AIDS.
Those halcyon days will not return for one simple reason: the force that extinguished them, the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, murdered or drove into exile the very men and women who made them possible. Obviously, Hitler – who Berliners today are quick to point out was a native of Austria and never won an election in Berlin itself, accurate statements both – hated Jews to the point of genocide, along with gypsies, communists, homosexuals, trade unionists and many, many more. Precisely the groups that provided the yeast for the city’s ferment and made it das Rote Berlin, Red Berlin. This Red Berlin became Hitler’s first victim.
The infamous Reichstag fire, likely set by the Nazis themselves, provided the pretext for outlawing the powerful communist party and imprisoning its leaders and many of the rank and file in the first concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, an hour outside of the city limits.
The Nazi paramilitary organization SA stormed and burned to the ground the world’s first gay research institute near the Brandenburg Gate. Clubs and bars within larger buildings couldn’t yet be torched without consequence, but were sacked. Meanwhile, Berlin’s 160,000 Jewish citizens – out of a population of four million – were systematically ghettoized, first economically and then physically, from the life of the city. The silence of the majority of Berliners at this very visible persecution was and remains a moral disgrace to the city’s people; it continued during the infamous Kristallnacht and until the last Jews were deported to the death camps in 1943, at which point the city was declared Judenrein, “cleansed of Jews”. At that time and in the following months and years, though, there wasn’t much of Berlin left, either; instead of Hitler’s fabled European capital Germania, it became just one more field of rubble among many on a continent in ruins. Nor is this ancient history; not in a city where the very stones seem to weep.
It is a matter of supreme irony that the regime’s crimes hit the city as devastatingly as they did; historically, Prussia was the first country in Europe to fully emancipate its Jewish population and grant Jews the rights of citizenship, in line with a royal decree, revolutionary at the time, that granted freedom of worship to all faiths. So many French Protestants fled the radically different policy of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King (and architect of Versailles), that at one time the language most widely spoken in Berlin was French. The kingdom of Prussia was a notoriously militarized and regimented state, but its capital was a place of intellectual and artistic ferment, a place where a brilliant Jewish woman, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, in the latter half of the 18th Century could lead the leading Enlightenment salon. She was a peer not merely of Christians or aristocrats, but of men as one of the first widely published female writers. In the late 19th Century, the first modern gay rights group was founded in Berlin; around the same time, the first gay magazine was published there. The city that Christopher Isherwood scoured for male flesh was often a scene of hunger, riots, and pitched battles between Nazis and Communists, but das Rote Berlin had room for the outcasts of the world.
As did New York, and Toronto, and London, and all the other cities large and small scourged by AIDS. Berlin has something to teach them: how to preserve the memory of the lost. How, in the Part Two.