‘Berlin After the Wall’: Halves made whole in a thriving city
Peter Schneider’s new book, “Berlin Now,” examines Berlin, a multilayered city which rose from the rubble of World War II, survived division by the Berlin Wall and is now a magnet for writers, artists and immigrants from countries both rich and poor.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Berlin Now: The City After the Wall’
by Peter Schneider, translated by Sophie Schlondorff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 326 pp., $26
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided what was then East and West Germany, the city that so symbolized Cold War division has risen in spectacular fashion.
Today, with the two halves of Berlin and Germany as a whole reunited, the former seat of the Nazi Third Reich ranks only behind London and Paris as one of Europe’s most-visited cities.
German author Peter Schneider walks us through this unique modern history and remarkable, ongoing transformation in his new book, “Berlin Now: The City After the Wall,” translated from German by Sophie Schlondorff.
Schneider, a novelist and essayist who has lived off and on in Berlin, is surgical in his search for Berlin’s soul, tracing the city’s social, political and architectural evolution over the last century from an insider’s point of view.
The Wall, started by the repressive East German government in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, delineated territories, mindsets and on-the-ground realities. For East Berliners trying to escape to the West, crossing that heavily guarded barrier was not only a life-changing feat; they also ran the risk of being shot by border guards.
The Wall’s destruction at the hands of pro-Western demonstrators in 1989 captivated the world and unleashed something of a free-for-all as developers and expats poured in after reunification.
But what’s most striking about today’s Berlin, Schneider notes, is that on the surface it’s not a very striking place at all.
Berlin is strangely nondescript for the capital of the reunified Germany, which has emerged as Europe’s economic powerhouse. Devastated by Allied bombs during World War II, the city was rebuilt in the postwar years with mostly uninspired, modern buildings.
Full of boxy apartment blocks, wide, quiet streets, empty lots, abandoned factories and graffiti-sprayed passageways, Berlin boasts nothing as elegant as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or as dramatic as the views of central London from across the River Thames.
Aside from the looming Brandenburg Gate, Norman Foster’s glass dome on top of the Reichstag, the moving Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum and the Checkpoint Charlie crossing point, along what remains of the infamous Wall, there’s little that’s truly special about its tourist attractions.
Even with the Wall gone and Germany again one nation, Berlin, chronically beset with financial woes, seems unfinished and disjointed — a perpetual work-in-progress, Schneider writes. But this blank-slate quality may account for why Berlin is such an appealing city to those who call it home, he argues.
Berlin has once again become a magnet for gays, writers, artists, musicians and libertines of all stripes, just as it was before the Nazi era, and it boasts an array of immigrants, both from rich countries like the United States and Great Britain and poorer nations such as Turkey and Vietnam.
The city might look sleepy at night, but those abandoned factories, along with countless basement-level clubs, host one of the hottest DJ-music scenes in the world, with parties that start on the weekend and stretch till Tuesday.
Berlin may not hold a candle to the grander capitals of Europe, but there’s no doubt in Schneider’s mind that it, not those other “princess cities,” is “the capital of creative people from around the world today.” He writes: “What attracts them to Berlin seems to be precisely what they feel is missing in more beautiful cities: the weirdness, perpetual incompleteness, and outlandishness of Berlin — and the liveliness inherent in those qualities.”
Berlin after the Wall is indeed an exciting, even beguiling city, but not just because of its storied past, Schneider says: “It’s as if the city had won back a temporal dimension that, during the years of the Wall, seemed to have disappeared from West Berlin and was merely alleged to exist in East Berlin: the future.”
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.