thomas m wilson

The past and the present in Berlin

August 14th, 2023

This morning I visited the Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial, the largest war memorial in Germany and a place that honours the Soviet victory over the Nazis when they eventually took Berlin, and the more than 80 thousand Russian soldiers who were killed.  More than 5 thousand are buried under the grass here where I was walking.  This is the most impressive war memorial I have ever seen. 

Two giant flags made from red granite are lowered as a kind of gate to the space.  A huge rectangle greets you of grass, flanked by many large stone sarcophagi on either side of this long rectangle.  At the opposite end you see a hill on which stands a vast bronze statue of a victorious soldier.  The soldier carries a sword, and its blade bites down into a broken swastika.  Leaving aside the politics of all this for a moment, you could not design a more monumental and awe inspiring war memorial.  This was made about four years after Berlin had surrounded to the Soviet troops in mid 1945.  It took 3 years to build with 1200 workers and 200 sculptors.  As I walked around looking at the carved stone reliefs telling the story of the Russian struggle to defeat the Nazis I was reminded that at least symbolically the Russians had won the second world war.  They raised their flag over the Reichstag.

Note the blade cutting into the swastika.
Under this grass lay more than 5 thousand dead Russian soldiers.

Berlin can easily bring thoughts of sad and monumental European history to mind. 

But it can also easily lighten the load.  Ever since Christopher Isherwood can here in the twenties to live a bohemian life, or Nick Cave came here in the eighties to be debauched and compose music, or continuing with the electronica of the clubs of today, it has had a lighter side.

I walked around Freidrichshain yesterday evening as the sun was low and the warm summer glow filled the cafes and bars of this alternative, creative neighbourhood.  It felt like one of the coolest places to be in Europe.  Free thinking, young, international, open minded, artistic people walked and sat, chatted in parks with beers bought at corner stores, snacked at vegan Vietnamese or imbibed at Portuguese bars.  The light cast long rays down the street through the canopy of the many trees around Boxhagener Platz.  The buzz was palpable.  And it wasn’t marred, like it is in Rome or Paris or Florence by the hoards of American, Chinese, and other nations camera wielding tourists.  It seemed to be mainly people who lived in Berlin – although I’m sure there were people like me there for the fun. 

Boxhagener Platz, very social and aromatic with the smell of joints.
So many people out on the pavement enjoying the summer, finally here after weeks of grey weather in northern Europe.

Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia

August 14th, 2023

In the 1700s Berlin was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, which was the nucleus of what eventually became Germany. In the mid to the late 1700s it was ruled by Frederick the Great, a great legal reformer, instigator of religious tolerance, military strategist, musician and friend of Voltaire.

The other morning I walked from the Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island.  I passed the Berlin State Library – a beautiful classical courtyard with tall pilasters rising around its entrance half covered in climbing ivy.  A statue of a scholar reading in a niche.  This is one of the best libraries in the world with over 11 million volumes distributed across its sites.  The old royal library is on the other side of the Unter de Linden boulevard I had walked along to get here and in front of that library the Nazi youth had burnt books they disapproved of such as the novels of Thomas Mann in 1933.  Barbarians at the gates were here. 

In front of the library in the middle of the boulevard is a giant equestrian statue in bronze of Frederick the Great, the philosopher King in eighteenth century Prussia (Germany did not exist yet).  On the pedestal of the statue, you can see reliefs telling the story of his life, and one of them shows him playing the flute.  He was such a good flautist that only accomplished players can play the works he wrote for flute today.  He expressed a full gamut of emotions in his music and his concerts – of course this was on top of being a successful military strategist and directing the realm. 

Then I stood in front of Humbolt University and looked up at the statue of Alexander von Humbolt.  He sit on a globe of the world, and this is appropriate for a man who travelled so much, up South American mountains for example, and who said that ‘”The most dangerous worldview is the view of those who have never looked at the world”. 

