By Stan Persky | July 18, 2002

“Now let me call back those who introduced me to the city,” is the way Walter Benjamin begins “A Berlin Chronicle” (1932). Let me do likewise. “For although the child, in his solitary games, grows up in closest proximity to the city,” Benjamin says, “he needs and seeks guides to its wider expanses…” As does the stranger to the city.

The first of my guides, on a mid-March afternoon in 1990, a day or two before the first election in East Germany since the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, was the Canadian painter Michael Morris. He was waiting at a bus-stop on the Ku’damm, the main boulevard of West Berlin, with its wide tree-lined median, expensive shops and sidewalk display cases, when my travelling companion Tom Sandborn and I piled off a city bus with our heap of luggage. We had just ridden in from the airport after the long flight from Vancouver, at the beginning of a six-week tour of the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the fall of communism.

Even from the first glimpses through a bus window, Berlin is hardly a beautiful city in the conventional sense. Half or more of it had been destroyed some fifty years ago during World War II. The rubble was cleared away in the following decades and the gaps between surviving buildings filled in with brown and grey four-storey stucco dwellings through a civic construction program in West Berlin launched at the beginning of the 1950s. The East Berlin rebuilding program was comparable, but favoured massive, desolate, Soviet-style apartment tower complexes.

The city’s temporal topography ranges from the totemic Brandenburg Gate that marked the city limits at its imperialistic height in the 1870s, to the intentionally unaltered war-damaged remains of the Memorial Church steeple at the east end of the Ku’damm, which registers the nadir of the Nazi defeat. Its resurrections extend from the restored 300-year-old summer palace in Charlottenburg to the post-Wall phoenix of the Sony-Daimler building complex at Potsdamer Platz. So, the face of Berlin presents an historical cycle of triumph, destruction, and renewal all at once. For those who know something about architecture, that is part of its interest.

But in the luxurious Charlottenburg neighbourhood where Michael met us, dozens of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil edifices from the turn of the nineteenth century had survived the war. That period–c. 1880-1910–is when consolidating bourgeois wealth was expressed in elegant five-storey apartment buildings, with deep loge-like balconies held up by caryatids and atlantids, elaborate roof facades, and bas-reliefs of women with flowing tresses posted over ornate doorways. These richly-decorated great stone heaps exuded their owners’ sense of a satisfied place in the social structure, a bourgeois eternity, where, as Benjamin says, there “reigned a species of things that was, no matter how compliantly it bowed to the minor whims of fashion, in the main so wholly convinced of itself and its permanence that it took no account of wear, inheritance, or moves, remaining forever equally near to and far from its ending, which seemed the ending of all things.” It was an eternity that, ironically, would last barely half a century.

On that first day, Tom and I dragged our suitcases along Mommsenstrasse, following our portly guide, who chatted away in the faintly-tinged English accents of his birthplace, and arrived at the building where he had lived since the beginning of the 1980s. A second set of doors opened onto a courtyard (in German, a Hof) at the centre of which was a four-storey-high chestnut tree. On the far side of the Hof a turret staircase led to Michael’s third floor apartment and studio. Once inside, we could at last drop our bags, and settle around the kitchen table, having reached that moment of safety for which all travellers long, while Michael lit the stove and put on a kettle of water for tea. The kitchen window offered a view of the bare branches of the chestnut in the courtyard, giving the place something of the feeling of a tree house; the walls of the kitchen were crowded with various pictures, both Michael’s and those of artist friends. Tom and I emerged from the airlock of time-travel into the famous “air” of Berlin.

Now, after more than a decade of living part of my life in Berlin, that moment of entry has a magical double quality. From one point of view, it simply moves on, as if I released the pause button on a recorder, and watched the mundane moments of my arrival. Michael bustles around the kitchen, keeps up a steady reassuring patter which, as the skilful host he is, he knows will help orient us, disappears for a moment and then returns to bring us a photo album with which we can amuse ourselves while he prepares the tea. I’m looking at snapshots of the people Michael knows in Berlin, people I might conceivably meet, while Michael tells us anecdotes about them in a style I’ll come to think of as his “illustrated conversations.”

Later, Michael takes us downstairs again, leads us along nearby Schluter Street (named for Andreas Schluter, the 17th century sculptor and architect) to the Hotel Bogota where we can check in for a couple of nights, guides us to an upscale restaurant that he likes on the Ku’damm, and in the evening the three of us go to the funky Little Philharmony bar, just off Joachimthaler Strasse, presided over by a small elderly woman (now deceased) named Wanda. The next morning, Tom and I make our way to East Berlin, passing through a checkpoint of the remnants of the Wall, where gates ominously clang shut and border personnel still stamp the passports of foreigners, until we eventually emerge into the forbidding open space of Alexanderplatz, and turn ourselves into unofficial observers of the East German election.

But in its other aspect, the moment of entry is a freeze-frame that is a retrospective panorama of my destiny, though “destiny” is almost too grand a word for the accretion of such accidents of biography. It’s the moment when, unconsciously, I decided that I would return to Berlin, again and again. So, yes, why not? Destiny–as obedience to the injunction of an archaic torso of Apollo the poet Rilke once saw, and who insists, in Rilke’s poem: You must change your life.

“I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life–bios–graphically on a map,” Benjamin says. “I have evolved a system of signs, and on the gray background of such maps they would make a colourful show if I clearly marked the houses of my friends and girlfriends, the assembly halls of various collectives… the hotel and brothel rooms I knew for one night, the decisive benches in the Tiergarten, the ways to different schools and the graves that I saw filled, the sites of prestigious cafes whose long forgotten names daily crossed our lips…”

Equally, my Berlin, though steeped in the public acts and figures that claim the attention of anyone even minimally interested in history, is made up of similar personal sites, routes, routines. My own labyrinthine map of the city is curiously removed from such recent events as the unification of the former East and West Berlins, the return of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin in the early 1990s, or even the decade-long building projects in the wasteland occupied by the Berlin Wall for nearly thirty years. Rather, it is typified by the different ways–like the “ways” in Proust’s Swann’s Way–to walk from my apartment, near Charlottenburg castle, to Savigny Platz, just north of Michael Morris’s former studio on Mommsenstrasse.

