The Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd, Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy by Michael Z. Wise

Jan Otakar Fischer

Featured in:

7: Conflicting Values


From the window of my Wilmersdorf apartment I can see no cranes. The view is generous, from twenty-two meters up, extending out across the heart of West Berlin, looking over placid residential districts whose character was consolidated decades ago and where little construction occurs today. As such, the view seems fraudulent: an inaccurate reflection of a city as disturbed by history as Berlin has been, and as convulsed with change as Berlin is now. Another orientation, to the east, clarifies the situation, for there the morning sun (renewal? rebirth?) highlights an armada of steel and triggers their swiveling arcs above the job sites, diligent storks laboring to hatch a new city.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, in 1989, and the rebuilding began, there has been a flood of books and articles by writers eager to identify what the city was and what it might become. Debates raged, competitions were announced and won (and redone and rewon), commissions were awarded, construction began. Today, nearly ten years after the collapse of East Germany, the reunited Berlin is taking shape, and the commentary, always passionate, is moving into a new phase. The first itchy efforts at evaluation, post factum, are appearing, produced not merely by architects and urbanists but by journalists, politicians, and average Berliners. The largest construction site in Europe—long a curiosity and tourist attraction—is now the real stuff with which Berlin, and Germany, must assert its new identity.

Two noteworthy books have recently been published, working in unforeseen tandem to describe the city’s troubled history and the resulting difficulty of fashioning an appropriate architectural language for the political realities of post-Cold War Germany. The Ghosts of Berlin, by Brian Ladd, and Capital Dilemma, by Michael Z. Wise, take on the challenge of analyzing events still playing out on (literally) shifting ground; both illuminate (in clear language) the great controversies that have been an inextricable part of Berlin architecture throughout the century. For those interested in understanding the profound—and unique—conflict of opportunity and impediment that informs every design choice in Berlin, these books offer the necessary background. But the architect or planner will want to carry the investigation deeper, and use more unorthodox resources; indeed, a true understanding of Berlin would require the skills of a lawyer, a sapper, and an exorcist.

In my experience there is no city like Berlin, where life is conducted—solemnly, giddily, ironically—in the company of a tragic muse. There are towns perhaps more heavily freighted (Auschwitz, Verdun, Hiroshima), but of major capital cities, Berlin engages most fiercely its momento mori. History influences decisions at every level, and with the retrieval of memory now assumed to be crucial, the question often arises: How much should, and do, the Germans remember? In what other nation is this question so prominent? Historians shake their heads gloomily from the ivory perch. “The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century,” warns Eric Hobsbawm, who was in Berlin when Hitler was elected Chancellor.2 Living in the present, ignorant of even the recent past: this seems to be the contemporary, media-driven condition, particularly in youthful, heterogeneous societies like America’s. But what of Germany? Brian Ladd, who is a historian, knows fertile ground when he finds it. The Ghosts of Berlin contains few surprises for the informed Berliner, but its balanced, sensitive chronicle of the physical remains (and absences) of the city’s traumatized topography brings the past into focus. Significantly, Ladd does not attempt to reestablish (missing) memory; rather, he intends his survey (drawn from point to point as if with a theodolite) to show us—non-Germans, English speakers—what it is like to live with an acutely heightened memory. He believes that the history of Berlin, as told by its blackened stones, re-routed streets and innumerable reincarnations, requires our attention because, “the concentration of troubling memories, physical destruction, and renewal has made Berliners, however reluctantly, international leaders in exploring the links between urban form, historical preservation, and national identity”4. He charts the morphology of remembering where it is superabundant, not diminished.

