Letter from Berlin

by James Como (April 2019)

Kurfürstendamm, George Grosz, 1925


First impressions. On the ride from Tegel airport to the Ritz-Carlton there are construction sites everywhere, or so it seems—whole blocks of massive ditches, looming cranes, concrete megaliths, protruding rebar—but no workers, with one exception; a single man bangs a nail. During our five days we would spend three nights at the Ritz-Carlton and two at the Adlon Kempinsky, join a walking tour of the city, visit six (out of the approximately one-hundred-and-fifty) museums, including three on Museum Island, visit Sans Souci, the castle of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, eat many a fine meal, pick the brains of some twenty people, luxuriate in those two greatest of hotels, and of course, shop, at the KaDeWe department store (Kaufhaus des Westens, “Department Store of the West”), the template for the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, which was not the first of its type, no matter its claim (1907 v. 1921/2).


The temperature hovered between the low forties and mid-fifties, the sun mostly winning against clouds and light rain. Though not commonly as in Amsterdam, English is spoken enough for the German-deficient visitor to more than just get by. Yet, unlike Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, London, Lima, New York, Prague, and so many other cities, Berlin does not invite strolling: the city is not the sight. You will get to a park, inevitably, and see many trees along the way, which, by the way, are . . . numbered. You will visit much, and see more construction sites, all virtually empty of people, not unlike this broad, lightly trafficked, under-populated, fascinating, complex, melancholy city.


Our conceptual maps are often out of sync with the real thing, cities being no exception. Sure, my mental Madrid matched the Spanish capital when I finally came to know it, but my mental Granada was far less incantatory than its actual Moorish splendor. So, when I have attempted travel writing, it has come after some familiarity: a number of visits, knowledge of at least clusters of words and phrases with a rudimentary reading ability of the language—though I could cheat, sort of, on Amsterdam, where English is spoken universally: I was not be describing a conception.


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I am certainly cheating on Berlin, though, since I’d never visited and have no German to reckon with. Worse, I have several conceptual ‘Berlins’. There is the decadent Berlin—Berlin Babylon, Cabaret, so many depictions of the Weimar years—and then the between-the-war Nazi Berlin—Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, David Downing’s Zoo Station (the first in a series), and, especially, the fabled Adlon Hotel, epicenter of espionage, romance, betrayal, death, and luxury. Next door to those ‘Berlins’ is the historical ‘Berlin’, especially for one such as I, born soon after WWII: divided, air-lifted, eventually defaced by a barrier resembling a scar made by a blind surgeon after a botched belly operation.


Then—who would have guessed (besides Ronald Reagan)? —along comes a unified Berlin: a capital restored which, though certainly having lost the war, seems to have won the peace as the anglophonic, apparently prosperous, somewhat cocky city, the tuning fork of the globalist coup de continent, the European Union.[1] But I am educable, I think. My many ‘Berlins’ might evaporate like a morning mist.


Second impressions. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Potsdamer Platz 3, is across the street from a major train station, a short walk from the new (but routine) mall, and a short cab ride to the KaDeWe. Its front door, front desk, and front office service is second (barely) only to the Savoy. From doorman Terry (a transplanted North Carolinian song-writer), to Alexander, a master concierge, to Tino at the front desk and Nicole in the tenth-floor Club Room (cozy, comfortable, generous), to Marie-Luis Heroven, the concert master of this symphony—all conform to the Ritz-Carlton Credo and its twelve points of Service Values (e.g. “I own and immediately resolve guest problems”; would that all Germans would take the two-year training course that Tino had just completed). On the other hand, as well-appointed as the hotel certainly is, and spacious, it is not itself a sight, notwithstanding its balustrades, art deco, and ubiquitous Ritz-Carlton comfort.


The highlights of our visit were that walking tour (five hours: we would pay for that infraction), the trip to San Souci, the Berliner Residenz Konzerte at the Charlottenburg palace, and museums: Alte, Pergamon, and Neus on Museum Island, the magnificent Gemalde Galerie museum (where the German art is a revelation)—and the Adlon. In the center of town is the Tiergarten, an immense, heavily-wooded park that used to be a hunting forest. In fact, there are several parks to accompany the many trees everywhere else, but, it having been February, those are bare, ruined choirs. In warm weather the city would be lush. (Outside of Berlin, but not that far outside, are some wolves and wild boar, but they are not hunted.)


Did I forget the KaDeWe? Worth a special mention, not because it’s department-store special (somewhere between Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s), but because of the non-descript food counters—nondescript except for the food. Who orders lasagna at a lunch counter in a department store in Germany? Someone with character flaws, of course. Well . . . it turned out to be the very best restaurant lasagna I’ve ever eaten. Need I add that the counter was staffed by Italians? Score one for the EU. By the way, our farewell meal, at the Adlon and within full view of the magnificently illuminated Brandenburg Gate, was spaghetti Bolognese, same rating, an off-menu dish specially prepared by—you don’t even need a guess. And not so expensive. Except for taxi fares, which rival those of New York, Berlin is not, even at its toniest, an expensive city.


