Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 10: "This Is Our Armageddon"

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 10: "This Is Our Armageddon"

Article excerpt

As a schoolboy reading tales of great historical cities' destructions, wrote German journalist Siegfried Kracauer in 1931, he found it impossible to conjure up visions of Berlin's vast modern walls transformed into empty space. Berlin, like London or Paris, had seemed indestructible. How, Kracauer mused, could train stations or whole endless stone avenues one day cease to stand? Such impermanence was unimaginable. Reading textbooks as a child, he never doubted for a moment that tales of campaigns and cremations rustling up from their pages were but myths.1 A generation earlier, Theodore Fay, watching Berlin's Reichstag's construction in 1889, had suggested it would be "easy to give an idea of the Imperial Parliament-House in Berlin, now slowly rising, because we have a plan on paper by the architect. But who can venture to suggest what manner of edifice the new Empire may be," he asked, "what yet unknown soldiers and statesmen may become its masters; what tempests may shake it to its foundation; what armies may compass it round; whether, when the rain descends and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon it, it will fall as all its predecessors fell, because they were built upon the sand; or whether it will stand, because it is founded upon a rock" (1889: 356)? "From the ruins of Athens rise the spires of Berlin," sounds a deadpan voice in John Hawkes's The Cannibal (1949), echoing a nineteenth-century refrain, made ironic a century later (177).

Perhaps all postwar fiction is inherently 'literature of the aftermath,' and even more so when set in prewar Berlin, as historical Berlin fiction can hardly help playing on dramatic irony. Yet even before the war's end, American authors had imagined Berlin's ruins for American readers and theater-goers.2 Michael Young's The Trial of Adolf Hitler (1944) described the "blasted and ruined" Tiergarten as a "ploughed-up park," now "silent as the grave," beyond which an Unter den Linden of "charred debris, rubble" stretches toward "[a]rrogant" Wilhelmstrasse, "the political heart of Germany" now "blackened and humbled, prostrated in the dust [...] in a dull red glow not unlike the twilight of the Germanic pagan gods" (116), suggesting, like Kracauer, mythology more than history. In Young's Berlin, "begrimed by smoke and soot," its windows "burnedout hollows," rooms gutted, scorched and water-stained, not even the Reich Chancellery's "walls of Valhalla had been spared. But then, what power had the gods of Valhalla left them? The Nazis had not realized [...] the time for such gods was past!" From a basement, Hitler's "angry, guttural raving" (117) echoes, as he sits "[f]ar down a vista" of his "stupendous apartment," drinking champagne while awaiting capture (118). Invocations of pagan gods in descriptions of Berlin's destruction reappear in contemporary fiction. In William T. Vollmann's Europe Central (2005), as Berliners in 1945 run "behind mounds of rubble, flames winging out of windows," Hitler having lost a "game of draughts which the gods once played with golden figurines," that "most ancient of all Norse prophesies" still sighs: "Someday, perhaps even in the meadows of Poland where his herds of tanks recently gamboled, the golden figures, the farfamed ones, will be found again, which they possessed in ancient days" and, "beneath an even, searing light, he'll win back his city all of gold, whose monuments and plazas remain unmarred by humanity" (139).

As often as not, Berlin's literary destruction conjures more images of gods than it dispels. Canadian author Philippe van Rjndt's The Trial of Adolf Hitler (1978) opens as soldiers invade "a ruin called Berlin" (17), Death pointing "to the helpless, hated city," throwing back its head to laugh at its "shattered prize" (18). An almost Biblical "plague" falls over van Rjndt's Berlin as it writhes, "dead yet undead, screaming in agony but also in hatred as its body was hit again and again by an opponent who was steadily working his way across to its heart," its "houses and cinemas, [. …

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