nineties berlin at the alte münze
art, Berlin, events, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, Museum, music, things to do

Nineties Berlin at the Alte Münze

“Berlin ist vorbei,” says Andreas Jeromin, a former Berlin squatter. It’s a phrase we hear often. Berlin is over. The coolest, most creative time the city had ever experienced, just after the fall of the wall in the 1990s, is long gone. But the current exhibition at the Alte Münze attempts to revisit the era with Nineties Berlin.

nineties berlin at the alte münze

The Alte Münze seems like a good choice for such an undertaking. The former mint factory now serves as a blank canvas that is regularly repurposed for different events and exhibitions, much like the morphing and the repurposing of old and abandoned spaces that took place in 1990s Berlin. The space lends itself to immersive audio-visual experiences, whether its being used for a Boiler Room event or the wonderful Monet to Kandinsky art show that was on earlier in the year, and the first room of Nineties Berlin is no different.

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A moving collage of old photos and video footage of pianists playing on heaps of rubble, love parade ravers and artists occupying old buildings float by, giving us a feel of the political energy, creative freedom and hedonism of nineties Berlin. A jagged passageway in the centre of the room is lined with old black and white stills of the city.  But to find out more about them, you have to log in to the website and use the ‘interactive bot’, which takes you out of the experience by making you look at your phone and seems like a case of using technology for technology’s sake. Why not just put some text beneath every photo?

The next room consists of videos of contemporary witnesses talking about Berlin in the nineties, including the former squatter mentioned above. I found this room a little disappointing: Of the 14 people featured, only two were women, and the majority were involved in the music scene. What about the rest of the people living in Berlin in the 90s? Surely there was more to the era than the Love Parade?

Nineties Berlin at the Alte Münze

The creators of the exhibition might have had the same thought, because the forth room was a breath of fresh air. No, cold air. Literally. It was a freezing room, which consisted of a brutal and effective memorial to the people who had been shot down before the wall came crashing down at the end of the 80s. However, you couldn’t spend much time contemplating these lingering political and human effects of the wall because the cold temperature moved you swiftly on to the last room, which, again, focussed on club culture before spitting you out into the gift shop.

The gift shop felt like an extension of the exhibition. Poppy and expensive, it commercialised the image of 1990s Berlin without really moving beyond the surface. Everything felt like a simulation of simulacra, making me wonder if, indeed, Berlin really is over.

Nineties Berlin is currently on at the Alte Münze, Molkenmarkt 2, 10179 Berlin.

The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin Jens Ziehe
art, Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, Museum, politics, things to do

Welcome to Jerusalem at the Jewish Museum Berlin

The Jewish Museum Berlin is a disorientating place. It is made up of various buildings from different periods, most recently The Libeskind building.

Architect Daniel Libeskind created his design around a series of intersecting voids and straight and zigzagging lines. Corridors veer off at angles, and lights, mirrors and installations constantly make you aware of the strangeness of the space.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum Berlin
Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman, Jewish Museum Berlin

One of my favourite installations in this are is Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman. You hear it before you see it, a distinct clinking reminiscent of chains or shackles. The work consists of over 10,000 screaming faces cut from iron plates, which you walk over as you approach a dark void. It is a disturbing refection of victims of war.

Adding another layer to the confusion of space is the newly opened “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition in the old building. The exhibition transports you through the history, sights and sounds of the city in over 15 rooms. One room, dedicated to maps, displays The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, showing Jerusalem as the centre of the world. Disorientating again, from a geographical point of view, but accurate from a historical, religious and political point of view.

The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin Jens Ziehe
The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin, purchased with funds provided by Stiftung DKLB, photo: Jens Ziehe

 

The exhibition successfully shows the changing landscape of Jerusalem, from 5000 years ago to the present day, where old and new constantly overlap and collide. The exhibition is full of interesting insights and facts, for example, that the keys to one of the holiest sites in Christianity, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are held by two Muslim families, or that Muslims once faced towards Jerusalem to pray, before this was changed to Mecca, or that when the Jewish temple was destroyed, Judaism fundamentally changed to focus on the study of holy texts. In addition to all this, the exhibition provides you with a good understanding of the current conflicts that occupy the city today.

So, if you’re getting tired of the grey Berlin winter, take a trip to the Jewish Museum to be transported through time and space.

Welcome to Jerusalem is on at the Jewish Museum Berlin (Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin) until 30 April 2019.

The Wall Museum Berlin
Berlin, history, Museum, things to do

The Wall Museum East Side Gallery

The Wall Museum at the East Side Gallery, which opened last year, is situated in the same building as the Pirates Bar. Less well known is the fact that the roof used to be an observation point when the Wall was up.

The Wall Museum Berlin

As its name indicates, the museum focuses on the years of the Wall, 1961-1989. It starts with a short video that summarises the events leading up to the building of the Wall, and then leads you chronologically through events until its climactic fall.

The exhibition mainly consists of videos, showing interviews with escapees to watchtower guards and ordinary people whose lives were affected to key players such as spies and politicians. The atmosphere inside the museum is almost oppressive, with no windows and the blaring noise and heat of screens in each room. This may be apt, seeing as the Wall itself was oppressive and the Cold War was a battle of ideologies, often fought out on TV screens.

Nowadays, with a pivot to video taking place on many news sites and media creating and catering to shorter attention spans, there is something disturbing about a museum that relies so heavily on the moving image. I want space to contemplate in exhibitions, more depth, and a variety of different sources to peruse so that I collect and evaluate information independently. Sure, everything is curated, but relying solely on videos feels lazy and fleeting.

The Wall Museum at the East Side Gallery is open daily from 10 am to 7 pm and entrance is €12.50 for adults / €6.50 for students and children under 10 go free. 

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Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, people, things to do

Soviet Berlin with Holger Raschke

Berlin is a city haunted by the past, built on layers of memory. Holger Raschke, founder of Berlins Taiga, a tour company that focuses on the Soviet history of the city and its surrounding areas, is also fascinated by the past. He grew up in Potsdam, at a time when the Soviet army was omnipresent, surrounded by barracks, fenced-off military facilities and gigantic military training grounds.

Soviet_War_Memorial_in_Tiergarten,_April_2014
By Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Holger organises tours of his native Potsdam, the hinterlands of Brandenburg where remote Soviet outposts still remain, and, of course, tours of central Berlin – one of which I took.

Soviet Berlin II – Through the Red Metropolis begins at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, crossing over to the government quarter via the red Moltke Bridge, which Soviet soldiers crossed when they took the city at the end of World War II. The Soviets amassed 2.5 million soldiers for the Battle of Berlin, and their presence still lingers throughout the city.