The museums are impressive, not least for their variety and the intimacy of their displays. Truth be told, for a country that numbers its trees the layouts were unsystematic, for the most part. One part, however, that was perfectly located in the Neues Museum was the context for, and the bust of, Queen Nefertiti. A perfect—and perfectly painted and preserved—semblance of an astonishingly regal and beautiful woman (think Angela Bassett). The queen’s husband, Akhenatan, is missing his nose, but that doesn’t matter: he (briefly) established monotheism in Egypt, maybe roughly contemporaneous with Abraham: not a coincidence, I think; at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Third impressions. Already I’ve said enough to invite dispute from Alexandra, who was charmed by the city, insisting that there is much more to see than we could manage. I say, true, but more to see does not add up to more charm: the place simply does not cast a spell, as charms will do. Sure, it was leveled in the War, and half the place was re-built with all the imagination the Commies could muster; but that merely explains, without diminishing, the charmlessness.


An exception to that judgment (though here I was far more charmed than Alexandra) were the dinner and concert at the Charlottenburg palace, a schloss vastly different from the drab, ill-managed, though impressively informative San Souci. True, the outdoor lighting and signage that would get you to the Orangerie of the sprawling palace made arriving a challenge—no fun in the cold. But once inside we found a total commitment to eighteenth-century elegance, from costuming and service to language and ritual. One hundred people fit comfortably in the large hall. The food and drink were top shelf, the timing relaxed, and the violin soloist who played before dessert elegant and moving. Then, after we moved across the large lobby to the intimate music chamber, we heard an ensemble play and sing Mozart, Bach, Handel and others: easily as accomplished and complex a performance as I’ve ever witnessed, and from front row seats.


Philip Kerr’s anti-Nazi detective Bernie Gunther knows the Adlon hotel intimately, having been the house detective after leaving Kripo, the Criminal Police. Now in business for himself, he visits his old haunt:


I went through the hotel’s handsome doorway and into the sumptuous lobby with its square pillars of dark, yellow-clouded marble. Everywhere there were tasteful objets d’art


Destroyed not by the war but by a fire, the landmark was rebuilt almost to its original splendor and very close to its old address, two blocks from the Brandenburg Gate (and just about next door to the American Embassy, with the Russian embassy further down the street on the other side).


Its décor is less busy than in Bernie’s day, but no less beguiling: central stained glass dome (peaches and cream), marble columns, the striking elephant sculpture in the cushy lounge just beyond the entrance (think the Plaza Hotel in New York City), wide corridors with wood and small glass panels and mirrors that go on and on, then turn and go on further still. The personal service is not quite there with the Ritz-Carlton’s—not the warmth nor the anticipation (of, for example, a taxi): still, a reason to return to Berlin.


At the Adlon the Lorenz restaurant (two Michelin stars) was unavailable, so we dined twice at the Quarre. There was the spaghetti Bolognese for our farewell dinner, following a lunch the day before, with a Riesling made exclusively for the Adlon. We never called for room service but should have; that would have allowed more time in the room: spacious, bright, elegant, with a desk you’d want to work at through the night. Much depends on personal taste, of course, but if all this does not suit yours, then . . . change it.


Final thoughts. Our educated concierge, schooled in East Berlin for ten years, never heard of Animal Farm or 1984second hand—and the shoes are not . . . Prada. One man’s grandmother fled west to escape the Russians, only to wind up in Dresden, at the wrong time. Another man’s uncle walked west through the Gate, bought a pair of jeans, walked back, and was stopped by the Stasi: they would talk to him at headquarters the next day about those jeans. So he got on a train, went to the West, and didn’t return for fifty years. Then he was dressed flashily and drove a Porsche. He had become a waiter and saved his money.


A woman, now old and still very sweet and gentle, worked for the German Democratic Republic, across the street from the Wall. Whereas everyone else had to wait twelve years for the two-stroke, 26hp Trabant, little more than a sewing machine, she did not: her boss, rewarding her fealty, put her at the top of the line. She was safe, employed, never hungry, had medical care (after a fashion) —and wishes the wall were back. As it happens she is the mother-in-law of our walking tour guide—the very best I’ve ever had, by far, a Kiwi named Mike who is, quite seriously, a historian. He allows that freedom did not matter to the woman, nor did the Stasi: if you were loyal—and why wouldn’t you be? —then you had nothing to hide. When I point out that she’d have it all in Cell Block D at Sing Sing, he answers that she would not appreciate the difference.