Savigny Platz is a patch of urban green with bowers, lawns, gardens, and trees, divided by busy Kantstrasse and bordered on the south end by the S-Bahn elevated tracks. At its north end, where three streets converge on the traffic circle, there is a sculpture by August Kraus, done in 1930, of two naked boys tugging at equally recalcitrant goats, their pedestals facing each other under large shade trees. Savigny Platz was one of the first places in the city with which I became familiar when I returned to Berlin in 1991 and stayed at Michael’s apartment the summer after my first visit.

One of the three streets emptying into the square, Carmerstrasse, is where Benjamin lived as a child. Each weekday in the first decade of the 1900s he crossed Savigny Platz, fearful of being late, on his way to the “sad, spinsterish primness” of Kaiser Friedrich School, a red brick Gothic building (still) located in nearby Bleibtreu Street, within sight of the S-Bahn viaduct.

Today, the square is surrounded by sidewalk restaurants and cafes. Among them, also on the north side, with a view of the goatboys, is my favourite, the Zwiebelfisch (or Onionfish), an establishment founded in the 1960s, where, mockingly posted over the front door, is Dante’s line, taken from the entrance to the Inferno, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Many of the clientele at the Onionfish look like they’ve taken the injunction literally, and give off the air of the now-fading “generation of ’68ers,” as they’re known, caught in the time-warp of outmoded hairstyles and clothes.

It was during the spring and summer in 1991, when I returned to Berlin, that I really took Michael as my avuncular mentor, more so than in the previous year when he had been accidentally and briefly pressed into service as Tom’s and my initial guide to the city. It was not so much the physical, present-day Berlin to which Michael now led me, although there was inevitably a good deal of that too–occasions where we went to an art exhibition, a party, or simply took a walk through a park to observe the burgeoning signs of spring–but rather to the historical “mind” of a culture. The process was imperceptible, casually offhand, and sometimes didn’t require so much as my leaving the large high-ceilinged room in his apartment.

The first day of my return to Berlin, while I was plunked down, jet-lagged, in that room in a modernist chair of tubular steel and suspended black leather located next to a desk illuminated by a table lamp with a milky-white cupola and a base of green-pyrex glass, Michael handed me an oversized volume of the pictures of Herbert List, a homoerotic photographer of the Weimar period, who had grown up in nearby Hamburg, an hour or two north by train. With characteristic discretion, Michael left me to my own travel-dazed devices, and went off to attend to household and neighbourhood chores. My eyes settled into List’s images, and I found myself meditating on the now long-dead or long-lost objects of the photographer’s–and now my–attention. There was an introduction to the book by the English writer Stephen Spender, whom I’d once met, decades ago, in San Francisco. The introduction was in German, which I attempted to piece out in my rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Adjacent to the desk was a narrow monk-like bed where I would sleep, and in the small bookshelf alongside it, I noticed a copy of Spender’s novel, The Temple, in which List and his young friends in Hamburg appear as characters. The cover photograph–which I’d previously noticed in bookstores and been attracted to without pursuing the book–was of a young man in a white bathing suit standing in the shallow water of a lake, with a handsome face innocent of the catastrophes that would soon befall him. I recognized that the photo was by List. This otherwise minor novel now acquired an urgency, and I began reading it that night.

Timeless hours passed, whole days, “sorrowless times” (as the title of one of my friend Jim Herndon’s books has it), while I looked at those photos that afternoon, and simultaneously located myself in a Berlin composed of fragmented strata of various intellectual histories. The room in which I sat was full of gradually emergent treasures. The chair and the lamp, I learned from Michael, were Bauhaus designs of the 1920s, furniture which also appeared in Spender’s novel. So, I was no longer sitting in a chair that had surprisingly retained its sleek “modernity” some three-quarters of a century after its creation, but a “Marcel Breuer” chair; the cozy lighting fixture was now a “Wagenfeld” lamp. And the chair and lamp were also connected to a larger world of architecture, design, and ideas about domestic life, examples of which I would find scattered throughout Berlin. When I expressed an interest in all this, Michael immediately produced an illustrated Bauhaus history for me to thumb through. Before long, a little library piled up on the desk.

Above the desk was a contemporary “word-painting” by Michael’s associate, Vincent Trasov, a large 2-metre by 2-metre glass-framed work containing 16 pieces of grey construction paper, each bearing the stenciled word KnabeWandervogel or youth movement at the beginning of the 20th century, a movement that loosely included List, Benjamin and even the goatboy statue in Savigny Platz. In its most horrific moment, the tradition could be found in the “purified” Hitler Youth corps, and later, more benignly, among the long-haired teenaged German draft-evaders who settled in West Berlin during the 1970s, or the young men whose snapshots Michael had taken and which were in the photo albums he had shown me. Each object or idea–photos, furniture, paintings, historical references, gossip about the figures in the albums–contributed to a complicated, dense, intellectual portrait of an exfoliating larger realm, whose parts I absorbed, via Michael, and then joined to my own experiences, in a developing sense of “my Berlin.” (the old-fashioned German word for “boy”). It referred, in a post-modern conceptualist way–again, this was Michael’s explanation in response to a question I’d asked about the painting–to a sentimental German tradition of glorifying and eroticizing adolescent males. It was a tradition that extended from early 19th century German Romanticism to the

I dwell on the subtlety and generosity of Michael’s guidance for two reasons. First, because my gratitude hints at the complexity of his generous guidance, and underscores an aspect of him that sharply contrasts with other possible and more critical ways of viewing him, since, like all powerful figures, Michael has his detractors. Behind his back, his critics have sometimes called him “Our Lady of the Monologue” for his ability to dominate conversations–and of course the caricature was accurate in some ways, as are the caricatures of all of us. I sometimes feel I should wear a T-shirt that says, “Don’t tell me your story unless you’re willing to risk it appearing in print,” since, like most writers, I’m a blabbermouth, despite my idea of myself as scrupulously discreet. Second, and more important, the notion of the guide is a persistently recurrent personage in my life. The figure of the guide ranges from beloved fathers, teachers, and other mentors to the seamiest of pimps and dealers. Even the stranger on a streetcorner from whom you receive directions to the next street is numbered among their ranks. The classic figure of Hermes is the one who leads you from one world to the next and, in doing so, reveals to you the multiplicity of worlds.