Walking on I stepped over the bridge to Museum Island, called the Schlossbrücke.  The statues on the balustrades of the bridge made me think of Charles Bridge in Prague of the Ponte Sant’ Angelo in Rome – a triumphant and majestic mode of arrival as you step to the island.  Of course they are much older in Rome, and the carrara marble here in Berlin was carved in the mid nineteenth century (much of the sculpture on the Ponte Sant’Angelo went up in the 1500s).    

Then I got myself an annual pass to the state museums of Berlin and proceeded to walk around the Pergamon Museum.  This contains one of the great marvels of the entire Middle East, the Ishtar Gate.  It was excavated by Germans in the first decade of the twentieth century what is now Iraq from ancient Babylon and moved here, brick by brick in barrels pretending to contain coal.  It was shipped to Berlin and carefully reconstructed.  It is a long processional way, walled on both sides with moulded tiles in blue depicting lions walking forward.  Then it culminates in a grand entrance to the city of Babylon.  Amazing to imagine this civilisation, so exotic and far from the present (it was put up in 575 BC).  Imagine finding this gate, deep under the sands.  Bringing it to light again after thousands of years.  The Bedouin people of the area would have found it just as exotic as us, so long had it been buried by the desert. 

The Lustgarten, the lawn area in the centre of Museum Island, is one of the great public spaces in Europe, surely.  The Berliner Dom, their cathedral, is so vast it is a little sibling to St. Peters in Rome. What glory old Prussia brought forth in this ensemble of spaces and buildings in this area of Berlin.

Berlin State Library, one of the best in the world.
A Roman scholar presides in the niche above you as you enter the building.
A reminder of the destruction to the museums of Berlin that allied bombers caused.
Humboldt, the man who invented ecology and looked globally.
The Ishtar Gate, jewel of Mesopotamia, now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
Imagine being there in the first decade of the twentieth century when each spadeful uncovered more of this grandeur from almost three millenia ago.
The market gates from Miletus, reassembled in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
The Lion Fighter statue in front of the 1828 Altes Museum for the study of antiquities, Berlin.
Statue of Athena encouraging the young warrior on to victory, on the Schlössbrucke over the the river Spree. The pride of the GDR, the tv tower in the background, looks a somewhat incongruous in this setting (even though they thought it made them victorious in the eyes of the world).

Hallo Berlin

August 11th, 2023

Arrived in Berlin last weekend. The other morning I walked alone to the Jewish cemetery near where I’m staying.  The place is full of illustrious marble graves, and stone columned mausoleums, sinking in green ivy and sprouting ferns.  The descendants of this nineteenth century Sachs or Lieberman or whoever else I was looking at were mostly killed during the second world war by the Nazis, and thus so many of these graves and tombs are untended and unkempt.  Walking in under grey sky and cloudy light this place was peaceful, with hardly a visitor, and also melancholy.  A rain shower made me run for shelter under a mausoleum, and sit, contemplating the slick stone and lush greenery around me.  Cold rain falling on cold grey stone. No one left to mourn the family tomb. 

To leaven proceedings, I went to Liquidrom the next day with a friend.  It’s a spa under a concrete dome with an oculus at its centre.  One floats in low light in warm water, head and legs buoyed by flotation devices, eyes closed, electronic music dimly heard through the water as your ears are also submerged.  It is deeply soporific.  It feels good to be held like this, floating, weightless, warm, quiet.  $34 Australian dollars for two hours entry.  Beautiful warm showers afterwards, and a locker where one can leave one’s worldly belongings and forget about them. 

The following day I went on a walking tour of the centre of the city. We started at the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of the city. It is a beautiful gate with classical architrave, triglyphs and elaborate metopes – and it gave it added depth knowing that the bronze statue of horses and chariot and rider had to be recast years after the city had been bombed to smithereens in WW2.  The gate stood triumphant throughout the war incredibly, as it does today. 

The car park where the Fuhrer’s bunker once stood underneath the ground was a place to reflect on what a crazed megolomanaic lead ‘Germania’ in those days.  As the last bit of Nazi architecture is the tax department building today – it does indeed look forboding and grim, square and grey slabs of stone, looming above.

The Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie brought to mind how long ago the 1960s and 70s feel these days – casting one’s mind and imagination into the gulf of all those years brings up a drab and constrained East Berlin and a sad shadow of Soviet style communism.  There is a flicker of glamour from having watched spy films in this setting but generally I think it must have been more depressing than anything else. 

Last night I went to see the film Oppenheimer at the old Soviet-era cinema Kino International on Karl Marx Allee.  The cinema is rectangular concrete with a large glass counter-leavered front first floor.  The room with the bar and candy store is a stunning recreation of life at its best in 1960s East Berlin – a time warp even down to the slightly musty smell mixed with popcorn, and huge glass wall looking out over the boulevard below.  The film leaves the viewer unsettled by the dawning of the age of the nuclear bomb, and I was not feeling entirely cheerful when I set out on my cycle home…

Cycling home along Karl Marx Allee by myself that night around midnight the grand boulevard – described as the last great street built in Europe by some – built by the Communists in the 50s, was an erie but impressive experience.  90 metres wide, flanked by ten story buildings in the style of Socialist Classicism, the buildings are ‘palaces for the people’ – apartment blocks covered in cream coloured tiles with tall windows.  A Soviet Empire feeling to the place but it was hard not, despite having misgivings about the police state nature of Communism at the time, to be very impressed by what a canyon of austere pomp they had created.  The whole street, even down to the names of the cafes, is now listed and has been refurbished (soon after many of these were built they were already losing tiles).  As I cycled along, ant like in the dark, by myself, I looked up at dimly the lit facades and entrance lobbies, and felt like I was in Gotham City, or Metropolis by Fritz Lang, or some other dark and futuristic vision of glory.  Or indeed in a sequel to the film I’d just watched, Oppenheimer.  “Man is the victim of an environment which refuses to understand his soul” says Charles Bukowski, in Tales of Ordinary Madness.  Socialist architecture is in general not something which I feel designs an emotional utopia – rather it is in general, like much twentieth century modernism at least for me, overly distant and dehumanising.  But here at least the classical elements, fused to the idiom of Soviet style, were grand if they were not charming.    

And as an absolute contrast…. This morning I and a friend went to Vabali, a day spa of countless relaxation rooms, outdoor pools, countless saunas and steam rooms and plunge pools and showers, and Buddha statues and wood and stone everywhere, and sprawling green grassed gardens full of deck chairs.  People walked around with a towel around them but otherwise were nude.  I don’t know how the Germans can do this kind of thing – they did it better than most of the day spas in Bali – larger, cleaner, cooler, more well run, and probably cheaper. This is a place with a sense of luxury and relaxation and conviviality – what the ancient Roman thermae were thousands of years before.  

One of the many untended graves in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin.
An allotment garden near the cemetery – spots rented by the middle classes – makes me wonder if I really am in a big city…
Can these prices really be correct? (Wonders someone from a country where alcohol is heavily taxed…)
Good solid bricks of German bread. Delicious.
Hanging out at Tempelhofer Feld, former airport now park, and the place where the West responded to the Berlin Blockade after WW2 by flying supplies in to West Berlin.
Another funky little Berlin cafe, Cafe Plume, run by some young French guys and stacked with French editions on the shelves.
Is Karl Marx Allee (once called Stalin Allee), the last great street in Europe?
The most interesting cinema I have visited, Kino International.
Drinks at the bar before the film begins (were were there to see Oppenheimer, appropriate film for a street built a few years after Hiroshima).
Cycling home along Karl Marx Allee at midnight, alone and ant-like.
The Berlin wall is what springs to mind when many people think of the city…
Another Berlin – at this spa you can lay in warm water and listen to electronic beats and relax to your hearts content. To me this architecture recalls the ancient Roman baths and the hammans that were their legacy in later centuries.
A summer’s morning at another day spa, Vabali, where I forgot you that I was in the middle of a busy city of 3.7 million people.

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