Berlin Notebook

“Today,” Fukuyama wrote in 1992, “we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own.” No need to imagine it. It was right there. And then it was evicted by the police force of a “future” that was “essentially democratic and capitalist.”

It’s worth asking who and what these anniversaries are for.

image by Ramón Goeden via flickr

I had been away from Berlin for the better part of a month, and in my absence exhibits, memorials, and events devoted to the fall of the Wall had sprung up all over town.

4 November: Potsdamer Platz Arkaden

On my way to the Staatsbibliothek to return an overdue book, I pause in front of the sliding doors of the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden to examine two segments of the Berlin Wall that mark the entrance to an exhibit commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of November 9, 1989.

There is nothing particularly special about these Wall segments, which were recently repainted with the same cartoon faces that French street artist Thierry Noir originally sprayed on the Wall, nor about the exhibit itself. Down the long central nave of the Arkaden are border signs in four languages, a reconstructed guard tower, video clips, photographs, maps, uniformed mannequins, a large DDR insignia, the clothes Udo Lindenberg wore to his concert at the Palast der Republik, a Trabant automobile. In short, a collection of the same things that are usually spread out over the twenty sites in Berlin dedicated to the history of the Wall.

What was interesting about the exhibit was its location. The Potsdamer Platz Arkaden is a mall. It is tempting to focus on the crassness of placing what ought to be a solemn memorial to the horrors of a police state in a shopping center, but the choice is telling, and represents a not-uncommon interpretation of the political significance of what is known here as the Mauerfall. To many in the West, the fall of the Wall is a spectacular symbol for the victory of the free market. The whole Potsdamer Platz complex—with its corporate office towers, its multiplex cinemas, its luxury condominiums and five-star hotels and shopping malls—is not just a pleasure dome for the rich, it’s why the West fought the cold war. The Arkaden is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis written in steel and glass. Capitalism was born in a building just like this one, as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project documents. It is fitting that this is where it should decide to celebrate its ultimate victory.


5 November: U-Bahnhof Mehringdamm

The city’s official memorial is a Lichtgrenze consisting of 8,000 white balloons, inflated with helium and lit up with LED-bulbs. On November 7, two days before the anniversary, the balloons will be placed along the fifteen-kilometer stretch of the border that in 1989 ran through the heart of the city: from Bornholmer Straße in Prenzlauer Berg, where the Wall was first breached, past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in Mitte, to the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, where the longest section of the Wall still stands. Weather permitting, according to the newspapers, the line of light will be visible from space. On the evening of November 9, we’re told, during what is being called a Ballonaktion, the balloons will be released into the sky.

The installation was conceived by Stuttgart-native Christopher Bauder, a light artist, and his brother Marc, a filmmaker. The memorial has a website with an obligatory online shop, where you can sponsor a balloon and buy Lichtgrenze T-shirts and certified authentic pieces of the Wall. Still, it’s in better taste than the exhibit at the Arkaden. Judging from the online promotional video and the poster advertising the Ballonaktion I saw at U-Bahnhof Mehringdamm, it has an elegant simplicity. The balloons give off a spectral halo of light, which could be read as a reminder of the more than one hundred people who were killed trying to escape to the West. But they are also symbols of playfulness, of weightlessness, of celebration—what people must have felt on that night in Berlin twenty-five years ago.

I had to stare at the poster for a long time before I understood why the image of the Ballonaktion struck me also as deeply uncanny. In the background, the Lichtgrenze is spread out in front of the Reichstag. In the foreground stands a crowd of computer-generated spectators. A man holds a digital camera in front of him as, during the actual Ballonaktion, a man will surely do. Near him, a teenager is waving to her friend, as a teenager likely will. The balloons begin to float off into the air. Why uncanny? Maybe it was that the poster wanted to be conjugated in the future perfect tense: all this will have happened. A computer-generated future that will soon be indistinguishable from photographs of a real past. It is the prelude to a repetition, the event as the anniversary of its own promotion. Sometimes it seems as though we turn to anniversaries because we can predict exactly how they, unlike the real future, will unfold.

Perhaps they’ve always been common, but it feels as though anniversaries have proliferated in the 21st century. This year alone, Berlin has commemorated the beginning of World War I (one hundred years ago), the beginning of World War II (seventy five years ago), and the beginning of Berghain (ten years ago)—the world’s most famous dance club. It’s worth asking who and what these anniversaries are for. On the one hand, they provide opportunities to reflect on history and encourage preservation. On the other, they’re ersatz events, projects dreamed up by urban boosters who have no problem pimping out the past to generate tourist revenue. Too many of them might lead to a kind of complacency about the present, where history is still being made and forgotten.