That evening, after Michael had fed me (he was, almost inevitably, a superb cook), he took me out for a flaneur’s stroll down the Ku’damm. It was the same Ku’damm I’d previously seen, and it was a perfectly ordinary after-dinner walk past the expensive shops with their well-known names, lighted display cases of goods set in the middle of the sidewalk, shadowy trees that lined the median, public toilets, and well-lit cafes (the Moehring, Kempinski Corner, Kranzler’s) whose crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk tables. But it was also now a boulevard transformed from my previous vision of it, one that was suddenly dense with intimations of a city I was about to discover.

My Berlin includes the numerous castles and parks around the outskirts of the city, spaces mostly designed by the great nineteenth century landscape gardener, Peter Lenne. They’re the sites of regular Sunday walks with my friend Mark Johnson, the second of my guides to Berlin. We met in a bar in 1993, and soon this computer technician–in his early forties, with salt and pepper hair, and a conservative, wry sense of humour and politics–was showing me the places, known to Berliners but mostly hidden from strangers, where one can stroll on summer days, arguing about current events or falling into a meditative state of mind that is inseparable from my idea of writing. I, too, came to know the places Benjamin recalls: “The orchard at Glienicke, the broad ceremonious promenade of Schloss Babelsberg… the shadowy ways through the foliage leading down to Lake Griebnitz at the places where there were jetties.”

Despite Berlin’s bucolic core, it’s possible, as various civic historians and travelers demonstrate, to barely notice, as one more observant historian, Anton Gill, puts it, “the wooded parks which cover half the city’s acreage and which are, with the lakes,” and the serpentine Spree River, “the reason for the city’s good air.” In more obtuse descriptions of the city, there is seldom a moment in which the observer sits at the lakeside cafe next to Kopenick Castle in the southeast corner of Berlin, or finds the “beer-meadow” across the water from Babelsberg park at the city’s western edge. Even in the city proper, most passers-through don’t have time to watch the swans floating in the Lietzensee on a summer afternoon, or dawdle at one of Benjamin’s “decisive benches” in the central Tiergarten park. I prefer more modest historians who notice that “the grey city alone on its plain has a necklace of countryside and parkland.” (See Anton Gill, A Dance Between Flames, 1993.)

My own private Berlin (to recall the title of Gus Van Sant’s film about hustlers, My Own Private Idaho) takes in, as do “the hotel rooms and brothels I knew for one night” recorded in Benjamin’s “Chronicle,” various geographic zones of desire, beginning with the intersection of Eisenacher and Fuggerstrasse, just off Nollendorf Platz, southeast of the Ku’damm. That’s where gay rent-bars and other homosexually-oriented drinking establishments have been clustered for more than three-quarters of a century. Though stretches of Eisenacher Street were reduced to heaps of rubble during World War II (recorded in the photos of another German photographer, Herbert Tobias), the turn-of-the-century patch of elegant buildings at the corner of Fuggerstrasse survived.

On the ground floor of one of them is a small bar named Pinocchio’s. On a summer afternoon, I can sit at one of the tables outside the bar, and watch the street traffic, chat inconsequentially with one of the regular customers or Stefan, the (then) bartender, or simply gaze at the pale blue, stone walls of the apartment buildings across the street, the flowerboxes on their deep balconies spilling over with the fierce brightness of geraniums. Next door is a similar but larger bar, Tabasco’s, and around the corner, Blue Boy. At the corner there’s a small, scruffy fenced-in playground that contains a soccer cage, some trees and benches, and a ping-pong table where I often see some of the young men who hang around the bar playing table tennis. I like the way a patina of the utterly mundane overlays the erotic currents, the way contentless eternity and the urgent particularity of desire merge.

From the first time I walked down Fuggerstrasse, in 1991, I sensed the power of the countless stories that its bars, restaurants and buildings contained, stories of love affairs, breathless encounters, disasters of the heart. One night, in the shoebox-sized Pinocchio’s, its few barstools and half-dozen tables crowded with both the grotesque and the beautiful, someone I knew, sitting at a corner table and playing a dice game with some of his pals, hailed me as I made my way through the mob, and then made a place for me to squeeze in on a stool next to someone he knew I was attracted to. At that moment, absorbing the flow of information circulating throughout the bar and at the same time the specificity of the person against whose thigh my own was pressed, I had the sense of being inside. Wherever we are, there’s a nominal sense in which we’re “inside,” whether it’s a city, a building or a room. But at the same time, we can know ourselves to be “outside,”: outside of a culture, a history or even a group of people. At that moment, in a tiny bar that felt like a galley sailing through the sky, I was inside for the first time–inside Berlin, inside Pinocchio’s. And inside is my idea of Paradise.

Benjamin, too, recalls “an afternoon… to which I owe insights into my life that came in a flash, with the force of an illumination. It was on this very afternoon that my biographical relationships to people, my friendships and comradeships, were revealed to me in their most vivid and hidden intertwinings.” At that moment he attempted to make a diagram of his life; subsequently the sheet of paper, to his chagrin, was irretrievably lost. But in remembering the labyrinth it sketched out, Benjamin says, “I am concerned not with what is installed in the chamber at its enigmatic centre, ego or fate, but all the more with the many entrances leading into the interior… entrances I call ‘primal acquaintances’… So many primal relationships, so many entrances to the maze.”

The entrances to Castle Street (Schlossstrasse), the street I like best in Berlin, are often roundabout. Thomas Marquard and Ilonka Opitz, a married couple who are friends of mine as well as my upstairs neighbours in the building in Berlin where I live, are the third of my guides to the city. They were the ones who first took me to Schlossstrasse one evening in the mid-1990s, while we were out walking their golden retriever. The “secret way” to Castle Street, as Thomas once called it, leads from our building on busy Kaiser Friedrich Street, past the Little Europe food stand where various neighbourhood characters hang out, and by an inexplicably-but-always failing cafe at the corner, down a little side-street to where Haubach Street and Hebbel Street make a V. That’s where there’s an obscure entrance path into a sunken rectangle of green lawn, with a few trees, park benches, and cobbled paths, lit at night by imitation gas-lamps.

