Letter from Berlin

by James Como (April 2019)

Kurfürstendamm, George Grosz, 1925


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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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.


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.



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:



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.


second 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.


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.


[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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[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.”



[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). 




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