Although the “ghosts” of Berlin haunt every street, they congregate especially in certain areas, drawn by paradox and irony, like the angels of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. Sometimes they cluster in places relatively undisturbed by time that have become active or passive testimonials: on the Trummerberge, the mountains of rubble deposited on the city’s edge after the war, now grown over with grass and used for picnics or sledding; near the many concrete bunkers, too solid to destroy, eventually built around and incorporated like abscesses into the municipal body; in the suburban villa in Wannsee where in 1942 the Nazis planned the Final Solution, for thirty-six years after the war a children’s play center, now a Holocaust museum; around the Ploetzensee prison memorial, established in 1952 to honor the 2,500 political prisoners executed there during the Third Reich, where visitors are confronted by the iron meat hooks from which prisoners were hanged; along the mammoth Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee), the pride of early 1950s socialist planning, a boulevard of palaces for the people, later ideologically rejected and now preserved as a windswept landmark; in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, razed prematurely after the war, cleared for highway construction in the ’60s, used to store dirt and debris in the ’70s, ignored and obscured until 1987 when a “Topography of Terror” exhibition (soon to be permanent) opened in the shadow of the Wall; and at the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, to the north of the city, where “Arbeit macht frei” can still be read against the sky, although the barracks have been damaged by arsonists and the crematoria have rusted into the ground.

Sometimes the ghosts frequent more convoluted spaces where history has followed multiple trajectories that seem to fold in on themselves. Ladd follows the spirits to these sites as well, starting with the chief signifier of the Cold War, the Wall itself. We see how the Wall divided people and versions of history, but also linked them symbolically, like a “zipper,” suggesting that only such a physical barrier could deny a natural unity. (Although we have since witnessed how once the concrete was removed, the barrier remained, in the mind.) We visit old Berlin and the baroque Royal Palace at the center of the city, home to the Kaiser, neglected in the 1920s, damaged in the Second World War, and detonated by the communists in 1950 to make way for the showcase “Palace of the Republic,” which in turn was abandoned due to asbestos contamination and lack of political initiative, and which remains empty today. We pass the Brandenburg Gate, neoclassical symbol of Prussian strength, Nazi defeat, and Cold War defiance. Not far away is the Reichstag, condemned as Wilhelmine pretension, seat of the tragically ineffectual Weimar parliament, dedicated belatedly to Dem Deutschen Volke (“To the German People”), burnt out in 1933, smashed in 1945 as the ultimate objective of the Red Army, neglected by the Bonn government, and recently draped by Christo in preparation for a Sir Norman Foster retrofit as the Bundestag of the 21st century.

Down the street is the Potsdamerplatz, once the edge of the city, eventually symbol of a breakneck modern metropolis, the site of Erich Mendelsohn’s radical Columbus Haus, still later a ruined wasteland, deathstrip, and today the site of Europe’s biggest development. Across the way we look for the buried ruins of Adolf Hitler’s bunker, somewhere under an East German parking lot, and remember Albert Speer’s Chancellery, whose rubble was used by Soviet troops to build their first memorial, almost before the shooting stopped. South of the city is Tempelhof Airport, expanded by the Nazis into the biggest airstrip in the world, a war survivor, lifeline to Berlin during the 1948 airlift, now a quiet setting of limited commercial use. To the west looms the Olympic Stadium, once a paradise for Nazi crowd ritual and the 1936 Olympic heroics of Jesse Owens, more recently host to such diverse guests as Pope John Paul II and the Rolling Stones.

Also haunted is the colossal Aviation Ministry, near the SS and Gestapo headquarters, begun in 1935 under Hermann Goering’s initiative, occupied postwar by the communists, ceremonial birthplace of the East German Republic, focus of a 1953 worker’s uprising, recently occupied by the Treuhand (charged with liquidating East German assets), sanitized future home of the Federal Finance Ministry. Nearby is the Reichsbank, the first major Nazi project in Berlin, repository for Jewish gold and war booty, bombing survivor, once the communist finance ministry, then the Communist Party headquarters, soon to be the Federal Foreign Ministry. Set back from the Wilhelmstrasse we discover surviving parts of Josef Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, soon, remarkably, to house offices of the Government Press Office and Ministry for Media Policy. Not far away stands the Bendlerblock, wartime home of the military brass, site of Count Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed 1944 coup against Hitler, site also of his execution and memorial, and soon to be the Federal Ministry of Defense. Everywhere, secrets and revelations.

