Magazine article The Spectator

GERMANY - Culture Vultures

Magazine article The Spectator

GERMANY - Culture Vultures

Article excerpt

Charles Moore explores how Berlin is marking the horrors of its past

It sometimes feels as if Berlin has been more fought over than lived in. European cities like Rome, Paris and London have accumulated their greatness over two and more millennia. Berlin's was thrust upon it much more recently, and with frequently disastrous results. A Prussian garrison town became the global parade-ground for the triumphs of emperors and tyrants - Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin. The fall of Berlin in 1945, however much the Nazis deserved it, was one of the most terrible events in the history of the world.

So when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the nation was reunited in 1990, the city had a choice. It would have been understandable if it had decided simply to efface its tragic past and start again. Indeed, to a large extent, this is what has happened to the dismal architecture of Communist East Berlin. The Wall itself hardly survives at all: its course is marked by a thin band of stones in the pavement which you could easily traverse without noticing. But on the whole, Berlin decided that the best thing to do was to remember, for which any visitor should be glad.

To understand how remarkable these commemorations are, one must make a comparison. The Holocaust Memorial, by Peter Eisenman, covers nearly five acres a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate on one side and the site of Hitler's bunker on the other. Subtly menacing streets of grey, unadorned stelae of differing height run in straight lines over the undulating site. It is as if Trafalgar or Parliament Square were entirely given over to a memorial to the Irish famine. (Perhaps I should not have raised this idea: if Ken Livingstone becomes mayor of London again, he will probably implement it. ) I cannot think of many other examples where a nation expresses its own shame in the heart of its capital.

There are smaller memorials too.

Staying at Rocco Forte's wonderfully elegant Hotel de Rome (Berlin is not a place for dear little cheap hotels - you must go for the marmoreal best), I walked out into the Bebelplatz in which it stands. It was only on crossing the square for the third time that I noticed a perspex window at my feet. It looks down into a brightly illuminated chamber below ground, entirely empty save for white bookshelves with no books. This installation, if that is the right word, by the Israeli artist Micha Ullmann, marks the spot of another infamy. It was in the Bebelplatz (then called the Opernplatz) in May 1933 that the Nazis organised their famous book-burning outside the Old Royal Library (now being restored).

Just across Unter den Linden is the Doric Neue Wache, built by Schinkel nearly 200 years ago as the guardhouse to the palace of the Crown Prince. In 1931 it was made the memorial to dead of the first world war.

Under the Communists, it became the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism.

Today it is the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny, with a careful explanation beside it of what this encompasses.

Before the 20th century befell it, Berlin had begun the accumulation of treasures which comes with empire. In the 1820s, an entire island on the Spree was designated Museum Island. Buildings were erected to display the great Prussian collections, often rehousing objects which Napoleon had borne off to Paris as booty. …

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