It lingers just beneath the grass of the Soviet War Memorial of Tiergarten, where 2,500 Soviet soldiers are buried beneath the unmarked, inconspicuous earth. It lingers in the various Soviet murals, the stark architecture and the recurring shape of the Sputnik. Holger unveils the Soviet history of these familiar sites by showing archival photos of the exact spots you visit on his tour, narrating anecdotes and recounting historical facts. The tour leads down Alexanderplatz and Karl Marx Allee, which used to be called Stalin Allee, finally ending at Berlin’s biggest Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park.

Soviet Berlin II lasts four hours and covers five kilometres by foot. It’s perfect for tourists, who would like a unique walk through central Berlin, but as a local I also learned a lot and enjoyed Holger’s extensive knowledge of the subject. Not only was he was able to answer all my questions, but he could recount personal stories about his experience, and those of his friends and family. I would be especially interested in taking his Potsdam and Hinterland Tours, which are more off the beaten track and will certainly take me into as yet unexplored territory.

Berlins Taiga operates public and private tours of Berlin, Potsdam, and the Hinterland.

Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, things to do

EXIT Berlin – Live Escape Game

“You have both been – obviously wrongly – locked in an asylum,” says Toby.

I cast a sideways glance at the Bavarian, who could probably quite legitimately be sent to a mad house.

Exit Game BerlinWe are in the ‘Briefing Room’ of a former East Berlin bunker. The chairs are hard. The map across from us shows the sprawling territory of the USSR. Most of the furniture is original, from the 1970s, when the bunker was built.

Toby is telling us how EXIT game works; we will be shown into a room, and need to solve a series of puzzles and clues to find a route out of the asylum before a madman hunts us down and, well, game over. Grand. Just the kind of game for the Bavarian and I to tackle in our lunch break.

Half an hour later, I’m sweating over a Ouija board while the Bavarian fiddles with a lock. Edith Piaf is playing, we’re surrounded by skulls and the timer is counting down on a digital display behind us.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get out of here,” sighs the Bavarian.

“And I don’t think I’m ever going to listen to Edith Piaf again,” I mutter.

Yes, the game was more difficult than we imagined. Either that, or we’re stupider than we imagined. According to the game-masters only 66 % of players manage to break out. In addition to being brain-intensive, the game’s setting gives it an extra edge. The macabre props and oppressive atmosphere of the bunker make you feel like you’re trapped in a horrific b-movie.

It is a smartly designed, immersive experience. Mad House, the game we played, is the most popular, but I’m determined to try one of the others (Secret Prison, Alien Invasion and Hackers Home Reloaded) and win. I hate losing. Of course, that means the Bavarian and I will have to do some serious training before we attempt it. Now, where’s that Sudoku book…

EXIT Berlin can be played in English or German in groups of two or more and can be booked online.

Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, science, theatre, Uncategorized

Transcendence at the English Theatre Berlin

A hundred years ago, on 25th November 1915, Einstein proved his general theory of relativity, transforming our understanding of physical reality. Apt timing then, for Robert Marc Friedman’s Transcendence, a play about Einstein, at the English Theatre Berlin.

Transcendence, English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Gerald Wesolowski, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

The play transcends the barriers of space and time – running from 1911 to the second world war, spanning from Berlin, Prague, Zurich and Sweden to the USA – as it spins together three story strands.

One strand is the relationship between Albert Einstein and his fellow physicist Max Planck. Einstein and Planck came from vastly different backgrounds, with little in common but physics and music. Although their friendship builds despite their differences, it ultimately – in the face of a volatile political landscape (including the first and second world wars) – fails.

Another focus is the relationship between Einstein and Kafka, who almost certainly met, although no record exists of their encounters. This narrative highlights the similarities between science and art – both men use creativity and imagination in their work to search for underlying realities. Is there, they ponder, a moral equivalent to general relativity?

And finally, there are the maneuverings in Sweden concerning the Nobel Prize in Physics, influenced by politics and people who were reluctant to acknowledge Einstein and his theory (they eventually awarded him the prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, not for relativity = fail).

The actors (Ben Maddox, Logan Verdoorn and Max Wilkinson) approach these iconic characters in a realistic way, even lending them a comic aspect. Despite this, the play gets bogged down by its weighty subject matter. It presents too much information over too broad a scope; although each story-line is fascinating, each could have been a full-length play in itself.

Overall, it manages to string together an illuminating picture of how some of Europe’s most fascinating figures struggled to transcend harsh realities during the most volatile period of the continent’s history.

Transcendence is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstr. 40, 10965 Berlin) until 30th November 2015.

art, Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

The Bode Museum marks the 70th Anniversary of End of World War Two

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. To celebrate, Russia staged its biggest military parade, involving thousands of troops marching across the Red Square in Moscow, displays of ballistic missiles and over 100 war planes.

Here’s a clip of what it looked like:

While such scenes of nationalistic machismo, mirroring those that led up to the second world war in the first place, are clichéd and shallow, here, in a quiet corner of Berlin’s Bode Museum, a much smaller display makes for a deeper impact.

The Lost Museum Exhibition is about the hundreds of art works from the Berlin collections that went missing, were stolen or destroyed, due to the second world war. It consists of partly destroyed works, reconstructed pieces, photographic reproductions and information about the lost works.

The partly charred or smashed statues are devastating to see, but worse are the black and white photographic reproductions of paintings, like this Rubens:

photographic reproduction of lost Rubens at Bode Museum, BerlinA masterwork like this, drained of the colour and brushstrokes that bring Rubens’ paintings to life with fleshy sensuality, makes one feel the absence of the original even more.

IMG_20150510_140410Other stand out pieces, like this plaster cast of Donatello’s John the Baptist – the original has disappeared – demonstrate the value of such a restitution project as it reintroduces the piece to the narrative of art history.

The exhibition also raises interesting questions about itself. For example, should the few remaining fragments of works that survived the Friedrichshain Bunker fire be reconstructed, taking the artists’ original visions and intentions into mind? Or should, according to the standards of historic preservation, any change in the state of a work of art be respected? In short, is it more important to show the original idea of a work of art, or its history?

The exhibition is insightful and questioning and, on a positive note, is possible due to the ongoing and ever-strengthening collaboration between German and Russian museum professionals.

What remains though is the feeling of loss for all those hundreds of works that have vanished. It is a loss to civilisation. A fissure in art history. The visions and spirits of the people that lived in those works, forever lost.

