PULP Places: Berlin

29 Jan

“Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein”/“Berlin is a city condemned forever to ‘becoming’ and never to ‘being’” – Karl Scheffler, in Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal, 1910)

Living in Berlin feels a little like being in a realistic, unpleasantly gritty movie which nonetheless has something very important to say. Perhaps I have been reading too many Chandler similes and have seen too many German art housemovies, but this seems to encapsulate much of the German cultural experience which, with Berlin as its centre, is continuing to develop publicly but without acknowledgement as an extension of Germany’s history and consequent popular psychology.

That all sounds a little pompous, in fact, and I know far from enough about the subjects to discuss them in depth, but as an observer with more than a superficial interest in German things it is something I have been considering. The cultural and historical heritage of this country, for better or worse, will always swing around Nazism and World War II—at least until some more distance can be achieved between the recent past and more quantifiable ‘history’. But this past has trickled down to the popular and public level in a very ‘pulp’ manner; the way in which history has been pulped in some ways condemns Berlin in particular to remain a city damned to be always ‘becoming’ and never ‘being’.

Berlin was a city long-divided. From 1961 to 1989, the city—and the country—were two. East Germany (the DDR) was a kind of ghostly pale version of West Germany (the BRD) to many, and one that fell under the then-anxious gaze of a vehemently anti-Communist west. The Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, and the careful culture control became synonymous with the DDR, whilst the West was a rehabilitating democracy. They were two sides of a different iconic coin to many, a high and low city and country (though some would debate the merits of one over the other). After the fall of the Wall in 1989 and (re-)unification, Berlin was the centre of an effort—not always a successful one—to combine the two halves into a new cultural capital for the country (though the seat of government remained in Bonn for some time).

To a large extent, economy took over. Companies and individuals bought cheap land in the East and intended to build upon it. The former DDR areas have become gentrified now, and many of the areas in contemporary east Berlin remain cheap, but are also fashionable, places to live. The West, on the other hand, remains much as it was—only more dilapidated and with a relatively older population. Some areas of the city have been developed as tourist centres much like those of other modern metropolises (the Kurfürstendamm, Unter den Linden) but the majority of Berlin is to this day a patchwork of shiny offices, dilapidated apartments, ethnic ghettoes and modern museums which lend to its divided, high-low feel.

And the weight of the division, the world war preceding it, and the Nazi accession preceding that, is still present. Memorial is always a problem. Germany is required to commemorate the history of the 20th Century and the millions of deaths resultant from World War II, but in doing so it ‘pulps’ its history on a tourist market and—in commemorating the past—also situates the memorial in a geographic location, thus confining its impact and relevance. But the problems of German memorialising are best answered by Ms Jones, and I should direct you, the interested reader, to her for more erudite thoughts on those matters.

As far as these factors combining to make Berlin a pulp place, I can take an everyday example. I work at an office right next to Checkpoint Charlie, and not far from the former SS Gestapo headquarters and a section of the original Berlin Wall. All of these are now tourist attractions, and most people’s touristic interest in Berlin stems from an obsession with examining the locations of terrible tortures or of guards and gun posts (in what other modern city would a visit to a concentration camp be a tourist affair?). Simultaneously, if you walk down Friedrichstrasse, where Charlie is, you can buy a postcard of the city, or a furry faux-Russian military hat, or a (probably fake) piece of the Berlin Wall pinned to some card. Trading up on tourism when you’re talking about the Colosseum is one thing—it is ‘history’—but selling horrors of the recent past is always going to be more problematic.

Of course I don’t begrudge the Turkish street vendors selling gas masks or the teenagers dressed as American WWII soldiers selling photos at Checkpoint Charlie. It’s just business—much as real estate in the former East was bought up so that the owners could make money from its later gentrification. But this combination of high and low—a reverence for the past but a willingness to make a few euros out of it—is a perfectly pulp concept. The icons of the cultural past, to pardon a bad analogy, are being pulped and turned into the euro notes funding the city.

Berlin is a pulp city in ways that many others are too. It is opera, theatre, art house movies and shiny museums. It is also protest, dilapidated buildings and dirty walls. This description could just as well apply to London or New York. But the weight of its history, and the way in which it deals with it, and is still dealing with it, make it a very different kind of pulp. Public art, graffiti and memorials bring the terrible past and the life of the city together, whilst providing the place to confine those more difficult aspects of coping with the recent past, until it becomes ‘history’.

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the Nazi party coming to power. I wonder if there will be mention of this at all…

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