The first evening I entered Schusterrus Park, I had the feeling of stepping into a previous century, its gas-light illumination marking out dark anthropomorphic shapes of bushes and trees, a faint mist hovering over the lawn. Emerging from the far end of the park, it is a brief walk down Schusterrus Street to the corner of Schlossstrasse, where the bower garden of the Bohemian restaurant is located. Thomas, Ilonka, and I occasionally stop there for a drink beneath its tangle of vines. For me, all the names of streets and sites of cafes and restaurants, either taken for granted by long-time residents or merely exotic words in a foreign language for distant strangers, have a particular resonance. These markers literally mark the place and, once entered into a vocabulary of experiences, function like computer hypertext markings that instantly call up particular stretches of urban landscape.

Castle Street is partially paved with traffic-slowing bricks, and divided by a parkway. The edges of the median are lined with linden trees, and in the center is a broad, sandy path, where local people gather to play bocce ball, the small metal orbs clicking against each other when they hit. The path, several blocks in length, leads directly to the gates of Charlottenburg Castle, whose aqua cupola is illuminated at night, rising over the low, French-style, early-18th century building, once a summer stop-over for Prussian royalty on their way between Kopenick Schloss in the east and Frederick the Great’s San Souci Palace in Potsdam. Schlossstrasse itself is lined with sombre, former bourgeois villas, now transformed into apartment buildings, a couple of museums, and some ground-floor cafes; its cobbled sidewalks, shaded by lindens, become sticky in the summer from secretions of aphids in the trees. On the far side of the street, toward its south end–I get there a different way, along (Heinrich) Zille Street, past the green carpeted soccer field–is my neighbourhood cafe, the Kastanie (or Chestnut), where I go to drink coffee and read in the afternoons at a table in the back of the cafe. As Benjamin says, “So many entrances to the maze.”

In a 1927 review of his friend Franz Hessel’s novel, Unknown Berlin, Benjamin remarks, “What is ‘unknown,’ secret, about this Berlin is no windy whispering, no tiresome flirting, but simply this strict classical image-being of a city… that holds within itself the yardstick… for the figures in a dance.”

Berlin is also a city of texts, a city of its authors, both those who lived and wrote here, like Benjamin and his friend Hessel, and those who come to write its history. A little more than a block from Pinocchio’s, at 17 Nollendorf Street–my friend Mark’s apartment is located in the same block–is a peach-coloured five-storey apartment building on whose wall is a plaque that records that the English author, Christopher Isherwood (1904-86), lived and wrote in this building the stories of Goodbye to Berlin.

Other than the natural growth of the trees that shade Nollendorf St., little has changed from the description Isherwood offers in the first lines of “A Berlin Diary, Autumn 1930,” where he says, “From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” he goes on. “Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

A fresh coat of pastel paint has been laid on some of the “dirty plaster frontages,” and one of the cellar-shops that now sells sex toys and videos has been brightened up and sports a rainbow flag outside its entrance. But the street itself, “the little hotel on the corner, where you can hire a room by the hour,” and the nearby gay bars and the young men in them are not much different from when Isherwood “passively recorded” the scene some three-quarters of a century ago.

The evening I discovered Isherwood’s lodgings, I stood across the street, transfixed, looking at the narrow wooden and glass door of number 17, half-expecting Isherwood himself to emerge and join me on the walk to the bar. I knew at that moment that ghosts can also be guides.

“Soon the whistling will begin,” Isherwood wrote. “Young men are calling their girls. Standing down there in the cold, they whistle up at the lighted windows of warm rooms where the beds are already turned down for the night. They want to be let in.” He tries not to listen to the whistles. “But soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the Venetian blind to make quite sure that it is not–as I know very well it could not possibly be–for me.” Today, the young men no longer whistle; they all have cellphones.

On Chaussee Street, the northern continuation of Friedrichstrasse in east Berlin, I visit the house where Bertolt Brecht lived at the end of his life in the mid-1950s; his writing table is still in place. Brecht, and his wife, Helene Weigel, are buried next door in the Dorotheen Cemetary, along with dozens of other writers, artists and thinkers of the past two centuries, from Fichte to Anna Seghers. In that sense, the city is crowded with my colleagues, past and present–Alfred Doblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Heinrich Mann, Arthur Koestler, Vladimir Nabokov, Stefan Heym, as well as elder contemporaries like Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, and Gunter de Bruyn, right up to the present generation in their cafes in fashionable Berlin Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

And then there’s Walter Benjamin himself, my primary guide in this account of the city, who was also the author of various urban portraits, of Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Naples and Moscow. A couple of years ago, while in Chicago, the city of my birth, I met Lisa Fittko, then eighty-nine, the woman who led Benjamin through the Pyrenees Mountains on his fatal flight from Hitler in 1940. For her, Benjamin was but another of the many left-wing Jewish refugees who appeared at her door in Port-Vendres in southern France, seeking assistance from the small Jewish resistance group she led. “I took him over the mountains, not because he was the [posthumously] famous philosopher,” she told me, “but just because he was one of us.”

In Fittko’s own account, she recalls the morning Benjamin appeared. “My dear lady,” he said to her, “please forgive the intrusion–I hope this is not an inopportune time.” Fittko adds, “The world is falling to pieces, I thought, but Benjamin’s courtesy is unshakeable.” (See Lisa Fittko, Escape through the Pyrenees, 1991.) Sitting in her apartment, located on the South Side between the University of Chicago and Lake Michigan, and gazing at this elderly heroic woman, whose sight, she tells me, has grown somewhat fainter with the years, I was conscious of looking into eyes that had looked upon both Benjamin and Hitler.

In the Berlin of the new millennium, Benjamin’s shade remains to instruct me, as do his words. Walking down Leibniz Street one day recently, I noticed that what had been a construction-site excavation hole for many years, was now the site of two facing grey stone buildings (designed by the Berlin architect Hans Kollhoff), with a large plaza space and a geyser-like fountain in between them. The ground floors of the pair of buildings are lined with pillars, giving them an arcade effect, a nod toward Benjamin’s long-standing interest in the arcades, or passages, of nineteenth century Paris, and the subject of his unfinished book, Passagen-Werk (in English, The Arcades Project, 1999). Glancing up, I saw that a new street sign named this space: Walter Benjamin Platz.

