City twinned with hell

Faust's Metropolis - Berlin and its Culture

October 9, 1998

Brendan Simms thinks Berlin is the most influential city of the century

The most important decisions of the 20th century were taken in Berlin. It was at his desk in the imperial naval ministry that Admiral Tirpitz said that German expansion overseas was "as irresistible as a law of nature". Many of the important discussions preceding the outbreak of the first world war took place in the government quarter - Regierungsviertel - in and around the Wilhelmsstrasse. It was there that the idea of injecting Lenin into chaotic revolutionary Russia in order to detach it from the Allied war effort, was developed. The backstage manoeuvres by which the small clique surrounding the ailing President von Hindenburg hoisted Hitler into power, even as his electoral power appeared to be waning, unfolded largely in Berlin. Berlin ministries coordinated the diplomatic and military moves leading up to the war of aggression unleashed by Hitler against Poland in 1939. It was at a sprawling suburban villa in Wannsee on the outskirts of the city that the decision to murder European Jewry in its entirety was taken in early 1942. And it was the decision of the German communists to open the wall dividing democratic west from communist east Berlin, that signalled the fall of communism and the end of the cold war.

In its turn, the history of Berlin has been profoundly shaped by external factors. During the thirty years' war, the desperate manoeuvrings of the elector of Brandenburg could not prevent the city from being occupied and sacked several times over by imperial, Swedish and other forces. At a low point in the seven years' war, Frederick the Great saw his capital raided twice by the Austrians and Russians. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte entered in triumph. During the second world war, Berlin bore the brunt of the allied bombing offensive. Almost immediately after the German capitulation, a tug of war for Berlin began between the British, Americans and French on one side, and the Soviets on the other. No fewer than three times, during the Berlin blockade of 1948, the little-known crisis of 1958, and when the wall was erected in 1961, the world was on the brink of confrontation over Berlin. It was only in 1971 with the signing of the Quadriparte Agreement that the city largely disappeared from the international agenda. Until the events of 1989 that is, when the East German regime collapsed.

This tension between the passive and the active Berlin is captured in Alexandra Richie's splendid Faust's Metropolis. A history of Berlin. Richie's approach throughout is to see Goethe's Faust, who famously bargained his soul away to the devil, as a metaphor not only for Berlin, but also for Germany as a whole. The prose is lucid, elegant and flows at a tremendous pace; she has an acute sense of the comic and the ridiculous. Her learning is lightly worn in the text, but it is clear from the argument and the footnotes that she is largely au fait with the historiography. The story throughout is charmingly interlaced with references to her own experiences in the city and her impressively diverse family background. Unfortunately, there are many minor slips which it would be pedantic to enumerate, and a few more egregious errors: it is not true, for example, that the communist party became the second largest party in Germany in the election of November 1932 (it was the SPD). To be fair, these and other mistakes are excusable in a work of this sweep, and do not seriously bear on the main thrust of the argument.

Ronald Taylor's volume, Berlin and its Culture: A Historical Portrait, should not be seen as a rival, rather as complementary. It is an engaging, handsomely illustrated account of literary and artistic movements. Unlike Richie, Taylor includes a highly useful rough modern street plan of Berlin. Both books will be required reading for any intelligent English-speaking visitor to the city. Nevertheless, if one were travelling light and had to chose between the two, Richie is the better bet, despite being the weightier tome. Taylor's definition of culture is largely confined to cinema, high arts and state architecture; his book does not say much about living conditions or political culture, nor given its remit and length, should it be expected to. Faust's Metropolis, on the other hand, masterfully integrates the cultural and political levels, and has the space to do so.

Neither book offers any surprises for the 18th and early 19th centuries, during which the city was the capital of Prussia. Richie, in particular, follows the conventional popular view of the various Prussian rulers: Frederick III, frivolous man, good for the arts; Frederick William I, the "soldier king", grim man, bad for the arts; Frederick the Great, complicated man, good for the arts; Frederick William III, confused man..., and so on. Only Taylor provides some nuance when he rescues the achievements of the soldier king in town planning and the visual arts; indeed, it is little known that he eventually took up painting himself. "Friedrich Wilhelm I may not have been a Maecenas," Taylor writes, "yet neither was he quite the cultural ogre that popular history has made him."

Where both volumes really come alive is in their treatment of the late 19th and especially the 20th centuries. Like many contemporary observers, Richie takes a dim view of the official and popular culture and architecture of the new imperial Berlin, capital of the united Germany after 1871: its strutting officers, its deferential self-feudalising bourgeoisie, the monumental arches, the huge hotels, the over-sized Reichstag, the vandalism of much of the 18th- and early 19th-century cityscape to make way for triumphalist monstrosities, the bombast and the hubris. She is more impressed, and rightly so, by commercial, innovative and intellectual Berlin. She provides a graphic and sympathetic account of August Borsig, the city's "first great self-made man", and of the rise of the great companies, some of which continue to dominate the German economy today: Schering, AEG, Siemens, Agfa. Berlin possessed Europe's first continental tram network, it produced the first electric elevator, the first thermos flask and the first pot of margarine. The concentration of talent in the classics, history, sociology, theology and the natural sciences at the University of Berlin and other institutions of learning made Germany the intellectual powerhouse of Europe.