The Lost Museum: The Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II is on at the Bode-Museum until 27th September 2015.

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Pegida

Icky as it is, I’m going to have to touch the whole Pegida thing because I saw this BBC video yesterday, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last few months, you’ll know that Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (so wordy!), is a new movement that has been holding weekly marches in major German cities.

The group claims not to be racist or xenophobic, but like all “I’m not a racist but…” statements, there’s nothing not-racist about it.

Surprisingly, many people have turned out in support of Pegida. On Monday, about 18.000 people took to the streets of Dresden, while around 4,000 people joined a counter-demonstration. The group has not been as successful in other cities such as Berlin, where Pegida opponents outnumbered supporters.

The first guy in the video was predictable; “Germany for Germans” is a phrase you’d expect to hear at one of these things, along with the ‘no mosques’ stuff. Of course, he neglected to tackle details like how exactly one defines a German. Is it a race? What if you are of Vietnamese origin but have a German passport? What if you German but have converted to Islam? What if you are Turkish but support Germany in the World Cup? And what about that CDU politician who does a good job of pretending to be German, but with a name like David McAllister, has to be Scottish?

And what happens when all the non-Germans leave? The country would shrivel up and die – literally. Germany’s aging population means that the meagre working population would collapse trying to support all the pensioners. In fact, immigration is the only sensible way out of this problem. And what about Germans elsewhere? You can’t swing a cat in London without hitting one – should we gather them up and send them, kicking and screaming, back to the Fatherland?

I recently visited The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition (visited by Merkel today), which illustrates that defining Germany is a shifty business too. The German Nation was originally an idea, consisting of many different territories and peoples, ranging from Austria and the Czech Republic to parts of Romania. Clearly, the mapped boundaries of Germany were questionable to Hitler, who figured that Poland was part of German territory. By reverse logic, should Germany accept Polish, Czech and Romanian immigrants?

And about the mosques – should the constitution upon which modern Germany is founded, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination, be re-written? Anyway, I’m sure the nice man has thought it all through. He’s grand. What stunned me was the woman talking about her four daughters with long blonde hair.

It reminded me of a propaganda photograph I saw at the Topographie des Terror in which a Jewish man who had a Christian girlfriend was forced to hold a sign saying he raped a Christian girl.

The idea of the purity of one’s women being polluted by outsiders is a primitive narrative. It is the oldest fear-mongering tactic in the book. It was used in the United States to justify lynchings in the South and now, in Germany, it is toppling out of an articulate woman’s mouth – without any shame or awareness of what she is actually saying.

So why the rise of Pegida? It could be down to timing; Germany’ s recent intake of more immigrants than ever before coupled with sufficient time passing since the war might mean that people no longer feel there is a stigma attached to marching in the streets, waving German flags and expressing such views.

In theory, the Germany was supposed to be ‘de-Nazified’ after the war, but a look at Topographie des Terror exhibition demonstrates that this was not the case; judges, politicians, and civil servants remained in their positions for the most part, and there was a real reluctance to dig up the past and prosecute war criminals.

Now, these buried views appear to be resurfacing. Pegida is attracting a mix of people of all ages, from right-wing activists to ‘normal’ citizens, and a recent poll of just over 1,000 people by Stern magazine found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.

What do you think about Germany’s Pegida phenomenon?

Germany, history, Humour, Life in Berlin, politics

The German State and the Church (with Father Ted)

The Bavarian and I recently visited his hometown (well, village) to attend his nephew’s christening.

During the service, he dug a sweet wrapper out of his coat pocket and tossed it onto the pew, hissed into my ear about how fat the priest was (the priest was thin), complained about how stingy the Catholics were (the church was not heated) and muttered “useless little beggars” as he passed the priest’s helpers on his way out (they were holding contribution baskets).

Clearly, The Bavarian has issues with the church. Rather than attributing this to his usual irrational eccentricity, I’m putting it down to the unique relationship between the German state and the church.

IMG_3003Despite Europe’s secular values, Germany remains closely entwined with the church.

In fact, if Turkey were as non-secular as Germany, there would be no question of it even being considered for EU membership.

The German State currently pays about half-a-billion euros per year to the church as a result of 200-year-old contracts drawn up during German mediatisation – a series of property transfers from the church to the state that took place between 1795 and 1814. That’s half a billion euros of everyone’s taxes – whether they are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or Jedi, at a time when Europe is in financial crisis and Germany is pushing for austerity and a balanced budget.

On top of that, the German state subsidises bishops wages, priest’s salaries, events such as Kirchentage (church congresses), church-run kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, the maintenance of religious buildings – the list goes on, and it adds up to billions.

The church runs so many institutions (schools, hospitals etc) in Germany that it is the country’s second largest employer after the public sector.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when you register yourself as a resident in Germany, you are asked to state your religion. If you answer with ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, you are promptly charged again in the form of church-tax (Kirchensteuer). In classic German form, when an American friend said he was ‘Southern Baptist’, the box marked ‘cult’ was ticked. He was offended, until he realised that this exempted him from paying the additional tax.

Church-tax is calculated at 8% or 9% of your income tax (depending on what state you live in) – no small amount – thereby provoking many people to leave the church upon receiving their first pay cheque – a privilege for which they must of course pay an administration fee.

In July 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that charging a fee for leaving the church was an infringement of religious liberty – but most German states still charge (between €10-60). In Berlin, it’s free, causing the church to complain that the city is positively urging members to drop like flies.

If anything is making people leave though, it’s this whole church-tax business itself. When you see a significant amount of your pay being taken away, you start questioning your beliefs and whether you really want to belong to the church.

Also, the binding of money with religion seems crude. After all, wasn’t it the Catholics trying to sell places in heaven that incensed Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, causing one of the biggest schisms in Western Christianity? Have they learned nothing?!

And on a spiritual level, can one really leave the church via bureaucratic means? I thought Catholics had to be ex-communicated by the pope himself, like Henry VIII.

I know a woman in Ireland who wanted to officially leave the church to demonstrate her outrage following the child-abuse scandal – she was still writing letters to Brussels a year later. It’s almost impossible for the Irish to leave the church (she eventually did it), unless they move to Germany, in which case they just need to fill out some paperwork.

The Bavarian was the first person in his family to leave the church. He waited till he was far away from his village so as not to embarrass his mother. However, his glee was cut short, because soon afterwards, the Protestants started charging him church-tax. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he wrote to them saying that he was not nor ever had been a Protestant. The response he received said he had to prove it. This would have been tricky if he hadn’t recently left the Catholics, which was proof enough that he would never go near the Protestants – but the system does sometimes prove Kafkaesque.

