Berlin as Palimpsest
When the renovated German Reichstag, crowned with a stunning glass dome by Sir Norman Foster, was inaugurated with a plenary session of parliament on April 19, 1999, the Berlin Republic was at war in Kosovo. A situation that ten years ago would have aroused revulsion met today with broad public approval. Two months later, and several decades after the German Wehrmacht last rolled through the rugged Balkans, beating a retreat from southeastern Europe, German ground troops entered southwestern Kosovo as part of NATO’s peacekeeping mission; as such they were hailed as liberators by the Kosovar Albanians. It is the cunning of history that all this should be happening under the stewardship of a Social Democratic chancellor and a Green minister of foreign affairs—representatives of the very political forces so vociferously opposed to the Gulf War in the early 1990s. These events indicate by how much the Federal Republic of Germany has expanded its geographic and political horizons since reunification in 1990.
Ten years after the fall of the Wall, the Berlin Republic is part of a new constellation in Europe. No major antiwar demonstrations have rocked Berlin as they did during the Gulf War, when white bedsheets fluttered from Berlin balconies, when pigs’ blood was spilled in the streets by angry protesters and the country was inspired by fervent pacifism. At that time of mounting inter-German tension, both East German and West German protest cultures could unite under the common anti-American slogan “no blood for oil.” The scene in Germany then contrasted starkly with the public support the Gulf War enjoyed in London and Paris. But today Berlin is politically in synch with the capitals of the other NATO nations, despite strong opposition to the Kosovo war in the former East Berlin among supporters of the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism), heir to the former communist party, the SED. Especially in the first month of the bombing campaign, the Republic remained eerily quiet, and commentators marveled at the surprising change of heart that seemed to have overcome German public opinion, once adamant in its principled opposition to war.
But is that really what it is—a change of heart? Yes, the decision to join the war effort was made by a Social Democratic-Green coalition government bedeviled by a rocky start in domestic politics and badly in need of political success. And although some have criticized Gerhard Schröder as the “war chancellor,” many on the left and among the Greens grudgingly kept up their support for the new government. Underlying public acceptance of Germany’s role in Kosovo, however, was something else. The two meanings of modern Germany’s categorical imperative “never again” have come into mutual and irreconcilable conflict over Slobodan Milosevic’s persistent policies of “ethnic cleansing.” The “never again” of deploying German troops in an “out-of-area” mission not geared toward defense stands against the “never again” that recognizes German responsibility for the Holocaust and that thus emphatically requires action at the advent of any crisis even remotely reminiscent of the Final Solution. The anti-military imperative not to send German troops to Kosovo thus clashed with the moral imperative to intervene in the Balkan genocide. The politics of memory have dominated the German consensus of “never again,” and it was precisely memories of the Second World War that whittled away at the understandable reluctance to use German troops out-of-area, memories stirred by televised images of endless streams of refugees, women and children packed into trains for deportation, and by stories of mass execution, rape, looting, and wanton destruction.
Of course, it is not clear what exactly Germans have been remembering. The refugees from Nazism and the victims of German occupation? Or rather the Germans themselves, German refugees from the Red Army, German nationals expelled from Silesia and Czechoslovakia? Or were Germans remembering all these groups, symbols of the problematic universalism of victimhood? Whatever the case, the strength of memory legitimized the intervention for most Germans, even at the price of betraying one of their two most dearly held convictions. For many, the choice was painful, a blow to the self-righteousness that had accrued over the years to the joint litany of “no more war” and “no more Auschwitz.”
When the bombing failed to produce instant success, voices of protest arose and became increasingly vociferous. Although fed by the old anti-Americanism of the left and by a new and equally anti-American Euronationalism on the right, they lacked the broad public resonance of the Gulf War protests. Nevertheless, NATO’s blunders breathed new life into the “no more war” position. And, not surprisingly, one fault line divided the resolutely antiwar stance of the PDS from the pro-NATO position of the other parties, yet another instance of the continuing East-West divide within the reunited Germany. But a rift also appeared not just among intellectuals, who after all had been divided about the Gulf War as well (for instance, the poets Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Wolf Biermann opposed the antiwar left in 1991), but between antiwar intellectuals such as Peter Handke and Klaus Theweleit on the one hand and publicly supported government policy on the other. The difference is that in 1991, when Germany was not militarily involved, the pro-intervention literati broke with the national antiwar consensus, while this time those opposed to intervention remained in the minority. Despite good reasons to be skeptical in principle about a military human-rights intervention and angry about botched Western policy in the Balkans, insistence on the principle of national sovereignty in the face of Milosevic’s serial wars of ethnic cleansing had to appear outright cynical. A new politics of memory and historical trauma has emerged at the core of trans-Atlantic culture in the past decade, and it has won strong, yet uneasy public support despite serious doubts about the universal applicability of human-rights intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. Still, this was Europe, where the Holocaust had occurred just half a century earlier. Europe would have lost all political legitimacy in its drive toward unification had it allowed the Serbian genocide to continue. And so here the German politics of memory and the politics of the new Europe merged. The political change is stunning.
