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Berlin's European destiny

Berlin skyline

The idea of a united Europe and of the Euro as a stable common currency has been much debated especially over the past ten years when the global financial crash severely destabilised individual national economies as well as international economic systems. The United States and the United Kingdom have become fierce critics of both the currency union and the political structures of a unified Europe, regularly predicting or possibly even wishing for the collapse of both. At the centre of their critiques is, implicitly and explicitly, the role and influence of Germany. A recent private visit to Berlin got me thinking about this question and where I stood personally as a member of a nation that had very recently voted to reject the idea of a united Europe along with the commitments which that brought with it.

My first visit to Berlin took place in the summer of 1963 when I drove with my German pen friend in his car across West Germany and on to West Berlin through the German Democratic Republic where I recall seeing graffiti on its motorway bridges telling us westerners ‘Hände weg von Kuba’ – ‘Hands off Cuba’ – the Cuban missile crisis the previous year had frightened the living daylights out of me! I was half way through my sixth form studying German at A Level, so the encounter with West and East Berlin was fascinating. I was immediately struck by the omnipresence of other nations in the city, notably the Russians, the Americans, the French and the British. I visited and learned how beautiful new housing developments in West Berlin such as the Hansaviertel had been designed by international architects and marvelled at the splendidly futuristic Kongresshalle.

Why did a city, I naïvely asked myself back then, that had been so badly destroyed less than 20 years previously look so much smarter and more modern than my bedraggled Victorian and Edwardian home town of Leicester in the East Midlands? On the other hand why, in order to go from one part of the same city to another, did I have to travel with my pen friend via a strange station called the Friedrichstrasse, alight there, be separated from him because he was a West German, be checked and then escorted on my own by an armed security guard around the back of the Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, and who was desperate to inform me about something or somebody and to enlist my help, and I just couldn’t make out what he was so urgently communicating? A German A Level in 1963 had little to do with acquiring communicative skills. It meant studying the texts of eighteenth and nineteenth century German writers from the literary canon, rather than decoding pleas for help from East Berlin border officials. What did he want from me? To this day I still feel disappointed and guilty that I let this young man down.

And that mystery-filled encounter sums up my early experience of the divided, disorientating world of Berlin. I had never experienced before then such a strong feeling of dis-location, and therefore of having to make sense of a place and a people.

View from East Berlin 1963

View from West Berlin 1963

This bafflement was intensified, as you might imagine, when on consecutive days I found myself standing on either side of a wall of concrete; once in front of a sign reading ‘Grenzgebiet’ (‘border region’) on the East Berlin side, and then gazing across the same strange wall from the West Berlin end at a group of sightseers on a raised platform gazing back at us. And, standing forlornly aloof and sadly deserted in the centre of this bewildering and dis-connected world of bemused voyeurs, was an edifice I learned was called the Brandenburger Tor.

 

Brandenburger Tor

 54 years later I walked along Unter den Linden with thousands of other tourists, through the no longer stranded Brandenburg Gate, then wandered over to the right past the Reichstag, glimpsing Norman Foster’s glass dome that allows the visiting viewer to peer into the democratic processes taking place below, then sauntered across mainly open ground towards the beckoning modernity of the Hauptbahnhof. It no longer mattered, as it did in 1963, whether I was walking from East to West, or from West to East. Getting my bearings physically or linguistically or ideologically, as in the 1960s, was irrelevant. Like the Reichstag itself, things had become light-filled. What intrigued me on that walk of barely a mile was where Germany stood right now, and where I stood as an Englishman as I looked in on a Germany that had moved from the piles of rubble of May 1945, through an occupation era that had heralded such deep divisions and split Berlin itself into two halves, and then onwards to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally on to reunification?

 

Berlin Reichstag

The undeniably subjective effect on me of this mile long stroll and its milestones was powerful yet genuinely surprising. Walking leisurely and freely past those symbolic buildings and public spaces, with their historical names and associations, crossing the Spree over a pedestrian bridge and looking down on groups of people milling about on the grassy verge for pleasure just a stone’s throw from Europe’s most influential parliamentary chambers, finally arriving at the postmodern bulwark of the central railway station, convinced me that Germany’s vision for itself is now absolutely – and defiantly – clear. It has a sense of destiny which unlike in previous eras is not mis-guided (and if I had taken a left turn out of the Brandenburg Gate I would have almost immediately walked straight into the symbolically located Holocaust memorial site, reminding Germans of just how grotesquely mis-directed some of their previous ideals and visions became).

Now though, without any grand demonstrations of where their future lies, Berlin (and by definition Germany) is being driven by a belief in European integration and it has the will to be a fundamental part of the peaceful reshaping of our continent – just as it is still reshaping itself. So whilst we in the United Kingdom are presently searching for a new vision for ourselves Germany, symbolised in and by its capital city, has modelled that vision for itself, based on knowledge of a clear destination, Europe, and of an even clearer destiny: to be a key agent of European peace and prosperity.

Tony Waine

Posted: 11th August 2017

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