When I first visited Berlin in 1987—the year the city celebrated a questionable 750th anniversary and hosted the IBA housing exhibition—I wanted to know about these places and this history. Few guides told the story. Ladd’s book can serve now for English speakers as an essential primer on the travails of Berlin’s 20th-century landscape, and as a status report on those sites as we approach the millennium. Unlike Alan Balfour’s penetrating analysis of the Potsdamerplatz, it is not a work of criticism.3 No strong opinions disturb the evenhandedness of the account; and, although sensitive to the myriad architectural arguments converging on each site, the author is aware that most of the locations he discusses are still evolving. He illustrates clearly (with the help of basic but abundant photographs, mostly his own) that no territory within Berlin is safe from debate, no patch of ground free of meaning or ambiguity, and that this historical complexity continues to daunt all political decisions. “Berlin faces the impossible task of reconciling the parochial and the cosmopolitan, expressions of pride and of humility, the demand to look forward and the appeal never to forget” (235), Ladd says, and one can almost sense his relief that he is neither architect nor urban planner.

The Ghosts of Berlin explores the important themes of memory and representation; these serve as the springboard for Michael Z. Wise’s short book, Capital Dilemma. In a sense, the first text is the wind-up, the second the follow-through. Wise is a journalist who has covered politics in Europe and who believes his book to be “the first overview of the postwar and now postunification effort by the democratic German state to present itself in built form”. That may be true as far as the general reader is concerned (designers and Berliners follow events much more closely). Capital Dilemma overlaps somewhat with The Ghosts of Berlin, particularly in its examination of the “burdensome legacies” of the Nazis and Communists, but Wise’s objective is focused: to examine those buildings that will serve—through reincarnation or rebirth—as the new government complex, and suggest meanings those structures will project. Wise thus ventures into the treacherous debate that swirls around the relationship of ideology and architecture.

Wise has interviewed many key players (although not such top politicos as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl or Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen), and in a staccato, no-nonsense style, he lays out the stakes involved in the government shift. The first chapter, “Bonn: Capital of Self-Effacement,” about the implausible but successful founding of the postwar capital in a tranquil corner of the Rhineland, is for me the most vivid: it shows how the “city without a past” quickly adopted the dormant Modern movement as its source of architectural inspiration, and how Bauhaus disciples like Egon Eiermann and Sep Ruf gave the politicians—keenly sensitive to the grandiosity of the defeated Reich—low-key structures of glass and steel whose transparency was embraced as symbol of an open democracy. For more than forty years, and even to this day—as Gunter Behnisch’s recently completed Bundestag illustrates—Modernism has been the design credo of official Germany. Wise initially contrasts the Bonn aesthetic not with Nazi efforts at capital building (conceived as the start of the new Germania, center of the universe), but with contemporaneous developments in East Germany. He relates the well-known trajectory of East German architecture: the socialist projects of the Stalinists, including the designs of Hermann Henselmann; Khruschev rationalism and mass-produced Plattenbau (pre-fabricated concrete panels); the postmodernism of the ’80s.

What happens now? This is the question Wise attempts to answer. Following reunification and the decision to return the capital to Berlin, the standards governing official architecture on both sides during the Cold War could no longer be relied upon, for it was Berlin that contained the legacy of all previous governments—failed governments. How would the model democracy adapt itself to a new home in Berlin? Was the ground tainted? What kind of image would be projected abroad? Such is the “capital dilemma” as Wise sees it, and the author is thorough in examining existing buildings from the Wilhelmine, Nazi, and Communist eras that will be preserved (the Reichstag, Bendlerblock, Reichsbank, Air Ministry) and new projects that have resulted from architectural competitions. He describes how federal politicians passionately debated the move to Berlin, and how they ultimately took the fateful step as a commitment to Cold War promises, a gesture to the Eastern territories, and a growing acknowledgment that Germany could now play a more central role in European politics. Wise describes also how the politicians understood that for financial reasons they could not build a new government complex; how, due to self-doubt and timidity, they eagerly engaged foreign architects; and how, significantly, they wished to dissociate themselves more from the architectural legacy of their Communist rivals than from that of the Nazis.

