The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been marked by official memorials, but also by public nostalgia for a city losing its soul to capitalism, writes Rob Wilson
On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was for a moment involved in what felt like a parodic reenactment (history repeating as farce and all that). Wandering along the temporary Lichtgrenze (‘border of light’) installation by Christopher and Marc Bauder that marked the anniversary − around 8,000 lit white balloons tracing the course of the Wall’s central 15km section − I came across a tall steel fence strung across the edge of the Tiergarten, preventing all those on the Ebertstrasse from getting closer to the Brandenburg Gate, even though there were also people on the other side wanting to come back through. Just then an enterprising pair of Berliners manhandled a couple of sections of fence, lifting them up to let people crawl underneath, even as three uniformed security guards swooped in to try to prevent it. By then though everyone had joined in and we all managed to unhook one section from another and hoist it over people’s heads and back down into bushes. For a moment the genuine camaraderie of Berlin spirit, set against petty official protest, held echoes of what I’d just seen in a film on a temporary screen, of the 1989 border openings. It reminded me just how viscerally exciting and unbelievable it had all been, even watching on television.
Thanks to this act, I ended up being in spitting distance of Mikhail Gorbachev as he released one of the first balloons: the highpoint in an otherwise rather am-dram climax, with the poetics of the balloons floating into the sky lost against the full Sturm und Drang of the projections on the Brandenburg Gate.
But earlier, at dusk, with the balloons lit up, it had been moving to walk along one of the few remaining stretches of the Wall, left where it runs along the front of the ruined interrogation cells of the old Gestapo headquarters. History, as so often in the raw palimpsest that is Berlin, felt very present, in a way that London, despite all the statues to remind you, often just speaks a bland timeless heritage.
Of course a city should not need to wear its history on its sleeve, but until recently, Berlin had no choice: not so much because of the remains of the past − and in any case most of the Wall itself has pixellated into fragmentary souvenirs in living rooms across the world − but more because of the emptiness left by its erasure, the marks of the city’s violent 20th century of history. This literal absence at its centre − the vast empty lots − has continued to characterise the city up until recently, but now they are finally disappearing. Most prominently, on the huge site where the pre-war Ur-department store Wertheim once stood − the one place left where you could still get a sense of the scale of the former death strip − ‘The Mall of Berlin’ has just risen, under the depressing slogan: ‘shopping is coming home’.
Depressing architecture too: like so much new commercial development, particularly around the new Hauptbahnhof or main station, the gridded facades present echoes of Hans Kollhoff’s unbuilt Großstadt fantasies from the ’90s, themselves dim echoes of the Weltstadt capriccios that Hans Poelzig sketched in the ’20s.
Still, you might say, so much, so normal: bland development happens everywhere today, and frankly any development should be welcomed in Berlin after the false start of the ’90s. Finally, the city is getting its balance back, centring itself again. This reflects too that the Berlin economy is on the up, growing faster than the rest of Germany.
It is too easy to romanticise this lost openness and the literal but also imaginative space and sense of possibility it seemed to stand for. And while the nostalgia for the liminal, carnivalesque spaces of the Berlin of the early ’90s − encapsulated recently by the photographs in the book Berlin Wonderland − can be overdone, it did seed the city’s reputation as a latter-day hippy-trail destination, with half the youth of Europe seemingly making its way to Berlin for a while, first for the parties of course, but also for cheap space to live and the chance to reinvent themselves: always the mark of a city on a cultural roll.
‘The stereotypical earthiness of Berliners still offers a reality check to capitalism’
With the absence of any conventional growth, service-led or otherwise, to help salvage the near-bankrupt city, this phenomenon was picked up on a decade back by the Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who cleverly dubbed the city ‘poor but sexy’. It christened a process of regeneration that relied on ad hoc individual initiative not central planning, generated by the huge new pool of young talent in the city, feeding small creative businesses and digital start-ups. Its energy fuelled more literal physical regeneration, progressing district by district clockwise around the city centre, from Mitte to Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Of course this has had its fall-out, calcifying into a kind of hipster monocultural gentrification, often seemingly detached from the real life of the city, while in other areas, like central Prenzlauer Berg, the majority of buildings have been sold on to new owners, renovated and their rents raised, causing resentment from longer term residents − forgivable perhaps in streets in which kerb-to-kerb bugaboos have replaced Trabants over just two decades. Less so has been the anti-Swabian graffiti that has appeared − singling out for abuse those from the prosperous south-west of Germany, stereotypically flush with Mittelstand business money and buying up Berlin property − which even if tongue in cheek, held nasty echoes of pogroms.
Such Ossi-Wessi spats seem parochially subsumed now by this new wave of development − the division now being the more generic one of the local versus the global, stateless capital coming to rest and wrest out value from areas of the city. And with this has come a more general discontent that the Berlin city government has sold out, and is no longer protecting the rights of residents against the vagaries of property speculation, but actively colluding with it, selling land to prop up shaky city finances, while failing to ensure adequate social housing as part of new developments, meaning long-term residents are getting pushed out to the periphery of the city.
Depressingly, the latest hype about the rise of a new West Berlin is not centred around the innovative housing models that once characterised the city − from Taut to Scharoun, Häring to Gropius, Aalto to Corbusier − but by the arrival of the Apple Store, the construction of the Waldorf Astoria and the conversion of the Bikini-Haus next to Berlin Zoo, once the site of cheap studio space, into a shopping mall. Again, perhaps, it’s welcome to the real world for the city. But unlike in many other cities, there’s still a bit of fight left in the local population against this blanket capitalism: the spirit of Red Berlin of the ’20s still living behind facades which may seem bland under their covering of EU regulation insulation, but which hide inner courtyards − Hinterhof after Hinterhof − still with the unreconstructed finishes of old Berlin. This spirit occasionally seems characterised by the smell of muck-spreading from the Brandenburg countryside: a sort of olfactory reminder of the stereotypical earthiness of Berliners that still offers a reality check to bland capitalism.
This resistance was exemplified by the voting down by Berlin residents, in 2013, of plans by the city to develop the edge of the Tempelhofer Feld for housing and a new library. Berliners were against the existing public open space of this park-once-airport being used as a salve for the city’s housing crisis. It was also seen as a vote of no confidence in Wowereit, still Mayor, torpedoing his second vanity project − the library − after his first, the development of the new international Berlin-Brandenburg airport, remains mired in delay and scandal, ever since it failed to open in 2012. It has contributed to his resignation from office at the end of 2014, which will mark another sea-change for the city.
Cities move on, and after a century of world-defining events, Berlin needs to, but the sense of anti-climax, of picking up the pieces of normality, is almost palpable. With unemployment remaining high, it is still relatively poor and not quite so sexy. As rents go up and parties in abandoned buildings become few and far between − and the ‘capital of cool’ moniker has long moved on to other cities − what is its unique selling point now?
It might just be this echo of Red Berlin in its population, a palimpsest, not of history, but of an attitude, a desire for an equitable city, still simmering under the surface.