The Kosovo war has shaken up German politics, and it will affect the new Europe, too. At the least, the Balkans, with its large Muslim population, are now recognized as constituting part of a unified Europe. Ten years after the Wall was torn down, an event greeted both nationally and internationally with a mix of genuine triumph and subliminal fears of resurgent German nationalism, the emerging Berlin Republic is a European republic and Berlin a European capital. And the new Berlin—the new united Germany—is new in ways hardly imagined ten years ago when some triumphalists of national sovereignty dreamed about a self-confident nation (selbstbewußte Nation) that would finally overcome its past, while the detractors of national unification painted a horrific vision of a Fourth Reich. Today, Germany is neither. Two weeks after German troops moved into Kosovo, the German parliament affirmed the Berlin Republic’s commitment to commemorate the Holocaust. The much debated and still controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe will be built in the heart of Berlin. Time will tell whether the Memorial will nurture commemoration or foster oblivion, but the decision to go ahead with the project is politically significant, although the decision itself was reached with a sense of exhaustion after twelve years of debate.
If the memory of the past and an evolving present have mixed in unforeseeable ways in the politics of the Berlin Republic, the same can be said about the architectural reconstruction of Berlin as capital. Today, when many plans are coming to fruition, the new Berlin projects a more ambiguous image than it did five years ago. The stifling architectural debate then pitted the traditionalists of “critical reconstruction” against the triumphalists of postmodern high-tech, and both faced the critique of radical skeptics who found almost no persuasive urban or architectural vision on either side of that debate. Today the boundaries that once separated the various factions seem blurred. Critical reconstruction, with its restrictive regulations and its ideology of building in stone, has never become as Procrustean an architectural bed for the new Berlin as some had feared. Some high-tech projects have been absorbed rather well into the city fabric. And although a truly cohesive urban vision still seems lacking, a decentered network of new buildings and changing neighborhoods is emerging that is being increasingly accepted by the public and that is beginning to shape the image of Berlin as a mix—part creative, part timid—of old and new.
The rebuilt Reichstag may serve as an emblem for this mix of the creative and the timid. Its facade and shell are all that remains of Wilhelmine pretension: three-meter-deep stone walls, pompous columns, a grandiose monument conjuring up historical reminiscences. The interior has been gutted and pragmatically, though coldly, refurbished in sleek materials and muted colors—and yet graffiti scrawled by Soviet soldiers after the Battle of Berlin are still visible and even highlighted on several walls. The only real architectural attraction is the Reichstag’s new dome, a gigantic glass structure, oddly reminiscent of a beehive or an oversized space egg, which replaces the dome destroyed by arson in the first year of Nazi rule. The doubled winding ramps on the inside are publicly accessible during the day, providing panoramic views of Berlin and setting the open interior spaces of the building into slow motion for the walking spectator, a veritable flaneur dans l’air. But it is the dome illuminated at night that has been especially embraced by the media and the public as a symbol of the new Berlin. Foster’s overall renovation may not satisfy on purely aesthetic grounds, but it successfully embodies the tensions between the unloved imperial past (the preserved shell), the bureaucratic functional present of the second German republic (the new plenary hall for the Bundestag), and the desire to have a flashy image of democratic transparency marking Berlin’s reclaimed status as a capital city.