Wise is convinced that architecture can express political meaning, but suspicions arise that he has not satisfactorily worked out just how this meaning is expressed. He is skeptical about axiomatic correspondences between form and content; he accepts, for instance, the contemporary idea that glass walls and rationalized forms do not inherently embody a democratic ethos, any more than they implied fascism in Giuseppe Terragni’s work, and that neoclassicism meant something quite different for Thomas Jefferson than it did for Speer. He understands how scale and the relationship of elements can influence the experience of space (the Reich Chancellery was intimidating, the British House of Commons is intimate), but he does not attempt a deeper theoretical engagement with such issues. In the conclusion to the chapter on “Nazism’s Architectural Remnants,” Wise comes closest to a position on this subject. “Berlin’s architecture itself is not to blame for the terrible crimes once organized from the German capital. The stones themselves are not guilty. Punishing these buildings for what happened there would be like tearing down Canterbury Cathedral for the murder of Thomas à Becket. On the other hand, political architecture cannot be entirely separated from the context in which it arose. It is instilled with meaning from the past, happy or not” (107). Like Ladd, Wise knows the power of the ghosts who dwell in embittered territory; yet he seems unsure of what kind of ether they are made.

Wise is willing to state his mind. He is amazed at the reincarnations of the Air Ministry and perturbed that the vaults of the Reichsbank, where the valuables of Nazi victims were stored, will soon house Foreign Ministry files. He blatantly juxtaposes (in words and photographs) Speer’s Reich Chancellery, the German Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., by O.M. Ungers, and the second-place Chancellery project by Krueger-Schuberth-Vandreike. He warms to the new Chancellery design of Axel Schultes, which he says “stands head and shoulders above the Bonn Chancellery, successfully striking a note of neither pomp nor false humility” (74); although later he says the postponement of the planned Civic Forum and curtailment of the scheme toward Friedrichstadt, “considerably undermined Schultes’s symbolic intent . . . now its fragmented, unbalanced form will reflect the ongoing inequality of wealth between East and West” (79). The dark granite facade planned for the new Presidential Office will give the building, in his words, “the stench of death, a funereal aura of doom.” In a more restrained mode, he criticizes the “tasteful blandness” of I.M. Pei’s addition to the baroque Royal Arsenal (the inclusion of which is mysterious, since it is not part of the government center). Most of these responses, however, are safe, since they are not new, and the book’s conclusion will disappoint those seeking a firmer forecast. The placative Bonn “transparency” philosophy continues to dominate—as I write, the idea is being implemented in the restored Reichstag and affirmed in the new Chancellery—and the Nazi-era buildings are being retrofitted as tastefully and quietly as possible. The result is the seductive flash of high-tech modernism without the historical idealism. “Bonn’s architecture of reticence has yet to be replaced by a clear-cut restatement of the national self-definition,” Wise says, adding that “happily the Germans are creating a capital more consonant with Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s commitment to furthering a European Germany instead of a German Europe” (157).

This last comment suggests that the political blandness that has fruitfully advanced the European agenda might be said to inform the architecture as well; the dearth of innovative design is lamented in progressive Berlin architecture circles. But more pointedly it highlights the basic question raised by the title of Capital Dilemma: what will the new (old) capital say about German ambition? That is a question, of course, linking memory and politics.