What is especially opaque is the question of where all the money goes. Despite being financed by German taxpayers, the church is not obliged to disclose its spending – and it doesn’t. The bureaucracy is clueless as to how much real estate the church owns in this country, even though it’s one of Germany’s biggest property owners. For any other individual, corporation or body, this would be unthinkable.

What was revealed earlier this year is that the Bishop of Limburg spent over 10 million euros on his private residence alone – who knows what other skeletons are clacking around in the church’s walk-in wardrobe.

Despite all this, people are still christening their children in the alpine villages of Bavaria. One aspect of this is faith, although I suspect The Bavarian’s sister does not really believe in the prospect of her child languishing in purgatory in the after-life. It didn’t seem like the right time to survey the congregation about the strength of their belief, but I suspect the conversation would have gone something like this:

So why the christening? Tradition. What The Bavarian’s wrath blinded him from was the warm sight of children lighting their Taufkerzen (baptismal candles) together. The ceremony was the chance for the family to unite in good faith, and then eat cake.

On the other hand, the desire to protect tradition supports a deep-rooted conservatism; a system in which doctors and nurses are afraid to leave the church or re-marry because it affects their job prospects in church-run hospitals, a patriarchal system (it was only yesterday that the first female bishop for the Church of England was named, which indicates just how behind they are – not to mention the Catholics), an unaccountable system (how is the money being spent?), a system under which The Bavarian was taught ‘religion’ in school by a priest who only covered Christianity (in London, we were taught about the five major religions by a person who had a degree in the subject), and a system which allowed the abuse of thousands of children.

The New Yorker’s recent, brilliant profile of Merkel pointed out that the current trend of German conservatism is keeping her in power (Merkel, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, does not support any change regarding the relationship between church and state).

The need to keep status quo and fear of what will replace the Christian tradition prevails, but there are still other European traditions – enlightenment, humanism, democracy – to build on. Maybe it’s time more people left their crumpled sweet wrappers on the pews and walked away.

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News

Fall of the Berlin Wall Celebrations at Potsdamer Platz

Last night marked the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To celebrate, 8000 lit balloons on 3.6m poles, match the height of the wall, were released into the night sky.

The balloons were released one by one along a 15 km stretch that followed the dividing line of the wall, symbolising the breaching of the wall by protestors.

Here are some photos of the event from Potsdamer Platz:

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Find out more about the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at Visit Berlin.

art, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Weekend Trips from Berlin: Weimar

One of the nice things about living in Berlin is its easy connections to other towns and cities. This weekend, The Bavarian and I went to Weimar, which is a two-hour train ride away.

Weimar

Berlin may be the heart of Germany’s cultural scene today, but Weimar was once one of Europe’s most important cultural centres. It’s the home of German Classicism, Bauhaus, and renowned figures, from Goethe and Schiller, to Liszt, Liebermann, Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger and Gropius.

In fact, so many famous people have ties to Weimar that it’s littered with signs like this:

Bach, Weimar

And this:

Hans-Christian Andersen, Weimar

And you get the feeling that the Weimarians are simply showing off.

The most famous resident of Weimar was Goethe. There are so many references to him in the city that The Bavarian and I started playing the ‘Goethe-Game’, where you gained a point for screaming ‘Goethe’ every time you saw his face or name. (I would record the winner, but really, it’s the taking part that counts…)

Goethe’s Residence and the adjoining Goethe National Museum provide a fascinating insight into his life, work and ideas. He had many interests and collections – from Italian majolica to rocks – so there’s plenty to see. (Below, Goethe’s study)

Goethe's study, Weimar

As we continued to tour Weimar screaming ‘Goethe’, we saw Schiller’s residence, Goethe’s garden house, ate a traditional Thüringer Rostbratwurst at the market square (Markt) and enjoyed coffee and cake at Cafe Frauentor.

Restaurant Elephantenkeller, WeimarWe sampled more traditional Thuringian fare for dinner at the Restaurant Elephantenkeller, which is part of The Elephant Hotel (as is the Michelin starred Anna Amalia).

The Elephant Hotel is the place to stay in Weimar. It was established in 1696 and has a reputation for being a social and cultural meeting point for poets, artists and intellectuals. Thomas Mann immortalised the hotel in Lotte in Weimar and was a guest, as was Wagner, Feininger, Ahner and others.

Of course, that was why I wanted to stay at The Elephant. The Bavarian wanted to stay there because of the eggs – specifically the eggs in a glass. He had stayed at the Hotel Fuerstenhof in Leipzig once, which belongs to the same hotel group, and has been going on about eggs in a glass ever since. I had no idea what he was talking about, but when you’re married to a nutter, you learn to nod and not ask too many questions.

Hitler at The Elephant

After dinner, we prowled the hotel floors examining the Baselitz and Liebermann prints on the walls, and the exhibition about the hotel’s history – where this photo of Hitler at The Elephant was displayed – on the first floor.

We stumbled across the suites (all named after esteemed guests) and discovered that a couple with a dog were staying in the Thomas Mann suite, sending The Bavarian into a tirade about how a dog had a better room than him, although it was kind of fitting because Thomas Mann was fond of dogs.

I had to admit though, while sitting in front of my shrimp omelette topped with caviar and watching the Bavarian delicately spoon a soft-boiled egg covered with truffle foam from a little glass, that he was right about the breakfast.

– Satisfied? Will you stop going about eggs in a glass now? I asked.

– Yes. This is better than the other place – it’s a Wagenfeld glass. From now on, I will only talk of one egg, in a Wagenfeld glass.

Rococo Hall, Anna Amalia Library, WeimarDue to our early start, we were able to get a ticket to visit the Anna Amalia Library (there’s a limit to how many are sold per day, so be there early if you’d like a slot).

The library houses an impressive collection focusing on German literature around 1800, and its Rococo Hall (right) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as old books, there are items from the library’s cabinet of curiosities, paintings and sculptures.

The last thing we had time for before catching our train back was a visit to the Bauhaus Museum, which has a great collection of art and design works from the school, as well as information about its history and development.

If we had a little longer in Weimar, I would have liked to visit Buchenwald – a place that marks the barbarism that followed the high culture of Weimar – as well as the Nietzsche Archive, Liszt House, City Castle and the Bee Museum  – all that calls for at least one more weekend trip to Weimar.