Mike is a font of knowledge. For example, the East, he explains in taxational detail, survives because subsidized by the West; the West is vexed, the East resentful. A voting map of Berlin reveals that the East continues to vote, preponderantly, for the party that controlled them for fifty years. We visit a remnant of the wall, of course, and Checkpoint Charlie, then a square now marked with a dark glass set in the concrete over a vertical shaft lined by empty book shelves, empty because here is exactly where the infamous book-burning took place. (When a woman allows her dog to scratch the glass Mike scolds her in English, she answers, “speak to me in German,” he does, she turns, jerking her hund with her. No voices are raised.)


He shows us the Jewish Memorial, fronting Hannah Arendt Street: a football field populated by large rectangular stones that sink and rise with the undulations of the field. We walk among them, puzzlement slowly transforming, almost alchemically, into horror, then anger, then sadness, and finally understanding: person after person, unnamed, the same, no matter the depth or height of the stone, and seemingly unending. When we are standing on a sidewalk directly above what was Hitler’s last bunker, I want nothing more than to take a piss. We do not visit the Terror Museum, or any of the death camps, like Ravensbruck, which are nearby.


Most of the Germans I spoke with admit to being self-conscious losers, and to knowing why; East Germans are losers the more so. (One young woman wondered if, while visiting the United States, she would be stigmatized because she is German.) Never once did I hear the words ‘communist’ or ‘dictatorship’ or ‘totalitarian’; rather, one ideology lost to another.[2] One man, articulate and thoughtful, says he needs the European Union because in unity there is strength. What I hear is the voice of someone who needs to be accepted, to belong.


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I leave with a schizophrenic ‘Berlin’: much of enduring interest meets the eye and is enjoyable in a cherry-picked way, is historically engaging, is efficient in its centrality. Then I remember: more than two decades ago Sam Hux, addressing his colleagues, voiced reservations over the unification of Germany. Hmm. He should know it remains divided; most people, even those born after unification (let alone WWII), are mindful of a shameful past, as well as of their noncomplicity in it, yet I found no discussion of the quasi-re-Nazification trend that followed our de-Nazification program.[3] Is there a subterranean Berlin, or two? After all, the very name comes from a West Slavic word meaning ‘bog’. Things sink.


All within a greater Germany: forests, fairy tales, poets, musicians, philosophers. Which of our modern, twentieth-century cultures was most elevated if not the German? After all, Hitler could quote Schopenhauer from memory. In The Fall of Berlin, 1945 Antony Beevor tells us that on the night of April 12, 1945, as the Red Army began its final assault on Berlin, the philharmonic was performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and the finale of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. “After the performance,” he continues, “the Nazi Party had organized Hitler Youth members to stand in uniform with baskets of cyanide capsules.”


Berlin (Germany?) needs—has always needed—its bridges, whether symbolic, steel, or human, bridges connecting old and new, guilt and reconciliation, a schizophrenic identity and an integrated one, the bully and the bullied. This I could not grasp until I saw it for myself, for even the richest historical fiction and Marlene’s movies don’t quite get it done (though one movie comes very close, the truly magnificent Never Look Away). Hilde Schramm (b. 1936)—the daughter of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect (d. 1966 after his release from prison)—won the Moses Mendelssohn Prize for her persevering aid to Jewish victims of atrocities and is past vice president of the Berlin House of Representatives (from the Alliance 90/the Green). She is such a bridge. I’d heard and read of her before my visit; no one I spoke with even knew the name.


A sour note, that; maybe I’m cranky owing to an overly-adventurous flight home. Or maybe I’m not as educable as I’d supposed. Alexandra is longing to return. Best see for yourself.


[1] Or has it?  Only 2% of its internet infrastructure is fiber optic (and so the government would partner with Huawei, the insidious Chinese mega corporation); its frenetic determination to de-nuclearize everything will make them dependent on Russian natural gas, and Oliver Nachtwey, in his Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe, reveals the thinness of German’s economic stability.  The admission of huge waves of immigrants – Germans, not only Merkel, pride themselves on tolerance and ethnic inclusivity almost to the point of fetish – has energized large swatches of the population to join opposition parties, in effect neutering Merkel’s own.

[2] Mike did describe the Berlin Airlift and, after prompting from me, the Soviet invasion that quelled the GDR uprising in 1953: he would then describe the other attempts at revolution crushed by the Soviets.  By the way, belief in the efficacy of a free market economy is not an ideology, because the desire for freedom is not, and that desire is latent in every human being (though clearly more latent in some than in others). 

[3] In Reckonings, Mary Fulbrook documents the convicted Nazis who were restored to positions of authority, including as judges, in the fifties.  Some perpetrators were released because, as they mass-murdered their victims, they were not breaking any laws.  Victims could never forget, Fulbrook points out; rather, forgetfulness was the “privilege of the perpetrators.”




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James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015). His newest book, from the Oxford University Press, is C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction.

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