6 November: Checkpoint Charlie

Based out of Berlin, the Cinema for Peace Foundation gives awards to Hollywood movies that promote social justice, humanitarianism, or environmentalism. In the past two years, their “Most Valuable Film of the Year Award” went to 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln. Cinema for Peace may have been the only organization to give an award to Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, which won in 2012. Together with Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Policy Forum, Cinema for Peace will be sponsoring a film, 1989, and a symposium, “Stop New Walls & Cold War II.” Gorbi himself will make an appearance at Checkpoint Charlie where, according to an advertisement, you can come and “thank him in person.”

Of all the monuments and museums one can see in Berlin, why do people come to Checkpoint Charlie? Why is it, in fact, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions? The museum at the old crossing point is woefully lo-fi; the only thing that looks new is the gift shop on the ground floor. The guard hut and the sign outside are replicas. The soldiers, with whom you can snap a photo for a few euros, are actors, obviously. On the former Soviet-side, a panorama reads: “The Berlin Wall: See It Here” in neon yellow letters. On the American side is a McDonalds. Café Adler, the setting for so many John le Carré novels, has been bought out by a coffee chain. Street vendors peddle hammer-and-sickle merchandise, furry hats, gas masks, matryoshka dolls that open with Gorbachev and end with Lenin.

What is there to see here? Literally nothing. Now that the Wall is gone, Checkpoint Charlie marks nothing but the empty space in the middle of an empty space. The tourist who points his camera up Friedrichstraße: What is he taking a photograph of?

The end of the cold war, we were told, ushered in a globalized world. A world, where people, capital, and information could finally move freely. A world without nation-states. Without borders. Without walls.

That didn’t happen of course. The past twenty-five years has had its share of border disputes, civil wars, occupied territories, breakaway regions. The number of separation barriers that have been put up between states around the world has almost tripled. Eight more, according to an infographic in Le Monde, have yet to begin construction. In Berlin, too, the form of a city changes faster than the human heart. Whether they are conscious of it or not, tourists are drawn to Checkpoint Charlie precisely because they long for borders.


7 November: Haus der Kulturen der Welt

When I arrive at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, an hour and a half before the event, there is already a line. I would have gotten there even earlier, but a train strike was in progress. I took the tram to Freidrichstraße station, a former border crossing, and walked from there.

To locals, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is known as die Schwangere Auster, the pregnant oyster, which is exactly what it looks like. Originally called Congress Hall, the building, located on John-Foster-Dulles Allee, was a gift from the US government to its cold war ally and proxy state. In 1963, Kennedy spoke to a German construction worker’s union here before the black limo carried him off to Rathaus Shöneberg, where he told the world that, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.”

Tonight, the guest of honor is French economist Thomas Piketty, who is making his first public appearance in the homeland of Marx since the translation of his surprise bestseller, Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert. Earlier in the day, he met with Sigmar Gabriel, the Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, who has a good chance of being Chancellor if the Social Democrats win the next elections; tomorrow, he’s off to China. Meanwhile, people are being turned away by the dozen at the doors of the auditorium; they will have to watch the speech on a screen set up in the foyer, without the benefit of the simultaneous translation devices handed out to those fortunate enough to have gotten a ticket. Piketty’s speech is billed as the inaugural Democracy Lecture, sponsored by a well-respected journal of German and international politics. The tantalizing title: “The End of Capitalism in the 21st Century?”

Piketty delivers his speech in French that is too rapid for the translators. I move the switch on the side of the device, but the German translator isn’t having an easier time of it than her English colleague. Piketty is telling the audience that he is moved to be speaking here. He was 18 years old in 1989. He came of age with the new world that began with la chute du mur de Berlin. Seconds later, a wave of nodding heads. French, English, German. Russian is conspicuously absent.

Despite the billing, the speech barely touches on democracy, and says nothing at all about the end of capitalism. Aside from the introduction, and a few remarks about the Eurozone crisis, it’s not too different from the ones he gave on his American book tour. He talks about the concentration of wealth, the narrow-mindedness of contemporary economists, Jane Austen and Balzac, patrimonial capitalism, the need for tax reform.

During the discussion that follows, the panelists try to get Piketty to connect his remarks on wealth inequality to the worldwide ascendancy of neoliberalism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You know, given the occasion. But no matter how many times Francis Fukuyama is invoked, Piketty doesn’t bite. He repeats the talking points. Stays on message. Everyone onstage looks a little disappointed by this. On his American book tour, Piketty was hailed as a rock star, the Great French Hope of an embattled liberal-left. Here he is just another reformist, wherever he may live.


