The other weekend, along with Angela Merkel, I was in Berlin. Not together of course; she was there to work on forming a new government, I in pursuit of pleasure. Berlin is a great city both for business and pleasure with its unique culture and complex history; magnetic and absorbing it just keeps pulling me back.
We stayed near Potsdamer Strasse in the old Siemens building; the company’s HQ before it was destroyed by Allied bombs in the 1940s. It lay derelict until the end of the 1990s, then lovingly restored and fitted out as a hotel. Original features give a sense of the scale and ingenuity of German industry of the early 20th Century – each floor features a primitive electrical contraption the origins of Siemens’s global brand – and it is this pride in the past and the present that makes Berlin choose a costly restoration rather than a demolition and a cheap rebuild.
This does not apply so much to the ghostly entrance arches, all that remains of the Anhalter Station across from the hotel. From here in the 1940s over 1,200 Berlin Jews were exported to the concentration camps and it was, for more fortunate Jews, a departure point to freedom; Albert Einstein being the most famous. Yet it stands, as a monument to that terror; a memory that Berlin must not forget.
At Postdamer Platz the scale of glass and steel structures grown up out of a post-war, post-communist wasteland is truly impressive. The Christmas markets at their base are in full swing with late evening shoppers enjoying an open-air drink on their way home.
On Saturday morning we visited the Wall. Little is left in situ of the original wall except a 500 meter section a short walk from our hotel and close to the strangely and awkwardly named Museum of the Topography of Terror. The Wall is badly damaged not by those trying to tear it down on the 9th November 1989 but by recent tourists – the locals call them “woodpeckers” – stealing pieces as keep-sakes.
At a zebra crossing, impatient to cross, a middle-aged Berliner told me firmly that Berliners don’t cross at the red-man, they wait for the green-man so I complied with the red-man rule from that point on.
From the iconic Brandenberger Gate we walked to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial and quickly got disoriented as we descended into, and among, the myriad grey slabs. It is an eerie experience among these faux gravestones – supposedly close to Hitler’s Bunker (but it’s not on the tourist trail) – and it is a fitting and dignified statement to the horrors of that time; acknowledged, regretted and not forgotten.
We visited the Bode Museum, one of six in the Museum Island famous for its medieval statues and paintings – a shrine to medieval Christian Europe – and then walked to visit the Neue Synagoge the main Jewish religious centre in the city but were disappointed it was closed and had a permanent police presence. This highly ornate building survived Kristallnacht of 9th November 1938 when a brave watchman convinced the National Socialists mob that attached residential buildings would also be destroyed. Sadly, and ironically, it was destroyed later by Allied bombs before being reconstructed in the 1960s under the direction of the communist East.
The Neue Synagoge starkly contrasts with the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church off Kurfustendamm to the West which is very much open. Here the fractured gothic spire had its naves amputated by Allied bombs leaving ghostly gaping holes; wounds that we are made to look at to reinforce the memory and horrors of war. Inside the mosaics are breath-taking; medieval scenes of pomp and ceremony, peace and goodwill. Outside a make-shift memorial to the 12 Berliners who died in December 2016 when a young Muslim man drove a van through the same Christmas market that is now under construction. This memorial has been tidied away, all but hidden at the back of the huts.
Germany is a Federation and Berlin is a city-state in that Federation with significant autonomy, one of three such cities across the country. As a result, German politics is complex yet, and perhaps because, so much happens at a local level. Germany may have achieved the ideal of subsidiarity allowing democratic decisions to be made as close as possible to those affected. This is good but has its challenges when it comes to getting a national coalition government agreed.
With one million immigrants, mostly of Muslims, entering the country in the past few years and the failure by Angela Merkel over the weekend to create a coalition, gives too much hope to powerful right-wing parties particularly Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD), Germany must redouble its efforts to never forget its past and what can happen if they don’t.