Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Still Divided. (Germany Adrift)

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Still Divided. (Germany Adrift)

Article excerpt

This past summer, a gallery around the corner from my office in Berlin held an exhibition organized on an unusual theme: how to shrink the city to match the size of its diminished population. One scheme proposed the demolition of all the interior buildings in Berlin's unique wafflelike city blocks, composed of buildings and inter-communicating courtyards, or Hofe. Each block would literally be hollowed out, the interior planted with huge gardens. Tongue-in-cheek though it was, the exhibition marked the first time I'd seen a response from Berliners to a question that almost every visitor to the city sooner or later asks: "Where are the people?"

Ever since the Germans made Berlin their capital again, and particularly since the parliament and much of the government moved here three years ago, there has been talk of its being the new "capital of Europe." But Berlin lacks something we Europeans regard as essential to our great capitals: bustle. London and Paris have it. Rome can have too much of it. But Berlin? There is an area of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants round the Hackescher Markt where the sidewalks can get a little congested. And, at night, there is some movement on nearby Oranienburgerstrasse. But on many a weekday you can walk down the famed Unter den Linden, which has the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag at one end and Humboldt University and the Staatsoper at the other, without once having to step out of anyone's way.

Since the Berlin Wall tumbled in 1989, resurgent Berlin has equipped itself with some wonderful new buildings that express its grand aspirations. Sir Norman Foster put a cap on its somber martial history with the transparent dome he placed over the Reichstag. Daniel Liebeskind's lightning bolt of a Jewish Museum is there to remind everyone where that martial tradition eventually led. In what is intended as the new center of Berlin, the Cold War wasteland of Potsdamer Platz, the Chicago architect Helmut Jahn has created the Mount Fujilike Sony Center, which rears up as a symbol of emergence and a promise of exciting--maybe explosive--things to come.

What Berlin lacks is not buildings, but people. The population is smaller now than it was in 1920. The city's division during the Cold War stripped it of its industries. Siemens, its biggest employer, fled south to Bavaria after World War II. West Berlin in particular was kept going largely on subsidies, and those dwindled after the collapse of communism. A half-million jobs that depended in one way or another on government handouts have since been lost. At the same time, tens of thousands of West Berliners, deprived of access to the countryside when their part of the city was encircled by a hostile East Germany, moved out to the surrounding region of Brandenburg. Every time my wife and I go away, we leave our dog with a couple who were part of that exodus. For the price of their apartment in the city, they bought a house with some land on the outskirts of a village with a medieval church, cobbled streets, and half-timbered houses.

Looked at through a cultural prism, Berlin is the coolest venue in Europe. Looked at another way, it's a depressed postindustrial town. That's why it has racked up an enormous public debt that would shame a Third World dictatorship--some $40 billion at last count. Its municipal tax revenues have not been sufficient to pay for the cost of building new infrastructure.

It's tempting to see in Berlin's post-reunification predicament a paradigm for the country as a whole. In both cases, the ambition is out of balance with the available resources. Germany, too, aspires to a more prominent role on the international stage, but its economic growth rate since the mid-1990s has been dismal.

Despite--or maybe because of-its warped recent history, Berlin is an unusual and stimulating place to live. One way in which the old West German government tried to keep the city populated was by granting its residents exemption from military service. …

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