Benjamin, along with Hessel, translated Proust into German. In Benjamin’s “Berlin Chronicle,” the Proustian project is always at the margins of his consciousness. “He who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments,” he says. “No image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside–that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all this has been unfurled and dissected; and now remembrance progresses from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.”

The infinitesimal details of my Berlin emphasize an unexpectedly romantic side of the city. That doesn’t mean I’m unaware of what Benjamin calls “noisy, matter-of-fact Berlin, the city of work and the metropolis of business,” or its shabbier faces, and the brusque interpersonal style of its inhabitants known by the almost untranslatable term, Schnautze (the word means, among other things, “mouth,” as in the phrase, “what a mouth he has on him”). Frequently enough, at any time, in various parts of the city, especially on cold, wet days, I see Berlin stripped of my illusions and most of its own. Then it’s a place of run-down neighbourhood “brown bars,” dying game arcades, and empty shops for rent, with overflowing garbage, reeking sewers, and dogshit on the sidewalks, populated by spitting young thugs and hobbled ancient people who seem to be made of human spare parts. Who knows what thoughts crossed their once innocent faces during the Nazi era, or what they did during the War, or what the young ones like them will do during the next one?

On the whole, though, the romance prevails. The young adults, born of parents themselves born after the Third Reich, are, with more frequency than in most places I know, so sensuously striking that they have made Berlin one of my cities of desire. But the shrunken old woman, who sits on a chair before a florist’s on Bismarck Street wrapped in a tattered fur stole, reminds me that even the young beauties are subject to time and mortality.

One night, in early May, not long ago, some friends and I were having dinner with Thomas and Ilonka at their apartment. We had lingered at table until almost midnight and someone remarked on the sounds of the birds echoing in the back courtyard. “They’re the nightingales,” Thomas said, and Ilonka, who identifies with birds above all other creatures, explained it was the time of year when they sang to mark out their mating territories.

“But you really have to hear them,” Thomas insisted and, despite the hour, he led us downstairs, packed us into his car and drove us to a wooded, nearly deserted part of Berlin, one of those numerous places that make you forget you’re in a city of three-and-a-half-million people. There, past midnight, we cocked our ears toward a patch of fuzzy trees to hear the distinctive territorial and mating songs of the nightingales, miniature operatic arias, duets of property negotiations. The nightingales weren’t the only birds out on the town. Later, as we straggled along a path bordering the Spree River, in the darkness, floating down the river, there appeared a white swan. “On his way to a swan bar,” I said.

This is how the “microcosms of the infinitesimal” unfold beneath my feet in my Berlin. Though I now take them for granted, one of my earliest fascinations was with Berlin’s sidewalks, or what George Stanley refers to in one of his poems as “the precious pavement”–a phrase that sees the magic of cities even in what’s underfoot.

The walkways of Berlin are a hand-made kaleidoscope of stones. Although there are some poured concrete slabs, unlike the homogenous sidewalks of North America, those in Berlin are mostly unique arrangements of multi-coloured stones: paving stones, flagstones arranged in diamond patterns, cobbles, red-tinged bricks that mark the bicycle lanes, interlocking pre-cast blocks, and especially small “argument stones”–so-named because they could be pulled up and thrown at the authorities during episodes of civil unrest. Each stone is tapped with a mallet into the sandy marsh on which the city is built. The fact that the ground under Berlin shifts so much is probably the main reason for the hand-made walks, since conventional cement sidewalks would break up. Also, the mosaic of small stones is easier to pull apart to gain access to the subterranian infrastructure, and cheaper to restore than poured cement slabs.

Still, what’s unusual about all of this at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the maintenance of a nineteenth-century hand-work craft. The persistence of a seemingly obsolescent mode of production is even stranger in the midst of a self-proclaimed decade-long “Construction-Site Berlin,” filled with a tangle of towering yellow building cranes and dozens of recently-erected post-modern skyscrapers. What’s more, these workers from the past, almost ghost-workers, contradict the civic bureaucracy’s obsessive drive to dehumanize the city–replacing public toilets with privatized automated bathroom machines, extending store shopping hours, threatening to eliminate the old honour system of payment on public transportation with mandatory computerized fares, etc.

Amid the insistent economic privatization and boosterish enthusiasm for the new “service society”–one more illusion of “globalisation”–I expect an enterprising civic official, any day now, to suggest making the stone-workers redundant, and replacing them with money-saving poured-cement sidewalks.

On my desk in Berlin, facing windows that look onto the maple and ash trees in the back courtyard, I keep a paving-stone paperweight–an irregular squarish chunk of Swedish granite, flecked with mica–as an anticipatory relic of the days when citizens thought that even the precious pavement of the city mattered.


The most memorable image in Walter Benjamin’s writing, “the angel of history,” appears in his “Theses on the Concept of History,” a late schematic essay written in 1940, a few months before he died. Benjamin portrays the angel as a witness to the ongoing disaster of history:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”

If any city can claim to lie under the gaze of the angel of history, it must be Berlin. Nowhere has the wreckage of the past been piled higher–sometimes literally, as in the mountainous accretion of World War II rubble known as Devil’s Mountain, or Teufelberg, heaped up and greened over in the nearby woods of Berlin–and nowhere has the storm of “progress” blown more ferociously. Beyond “my Berlin,” then, there is the Berlin of history, an imaginary personage, one whose objectivity is open to the varying interpretive perspectives of its urban biographers.

In “reading” that Berlin–that is, reading the numerous books about the city–one confronts the theoretical problem of the genre of such urban histories and civic portraits. The problem of the imaginary personage derivable from the city’s evolving material facts and its historical events is how to render the “likeness” of the “personality” that emerges from an assemblage of people, physical structures and institutional arrangements over time. Most historians often produce ungrounded sentences of the form, e.g., “Berlin wanted…,” or “Berlin thinks…,” where the Berlin personified in the sentence may amount to little more than the wishes and thoughts of a particular class, or the public relations rhetoric of the local tourist bureau.

