Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 16: "Something Was Different, but Nothing Had Changed"

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 16: "Something Was Different, but Nothing Had Changed"

Article excerpt

Fictional Americans returning to 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s Berlin typically reflect on stunning changes to a city having "completely reversed its meaning in the eyes of the world" (Uris 657), only to suggest its "arrogant façade" of recent construction (Dibner 135) is an illusion under which "the struggle between good and evil" (Daum 61) continues to rage. Alexandra Richie notes how Berlin, first portrayed by National Socialist propaganda of the 1920s as a hotbed of Communism and Socialism, transitioned into a "central character" in Nazi propaganda by the late 1930s, to become "a national symbol of unity as Germany moved closer to war" (455-56), much as the city became, for Americans at war, the ultimate goal of conquest. If, as Hitler is reported to have said, "it is impossible for any city to achieve an appearance which is pleasing to our sense of culture, unless at sometime or other some great man has breathed his inspiration into its walls" (qtd. in Balfour 81), he himself had breathed inspiration into Berlin and, as Lewis Mumford suggested, any "historic phase of urban culture creates a durable archetype that cannot be put neatly within the time boundaries of any single period" (400). This certainly finds reflection in American fiction, when, on the Kurfürstendamm, a postwar "happy crowd's" enthusiasm "for the glittering new Berlin" resembles "crowds one imagined cheering at the openings of the ponderous edifices Albert Speer built for Hitler" (Carroll 63). Berliners in the 1960s, Charles W. Thayer's protagonist ominously notes, "still get terrifyingly excited," not, he quickly adds, with "that mad hysteria Hitler produced," but with "something deeper, grimmer" yet "just as dangerous" (190).

Wolf Schmid has suggested that for narrative to exist at all, an "agent" (character) or setting must undergo a change of state, while it is paradoxically also essential there be an "equivalence of the initial and final situations" (19). In plots like that of The Good German (2001) (in which an American reporter stationed in prewar Berlin returns in 1945 to entangle himself in intrigues devised by his former German lover), A God for Tomorrow (1961) (its German-American reporter revisiting postwar Berlin to find Hitler's son) or The Last Innocent Hour (1991) (its former ambassador's daughter returning to the ruined city to hunt down her former Nazi fiancé), locating "equivalences" between pre- and postwar Berlin is essential to narrative development. "Something," an observer in Sherman's The Prince of Berlin (1983) muses, is different in postwar Berlin, "but nothing had changed" (54). This "something" is often revealed toward the ends of these narratives as old wartime battles replayed in contemporary trappings. Fascism, authoritarianism, or mutated versions of Nazism lurk underground or behind the line of the Soviet sector, taking new forms waiting to be unveiled, but clinging to fictional Berlin like a residue.

Symbols, Todorov noted, bring out identities and differences otherwise hidden by language's ambiguity.1 To resolve such narratives, "something," whether Nazis, fascist plots, or a palpable authoritarian spirit, must be located through signifiers at first seemingly missing, then mapped in a changed landscape, and while fiction of the immediate postwar period often depicted Berlin as off the map, unearthly or moon-like, Cold War fiction worked to remap it. Space, as "'experienced,'" Lefebvre wrote, "prohibits the expression of conflicts" which, "to be voiced, [...] must first be perceived, and this without subscribing to representations of space as generally conceived" (365). Even as the plausibility of hidden bunkers or the living offspring of Hitler fades in postwar fiction set in the present, symbols of the past often materialize, as American narratives create a tissue of eerie resonances between past and present.

Such techniques find visual echoes in photographer Julian Rosefeldt's "Hidden City" (2000), showing almost life-sized images of Munich's University of Music and Performing Arts, formerly Hitler's "Führerbau" headquarters. …

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