At times, in the early 1990s, it seemed that the old would overwhelm any effort to find the new. The consensus was that Berlin was mainly a memory space, haunted by the ghosts of its past: Berlin as the center of a discontinuous, ruptured history, site of the collapse of four successive German states, command center of the Holocaust, capital of German communism in the Cold War, flashpoint of the East-West confrontation in the nuclear age. Obsessed with its memories as these were stirred up after the Wall came down, the city plunged into a frenzy of urban planning and architectural megaprojects intended to codify the new beginning and guarantee Berlin’s metropolitan image for decades to come. Ghosts of the past and the spirit of future glory struggled on the same terrain, seemingly without prospect for reconciliation. With the announcement of major new building plans—for the government quarter and the Reichstag, the corporate centers at Leipziger Platz and Potsdamer Platz, the restoration of Pariser Platz, Museumsinsel and Alexanderplatz, and the preservation of the Stalinist urbanism of the Frankfurter Allee (formerly Stalinallee)—presence and absence, memory and forgetting, entered into a fascinating mix. Heated conflict erupted over the marginalia of urban reorganization. Communist monuments in East Berlin were knocked down and street names were changed, triggering debate about the legacies of the socialist state and the politics of forgetting. Some wanted to raze the East German Palace of the Republic, closed for years due to asbestos but quite popular among East Berliners, and in its place rebuild the immense Hohenzollern Palace, damaged by bombs during the Second World War and demolished by the communists in the 1950s. Talk about the “voids of Berlin” became commonplace. The vast empty expanse in Berlin Mitte between the Brandenburg Gate in the north and Potsdamer Platz in the south, once occupied by the mine strip and by Hitler’s bunker and crossed by the Wall, captured the imagination. Visibility and invisibility became categories of architectural discourse about the built legacies of the fascist and communist states. Which buildings should be given over to the wrecking ball? Which should be reused once the government moved from Bonn to Berlin? Even the unbuilt past, Albert Speer’s megalomaniacal plans to build a triumphal north-south axis and to transform Berlin into “Germania,” capital of the Third Reich, exerted its power over visions of the future. Thus plans for the new government quarter in the bend of the Spree River north of the Reichstag studiously avoided a north-south layout, opting instead for an east-west axis, which had the additional advantage of suggesting reconciliation between the two parts of the city separated for so long by the Cold War. In 1995, Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag provided a stunning reprieve from the burden of dark memories. The dialectic of the visible and the invisible found an exuberant and celebratory expression in this temporary installation, which charmed Berliners and the world and which now finds its permanent counterpoint in Norman Foster’s radiant glass dome.
But visibility and invisibility, memory and forgetting, have yet another dimension in the debate about reconstructing the German capital. At stake is the question of the center—of the centered city. Many saw the void left by the dismantled Wall in Berlin’s center as a scar that might never heal, architecturally or historically. Historically, of course, this space never was a center; rather, it marked the boundary between the old Berlin, east of the Brandenburg Gate, and its western expansion through the Tiergarten district and beyond. Even the Reichstag, built as imperial parliament in the 1890s, was banned from the inner sanctum of imperial Berlin, which began only east of the Brandenburg Gate. Any radically new architectural vision for this space left by the vanished Wall was quickly blocked by the political logic of developing the new government strip in the Spreebogen and by the hasty approval of the corporate development plans at Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz. But although the empty space in the center has thus shrunk, it still suggests a void—something left unsaid in the urban text.
In some ways, this void atop the site of Speer’s north-south axis conjures up the void that cuts through the zig-zag structure of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. Libeskind’s void can be understood as an architectural index of the destruction of Berlin’s Jews and their rich culture in the Holocaust. The void between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, on the other hand, between the government mall and the corporate headquarters, may in the end signify not the loss of a potential new urban center but rather the idea that Berlin cannot be centered in the same way as London or Paris.
The defining power of this symbolic space in the heart of Berlin is further strengthened by the fact that in this precise void, just south of the Brandenburg Gate and very near where Hitler’s Reichschancellery once stood, the Berlin Republic intends to build the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. After years of controversy—including multiple competitions, changing juries, political denunciations, and the radical about-face of several of the participants in the debate about the politics, aesthetics, and purpose of such a monument—the memorial, designed by Peter Eisenman as a labyrinthine field of some 2,500 stone slabs of different heights which will be complemented by a documentation center, will finally be erected. The parliamentary debate was uninspired, but a political decision was needed to legitimize the project democratically and to end the public wrangling. Everyone recognizes that no perfect solution to memorializing the Holocaust in the country of the perpetrators can be found. But it must be commemorated, through an act of political will and with commitment to the democratic future, although any memorial inevitably risks becoming just another monument to forgetting, a cipher of invisibility. Thus the very center of the new Berlin will contain a national memorial to German crimes against humanity, that ultimate rupture of Western civilization which has come to be seen by some as emblematic of the entire 20th century, a curse on the house of modernity that we must now inhabit with enormous trepidation.
Talk of the voids of Berlin, however, seems less pertinent now than it was a few years ago. Indeed, the urban tabula rasa fantasies of the early 1990s have faded fast. Enthusiasm about building the new Berlin from scratch has given way to a more pragmatic outlook. Not metaphors of the void, but rather the possibility of literal emptiness is at stake today, when so many new office buildings are still looking for occupants. At the federal level, financial calculations have forced a scaling back of many plans and have led to the reuse rather than destruction of several major fascist buildings in central Berlin (Hermann Goering’s Aviation Ministry for one, the Reichsbank for another). Overblown images of a new global Berlin as capital of the 21st century have made way for a more modest reality. What is now emerging is the more intriguing notion of Berlin as palimpsest, a disparate city-text that is being rewritten while earlier texts are preserved, traces restored, erasures documented—all of this producing a complex web of historical markers that point to the continuing heterogeneous life of a vital city ambivalent about both its built past and its urban future.