The case of Berlin poses the added difficulty of being an unusual national capital. For example, a history of New York or Toronto is simply an account of a particular big city, its people and culture, and its internal politics. Its story is only indirectly affected by the history of the nation. That is not the case with Berlin. Histories of capitals like Ottawa, Canada or Washington, D.C., on the other hand, are primarily histories of national politics, with the medium-sized city that houses the capital often lacking an individual identity other than as the country’s designated political centre. Again, that’s not the case with Berlin. Further, Berlin is even distinguishable from such long-standing big city capitals as London and Paris in that its role as a capital has been more violently interrupted by events than anywhere else. Berlin, the principal, if sleepy, garrison city of Frederick the Great’s “enlightened” and militarized Prussia in the 18th century, was the capital of Germany from the unification of the country in 1871 to the Nazi-provoked devastation of both the city and the nation in 1945, and then the eastern part of the city was the capital of East Germany from 1949 to 1990, while the provincial town of Bonn served as West Germany’s always provisional capital. It was a city divided by the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989, which was magnified into the signifier of the “Cold War” of that period, and now, in the wake of German reunification in October 1990, Berlin has subsequently resumed its position as the capital of Deutschland once more.

The challenge of telling Berlin’s story no doubt accounts for the numerous books written about the city in recent years. I’ve read most of them, but the two that are the most important for a discussion of the thematics of Berlin history are Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis (1998) and David Clay Large’s Berlin (2000).

In addition to a great catchy title, Richie’s book has all the features that would appear to make it the definitive urban-history-to-end-all-urban-histories, at least as far as Berlin is concerned. Faust’s Metropolis is a massive 1100 pages, it has a vast historical sweep–covering Berlin from its first mention in the records of the 13th century to the present-day “Berlin Republic”–it provides a formidable scholarly apparatus, and its author is both convincingly erudite and interpretively bold.

For all that, Faust’s Metropolis is deeply unsatisfying, both in its conception and execution. Richie’s basic strategy is to view Berlin through the prism of German history, and vice-versa, to the mutual disadvantage of both, but especially to the disadvantage of the city. The point of the title of a recent German movie, Berlin is in Germany, is that it’s meant as an ironic counter to the often-uttered dictum that “Berlin is not in Germany,” that it’s something else, somewhere else. And in my experience it is not like the rest of Germany, as both Berliners and non-Berliner Germans are quick to reassure or warn visitors. Richie’s decision to write a history of Berlin “through the prism” of German history is fatal, especially when one of the striking features of Berlin is its difference from and resistance to that national history.

Richie’s barely-suppressed hostility to Berlin–a curious stance for someone writing a thousand pages about it–comes out primarily through her repeated emphasis on debunking the “myths” and “legends” of Berlin, most of them, in her view, self-serving, self-promoting and self-deluded rhetorical tropes of its inhabitants and boosters. The conceptual strategy of “demystifying” Berlin requires her to deconstruct or simply diminish a vast amount of prima facie evidence of civic resistance, ranging from the politics of “Red Berlin” at the beginning of the 20th century, to the radical Weimar culture of the 1920s, to the fate of the city under the Nazis. She also feels compelled to disdain everything in its recent past, from the chaotic social experimentation of the 1960s and 70s, right on down to the city’s contemporary reputation as a European centre of toleranz.

Whether discussing the resistance of bourgeois nationalism during the Napoleonic era, the proto-nationalist events of the 1848 “revolutions,” the rise of socialism within imperialist German unification under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s, the civil war of 1919 in the streets of Berlin, or any other oppositional manifestation, Richie reduces it all to gesture without substance in order to achieve her intended effect. Her treatment of the “mind” of Berlin as evinced in its culture, even at its height in the 1920s, merely plays off popular mass culture against “decadent” avant-garde art rather than reading them dialectically, and ultimately she dismisses the whole of its intelligence as “energetic but superficial.” By the time she comes to the events of 1968, she’s fulminating that “students and pseudo-intellectuals alike spouted various forms of Marxist rhetoric or slavishly followed the teachings of the radical-left Frankfurt School,” a passage that drips with contempt. Berlin’s activists are merely “pseudo-intellectuals” who “spout” “rhetoric,” and “slavishly” follow the benighted doctrines of a malevolent “radical-left.”

Perhaps the biggest distortion of the book is Richie’s portrait of Berlin as a typical site of Nazism. Here, in order to portray Berliners as mindless “good Germans,” she has to obscure the fact that Berlin, unlike many other places in Germany, was remarkable in never having voted for the Nazis, and she has to ignore the circumstance that after free elections were suspended in the mid-1930s, Berlin’s opposition forces–social democrats, communists, liberals of various classes, trade unionists, artists, and segments of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community–were all either exiled, murdered, or forcibly interned in concentration camps, leaving only a “purified” population of Berliners most likely to be acquiescent to or supportive of Hitler’s regime.

David Large’s Berlin affably avoids the fatal flaws of Faust’s Metropolis, but is not without conceptual problems of its own. While ample in size (some 650 pages), Large modestly confines the scope of his book to a “narrative history of Berlin framed by the two unifications,” that is, an account of the century and a quarter between 1871, when the city emerged as the capital of a unified Germany, and the present, when Berlin becomes the restored capital of a reunified country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Having set out the scope of his history, Large shapes the story in terms of a number of significant themes. This is the moment of conceptualization that is the crux of any urban biography. Among the themes that Large delineates is, first, Berlin’s inferiority complex as a late-arriving national capital. “Although the Spree metropolis became famous for its cutting-edge modernity, its celebration of the new and experimental, a fear persisted in some quarters that the town was still ‘behind’ its European rivals when it came to urban sophistication.” Even today, Large says, Berlin “is always comparing itself with other capitals and there’s a real insecurity about where it stands.”

Second, in Large’s thematic view, Berlin “is a city with a difficult and ambiguous relation with the rest of Germany. From a conservative point of view, it’s too ‘red,’ a city too ‘multi-kulti,’ too cosmopolitan, and historically compromised.” A corollary theme is the tension between the city’s own governance and that of the rulers of the nation, from kaisers to the Nazis, most of whom distrusted and disliked the sprawling capital on the Spree River. Even in post-reunification Germany, a measure of the national antipathy to the city could be seen in the parliamentary vote of the early 1990s, when a divided Bundestag decided to return the capital to Berlin by a sliver-thin margin of votes among the more than 600 members of the national legislative body. Finally, in terms of thematics, Large offers Berlin as “a city that constantly reinvents itself,” yet always with a tinge of regret for what was being lost. As he remarks, “Nostalgia is as pervasive a theme in Berlin’s modern history as the cult of the new.”

