Ghosts of Berlin

Oliver Rogers, writer
Oliver Rogers

Guest post by my son, Oliver Rogers aged 19

As an eager young traveller, my time in and understanding of Berlin was defined by my attempt to locate its zeitgeist. Haunted by the idea of going to a city or a country and not really experiencing it, not really experiencing Paris or London or Munich I was determined to find where the essence of the city lay. I wanted to be able to say, “This is Berlin”. Upon arriving in Berlin and exploring the area surrounding the Hotel I was somewhat stumped. I couldn’t find it, and although it seems arrogant to think you could encounter the essence of an entire city on a couple of streets what I immediately encountered was different to what I had expected. We arrived on a warm day, different to the bleak urbanism that characterised my idea of the city, and my initial reference point for the area we explored was Barcelona. The clear skies, flanked on either side by tall walls of buildings, and wide streets; I asked myself “Is this Berlin?”, the German metropolis with the lazy atmosphere of a coastal Mediterranean city? However, as me and my dad explored the city further and began to encounter what I expected Berlin to be I came to understand not only what its zeitgeist was but where it was stored, and how that was unique to Berlin as a city.

Reichstag, Berlin - photo by John Rogers
The Reichstag

One of the first landmarks we visited was the Reichstag. It was a hot day, hotter than I had ever imagined Berlin being and the building stood there with all of its regular significance; The seat of power in Germany, a monument to a long civil history. More than anything however it struck me as this looming epitaph, an epitaph for what Germany had been for the past century. Fittingly not too far away lay an actual epitaph, an epitaph to the soviet soldiers that fell during the battle of Berlin. At first, I thought that the way Berlin embodied and enshrined its past was similar to other cities like London. It enshrined them in monuments, preserved buildings, plaques, museums and so forth. London’s essence is distributed across its entire surface, but certain sites act as a concentration of the city’s essence in sights like these; physical manifestations of history and symbolism and importance. Great monuments like Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, The British Museum, and St Paul’s Cathedral.  London is an old global artery and it embodies these things proudly. This is what I expected of Berlin. We pressed on and encountered a monument to the homosexuals murdered during the holocaust unassumingly placed in a park- A large grey slab of stone- across the street from rows upon rows of concrete coffins commemorating the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, both of which were sobering in their simplicity and in the weight of their presence.  As a security guard chased children who had been clambering on the coffins as if they were a piece of street infrastructure it began to strike me that Berlin was different. These sites of atonement, sober acknowledgements of the country’s dark past, I realised that these monuments weren’t simply separate from the city, distinct sites embodying a past other attached to the rest of the essence of the city like a benign tumour, these sites constituted the foundation of the essence of the city itself. The children clambered because perhaps they did not view that memorial as a separate entity detached from the city itself but also as a part of Berlin as any street or church or museum. Berlin is defined by its history like any city, but for Berlin, this unavoidably means being a city defined by its crimes. In places such as the holocaust memorial and fragments of the Berlin wall these sites not only serve as historical sites but manifestations of a city in perpetual atonement.  These sites peppered the whole city like old scars, and this feeling of a looming shadow, a shadow of atrocity extends out from these monuments and pervades over the entire city like a fine mist, something I would come to understand more and more as we progressed throughout our trip.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

After visiting an exhibition on Karl Marx we encountered preserved bullet holes in the side of the building from the battle of Berlin. Initially I viewed it like any other memorial site or historical monument, but as we progressed and the bullet holes became a common feature in many of the buildings in the centre I realised that this was a feature of the city. This shadow was something the city had kept so that they would not forget, and thus it became a core part of the essence of Berlin. In cities such as London, there is minimal social or governmental atonement for the atrocities of empire despite the fact that the legacy of empire is embedded into the bones and the role of the city, there is no atonement. Architecturally we consecrate our triumphs and bury our crimes. The atrocities of empire are a footnote, an unpleasant fact attached to the overall history of the city like a post-it note. Berlin cannot do this, as its history is completely entwined with its dark past. For Berlin however this confrontation with its own history is embedded into the essence of the city itself, and as such there are no individual sites that act as conduits for the essence of the city much better than any street or square. It is everywhere, all-pervading. Berlin in many ways is a graveyard; it saw the death of the empire, the republic, the Reich and of communism.  Every street was an artery of a past death machine, an archaic empire, a dead experiment and it knows this, it refuses to forget. It preserves its wounds.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Checkpoint Charlie