The surreal and self-denigrating events in Washington these days—I write as the Lewinsky scandal unfolds—are baffling to Germans, who have a high regard for American institutions and are disturbed to see them weakened. Germany’s democratic mechanisms are now well established, some might say exemplary, and the September elections that dislodged Helmut Kohl, “the father of unification,” have prepared the way for the next century of German politics. As foreseen, the international response to the election of the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder was restrained: foreign powers noted the changing of the guard, praised the big man going into retirement, asked for information about the new Chancellor, and returned to their worries about tropical hurricanes, Kosovo, and the Asian economies. In other words, outside concern about a newly threatening Germany has almost ceased to exist. A decade ago, in the midst of reunification and the debate about Berlin, jokes were cracked and fears soberly voiced, but mostly by Germans themselves. The country’s allies have, in fact, been encouraging a more assertive stance regarding participation in the United Nations and NATO and as a key player in the Schaukelpolitik, the “fulcrum politics” between East and West. It is the question of identity, however, of how Germans regard themselves, that determines so much German politics. The election revealed not just the desire for change, but also deep ambivalence. Schroeder did not win votes; Kohl lost them. Fresh faces, not fundamentally different policies, were the goal. “Yes” to Europe, but also more focus on what would be good for Germany. Kohl was the prime advocate of integration; he wished to make ideal Europeans of his citizens, an idea that resonated with the Germans’ desire to break from their past, to reinvent themselves. But is this still the case, and how is it reflected in the built environment?

No foreigner I know has responded fearfully to the image of the new government center taking shape. Germans, on the other hand, continue to take their self-representation very seriously. Expressions of national ambition, self-assertion, or ego, inspire suspicion. The “capital dilemma” that Wise identifies is a predicament less for the world than for Germans, and mostly for the older generations at that—younger Germans on the whole welcome the prospect of an emboldened Berlin. Moreover, it can be argued that the “search for a new architecture of democracy” was already concluded years ago in Bonn, and that its precepts still guide decisions, albeit awkwardly, in Berlin. The result is a curious blend of acknowledgement and denial, novelty and retrospection, exertion and restraint: an ambivalence to match the political climate. What is emerging in Berlin is an architecture that sends several messages at once—evidence, according to Wise, of a “murky self-understanding and insecurity about its future direction” (154).

The Ghosts of Berlin and Capital Dilemma examine this identity crisis in the hot zone of the Aufarbeitung der Geschichte, the “working through of history.” To observe this process as a foreigner living in Berlin is fascinating, and the vantage point is reassuring: it is not my identity at stake here, my resolution of the past. In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, German media was filled with stories tracing each painful step along the path to destruction: D-Day, the Eastern Front, the liberation of Auschwitz, the Battle of Berlin, the suicides in Hitler’s bunker, surrender to the Allies. The sheer amount of solemn, contemplative reportage was impressive, but even I was glad when the Stunde Null, “zero hour,” had been reached and the pressure was off. But the pressure is never off in Berlin. The ghosts are too many, too insistent. The contradictory demands of forgetting (which will inevitably accompany the loosening of history’s embrace) and commemoration (which demands acceptance of the burden of history as the spirit’s obligation) are forever in tension in Berlin: they contribute to the city’s special vitality and astringency, its controversy. The official monuments erected here draw debate like lightning rods in the desert. Who is being served here? Whose interpretation? Whose vested interests?

Three important examples receive attention from both Ladd and Wise. What are we, or the Germans, to make of Schinkel’s Neue Wache (New Guardhouse), built in 1818 for the Royal Guard, renovated by Heinrich Tessenow in 1931 as a memorial to the dead of the First World War, adopted by the communists as a “Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism,” and rededicated by Kohl in 1993 as a permanent “Central Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny”? Is “normality” achieved when a “community of victims”—the murdered, the murderers, and the unlucky—is honored together? What of the Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, completed this year to much disappointment on a small tract of land, where the physical character of the Cold War division has been diluted by a design that allows the visitor only the border guard’s perspective? And what of the Holocaust Memorial, proposed ten years ago for central Berlin, focus of a 1995 competition that attracted 527 entries and whose results were rejected, avoided like dynamite by most politicians, and today reduced to a scheme by Peter Eisenman (with Richard Serra) for a vast, abstract field of concrete slabs evoking a cemetery or a labyrinth? More profound doubts come to the fore: What does it mean that Steven Spielberg is only the most recent in a roster of prominent American Jews whose creative talents have been keenly, if not desperately, sought in an attempt to solve the dilemma of this memorial (the latest proposal involves embedding in Eisenman’s monolithic slabs monitors that would screen Spielberg’s video archive of interviews with Holocaust survivors)? Should not the perpetrators (or their descendants) be doing the work of memory, rather than the victims (or their descendants)? Will these gestures of remembrance become mere pacifiers of conscience, paradoxically an inducement to forgetting in the effort to literally objectify traumatic history, or, as Ladd says, to “leave the impression of a final statement that resolved the dilemmas and uncertainties of the site . . . and replace a rational search for understanding with an emotionally gripping symbol” (167-68)? Where is consensus found in the avoidance of a “topolatry” that enlists rhetoric in the aestheticization of suffering and loss?4