While each of the themes enumerated by Large is true enough in a mundane fashion, the conceptualization as a whole suffers from a blandness that diminishes the epic quality of the disasters that befall Berlin. If Large avoids the problems of Richie’s account, which was overdetermined by its insistence on reading Berlin through the prism of German history and the grandeur of a misplaced Faustian metaphor, he does so by a reductiveness that literally under-writes the uniqueness of Berlin.

In the imaginary book, Berlin and the Angel of History, an urban biography of which this passage, “(My) Berlin,” serves as an introduction, the text is governed by three principal themes. The first is Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” who presides over the successive cataclysms that shape the temporal story of the city of Berlin. Rather than Richie’s strategy of viewing Berlin “through the prism” of German history, and vice-versa, the narrative recognizes that German history is separable from that of Berlin and locates not only the city’s indigenous story but also the “intersections” where German and world history is visited upon the city and those where the events in Berlin, while shaping German history, are integral to the chronicle of the city.

To take a single example: the diplomatic blundering of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the second decade of the 20th century which leads to Germany’s fatal involvement in World War I is an intersection dominated by myopic German history. Large, by the way, provides a lucid account of how the Kaiser’s erratic foreign policy fanned the flames of that conflagration. The war, envisaged as one to be brought to a speedy triumphant conclusion by Christmas 1914 (when the victorious troops would come marching home through Brandenburg Gate from which they had set out in summer), instead turned catastrophic for Germany, and everyday life in Berlin became a matter of unceasing, prolonged hardship.

By contrast, the events of the 1919 civil war in the streets of Berlin, though an “intersection” that shapes Germany, since it eventuated in the Weimar Republic, can be primarily viewed in terms of the city itself where the struggle took place. Large coherently sorts out the tangled political factions which plunged the country into a civil war. The new Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert, in collusion–a persistent problem of social democracy generally–with conservative elements, including all-important military and paramilitary forces, shot it out with a fragmented left that included “independent” Social Democrats, the recently-formed German Communist Party, and its ultra-left fraction, the Spartacists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, both of whom were murdered in the course of the failed revolution. We’re left with the image of the bloated corpse of the once-brilliant Luxemburg surfacing in the canal in the Tiergarten where she was dumped by her executioners, and with the scenes of anarchy in the streets mixed with ebullient night life recorded in the diaries of Count Henry Kessler. While the demarcation of the intersections between Berlin/Germany is obviously not hard and fast, the chaotic tale of that street battle would be incoherent without, for example, a sustained consideration of the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg and others, who become, in the thematics I propose, an examplar of the “mind” of the city.

Alexandra Richie’s idea of scope, from origins to present-day, is preferable to Large’s, which, while tidy, by definition excludes such crucial historical periods as Enlightenment Berlin and figures like Moses Mendelssohn, material that’s inseparable from later developments in the intellectual history of the city. Though Richie’s search for an overarching image in which to encompass the history of Berlin makes sense, her choice of a ruling Faustian metaphor, with its implications of the city making a deal with the Devil or selling its soul in return for eminence, is historically wrong-headed. Benjamin’s angel of history, with its neutral but empathetic gaze, is an image that makes more sense of the series of developments and cataclysms in relation to the mind and personality of the city. Measured against the “wreckage upon wreckage” hurled at the angel’s feet, or the “storm from Paradise” caught in its wings, notions in Large’s book like constant self-“reinvention” seem merely trivially fashionable.

The second theme of Berlin and the Angel of History is that the cultural history of Berlin should be read as the collective intellectual mind of the imaginary personage of the city. That is, Berlin’s cultural history is not merely something that occurs in Berlin but is Berlin.

That “mind” consists of everything written, painted, danced, built, composed and thought in Berlin. Just to glance at its literary aspect, such a personified mind is fascinatingly complex and includes the varied contents of the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, Theodor Fontane, Alfred Doblin, Benjamin, Isherwood, Musil, Kafka, Nabokov, Brecht and dozens of others, right to the present moment of Thomas Brussig’s comedic account of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Heroes Like Us, or poet Durs Grunbein’s essays in Galileo Measures Dante’s Hell. The city’s thought places Moses Mendelssohn in the precincts of the Prussian Academy or Hegel in the university classroom and Isherwood in a rent-bar, and it is sustained all the way to a recent Sunday morning colloquium at the Theatre am Lehniner Platz in which the American cultural theorist Judith Butler is in conversation with Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, discussing the latter’s latest dance performance, Koerper (Body). While works set in Berlin, such as Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin or Brussig’s Heroes Like Us have a certain natural priority, the point is that every book written in Berlin, whether or not it takes the city as its subject, is part of a unique civic mind.

The handling of the history of the city’s “intelligence” is an enormously complicated matter and here I can offer a personal example to indicate the contrasting treatment of a moment of Berlin social history in Richie and Large.

My experience of reading Richie’s book was made more vivid by the fact that shortly before its publication, I’d visited a massive exhibition at Berlin’s Academy of Art commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the international gay movement. That movement had its origins in Berlin in 1897 with the founding, by Magnus Hirschfeld, of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a political group that had, among its objectives, the repeal of the country’s anti-homosexual statute. Hirschfeld, a member of Freud’s Berlin Psychoanalytic Society and a precursor of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, was prominent in Berlin history for some three decades, but especially during the Weimar period in the 1920s as the founder-director of an institute for sexual research. For visiting artists like W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender, Hirschfeld’s headquarters, located at the edge of the Tiergarten, was one of the first stops on the tour. At the Nazi book-burning in Bebelplatz in 1933, Hirschfeld’s works as well as a bust of him were among the first into the pile, and the sacking and closure of his institute followed by his exile were of a piece with that conflagration.

I was curious to see what Richie had to say about Hirschfeld, and before I’d gotten very far into my reading of her history, I checked the index. Much to my surprise: no mention of Hirschfeld at all, not so much as one passing reference. This wasn’t a case of a critic trying to spot what the expert had missed, but to miss Hirschfeld entirely certainly put me on alert. If she didn’t notice Hirschfeld, who’s pretty hard not to notice, what else had she missed?