The arrival at Checkpoint Charlie was one of the most striking moments of the entire trip for me. We didn’t quite know what we were expecting, but personally, I found it disappointing. I thought that a site of such historical importance would have some element of grandiosity about it, but it had nothing of the sort. Soon however I realised that Checkpoint Charlie was more than anything a subtle monument to a defeat, a defeat of the communist east and as we browsed and picked through Soviet helmets for sale, kiosks full of hammer and sickle emblazoned hip flasks and pins adorning images of Marx and Lenin it further occurred to me that this is exactly what a capitalist victory over communism would look like. The entire cultural legacy of the Soviet Union and the shadow it cast over Germany were reduced to commodities, commodities to be bought and gawked at and exchanged in hopes that you could purchase a fragment of that long-dead communist zeitgeist. As well as being a monument to defeat Checkpoint Charlie was a victory monument to capitalism, and if a monument to capitalist victory were to be anything it would be precisely what Checkpoint Charlie was; a market. Capitalism displayed its victory through its functioning, its breakdown of the soviet legend into little trinkets you could put on your shelf. As I was buying a chunk of the Berlin wall preserved in resin is when this all became clear to me, and when I realised that far from being a disappointment Checkpoint Charlie was exactly what it should be; banal, friendly, a pastiche, a place you leave with a receipt in your pocket.

Soviet War Memorial

Ultimately, I came to understand Berlin as a city defined by its history more than most because its history is synonymous with its crimes, and unlike most cities, it actively engages with the unfiltered darkness of it. It is a city entrenched in its past. Its past constitutes its very essence and one’s very understanding of it and therefore it is a city defined by its crimes.

It doesn’t concentrate a curated and airbrushed history and essence into sites and monuments, Berlin’s sites are simply nodes in the larger network of its zeitgeist. With all this in mind Berlin is still a beautiful city, one that, due to the embedding of its essence throughout all of its bones, feels vast and varied and rich. East Berlin whilst also engendering a divided Europe engenders the seeds of what Berlin is becoming, of how the city is developing in the wake of its past.  The historical proximity to the epochs that have defined contemporary Berlin is unavoidable, and it is why the shadow of the past looms large, but the cinders of Berlin’s past provide a foundation to develop an identity separate from its past rather than being largely defined by it. However, Germany’s epoch of subjugator and subjugated only ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and therefore that shadow will project its darkness over Berlin and the country for a long, long time. 

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  1. Alex   •  

    Good bit of travelogue, Ollie. Cheers👍

  2. lorna   •  

    Very inspired and inspiring reading of Berlin. Thank you for insights.

    • Alix Allcock   •  

      Fascinating read Ol, very thoughtful and insightful.

  3. Gerry King   •  

    A thoughtful and well considered piece. I can relate to this take on Berlin having visited some years ago and trying to make sense of the city.

  4. Christine Slike   •  

    Very insightful analysis of a city. You are more than a “tourist”👍👍

  5. Helen   •  

    A wise head on young shoulders. What a thoughtful and considered response you your visit.

  6. Chris Geisler   •  

    Well written and insightful. Looking at Berlin in a whole different perspective. Nicely done.

  7. Jeremy millar   •  

    An excellent piece. A subtle and insightful analysis. Pre-war Berlin is also fascinating and has particular zeitgeist that we tend to understand through film and literature. I would recommend ‘Berlin Alexander Platz’ by Alfred Dobling.

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