The Bavarian’s verdict: The egg was the best.

Germany, history, Literature

Vansittartism

Last Wednesday, I  learnt a new word that filled me with a mixture of glee and shame at Hans Vaget’s lecture Vansittartism Revisited. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and the Threat of World War III at The American Academy Berlin.

“Vansittartism” is a  Germanophobic doctrine, set out by former British foreign minister Lord Vansittart in his BBC radio addresses and book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). It states that there is no difference between German leaders (at that time the Nazis) and the German people.

According to Vansittart, the Germans are characterised by “envy, self-pity and cruelty” and Nazism had “finally given expression to the blackness of the German soul”. He based his view on the fact that the Germans had been involved in five wars in the past 100 years (the three wars of German unification and the first and second world wars.) His analysis completely ignored the role of Austria, where Hitler was born and his views formed, (like the Austrians themselves, who in an act of collective amnesia forgot their Nazi past and blamed the Germans.)

As you can imagine, I was nudging the Bavarian with glee during this definition of his people. When I was young, I read Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and I think it is the book that has most defined my approach to marriage – a series of pranks and oneupmanships. The glee came tinged with shame, because Vansittart’s rhetoric is both ridiculous and racist. As Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil makes clear, peoples of every occupied country (except maybe the Danes) were complicit in the terrible crimes committed during WWII.

The lecture, however, provided food for thought. Vaget focussed on the reception of Vansittart’s ideas in the German exile community. Famously, it was a matter of contention between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in the USA. While Brecht dismissed Vansittartism completely (as a communist, he made a strong distinction between the German people and those in power), Mann was more ambivalent. His thoughts on Vansittart’s ideas varied at different times in his life, but the lecture proposed that overall, he took Vansittartism seriously and his view was closer to that Willy Brandt – at that time in exile in Sweden.

What is clear, however, is, notwithstanding the fact that Vansittartism is a racist product of the British Empire at war with Germany, the questions it raises – Why the Germans? How could a country that produced some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals be responsible for such barbarity? Who is to blame? – are still relevent.

art, Berlin, Germany, history, Language, Literature

Book Review: Remembrances of Copper Cream

Remembrances of Copper Cream CoverThis unique little book by Berliner Johannes CS Frank, (illustrations by Felix Scheinberger and translations by Florian Voß, Ron Winkler, Judi Hetzroni and Merav Salomon), combines prose and poetry, words and images, diverse voices and languages (with sections in Hebrew, English and German).

This might sound confusing, but the different elements flow together, washing over the reader to create a visceral experience.

The book is a series of impressions of Israel, evoking the heat and illusions of the desert, the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, the people and places of Jerusalem, the violence, the religion, the wall.

The copper cream of the title colours the scraggly ink sketches depicting electricity lines, men of religion and soldiers.

Remembrances of Copper Cream

It’s an interesting collaboration; the author grew up in England and Germany and lives in a city that is also haunted by war and the division of a wall…

Remembrances of Copper Cream (German title: Erinnerungen an Kupfercreme) is out now, published by FIXPOETRY. An exhibition of the art work can be seen at the ACUD Gallery, Veteranenstraße 21, 10119 Berlin-Mitte, until 17th June 2012.

Germany, history

The British Germans

Interesting radio programme on the BBC called The British Germans, currently available on iPlayer. Programme summary from the BBC below:

The British armed forces are due over the next decade to complete a final withdrawal from bases in Germany. But they’ll leave behind a remarkable human legacy – many thousands of former soldiers who have decided to stay in Germany. In this programme Chris Bowlby goes in search of these ‘ British Germans’, and traces their relationship with Germany and Germans. He meets a soldier who was punished by the British army for marrying a German woman just after the end of the Second World War. He hears about the pubs where Brits and Germans learnt each other’s language, the struggle to understand each other’s humour, the belief among many ex-soldiers that Germany offers a better society than Britain. And he finds that the children of British-German relationships are becoming increasingly influential in today’s German society as he meets a potential future German chancellor called David McAllister.

Listen here or read the article on The ‘British’ Germans the war left behind

art, Berlin, history

The Boros Collection

The Boros CollectionThis former bunker at Reinhardstrasse 20 in Berlin Mitte houses a private art collection belonging to Christian Boros.

Built in 1942 by the Reichsbahn, its two metre thick exterior walls and three metre thick roof slabs sheltered thousands of people from air raids during the war.

After the war, being in the Soviet part of the city, it was briefly used by the Red Army as a prison and then as a warehouse for tropical fruits – in particular bananas from Cuba, lending it the name ’Banana Bunker’. (It was not destroyed after the war as many other bunkers were because of its situation in a residential area. After the fall of the wall, it was classified as a listed building.)

In the 1990s, it was the setting for illegal raves, fetish, Gabba and techno parties, and was nicknamed ‘the hardest club on earth’. This is where Berghain began. After police raids and building restrictions ended these, the Deutsches Theatre used the space to occasionally stage plays.

Berlin BunkerThe building was bought by Christian Boros and his wife in 2003, who, along with architect Jens Casper, redesigned it to house his collection and build a penthouse on the roof. The process took five years and saw the removal of 450 cubic metres of concrete.

Despite the changes, walking through this artificially lighted five storey building, with its concrete walls, concrete ceilings and concrete floors, its remnants of graffiti from the 90s, ‘Rauchen Verboten’ wartime signs, and old ventilation shafts, gives you an excellent sense of its history.

The first artwork to greet the visitor is “For Whom” by Kris Martin; a three tonne church bell which stops, swings and moves back and forth over the reception area at random and in silence because the clapper has been removed.

"For Whom" Kris MartinAn allusion to John Donne’s line, ‘for whom the bell tolls’, it is a reminder of mortality, death, and the original function of the building. That it is an old church bell being re-used as art in a former bunker raises questions about changing values and the relationship between spirituality and art.

Most of the art that makes up this collection comes in the form of light and room installations, but also includes abstract paintings and sculptures. At their best, these works highlight the history and the space of the rooms that they occupy. For example, a jagged sculpture by Monika Sosnowska that is awkwardly crammed into one room, and that visitors can use as a tunnel to walk through into the next room, exploits the relationship between space and emotion by creating a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation.

Another work, by Denmark’s Elmgreen and Dragset, is a life-like dummy of a man lying in a hospital bed that looks out of the window at the hotel room opposite. When the exhibition first opened, guests occupying the hotel room, upon seeing an unmoving man lying in a former bunker, made frantic calls to the emergency services. (Now, the hotel offers a discounted rate for that room as well as signage by the window explaining that the disturbing view is a work of art.)

