Letter from Europe

The beauty of Berlin

Issue no. 2014/33

Picture above: A reminder of a once-divided Berlin at the Berlin Wall Memorial complex at Bernauer Strasse, Berlin (photo © hidden europe).


In the third and last of three pieces to mark the 25th anniversary of the dramatic events of November 1989 in Berlin, the editors of hidden europe reflect on the special qualities that mark their home city.

Dear fellow travellers

Berlin is a work in progress. It was ever thus. Early in the last century, the German art critic Karl Scheffler wryly observed that Berlin "ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein" - a city that is for all eternity condemned to 'becoming' but never actually to 'be'. The comment rings better in German. Writers, artists and indeed just ordinary visitors to the city have for 200 years and more remarked on Berlin's peculiar quality as a city in transition, a capital that has never quite grown up, never quite assumed any mantle of authority.

Berlin defies all logic. It is a city where for so long everything seemed possible, and yet for so long very little was actually achieved. Those who want to forge change leave Berlin. The political elites in the fraught period after the revolution of December 1918 knew full well that Berlin was no place to proclaim a new Republic. They chose Weimar instead.

Yet then Berlin surprised us 25 years ago this week. Leipzig had taken the lead in the quiet revolution on the streets of the German Democratic Republic during the late summer and autumn of 1989. But it was Berlin which caught the media limelight on the evening of 9 November 1989 when residents of East Berlin crossed en masse over the Bösebrücke (at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing) into West Berlin.

This weekend, Berlin will be back in the news as we recall the events of that November night 25 years ago. The city has, in those years, reasserted itself as a hub at the heart of Europe - a bridge between East and West. Yet it is still a work in progress. Our much-publicised brand new airport has never actually opened. It is years late and way over budget. Yet the reaction of Berliners is merely to smile at the airport fiasco. Just as we smile at the rail strike that is now underway (and will continue over the weekend unless German courts intervene). And we smile at the endemic inefficiencies which plague so many aspects of Berlin life.

That's the beauty of Berlin. We never actually expect anything to work - and when things do go perfectly, which they rarely do, we treat it as something quite wondrous. Yes, this is a city which is endlessly forgiving, and we like it that way. Surely there is no other capital in Europe which is as lacking in pretension (or as cheap). Berlin is downbeat, restrained even to the extent that Berliners often seem rather sullen and unforthcoming to visitors.

Our mayor is Klaus Wowereit. He's about to step down which may or may not have something to do with the airport debacle. Nobody really worries why. Herr Wowereit is fond of describing Berlin as 'poor, but sexy'. It's true. There's not a lot of wealth in Berlin. Our home city thus makes space for all types. It is full of counterculture, open to those who buck trends and want to plough their own furrow. Sometimes that is sexy. But it is certainly the very essence of Berlin . . . the beauty of Berlin.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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