Almost twenty years have elapsed since triumphant Berliners cheered and quaffed champagne in response to the announcement that their city had once again been designated the German capital. Yet the decision to relocate the government 600 kilometres east of Bonn, capital since 1949, was unexpectedly divisive. On the 20 June 1991, after twelve discordant hours of debate the parliamentary vote in favour of reclaiming the building abandoned since the Reichstag Fire of 1933 was a slender 337 to 320.
The investment required to complete such an ambitious move led to a delay of eight years and parliament’s eventual arrival in Berlin, in April 1999, coincided with my own first visit to the city. I have an uncanny knack of arriving at auspicious moments. I visited Berlin for the second time in October 2010, just in time to celebrate two decades of unification. Significant change has occurred in the intervening years.
Eleven years ago, arriving into Zoo station I experienced the palpable sense of dynamism gripping this once-divided city. Berlin was enmeshed in a process of reinventing itself as the vibrant capital of a newly unified Germany yet was keen to preserve strong links with its turbulent past. My journey, on the pristine Deutsche Bahn NachtZug from Munich, was heavy with poignancy as I rattled through former East German territories along the narrow corridor that once represented a slender lifeline into West Berlin. Nowadays visitors arrive into the recently opened Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Europe’s largest railway station. I flew with Aer Lingus to Schönefeld Airport with my husband and two young children – the changes in my own life have been as dramatic as those immediately apparent in the city.
Changes fall into twin categories of absence and arrival. In 1999 Norman Foster’s sympathetically restored Reichstag, complete with resplendent glass cupola, was open to visitors. Beyond it lay a desolate construction site. This time a boat trip along the lazy river Spree took us past the ultramodern Paul-Löbe-Haus and graceful Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus, home to the parliamentary library. Memorials to victims of the city’s turbulent past have appeared. Most striking are: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sculptor Peter Eisenmann’s controversial field of 2,711 concrete slabs, each representing a page from the Talmud; the simple white crosses dotted along the banks of the Spree, commemorating would-be cold war escapees; the memorials to homosexual and Roma victims of the Nazi regime; and discrete plaques erected outside the former homes of holocaust victims.
The absence of the Palast der Republik, once the seat of the parliament of the communist GDR, is striking. Where once stood an imposing soviet style building, housing auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, 13 restaurants, a discothèque and a bowling alley, there is now a vacant lot awaiting the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, the former Hohenzollern city palace. Nothing more clearly illustrates the cyclical nature of the city and its preoccupation with the past.
It has taken the two decades since reunification to successfully harmonise the disparate East and West sectors. Yet geographic and man-made boundaries still abound: the Tiergarten, Berlin’s expansive city park and final resting place for more than 2000 soviet soldiers who fell as they captured the city in 1945; the stark future-world of Potsdamer Platz, a bustling business and entertainment district that has risen from the rubble of a once forbidding no-man’s-land; Checkpoint Charlie, a preserved pastiche now manned by actors willing to pose for authentic cold war snaps; and of course the wall, whose route is traced by a narrow double row of cobbles.
The Berlin wall cast its shadow across the globe for decades. On 9 November 1989 we held our collective breath as citizens attacked this reviled barricade, demolishing much of it by hand and creating unofficial border crossings. Thousands surged through to be met by jubilant West Berliners cheering and embracing their once-exiled compatriots.
We were surprised to find that the wall in its disintegrated state remains inescapable. Brightly daubed fragments have been converted into paperweights, key rings, doorstops, bookends, and clocks. Tourists dispatch postcards with tiny pieces attached. Despite its size – constructed from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 meters high and 1.2 meters wide – it’s amazing that so much of the wall remains. Much of it was bulldozed, the resulting rubble used in post-reunification road-building projects. Few sections remain standing, although one stretch does run alongside the new Topography of Terror museum located in Niederkirchnerstrasse on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters.
Berlin is one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Yet a collective awareness of the significance of the city’s past ensures that history will remain forever stitched into the very fabric of the landscape.