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Berlin – The Island of Freedom

The Berlin wall stood for ten thousand three hundred and sixteen days. The 6th of February, the wall has been finally down longer than it existed. An imperial capital turned nerve centre of a fanatic murderous regime, cut into four dominions, reworked, sliced in two partsand thrown at the centre of history’s most potentially devastating tug o’ war rivalry. Finally reunited with a life-long never-healing scar running across its core, becoming the capital of a modern and progressive European powerhouse. The past hundred years, Berlin has been at the centre of the 20th century’s major world-changing events. It has witnessed some of the most turbulent treatment throughout its historical journey. Humiliated, brutalised, wrecked, restored only to be more violated, Berlin is a moving testament of History, a survivor of an 80-years ordeal.

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Yet, the city resisted the temptation to sweep its past under the carpet. Instead, it has claimed this violent and tumultuous past. Everywhere, the city is honouring its victims, redeeming with humility. Some of Berlin’s most famous monuments are memorials of the past. On the Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s most famous boulevard stands the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was destroyed during the Red Army’s brutal storm of the city. Instead of razing it to rebuild, Berliners left the ruins as it stood, with inside a Coventry cross next to a Russian Orthodox cross as a symbol of reconciliation between the former foes. Between the iconic Brandenburger Gate and Potsdamer Platz, stand the raw and innovative Holocaust Memorial, where visitors slowly get swallowed by imposing concrete stelae in a three-dimensional optical illusion. Similarly, vast fractions of the wall are still standing, mainly in the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. For hundreds of meter, one can walk along the remaining bits of the raw concrete structure, now turned into grey canvases for some of the most famous street arts of the city.

Even where the wall is effectively gone, a paved line of distinct colour and shape, marked every other meter by crosses, still follows the route of this brutal materialisation of the Iron Curtain. Like in virtually all of Europe, the famous stolpersteine—golden cobblestone indicating the last known residency or place of work of Jewish victims of Nazi barbary—roam the streets of the city. Hence, in a sense, Berlin is a walking museum. Because Berlin, and Germany in general for that matter, claims and humbly commemorate its past, strolling through its streets, one can feel the weight of History. The Brandenburger Gate is a prime example. From the forces of Napoleon victoriously parading under is column, to the famous images of Soviet soldier Maria Limanskaya directing traffic after her army’s conquest of the city. Not forgetting Ronald Reagan summoning his Soviet peer to tear the very same wall he was standing before. To observe the monument is to witness history, to delve into the full force of the world-changing that the Gate jealously guards in its DNA. This is true for much of the city.

As Germany reunited in early October 1990, one would have thought Berlin would mirror the country as it mirrored the Curtain. Twenty-nine years after its fall, the ghost of the Wall is still present—”Mauer im Kopf”, or “wall in the mind” as the saying goes. Berlin might be reunited, but it is nevertheless Janus-faced. Indeed, West Germany has had the time to develop akin to any other liberal western metropolis. Particularly, as an “Island of Freedom” in a “Communist Ocean”the city was heavily subsided for it to thrive and develop to thumb its nose to the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Decades of subsidies have transformed the city as model “Showcase of the West”. One can easily recognise former West-Berlin. Skyscrapers, clean modern boulevards, expensive restaurants, luxury hotels or grand old classical building are common. The centres of education, research and high culture are still, nowadays, concentrated on the western part. All four oldest and most prestigious Berlin University, including the grand Humboldt University, are located in the western part.humboldt-university-1274838_1920

                The Eastern part, however, offers a very different face. For two generations, east Berliners have been bullied into mass surveillance, political repression and worse, in a culture of mistrust and paranoia. The fall of the wall left East-Berlin alone, as the capital city of a failed state, a former authoritative structure with crumbling institutions, and an increasingly irrelevant polity. East-Berliners fled en masse to the West and a rigid police-state vanished in the dust. The city’s long-lost other half was completely deserted. The result was … unexpected. Meanwhile, a musical revolution was taking place around the world. One that successively contaminated Chicago, Detroit, Manchester, London and Paris saw the birth and the export of a new genre of music, with its own way of life. A generation eager for peace and sleepless celebration were seeking absolute liberation and hectic catharsis through music. The rave culture of gabber, techno music and acid house had taken over youth. Yet, the illegal, sometimes days-long, free parties were constantly repressed. Everywhere, older public opinion felt uneasy, resulting in police crackdown against this new movements, effectively pushing back ravers in well-regulated clubs at the mercy of conservative local residents’ associations. Then, a wall fell. An entire city, devoid of any competent authority to enforce any kind of regulation, with hundreds of deserted buildings, were open for the taking.

 

From then on, a modern gold rush took place. DJ’s, music producers, label owners or event organisers from all around the world flooded the gates to conquer East-Berlin. Everywhere, new kind of clubs, raves and free parties cropped up all over the place, with no one to shut them down. The neighbourhoods of Prenzlauer Berg Neukölln, Friedrichshaine, Tempelhof or even former western Kreuzberg were revitalised to become major hotspots for music, contemporary arts and subcultures. Autonomous communities were born, such as the Rastafari ‘Yaam’ along the Spree. Abandoned buildings were rethought to become some of the world’s most iconic night clubs, such as ‘Tresor’ emerging from an old department store or the mythical ‘Berghain’ housed in a former soviet powerplant. Others are simply used for ad hocevents, akin to the abandoned Tempelhof airport, home to numerous raves and festivals and now housing Syrian refugees.

The culture of the night overtook the city. Since then, hedonism has thrived. East-Berlin took its revenge on history. Blooming from a cursed city to the world capital of artistic expression. East-Berliners, muted for so long, could finally break away. Freedom took its toll in the east. The lack of any real enforcement of authority after decades of silencing made any sort of social norms and cultural expectations implode. The citizens have reclaimed their city. To this day, alternative folklores is still sprawling everywhere. Arts are buzzing. Berliners broke away from any socially constructed norms. Anyone can find and enjoy their true selves. An entire generation has contributed to this new culture of genuine acceptance, of personal liberation. No one describes it better than Anne-Laure Jaeglé, author of “Demande a la nuit”, a monographic account of her 5 years in Berlin : “I would like to challenge the city in a duel,  to shout those things one can normally tell other capital cities… but there is, in Berlin…nothing to conquer but yourself.”

For three decades,barbed wires, watchtowers, minefield, electric fences and wall of concrete have taken their roots in the city. One generation is all it takes to transform the architecture, spirit, philosophy and dynamic of a city. Berlin is, in effect, two cities merged into one; akin to conjoined twins who would have been forced to grow up ignoring each other, finally staring at each other well into their adulthood, only to find a stranger to share their body with. Yet, despite their differences, they are sisters nonetheless. They love each other. East and west Berlin belong with each other. For the past twenty-nine years, the city has risen from its ashes in a peculiar, revitalising way. Its citizens have coped with its scars by offering a haven of deep individual liberation of the mind and body. Berlin took its revenge on History in the name of its citizens, chronically brutalised by authoritarian forces. The capital city of unified Germany went from the centre of nervous geopolitical tensions, to one of the most culturally dynamic hotspots of the world, the heart of Europe’s most powerful economy, a buzzing kingmaker of artistic avant-garde and alternative scenes. To this day Berlin lives up to its name of the ‘the island of freedom’.

Antoine Lomba

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