Yet all the while, corrosive forces were bubbling away under the surface. Commercial liberal Berlin was winded by the great stock market crash of 1873 and the subsequent "Great Depression"; Jewish financiers made easy scapegoats. It was further unsettled by the rise of "Red Berlin": the increasingly militant proletarian masses housed in great soulless barracks at Wedding, Kreuzberg and elsewhere, who by 1900 made up a radicalised 55-60 per cent of the city's population. But perhaps the most destabilising force of all was that of radical nationalism and expansionism, which the imperial government sometimes welcomed, often tried to harness, but could never entirely control. It was substantially to contribute to the outbreak of the first world war, which left the city in an even more febrile state than it had found it.

Both authors provide evocative accounts of what have generally been termed the "golden twenties" of Weimar Berlin, with its hedonism, artistic licence, and cultural cornucopia, which the Nazis brought to a rude end. Richie, in particular, shows just how limited the appeal of figures such as Bertolt Brecht, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, Fritz Lang and others was to ordinary Berliners. Their entertainments continued to prosper under the Nazis. In their subsequent recollections 1933 appears less of a watershed than one might have expected. Indeed, one of the main themes of the central chapters is the deconstruction of the Weimar "myth", which "ignores the fact that many of the cultural and intellectual developments of Weimar Berlin, from cabaret to expressionism, originated in the period before the first world war", and that "many elements of the 1920s found their way into Nazi Germany, albeit in altered forms". Nazi architecture, for example, as both Taylor and Richie point out, is now widely recognised to have had more in common with the modernists than once thought, and the Americanisation of Berlin through Coca-Cola and Hollywood continued apace, with a brief interruption between 1939 and 1945.

In 1933, Hitler had claimed nobody would recognise Berlin within ten years. In 1943, as the city subsided in a welter of bombs and destruction, nobody could gainsay him. But by then it was more than the architecture and street-scapes that had changed. Whole categories of the population had been marginalised, rounded up and imprisoned, especially communists, socialists, and Catholics. Berlin's 160,000 Jews met a much worse fate: they were progressively segregated, rounded up and deported to death camps in the east. Few Berliners tried to help, though some did, at great risk to themselves. The vast majority, as Richie argues, "were not inherently evil, as immediate postwar histories liked to make out, but many were naive, cowardly, greedy or indifferent in an age when such weakness could mean the difference between life and death". Nobody protested as Berlin became one of the hubs of the Nazi rearmament programme - producing half of all guns and aircraft.

In the light of this, one might regard the Allied "terror-bombing" - the phrase, without inverted commas, is Richie's own usage from the German original - as Berlin's just deserts. The trouble with this view is that the Allied bombs did not distinguish between innocent and guilty, between priceless historic structures and bombastic kitsch. Tens of thousands of civilians were incinerated in a campaign that was as morally dubious as it was militarily ineffective.

Ironically, had Germany won the war before the air bombardment began, most of the city would have been levelled anyway in order to make way for Hitler's grandiose new capital "Germania". Instead, the city was rebuilt in their own idiom by the two protagonists of the cold war: the capitalist west, which managed to hold on to its three amalgamated zones despite mounting Soviet pressure, and the communist east, which became - at first illegally - the capital of the puppet German Democratic Republic. Militarily, the two sides appeared to be evenly matched: when Stalin blockaded the western half in 1948, Allied aircraft flew in many more tons of supplies than they had dropped in ordnance throughout the entire war. But politically, culturally, and economically, the western half proved far more vibrant. In 1961 the eastern regime was forced to erect a concrete wall to staunch the flow of emigrants. In 1989, after being abandoned by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, this symbolic edifice came tumbling down.

Nevertheless, as Richie points out, the return of the German capital from provincial Bonn to Berlin was no foregone conclusion. Large segments of the German public had always been suspicious of its alleged anti-democratic and anti-federal legacy. The vote in favour of the move was only carried by a small majority, and enormous practical problems will have to be overcome before it is finally completed. But the re-unification of the city also created, or at least aggravated, questions of conservation and remembrance. Some, such as the Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen, did not want the city to become a "capital of repentance", others wanted finally to create a fitting memorial to the millions of murdered European Jews. At a more mundane level, there were constant disputes about the naming of streets and the demolition of familiar landmarks from the GDR period. Much to Richie's - justified - chagrin, activist groups succeeded in stalling the removal of one the capital's greatest eyesores, the asbestos-infested Palast der Republik. Of course, any judgement about what should be left standing in Berlin must be based on criteria that are antiquarian, aesthetic and profoundly subjective. Nevertheless, it is worth pondering that there are numerous democrats who have a secret yen for imperial architectural bombast, and even, dare one say it for hardwood-timbered Stalinist apartment blocks, but who would gladly consign whole swathes of recent Berlin, east and west, to the rubble. Empires and totalitarian regimes can make for interesting cities; it is the grey uniformity of detente housing that most people find so soul-destroying.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin

Author - Alexandra Richie
ISBN - 0 00 215896 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £29.99
Pages - 1107

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