There are some who yearn for a sense of “normality” in Berlin; they tend to be those with power, individuals or groups who want to see the city finished and preoccupied with the business at hand, like Frankfurt or Stuttgart. Both Ladd and Wise note the nostalgia that influences politicians, planners, developers, architects, and clients alike, their desire for the rediscovery of an “authentic” Berlin, free of taint and tribulation, safe. Berlin before war and dictatorship, chaos and revolution. But not, significantly, the Weimar Berlin of the 1920s, when German modernism produced its greatest achievements and the avant-garde enjoyed its brief vogue; rather, the city some wish to recover is the Berlin of the first decade of the century, when imperial glory was driven by industrial success, and foreign adventure had not yet ended in catastrophe. For advocates of the “new” Berlin, surely this is the spirit to emulate, this the golden age to evoke. In this manner the agony of almost an entire century might be negated. The rehabilitation of the Reichstag, the maintenance of the twenty-two-meter height guideline, the primacy of the street and the perimeter block, the adherence to the city grid, the emphasis on “critical reconstruction,” the support of commercial interests, the stress on uniformity and unity of design, and the cloaking of disturbing reminders: all combine to create the conditions of the new Berlin. Alan Colquhoun’s words of more than a decade ago hold true: “The modernist city has been rejected insofar as it was posited on urban spaces as limitless and abstract, and based on the separation of the different functional elements of the city. The monumental city has been rejected insofar as its aim was propagandist and its style megalomanic.”5

There will be exceptions to the trend—the work of determined young modernists building on the periphery; the challenge of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum—but they are in no position to gain real favor. Modernism was meant to imply the end of a certain kind of architectural history, yet the thoroughness of German renewal might soon replace in Berlin, as in other cities, the broad field of potential—what the city might have been—with an empty revisionist model, drained of all but formal reference to the past. Berlin is building to last. Soon it might no longer be possible to detect that either a World War or a Cold War was fought here. The tourists—who came to see the Wall and then the East and then the construction—will seek thrills elsewhere, and the inhabitants will sense a new normality that seems entirely foreign, and notice that the Berliner Luft, the special atmosphere of the city, no longer carries its fabled charge. Will the ghosts then lose their silhouettes and seek refuge deeper within the walls? Will the haunting cease?

Berlin tasted of the future, and that is why we gladly took the crap and the coldness.
—Carl Zuckmayer, “Als Wär’s ein Stück von mir,” 19661

1 Quoted in Peter Gay, Weimar Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 132.

2 Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1994), 3.

3 Alan Balfour, Berlin: The Politics of Order, 1737-1989 (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

4 See Andreas Huyssen, “Monument and Memory in the Postmodern Age,” in The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, ed. James E. Young (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1994).

5 Alan Colquhoun, “Twentieth-Century Concepts of Urban Space,” from Modernity and the Classical Tradition: Architectural Essays 1980-1987 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 231.

Jan Otakar Fischer is an architect and critic currently overseeing construction of a medical research laboratory for Deubzer Koenig Architekten in Berlin.