The View from Berlin

Reflections on empire

The apartment we’re staying in overlooks the Wannsee, the great body of water that cuts through Berlin’s westernmost precincts. Each morning we throw back the drapes, and beyond the sloping lawn, beyond the boats in their slips, the lake is there to greet us, sometimes glittering in chilly sunlight, at other times-like today, because snow is falling-enveloped in wintry gloom.

The lake is narrow at this end. From our bedroom window we can see the villas and yacht clubs lining the opposite shore. In one such villa-hardly a ten-minute ride on the 114 bus from our flat-fifteen high-ranking Nazi functionaries gathered on January 20, 1942, to rubber-stamp Hitler’s plans to cleanse Europe of its Jews.

The Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, maintained today by the German government as a memorial and reminder, is itself a kind of metaphor for the Third Reich. Approached from the street-through an immense iron gate, up a circular driveway, toward the imposing columns flanking the main entryway-the sprawling three-story mansion presents a formidable appearance, but the image does not withstand closer inspection. The interior of the building is cold and devoid of architectural interest. The room in which the details of the Final Solution were worked out-once a dining room-is shabby and mean.

In another sense, the house is a microcosm of present-day Berlin. Arranged throughout it are photographs and blown-up documents that recount in gruesome detail the events leading up to January 20, 1942, and the even worse events that followed. German schoolchildren-two groups of distracted-looking teenagers when we were there-troop through the exhibit, brought face-to-face with a harrowing past which they did not make, but from which they cannot escape.

So too with the city as a whole. Nearly six decades after World War II, more than a decade after reunification, Berlin is, on the surface at least, a city in the midst of transformation and rebirth. It is also, and to an American visitor even more palpably, a city that remains mired in history. Everywhere are reminders of the vast, ruinous sequence of modern Germany’s rise and fall: from ambition to war, from war to militarism and defeat-with defeat giving rise to monstrous pathologies culminating in more war, in genocide, and finally in something approximating Armageddon.

Some of these artifacts possess a certain grandeur: Frederick the Great astride his charger, dominating the Unter den Linden; the Siegssaule, a triumphal column erected in the heyday of Prussia’s march toward empire and world power; the crypt of the Hohenzollerns beneath the Berliner Dom. Others are more unsettling: the stadium erected for the 1936 Olympic Games; the bombed-out ruin of the Kaiser-Wilhelmkirche near the Kurfurstendamm; the shrapnel-pitted buildings still found in neighborhoods of the former East; the few remnants of the famous wall that once split the city in half. Were that not enough, fresh reminders continue to accumulate: Berlin’s recently opened Jewish Museum, for example, and its Holocaust Memorial, still under construction.

Other reminders are more pedestrian but also more pervasive: to anyone who has visited a former Nazi concentration camp, the ceramic tiles and the enamel signs found in Berlin’s older S-bahn and U-bahn stations will have an unnerving familiarity. So too the color of the brickwork in underpasses and tunnels and the contours of buildings on station platforms. The engineering challenges of building an efficient public transportation system and the engineering involved in constructing a network of slave labor camps did not, after all, differ appreciably.

For Berliners, in other words, history is omnipresent. It is also indigestible, most recently touching off bouts of dyspepsia related to the Allied firebombing of German cities and the treatment of ethnic Germans, expelled from their homes at war’s end with no more consideration than German authorities had previously shown to populations of countries that the Wehrmacht had conquered. In the United States, World War II has long since become a subject of nostalgia and mythmaking. Here it remains something about which thoughtful Germans continue to brood and ruminate. To an observer from abroad, the prospect of Berliners-or their countrymen more generally-“forgetting to remember” and thus giving rise to a new “German problem” appears exceedingly far-fetched.

Whether the brooding and rumination can produce a new moral center for German national life is something else again. In Berlin, the museums are resplendent, the arts scene lively, and the Berlin Philharmonic is among the best orchestras in the world. Three separate opera companies play to packed houses. Restaurants in endless variety are filled with patrons (and with clouds of cigarette smoke). Berliners work feverishly at having fun.

Meanwhile, daily life in Berlin contains the occasional whiff of nihilism. Graffiti plasters virtually every square inch of public space. There is not enough work. The ennui among young Germans is such that couples cannot be bothered to procreate in numbers sufficient to sustain the population. Except as tourist attractions, churches stand all but empty. In the nearby parish where we attend 10:00 Mass each Sunday, worshipers number perhaps three dozen, almost all of them elderly. As if preparing the congregation for Germany’s full-fledged transition to post-Christianity, during Communion the organist plays pop tunes, in recent weeks “Hey, Jude” and “Killing Me Softly.”

Yet for a visiting American-particularly for an American dismayed by the delusions passing for statecraft in Washington of late-a house beside the Wannsee makes an ideal retreat. Other great capitals have stumbled over their own peculiar brand of hubris-Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, even London. None has done so with greater finality than Berlin.

Here in our apartment overlooking the Wannsee-in a house built by Jews, confiscated by the Nazis, used for decades by the American occupiers, converted now into a place for scholars from America to write and to draw on the totality of the German experience-here one confronts the fate awaiting those certain that history must conform to a predetermined design. Perhaps instead of spending his next vacation in Crawford, President George W. Bush would consider a stay in Berlin. We’d be willing to sublet.

Published in the 2004-03-26 issue: 
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Andrew J. Bacevich, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.

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