After that, it was unsurprising to find that Richie didn’t have much to say about homosexuality in general, though Berlin has a major place in the history of modern homosexual life. Nor did she have much to say, for that matter, about Isherwood, Auden and many others. Since Berlin culture of the 1920s is unavoidable and requires a chapter to itself, Richie duly provides one, but essentially she writes the period off as mostly decadent glitter, a scene ultimately of “boredom and listlessness,” another of Berlin’s “myths” in need of debunking. In Richie, there’s very little about thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, the social democratic theorist Eduard Bernstein, Walter Benjamin, or comparable figures of the Berlin intelligentsia, other than sneers. Given her relative indifference to the physiognomy of the cityscape, it was hardly a shock to find but one glancing reference to Peter Lenne, the landscape architect responsible for so much of the shape of Berlin and its surroundings.

(Hirschfeld, by the way, doesn’t have much luck when it comes to other historians. In Otto Friedrich’s 1972 book, Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, an otherwise lively and affectionate portrait of the city, Hirschfeld’s one listing in the index is under the erroneous heading, “Max Hirschfeld,” and in the text itself, though correctly named, he’s treated as a minor, quirky charlatan.)

By contrast with Richie, in Large’s Berlin, Hirschfeld makes an appropriate appearance (there’s even a photograph of him), and visiting writers like Christopher Isherwood are put to positive use in portraying the city, rather than merely accorded passing mention. Large’s presentation of Hirschfeld is a big improvement on other treatments, especially since he provides evidence that he’s actually read Hirschfeld’s books. But there’s even more to be said. For example, Hirschfeld’s notion of the homosexual as a “third sex” is, at best, but one-half of a vibrant debate in which other proto-gay thinkers, such as Adolf Brand, offer contrasting conceptualizations of same-sex relations. Large chooses not to pursue that debate, but it strikes me as relevant to the notion of the “mind” of the city that I’m proposing.

Large’s conception of Berlin’s homosexual history is not in the least hostile but, like other historians, he has a tendency to fold the homosexual milieu into the renowned “legend” of the city’s “naughtiness.” But homosexual life and thought are also something other and more than that, especially in Berlin, where they have been part of the city’s social and mental life for a century. I don’t want to make more of this theme than it deserves. It’s a thread in the weave, no more than that. Nor am I arguing for some multicultural recognition, some ethnic flavour of the month. In any case, that recognition is more than satisfied by the city’s annual Christopher Street Day gay parade, which draws up to a half-million participants. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that if you start by taking Hirschfeld seriously, I think a case can be made that the place of homosexual life in Berlin, rather than simply of a piece with the mystique of Berlin noir, is closer to the historical experience of the city’s Jewish community, both in its periodic victimization as a scapegoat, and in its sporadically successful quest for tolerance and integration.

A third and final thematic, the one that stands out for me, is that Berlin is a left-wing city. Although Large presents most of the constitutive facts for it, it’s a theme that he doesn’t explicitly draw together. While it’s a motif that Richie is most concerned with debunking, the historical evidence is massive, consistent, and incontrovertible. Berlin is the centre of the naissance of the German Social Democratic movement–led by August Bebel in the 1870s and 80s–the political formation instrumental in creating the image of “Red Berlin” by the turn of the century. The city provided the thinker’s study for Eduard Bernstein, a still-underappreciated social democratic theorist at the beginning of the 20th century, author of Evolutionary Socialism, and a precursor of contemporary European social democratic thought. Berlin was the site, simultaneously, of a civil war and a bloody internecine struggle among leftist parties in 1919, as well as the place where a workers’ general strike defeated an attempted right-wing coup, the Kapp putsch of 1920.

The striking, seldom-noted feature of Berlin’s relation to the Nazis, as I said above, is that the city never voted for Hitler’s party. Throughout the rise of Nazism, Berlin’s vote for the Nazis was always proportionally less than in Germany as a whole, and even in the various elections of the 1930s, at the time of and after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship, the Nazi vote in Berlin never amounted to more than slightly over a third of the city’s electorate, while well over fifty per cent supported left-wing parties. After the Nazi debacle and the division of the country, while West Germany opted for the Christian Democratic regime of Konrad Adenauer, the city of West Berlin elected a post-war socialist mayor, Ernst Reuter. In the late 1950s, Berlin provided the base for the political career of Willy Brandt, one of Germany’s most interesting left-wing civic and federal icons.

One would be hard-pressed to make any sense of the various anarchist, “autonomous,” student radical, “squatter,” and green political activities of the 1960s through to the mid-1980s without placing them in the context of the history of Berlin as a left-wing city, which is a problem in both Richie’s and Large’s books. In East Germany’s first free election in 1990, while the newly post-communist East Germans elected a Christian Democratic Union government (lured by the economic prospects offered by Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s West German CDU regime), East Berlin gave fully two-thirds of its vote to the Social Democrats, the Party of Democratic Socialism (the moderate successor party to East Germany’s Communists), and other left-of-centre formations. Finally, and most recently, after a fifteen-year Christian Democratic city administration led by a popular if bland mayor, post-millennial Berlin voted into office a “Red-Red” coalition government of the SPD and PDS, headed by a social democratic mayor who, shortly before the election, casually announced that, by the way, he was gay “and it’s okay.”

The reason I point to all of this in some detail is because of the historian’s problem I flagged earlier about the difficulty of locating the “voice” of the imaginary personage that is a city. If anything stands out in trying to determine what “Berlin thinks,” it is the actual behaviour of its citizens at the polls on a series of occasions that extend more than a century. One could argue, as Richie tends to do, that the support for the left at the polls is merely a sort of rhetorical “posturing” rather than a reflection of the civic popular mentality, but I think that’s a hard case to make. While voting is hardly the only measure of what a city thinks, the strikingly consistent pattern of Berlin’s voting, and its contrast to the national pattern, certainly makes it a candidate for one of the foundational themes upon which the story of the city’s history ought to be based.

As Benjamin’s angel of history knows, nothing can “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But our stories ought to at least make sense of the swirling storm of progress that propels the angel into the future, while the wreckage of the catastrophe piles up at its feet.

Berlin, July 18, 2002 (10,283 w.)


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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