Olafur Eliasson's swinging fanParticularly effective is the work of Olafur Eliasson, which is concerned with perception and space and makes you aware of the act of perceiving.

At their worst, the work on display is pure nonsense, but then Boros has remarked, “I collect art that I don’t understand,” so that was bound to happen. (You can read an interview with Boros at ADP.) Other artists featured include John Bock, Kitty Kraus, Henrik Oleson, Tobias Rehberger, Florian Slotawa and Sarah Lucas (who I can’t stand, but interestingly, whose work is showcased in the former toilets of the bunker…) There will be a new exhibition on from September.

Visits are only by pre-booked tours, which are available in English and in German and can be booked on the Boros Collection website. Entrance is €10.

Berlin, Germany, history, News

Hitler and the Germans

Unlike the Austrians, the Germans have always been open about the whole business of Hitler and the Nazis. Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek famously said that the nature of German toilets, where “the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect” revealed their existential attitude as a nation; that of “reflective thoroughness”, and it would seem that he is right.

Spiegal Magazine covers featuring Hitler
Spiegal Magazine covers: countless articles have been written on Hitler

Policemen stand outside synagogues, countless books, articles, studies and films have been produced, and almost every discussion, from politics to art, comes back in some way to the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law, that as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1, is a fact of life round here).

However, of the many exhibitions about the Holocaust and the Nazis, the one currently at the Deutsches Historishes Museum (German Historical Museum) is a first. The exhibition Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime focuses on the dictator and his relationship with the German people.

It opened in mid-October amidst fears that such a strong focus on the dictator would attract and encourage Neo-Nazis. However everything on display – Nazi flags, street signs, decorations, swords, medals, newspapers, Hitler busts, portraits, propaganda images and films – serves to illuminate the relationship between Hitler and the Germans, from the hopes that he embodied for them when he first came to power to disillusionment, resistance, and representations of him in the media up till the present day. It shows how fiercely the dictator permeated every day life in the Third Reich, and throws a unique light on questions such as ‘How could such a thing have happened?”

Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz
Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz

Most strikingly, it draws attention to the volume of things that have been hidden, taken away and replaced, such as grave stones featuring swastikas. It also raises the fact that although the process of denazification did remove Nazi iconography from public view, its success did not extend to people and institutions.

Although a few elite were brought to trail, the majority of people who were complicit, from CEOs of companies to government officials, kept their positions – especially as the Americans abandoned their denazification programme at the onset of the Cold War. This enabled people such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a member of the Nazi Party and official at the foreign ministry, to continue in politics and eventually become German Chancellor in 1966.

As if to illustrate the point, just a week after the exhibition opened it came to light that the German Foreign Ministry, who had for years maintained that they had disapproved of the Nazis and their aims, had in fact, according to historian Eckart Conze, “actively supported all measures of persecution, rights deprivation, expulsions and the Holocaust.”

So it seems that Germany is suffering a kind of schizophrenia regarding its history; on the one hand there is an open, even over-compensating attitude, (I saw an example of this yesterday around Mauer Park when a group of people felt the need to protest against war whilst coach loads of old people attended a military music concert), and on the other, silence and secrets.

Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert
Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert

Günter Grass embodies this contradiction; he acted as the moral voice of Germany, but took 60 years to admit that he was a member of the SS.

Maybe Zizek was not entirely correct about the Germans; after all nobody has even begun to inspect the history and Nazi involvement of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Intelligence Service), and I’m sure there is a lot of shit lurking there…

The exhibition “Hitler and the Germans” is on until February 6, 2011 at the Deutsches Historishes Museum.

history, Life in Berlin, music

The Cemeteries at Mehringdamm

If you wander through the cemetery gates at 21 Mehringdamm, you may be forgiven for thinking that you are entering just one cemetery instead of five.

During the reign of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia in 1735, work began on the cemeteries outside the city gate of Hallesches Tor for the parishes of Jerusalem Church and New Church as burials were no longer permitted within the city gates. Cemeteries for the Trinity Church, Bethlehem Church (for the Bohemian community, who fled to Berlin in 1732) and Morovian Church followed.

Here’s a plan of the cemeteries today:

Cemeteries at Mehringdamm plan

The place has an improvised, mishmash feel to it because of the many changes its seen in its almost 300 year history. It has been through various expansions (especially when Friedrich Wilhelm II banned all burials in churches and inhabited areas in 1794) and suffered heavy damages during the second world war. The Berlin Wall separated the cemetery in the west from its parish in the east, which led to it falling into a state of neglect and disrepair, and between 1968 and 1971, the oldest part of Trinity Cemetery was lost when Bluecherstrasse was re-routed.

It’s an extremely interesting place to walk around, with many notable graves. Here are some highlights: 

Felix Mendelssohn grave

Felix Mendelssohn, composer, pianist, conductor

3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847

One of the most popular composers of the Romantic Era, most famous for his Wedding March, Elijah and Fingal’s Cave

Fanny Hensel grave

Fanny Hensel, composer, pianist

17 November 1805 – 11? May 1847

Nearby is the grave of Mendelssohn’s equally talented sister. A significant number of her works were published under his name. Felix Mendelssohn became very depressed after her death and died 6 months later. The line of song engraved on her stone translates roughly to “our thoughts and songs rise up to heaven.”

Franz Duncker grave

Franz Duncker, publisher, left-liberal politician and social reformer

4 June 1822 – 18 June 1888

Responsible for the left-liberal newspaper Berliner Volks-Zeitung, and a leader of the revolution of 1848. Together with Max Hirsch and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, he founded the  Hirsch-Dunckerschen Gewerkvereine, an early trade union movement.

Adelbert von Chamisso grave

Adelbert von Chamisso, poet and botanist

30 January 1781 – 21 August 1838

His most important work as a botanist was the description of trees of Mexico in 1830-1831, done with Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal. As a poet, he was famous for Frauenliebe und -leben (1830), a cycle of lyrical poems set to music by Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe, and Franz Paul Lachner.

Anna Schramm grave

Anna Schramm, soprano, soubrette and actress.

8 April 1835 – 1 June 1916

Considered one of the most popular artists in Germany before the turn of the century.

There are many more notable graves here including ETA Hoffmann, Henriette Herz and Adelbert Delbruck. Look out especially for the graves of landscape painter Karl Wilhelm Bennewitz von Loefen and his wife, as they are each marked by a sculpture of a woman’s head by Ignaz Taschner.

history, Life in Berlin

The Letters Museum

The Letters Museum (Buchstaben Museum) is a collection of old shop signs innocuously hidden away amid a building site on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte.

