The Berlin morning was gray and drizzly, October 3, 2005, and the thin crowds milling outside the Brandenburg Gate were in no mood to celebrate the 15th annual Day of German Unity. Recent news suggested why: unemployment and the budget deficit were soaring, consumer confidence and birthrates were plunging, and economic growth was dismally flat. Berlin itself seemed to underscore the failure of the country’s reunification: over the past 15 years unemployment in the city had doubled to 20 percent, and civic debt had grown fivefold to a crushing $68 billion. Germany’s general elections 15 days before, widely expected to produce a new chancellor and fresh emphasis on economic and social reforms, had instead ended in a deadlock with the existing government, suggesting that the Germans feared the cure as much as the disease.
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Even the October date was wrong. The real red-letter day had been November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was first breached. I had been in Berlin that day and had seen a very different celebration. Citizens of the two hostile states had walked arm in arm like wide-eyed dreamers along the 200-yard stretch between the bullet-riddled Reichstag in the West and the smog-blackened Brandenburg Gate in the East. Berliners had danced on the hated wall, weeping openly and chanting, “We are one people!” Now the crowd was listless, the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, recently restored, shone pearly-white. And between them the wall might never have existed.
Only when I began to search for some trace of it did I notice a line of bricks at my feet. This, evidently, was where the 26-mile barrier, Berlin’s blight for 28 years, had stood. As I started walking south along the wall line, the bricks zigzagged under the currywurst stands and marionette stalls of the reunification festival, slipped beneath the traffic on Ebertstrasse, and sliced through the new skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz—the huge square that had been one of Berlin’s gems before Allied bombing in World War II turned much of it to rubble, and before the wall made it a no man’s land. Here, 30 minutes into my walk, I passed four concrete slabs, the first pieces of the actual wall I had seen. Painters had festooned them with naif figures and cherry-red hearts, making them look more like found art than the remains of a deadly barrier.
It wasn’t until the line of bricks left the tumult of Potsdamer Platz and turned onto the silent Niederkirchnerstrasse that the dreaded structure began to assert itself. A stretch of the wall rose up from the bricks, iron gray and some 13 feet tall, its rounded top designed to foil grappling hooks. This stretch of wall, a sign said, bordered the former Gestapo headquarters and prison complex at Prinz Albrechtstrasse 8, once the most feared address in Berlin. The headquarters had been demolished in the mid-1950s, but in 1986, when the area was excavated in preparation for redevelopment, parts of the Gestapo’s underground torture chambers came to light. West Berliners hurried to the site, and it became an open-air memorial to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Today, the cell walls contain photographs of the murdered: Communists, artists, gypsies, homosexuals and, of course, Jews. In one photo, a Jewish shopkeeper swept debris from the pavement in front of his plundered store, on the morning after Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when gangs of young Nazis marauded through Berlin’s Jewish neighborhoods on November 9, 1938.
Now it was clear why Berliners did not commemorate the wall’s collapse on the day it fell: November 9 had been permanently tainted by Kristallnacht, just as this vacant lot in the heart of the city had been poisoned by its history, and was now as unusable as the radioactive farmlands of Chernobyl.
Berlin is a palimpsest of old guilt and new hope, where even a cityscape you think you know well can suddenly reveal its opposite. “Beware Berlin’s green spaces!” local author Heinz Knobloch once wrote: parks and playgrounds still rest on air-raid bunkers too massive to destroy. Companies that contributed to the Holocaust still operate: DeGussa AG, manufacturer of the anti-graffiti coating applied to Berlin’s recently inaugurated Holocaust Memorial, also made the Zyklon B poison used in death-camp gas chambers.
As Berlin has done several times in its long history, the city is rebuilding itself, at Potsdamer Platz in avant-garde shapes of glass and steel, and elsewhere in new social structures, communities of artists and intellectuals where life seems as freewheeling as a traveling circus. There is a roominess here that no other European capital can match—Berlin is nine times larger in acreage than Paris, with less than one third of the population—and an infectious sense of anything goes.
By 1989, West Berlin was spending some $365 million a year on culture, more than the U.S. government spent on culture for the entire United States. Most of the beneficiaries of this civic largesse survived reunification; today Berlin boasts 3 world-class opera houses, 7 symphony orchestras, 175 museums, 1,800 art galleries and 2 zoos with more wild animals than any city in the world.
The city is still finding its identity and is a place of almost impossible contradictions: fixated with the past yet impatiently pursuing the future, impoverished yet artistically rich, a former capital of dictatorship and repression that has become a homeland of social freedom. But more than anything, Berlin is filled with—obsessed with—reminders of its history.
The wall was never a single barrier but three separate ramparts, sealing off a no man’s land of guard towers, patrol roads and razor wire known as the Todesstreifen, or “Death Strip,” which in places was hundreds of yards wide. Since reunification, the Death Strip has grown a varied crop. Back in Potsdamer Platz, the strip sprouted the cranes and buildings of a 300-acre, $5 billion business and entertainment complex. Only a 20-minute walk away, the Death Strip has become a green belt of parks and overgrown lots that feel like the countryside. The brick line faltered and disappeared, and I continued tracking the wall with the help of my city map, which marked its path in pale gray. I was often unsure whether I was in East or West Berlin. Near the Spree River, 40 minutes from Potsdamer Platz, the fields became still wider and wilder. Squatter communities have grown up, neat, ingeniously jury-rigged dwellings that ring to the sound of power tools and folk music and produce the scent of grilling meat.
Wall-hunting for the rest of the day, I found new life in old ruins along its route: a public sauna and swimming area in an abandoned glass factory, a discothèque in a former Death Strip guard tower, a train station converted into an art museum. But the telltale distinctions between East and West endure. The “walk” and “don’t walk” signs remain unchanged since reunification: while the stick figures of the West resemble those of other European capitals, in the former East Berlin the little green man wears a broad-brimmed hat and steps out jauntily, and his red alter ego stands with arms flung wide like the Jesus of Rio. Most buildings are still oriented to the now-invisible barrier: major roads parallel it, with the few cross-wall interconnections still freshly paved. Even footpaths run along the Death Strip. It takes more than a handful of years to remap 26 miles of cityscape, and to change the habits of a lifetime.