Berlin is now past the point where the debate focused mainly on the vast corporate construction sites at Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz. Gigantic developments by Daimler-Benz, Sony, and the ABB Development Group loomed large as threats to the urban fabric as a whole. The malling of Potsdamer Platz, that mythic traffic hub of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s Piccadilly Circus and Times Square rolled into one, seemed a foregone conclusion, a symbol of all bad urban things to come. Potsdamer Platz has indeed been malled, and the architectural results are rather appalling. Its relationship to the neighboring Kulturforum with the Staatsbibliotek, the Philharmonie (both by Scharoun), and the Neue Nationalgalerie (by Mies van der Rohe) is ill-defined. The new Potsdamer Platz will never live up to the myth of the square that symbolized Weimar modernity. As imaginary center of a metropolis, the narrative of Potsdamer Platz expires in its arcades which today, in the form of a drab, two-story shopping mall stuffed with mini-boutiques and fast food outlets, more closely resemble the interior of a prison than a consumer paradise.
And yet Potsdamer Platz in its new incarnation has received a surprisingly positive press, and the public seems to accept it with open arms. To some, the city’s insistence on maintaining the old street plan for the area has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for the narrow streets, alleys, and piazzas allow for a certain intensity of street life, as long as one forgets that it is the street life of the late 20th century: that of the pedestrian shopping mall. Others feel that the corporate and commercial buildings differ enough in size, material, and design at least to suggest a real urban space; in this view, if it is a mall, it is also still Potsdamer Platz. Much will depend on how these buildings age and on how attractive Potsdamer Platz will remain as a public space once the novelty has worn off. I remain skeptical, but Potsdamer Platz today may well embody the structural irreconcilability between consumer society and public space.
At any rate, Potsdamer Platz, the big white elephant of Berlin reconstruction, has been matched by other architectural attractions. There now is a web of sites of different sizes and functions that fleshes out the architectural landscape of the new Berlin: the restored Pariser Platz just east of the Brandenburg Gate, entryway into classical Berlin; the Hackeschen Höfe, an imaginative reuse of one of the most fabled multiple inner courtyards of the old Berlin; the Aldo Rossi complex of apartment buildings and offices at Schützenstraße in Berlin-Mitte with its southern-style courtyards and colorful and varied facades that loosen up the block building prescriptions of critical reconstruction; the fast-paced renovations in Prenzlauer Berg, the old Jewish quarter known as Scheunenviertel, and other neighborhoods of East Berlin.
Indeed, East Berlin is architecturally at an advantage. Since the poverty of the East German state prevented wholesale destruction of its old housing stock, the preservation and restoration of neighborhoods is now possible in a way forever barred to most of the former West Berlin. The political conflicts between East and West Berliners, however, linger on, and they have even intensified as the new city slowly takes shape and as parts of East Berlin are being gentrified. But then, in one way or another, the eastern part of Berlin was always separated from the western part, and the current “wall in the head” may just be the latest manifestation of a long tradition. Neglected in most architectural discussions are, of course, those socialist mass housing projects (Plattenbau) in East Berlin, similar to those built all over Eastern Europe in the postwar years. And yet it would be challenging to imagine ways of integrating housing projects such as Marzahn, Hohenschönhausen, and especially Hellersdorf into the new urban fabric, now that they have lost their grounding in socialist notions of collective living. Whether they will stand as ruins of socialism and symbols of urban decay or can be modified creatively remains to be seen. The larger question here is to what extent the socialist city text will remain part of the fast-changing palimpsest that is Berlin. Daniel Libeskind’s plan for Alexanderplatz pointed creatively in that direction, but it has no chance to be realized.
A mix of the old and the new, the timid and the creative—that does not seem all that bad a constellation for a city that never had the luster of London or the aura of Paris. Building on its historical decenteredness as architectural urban space and maintaining the city as a palimpsest of different times and histories might actually be preferable to the notion of a centered Berlin, which inevitably would revive the ghosts of the past, not just in the minds of Germans, but in the imagination of Germany’s neighbors. Berlin as palimpsest implies voids, illegibilities, and erasures, but it offers also a richness of traces and memories, restorations and new constructions that will mark the city as lived space. Bernhard Schlink, author of the novel The Reader, is right in suggesting that Berlin still lacks a physical and psychological center. I see this as an advantage, and in that sense the title for last year’s architectural sightseeing tours, organized by the city, may not be inappropriate after all: Berlin—offene Stadt, Berlin—open city.