The Letters Museum

At the moment, the two small rooms that contain the jumble of letters is a temporary holding place open to visitors a few times a month while the curators raise funding for a permanent exhibition space.

The Letters Museum, Leipziger StrasseAs it stands, the feel of the exhibition is strangely apt; it is a wasteland of letters, abandoned shop signs that have lost their original purpose. Although some letters come with little cards printed with information such as where they came from, the font and date of receipt, the majority do not and you must piece together which letters belong together, and guess at their history.

The oldest sign in the collection is from a leather shop from 1946, donated by the grandson of the family business when it was closing down.

Letters Museum, Berlin

Check it out if you’re into typography or history – it’s open tomorrow between 1-3 pm, then on the 3rd June between 1-3 pm. For further opening times in info, go to their website.

Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.

history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

Dorotheenstädtischen friedhof

It’s not true that the Germans are unromantic; The Bavarian takes me out somewhere special once a week. This week we went to Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery off Chausseestraße in Berlin Mitte, where almost every prominent body in Berlin rests, including…

Bertolt Brecht grave

Bertolt Brecht, novelist and playwright

10 February 1898–14 August 1956

Brecht’s second wife, actress Helene Weigel, is buried next to him. Their house, at Chausseestrasse 125, overlooks the cemetery and is open to visitors.

 

Heinrich Mann grave

Heinrich Mann, novelist and brother of Thomas Mann

27 March 1871 – 11 March 1950

Nearby is a tablet in memorial of his wife Nelly Mann (15 February 1898 – 17 December 1944), who committed suicide in Los Angeles. Heinrich Mann also died in the USA and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica. His remains were relocated here in 1961.

 

Johannes Rau grave

Johannes Rau, former President of Germany between 1999 and 2004, and Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia from 1978 to 1998.

16 January 1931 – 27 January 2006

Rau’s personal motto was “teneo, quia teneor”: I hold because I am held.

 

 Johannes R Becher grave

Johannes R Becher, novelist, expressionist poet and politician

22 May 1891 – 11 October 1958

 The inscription roughly translates to: Completion of a dream, Have I completed my work ends, if not as accomplished. For this was my work sacred mission: service to humanity Future completion.

 

Anna Seghers grave

Anna Seghers, novelist, short story writer and essayist

19 November 1900– 1 June 1983

Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Radványi) is most famous for the novels The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), which deal with Nazi persecution. She herself fled to Marseilles and Mexico because of the Nazis, and returned to Berlin in 1947.

 

Arnold Zweig grave

Arnold Zweig, novelist, journalist, polititian

 10 November 1887 – 26 November 1968

Zweig fled Germany when the Nazis came to power like many of the writers buried here – he spent time with Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht during his time in exile.

 

Karl Friedrich Schinkel grave

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect, urban planner, painter and stage designer

 13 March 1781 – 9 October 1841

Responsible for some of Berlin’s greatest buildings including the Altes Museum and the Shauspielhaus. Before the second world war it was said that he who knew Berlin knew Schinkel.

 

Friedrich Hitzig mausoleum

Friedrich Hitzig, architect and student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel

8 November 1811 – 11 October 1881

Another great Berlin architect – he is responsible for the Berlin Armory (now the German Historical Museum) on Unter den Linden among others.

history, Life in Berlin, politics

The Anarchists of Friedrichshain

They cannot be ignored any longer – the anarchists are demanding attention. 

Cars have been burning in Friedrichshain every night over the past few weeks due to police raids and the shutting down of ‘housing-projects’, buildings illegally occupied by anarchists and usually identified by graffiti or the black-and-red flags flying from their roofs or windows. In addition, on 3rd December anarchists attacked police stations, cars and government buildings in Berlin, coinciding with anarchist riots in Greece over the anniversary of the death of a 15 year old boy who was shot and killed by police one year ago. All this proved to be a bit too much for the Interior Senator of Berlin, Ehrhart Körting from the SPD, who further fuelled the fire on Wednesday by comparing the radical left to fascists. 

No doubt, as many an exasperated Berliner will tell you, especially around the 1st of May, when nothing short of a full blown war breaks out on the streets of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, these anarchists don’t really have any ideological purpose – just some vague sense that they are against everything in the world, a tendency toward violence and the knowledge that there is a scene for this kind of thing in Berlin. We’ve all seen the images of anarchists taking part in anti-capitalist riots whilst wearing Nike trainers, but there is also something unique about the anarchists of Berlin that is related to the city’s history. 

DDR Flats
DDR Flats

Most of the city’s artists, intellectuals and generally unruly types have traditionally lived in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain because this is where all the old houses are. In the 1970s the totalitarian communist state calculated that it would be cheaper to build brand new blocks of flats fully equipped with modern amenities rather than to renovate the old houses – which resulted in these beautiful buildings you can see in the photo. 

Consequently, lots of people moved out of their old apartments into brand new homes, leaving many of these old buildings empty. The people who replaced them and deliberately chose  to squat in these old flats with only one toilet per floor and no central heating or hot water, did so because they refused to have every aspect of their lives controlled by the state. 

To this day, these houses have not been renovated and the people living there are still sharing toilets and so on. There’s something admirable in that, as is there in being alternative in a country where people will stand at a crossing and wait for the green man to flash before they step out into the road even when there isn’t a single car in sight. It is also quite an achievement that the anarchists of Berlin set fire to so many cars that there’s a special website that keeps count of just how many Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens, are lost to them everyday.

It’s a shame that these housing projects are being shut down in Friedrichshain- they make Berlin colourful and original.  Just as the DDR tried to dictate how people should live, the capitalist ideology is forcing itself on these buildings which will all eventually be renovated and occupied by richer, more agreeable types.  In Prenzlauer Berg this gentrification has already happened – the Bavarian and I are part of the new, trendy crowd that are replacing the alternative lot. The result? Prenzlauer Berg is boring. Most of the houses have been renovated and look the same – a classier and subtler homogenisation than the DDR blocks – but a homogenisation none the less. 

I think I might have to go and set a car on fire….

The Spiegal has a good Berlin squat eviction gallery, as does the Taggespiegal.

art, history, Life in Berlin

The Deutsche “Guggenheim”

This gallery has a big name but small scope. One usually associates Guggenheim Museums with vast collections, famous artists and notable works; the Deutsche Guggenheim has none of these. To be precise it has one room currently showing 8 works by relative newcomer Julia Mehretu. So for your € 4 entry fee you get each work for 50 cents (they are very big though). But here’s a tip; entry is free on Mondays.