8 November: Lichtblick Kino

Lichtblick Kino is the product of what writers Christoph Links, Antje Taffelt, and Sybille Nitsche called the wunderbare Jahr der Anarchie, which took place in the inner-city neighborhoods of East Berlin between the fall of the Wall and Reunification. That year, if you needed a place to stay, you squatted in an empty building. If you wanted to start a magazine, you borrowed a printing press and started cranking out issues. If you wanted to hear music, you started a punk band and played the living-room and cellar circuit. You appropriated your rooftop for parties. You beautified the gray buildings with spray paint. You wrote the name of the utopia you founded with your friends on a bedsheet and draped it from your window. Overthrowing Communism didn’t mean throwing over solidarity and equality, you said. Or embracing profit and competition. It meant living freely. And for free.

These are the sorts of stories that get marginalized by the official histories of the period, which concentrate instead on the DIY projects of Kohl, Bush, and Gorbachev. They are the types of social organization that are passed over by Fukuyama in his proclamation of the End of History. “Today,” Fukuyama wrote in 1992, “we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own.” No need to imagine it. It was right there. And then it was evicted by the police force of a “future” that was “essentially democratic and capitalist.”

Lichtblick shows several films a day, mostly classics, documentaries, and low-budget indies. It has one screen and a few rows of seats. Along with its neighbor, the queer squat at Kastanienallee 86, the cinema is one of the few institutions from the wunderbare Jahr to survive the end of history. That is, to survive a quarter century of police raids, scuffles with right-wing thugs, integration into an advanced capitalist economy, currency switches, recessions great and small, real-estate developers, the free-content movement and streaming media services, Mayor Klaus Wowereit and his consigliere Richard Florida, and the continuing influx of foreigners like me, who are used to paying rent in cities dominated by the finance industry.

I catch the matinee screening of Wim Wender’s 1988 film Der Himmel Über Berlin (literally The Sky Over Berlin, better known to American audiences as Wings of Desire). My cinephile friends often tease me for liking this film, which tells the story of an angel (played by Bruno Ganz) who gives up his wings for a French trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and wins her love with the help of Peter Falk and Nick Cave (as themselves). It’s a sentimental film and I’m sentimental about it.

An early scene follows an old poet, who has just come from the Staatsbibliothek, as he walks through an empty, overgrown field, bordered on one side by the Wall. The old poet, played by the Jewish actor Curt Bois who fled Berlin in 1934, would also make an appearance in Lichtblick’s midnight movie, as the pickpocket in the opening scene of Casablanca. He wanders through the field looking for Potsdamer Platz, remembering what it was like there when the square was the lively hub of Weimar Berlin. The irony, of course, is the field is Potsdamer Platz, rendered unrecognizable by RAF pilots and DDR engineers. Bois died a few years later, in Berlin, on the same day the Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union. He did not live to see what would become of the empty field. Would he recognize it any better now? Or would he just see “vultures, vultures everywhere”?


9 November: Schönhauser Allee

Downstairs from my apartment, Kaiser’s supermarket is open, even though it’s Sunday. It must be one of those Verfkaufsoffener Sonntags, when the city government permits shops to stay open. On this day, of all days.

In the display window are framed photos, on loan from the Museumsverbund Pankow, an institution that preserves and documents neighborhood history. They show what the corner of Schönhauser Allee and Milastraße looked like in DDR times. There was a store here in the ’80s called Fix. Aside from the clothes and the haircuts, and the car rounding the corner, this photo could have been taken today. Really, it is only the grainy black-and-white that makes it look old, a part of history. In the future, photos of 2014 will be crisp images, in color. A photo that could have been taken today will mean something different then, something more literal.

It’s only when I am standing in line at the cash register that I remember I have yet again left my grocery bag at home. I ask the cashier for eine Tüte bitte and pay him the extra twenty cents. On the red plastic bag are Noir’s cartoon figures, driving cartoon Trabants, standing in front of a cartoon Brandenburg Gate, a cartoon TV tower, and a stretch of the Wall, covered entirely with Noir’s cartoon faces. Beneath the yellow Kaiser’s logo, it says “25 Jahr Mauerfall 1989–2014.”

Back upstairs, my girlfriend Lisa has found the box where she kept the pieces of the Wall she chipped off as a child. I try to remember where I was on that day. I would have been 6. I remember sitting in front of a television set with my mother, watching news clips of people standing on top of a long block of painted concrete. From the expression on her face I would have received my first clue that the world was a little larger than I had taken it to be—and things were happening in it. But the memory is vague enough that it’s possible I’ve only imagined it, interpolating into my past the images I have seen thousands of times since.

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