There has been an upsurge of sympathetic interest in Germany in the British media over the past few months. Cynics might put this down to Germany’s high profile in the World Cup but it could also be a generational shift. As the two World Wars recede further into the past there is a greater willingness to view German history and culture in a more objective way. In the current series on Radio 4 ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, acknowledges the profound influence Germany has had across Europe over the past six centuries. He tells its “patchwork history” by selecting various buildings and objects and the first ten episodes have been gripping. There are another 20 episodes to go and each lasts just over 14 minutes. They are broadcast twice daily from Monday to Friday and also available as podcasts. I am hooked – and have already booked tickets for the exhibition which opens at the British Museum next week.
Neil MacGregor standing outside the Reichstag in Berlin
Berlin was centre-stage for the first two episodes. MacGregor selects the Brandenburg Gate as his first building, describing it as “the national symbol of division and of liberty regained”. It was built in the 1780s as a monument of peace and was first used as a triumphal arch by Napoleon when he marched his victorious troops through the Prussian capital in 1806, but it was in the 20th Century that the Brandenburg Gate became such an international icon. It was used for Nazi torchlight processions in the 1930s, an anti-Communist uprising in the 1950s and in 1961 the Berlin Wall was built right in front of it. Then in 1989 over a million people gathered around it to celebrate the reunification of their capital and their country. My own memories of the Brandenburg Gate stretch back over 40 years and include taking coachloads of tourists to gaze at the bizarre sight of this bricked-up monument.
The Brandenburg Gate blocked off by the Berlin Wall in the 1980s
Today, standing at the Brandenburg Gate the view to the west is of the golden angel at the top of the ‘Siegessäule’, the column marking the victories over Denmark, Austria and France by which Bismarck unified Germany. It originally stood in front of the Reichstag but Hitler had it moved to its current location to form part of his east-west axis in the future capital of ‘Germania’. The chariot on the top of the Brandenburg Gate actually faces east though and the view once included Berlin’s grand promenade, ‘Unter den Linden’ and the huge royal palace which dominated the city centre, the ‘Berliner Stadtschloss’. This building was badly damaged in the war, then demolished by the the East Germans in the early 1950s because it represented German imperialism. During the GDR era the site was used for the construction of the ‘Palast der Republik’, the communist parliament building. In 2008 this building was also demolished to make room for the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss as a museum and cultural centre.
The spectacular view eastwards from the Brandenburg Gate before the Second World War
The Brandenburg Gate and all that it surveys recalls much of the incoherence and shifting nature of German history. But it is the memory of the Holocaust that overshadows all others and which sits at the very heart of the Berlin in the form of the disturbing and very unsettling Holocaust Memorial, only a few metres from the Brandenburg Gate.
The stark grey slabs of the Holocaust Memorial
Nearby, there are more recent memorials to other groups of people persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, including gay men, Roma, and the disabled.
The memorial to the 300,000 disabled victims of the Nazis, unveiled on 2 September 2014
‘Divided Heaven’ is the title of the second episode of ‘Memories of a Nation’. It is the English translation of ‘Der geteilte Himmel’, a famous German novel by Christa Wolf, which tells the story of an East German couple who are torn apart by the division of their country. Rita joins Manfred when he decides to leave Halle and go to West Berlin but she returns to the GDR just before the Berlin Wall is built. As Neil MacGregor points out, the word ‘Himmel’ in German can mean either ‘heaven’ or ‘sky’ and so the title represents both emotional and physical division. Wim Wender’s `1987 ‘Wings of Desire’ (‘Himmel über Berlin’) is a wonderful fantasy on this theme. MacGregor introduces this second episode standing by the river Spree in the centre of Berlin. It is a sunny day and the Spree is buzzing with pleasure boats and tourists, rather like the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. But there is one big difference. On the southern side of the river there is a row of white crosses to represent the East Germans who died trying to cross the Spree in their bid for freedom. During the city’s division much of the river formed the actual border between East and West Berlin and there were even railings sunk into the water to deter escape attempts.
An aerial view of the Spree. The Berlin Wall is shown by the blue line, but the actual border is the yellow line.
The object which MacGregor selects as an exhibit for this period of German history is an East German wetsuit once used by a would-be refugee. But memory itself is also selective and it is sometimes a case of what is not remembered that is so significant. Christa Wolf even admitted to forgetting that she had once given information to the Stasi and so in the case of Berlin it is not surprising that there are so many memorials to the past, lest we all forget. As the capital of modern Germany, Berlin has become a central place of remembrance. It is a city that recognises history as something that should never happen again. The last four chapters of ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ – ‘Jewish Berlin’, ‘Hitler’s Berlin’, ‘Divided Berlin’ and ‘The Berlin Wall’ contain detailed information on Berlin’s memorials.
On a more light-hearted note, in the episode broadcast on Friday 10th October, ‘One People, Many Sausages’, Berlin gets a mention for its favourite street-food, the Currywurst – a sausage covered in ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder. The history of this particular sausage even has a British connection. In post-1945 Berlin a British soldier was selling curry powder on the black market and this added an exotic edge to the simple cheap staple food of the hungry population. It is now a gastronomic symbol of Berlin, loved by young and old alike. According to MacGregor it is also “an essential part of today’s Berlin experience” and part of the gastronomic memory of a nation. To enjoy some tasty currywurst in Berlin, click here for a list of ‘the best of the wurst’ and if you want to know more about the history of the currywurst you can always visit the Deutsches Currywurst Museum near Checkpoint Charlie and get inter-actively involved with this legendary snack. There’s 20% off entrance on Mondays, when most other museums are closed. On the other hand, perhaps it’s best not to know too much. As Neil MacGregor points out, Bismarck is meant to have said: “there are two things that is best for citizens not to know how they are made – laws and sausages”.
A famous ‘grillwalker’ selling currywurst outside Alexanderplatz Station