Once you are settled with the fact that the Deutsche Guggenheim is not a proper Guggenheim Museum but a gallery born of some collaboration between Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation (I’m not sure exactly what the details of this dark pact are, but there are more Deutsch Bank logos in the place than there are pictures), you’ll find current exhibition quite interesting.

Mehretu is an Ethiopian-American artist who was resident at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007, and her theme is the urban landscape and memory. Berlin, a city of layers and erasures of history, suits both her subject matter and technique. Her paintings are both abstract and exact, and while contemplating them amidst Deutsche bank logos, one begins to think about German Art – or lack of – and its relationship with history and money. Predictably, it’s got a lot to do with the Nazis.

Berliner Plaetze
Mehretu, Berliner Plaetze

The Nazis systematically tried to prove that all Modern art was degenerate, which, at a time when Germany (the birthplace of Expressionism) was home to many great artists including Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Oskar Schlemmer, Otto Freundlich and Wassily Kandinsky was detrimental. Many of these artists left Germany, or were forbidden to work. The biggest devastation was that most Jewish artists either fled the country or were sent to concentration camps.

Not only did the Nazis get rid of Germany’s artists, they got rid of Germany’s art. They rounded up 650 works – including Picassos and Kandinskys – and chucked them into a Degenerate Art Exhibition, which opened in Munich in 1937 and was a propaganda stunt to prove just how mad and talentless all these modern artists were.  The idea was originally for the exhibition to run for only a few weeks and then to burn the whole lot, but it proved so popular that they kept it open and toured it throughout The Third Reich. Moreover, the Nazis received a lot of interest from buyers for these works, and subsequently started selling them off to finance the war.

On top of this, many works were physically destroyed during the war and after the war a lot of Germany’s remaining art works were taken as compensation by soldiers from the coalition armies – and that’s how Germany lost all of its art and artists and its best ideas, and why there are only 8 works – and even then by a non-German – in this gallery.

food, history, Life in Berlin

Ich bin ein Berliner

Everybody laughs at JFK for calling himself a doughnut back in 1963. However, I’m sure that he did his research – he probably walked into a Berlin bakery and scanned the all the scrumptious delicacies in sight to make sure that his speech did not contain any faux pas. He would have spotted the Amerikaner straight away – a kind of flat doughnut with either chocolate or lemon icing – and scribbled out the words ‘ich bin ein Amerikaner’ replacing them with ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ instead.

What the poor fool was not to know though, was that in Berlin, Berliners are not called Berliners – they are called Krapfens. Berliners are only called Berliners in the south of Germany. Why? I have no idea. It’s as illogical as the fact that Weiner sausages (from ‘Wein’ or Vienna) are only called Weiner sausages in Germany; in Vienna they call them Frankfurters.

pfannkuchen
pfannkuchen / krapfen / berliner
To make things more complicated, for a few months of the year, the bakeries in Berlin decide to call Berliners Pfannkuchens. This coincides with the carnival period, and during this time Berliners, or Pfannkuchen, are available in lots of different varieties – filled with chocolate, liquor, custard etc instead of the usual jam filling.

What is shocking though, is the fact that the Germans officially start preparing for Carnival – by making pfannkuchen and so on – at 11 minutes past 11 o’clock on the 11th November. Yes – Remembrance Day. So while we in the UK and others are holding a minute’s silence to commemorate those who died during war – the Germans are frolicking around baking cakes and finding new ways to confuse us by changing the names of things in bakeries. Unbelievable.
history, Life in Berlin

20th Anniversary of The Fall of The Berlin Wall

20th Anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin WallOn Monday the city celebrated the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989. To mark the event, a symbolic wall of dominoes that snaked along the old border between east and west was felled, and Angela Merkel, Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton gave speeches at the Brandenburg Gate followed by a performance by Bon Jovi.

I had arranged to meet The Bavarian at Cafe Einstein on Unter den Linden, which should have been a short walk from Potsdamer Platz had it not been for the domino wall and various police barricades and checkpoints in the area.  Thus, I was able to contemplate life in Berlin 20 years ago as I walked around the cold, wet city desperately trying to get from East to West Berlin.

The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009

I finally made it after nearly an hour and was looking forward to having a nice cafe latte when The Bavarian promptly informed me that Cafe Einstein was too expensive and that we ought to leave for the Brandenburg Gate in order to find an optimum position. However, as it was raining and everyone had their umbrellas up, our view of the stage was completely blocked. We waited around for about half an hour, then went home to watch the event on TV like the rest of the world.

Twenty years is not such a long time in history, and despite what we have been seeing on the television about the fall of the wall, the people here are not all jumping around with joy nor are they united.  When I got off the train in Potsdamer Platz, where toppling of the domino wall began, someone had scrawled ‘Capitalism Kills’ on one of the walls – it is the type of graffiti that one sees frequently in Berlin. Where we live in Prenzlauer Berg, we have a Communist MP.  It is not unusual to hear people talking about how things were better in the DDR – everyone had a job, it was less stressful, rents and basic goods were cheaper.

The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse
The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse

I recently met Matthais Rau, an East Berliner who was childhood friends with Angela Merkel. He wanted to study medicine, but the state forbid him to because his father was a priest (Merkel also came from a religious family, however she was a member of the young socialist political group – and interestingly did not participate in the protests against the DDR). Rau commemorated the day the wall fell at the point at which he first crossed it – the bridge in Bornholmer Strasse (nicknamed Bösebrücke or Evil Bridge).  This was where the wall was opened first, and also where Merkel crossed.  

Although Matthais is starkly anti-DDR, he also has stories of old friends who got lost in the free market and became impoverished and depressed as a result.

There is also the question of unity – Berliners seem to instinctively know who is an Oestie and who is a Westie, and many people, especially from the old West, express the opinion that although they are happy the wall came down, the people from the East should belong to a different country.

Berlin has no doubt gone through an astounding amount of change over the last two decades – more than any other European country – however it still has a long way to go…

Historical information, links, maps and much more about the Berlin Wall – official Berlin site 

2009 Jahre Mauerfall – the official site about the 20th Anniversary celebrations

Peaceful revolution 1989 / 1990 – exhibition about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events that led to it

BBC: 20 years since the fall of The Berlin Wall

Watch videos about The Fall of the Berlin Wall on YouTube