The Late Bloomer: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital

By Michael Sontheimer

Part 3: Berlin Is Too Late to the Game

The Late Bloomer: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital Photos
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Berlin was devastated and in ruins, and yet it continued to hold the world's attention, this time as a stage and bone of contention in the Cold War that quickly developed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Its demoralized residents were left to serve as marionettes and extras on both sides. "The desire for recognition is enormous," Swiss author Max Frisch noted in 1947. "Anyone who now asserts that Berlin is unbroken in its intellectual life is an important thinker."

That, of course, was nonsense. After its rapid -- too rapid -- rise from 1871 to 1933, and its self-destruction before 1945, the city had reached the end of its success story. Now a radical process of deceleration began. Occupied by the Allies and robbed of their dynamism, the Western sectors were turned into an artificial showcase of the free world, while the Eastern sector became the "Capital of the German Democratic Republic" and a "City of Peace."

The two halves of the city still had some things in common: They were kept afloat by their respective republics, and the petite bourgeoisie was able to hoist itself up to become the dominant and style-defining class, obsessed with becoming a cosmopolitan city once again.

The partition and the constant presence of the lost war meant that Berlin could not look to the future with as little hesitation as other German cities. There were still bombsites all over the city decades after the war had ended, and many gray facades were still riddled with bullet holes from the final battle for Berlin.

Against this morbid backdrop, it seemed only fitting that the suicide rate in West Berlin was twice as high as in the rest of West Germany, and even 20 percent higher than in East Berlin.

Destruction of the Traditional

During reconstruction, politicians on both sides of the city subscribed to Walter Benjamin's notion of "destructive character" and "making space." Wolf Jobst Siedler, who sharply criticized the anti-historic obsession with demolishing buildings in his book "The Murdered City," wrote "that Berlin has only remained true to itself in the destruction of the traditional."

It wasn't until the end of the 1970s that the heavy-handed use of the wrecking ball to overcome the past came to an end. At that point, it was no longer possible to say whether the war or postwar city planners had been responsible for more destruction.

Berlin was known as a divided city, but it also had no meaning. This was painful to Berliners, especially against the background of their illustrious past. Berliners and their politicians were still characterized by a combination of an inferiority complex and megalomania for years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At first, they fantasized over a new, gigantic burst of growth similar to what happened after 1871. But although construction resembling that of the Gründerzeit period soon began, industry did not return to the city, despite all efforts, nor did its famous "tempo."

No matter how hard it tries, Berlin cannot catch up to megacities of the 21st century, like Istanbul, Shanghai or São Paulo. Always a later bloomer, Berlin is now truly too late to the game.

Post-Industrial Party

Since the turn of the millennium, Berliners have slowly acquired a more realistic and relaxed view of their city. To put it simply, Berlin is poor from a financial standpoint, but rich in terms of culture and history, and it is relatively slow but relaxed.

Parts of Berlin have turned into a and culture park for more than 10 million visitors a year. Foreigners are attracted to its history, of course: the Kaiser, Hitler and the Wall. But Berliners are not as interested in the past, and they make up only about 10 percent of visitors to the memorials that can be found all over the city.

Berlin, as an urban individual, simply grew too quickly to smoothly develop its own identity. It experienced and survived five extremely different political systems in only 120 years, from 1871 to 1990. The city's prehistory and its present pale by comparison to the city's stormy growth bordering on self-destruction.

The city and its residents have received an overdose of history and endured a roller coaster of ideologies. Since the fall of the wall, older residents can finally recover from the dramas and catastrophes of the 20th century, which is something that younger Berliners, thanks to having been born later, don't need. And more than half of the current population came to the city after reunification.

The burdens of history have been removed from their shoulders. But this also has its drawbacks, because Berlin's uniqueness has been passé since 1990. Even the memories of its uniqueness are fading, as Berlin slowly becomes a normal city.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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BTraven 11/22/2012
Being a normal city is the worst what could happen to Berlin. It's never been an ordinary town. Given the size of governments nowadays (don't forget the lobbyists) is it imaginable that the former revolutionary city could become a residence town like Dresden or Karlsruhe.
2. Correction to historical errors/exaggerations
stevej8 11/24/2012
Not a bad article, but it contains a few historical errors. Germany was not led into WW1 by 'the feeling of having arrived too late on the scene, of having missed out on a place in the sun and of being underestimated by neighboring nations', but by the rather more prosaic matters of Austria Hungary's escalating dispute with Serbia and Russia, followed by Russian (and French) general mobilisation also. Or more broadly the general tense situation of European politics and alliances and Germany's difficult position in the centre of it all. The Romans also practiced human sacrifice, especially for sporting purposes (in the arena), and actually wanted quite a bit to do with the Germans (as subjects) until they suffered a major defeat at their hands in the Teutoburger Wald. And lastly the RAF raids on Berlin started before the London Blitz, which did not get underway until September. The first one was nominally in retaliation for an accidental bombing of London by a few planes against orders, but as the RAF had been bombing German cities since May 1940, it may in fact have simply been an extension of the same campaign with a fortuitous excuse. At any rate the sequence and dates are not in doubt and given by all historians of the subject. Deliberate bombing of the capital was commenced by Britain not Germany, other factors aside.
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