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Critic’s Notebook: A Berlin Square Where the Prewar, Postwar and Modern Eras Coexist

Who knows yet whether the terrorist behind the attack knew much about the site, but before the war, it was the beating heart of western Berlin, a bustling hub bedazzled by bright movie theater marquees and flashing neon signs, thronged by cabaretgoers, echoing, night and day, with the chatter of revelers and the sounds of honking buses and streetcar bells. After the war, it remained a commercial center for the divided city, the West’s version, more or less, of Herald Square or Piccadilly Circus. By then, West Berlin had become a disconnected island in the midst of a hostile country, a cultural petri dish and sanctuary for West Germans who wanted to skip military service and collect a state pension. The pubs were open late.

With reunification, the gravitational energy of the city moved east and the west dimmed. But the area retained its other meaning.

I’m talking about the enduring symbolism of the church, which is officially called the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Consecrated in 1895, long before the Second World War, it was built to celebrate Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War.


The Christmas market in 1929. Before World War II, the area was the beating heart of western Berlin. Credit Herbert Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

Fast-forward half a century, when Allied bombs struck the church in 1943. The jagged silhouette of the broken spire became a signpost of German madness. After the war, East Germany rebuilt historic landmarks, hoping to erase the memory of Nazism. But West Berliners preserved the Gedächtniskirche as a ruin — a testament to the destruction and terror Germans brought upon themselves, a daily reminder never to forget.

So the site has had layers of meaning. My friend Uli Kempendorff, who grew up in East Berlin, emailed me on Monday night. He described the Gedächtniskirche as “emotionally charged, especially for West Berliners.”

I wrote to ask him whether Berliners had somehow felt exempt from the sort of attacks that have wracked cities like London, Paris and Nice, France. He replied: “I think people might have felt safer in Berlin because of the enormous civic support here for refugees and because of Germany’s openness. Also we Germans like to tell ourselves we are ‘clean,’ despite drone attacks flown from Ramstein and the C.I.A.’s extraordinary renditions via Leipzig airport and support in one form or another for all the U.S. wars since Yugoslavia. But to be honest I thought it was just a matter of time before something like this happened.”

Then I spoke with Elisabeth Ruge, another longtime Berliner, who expressed heartbreak “for the people who lost their lives and were severely injured — but also for Berlin and the way we live.”

She explained: “On the one hand, Berlin is a very unstable city, economically speaking, compared to Munich or Hamburg — with problems of job security, and gentrification. But on the other hand, it is a place that has dealt well with so many of the problems we face across Western Europe, with immigration, with regards to Russia, in rebuilding ourselves after the collapse of the totalitarian state as a tolerant and open city.”

That’s what the crash at the Christmas market really targeted, she said. And as if on cue, right-wing German populists from the surging Alternative for Germany party took to social media on Monday to blame the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, for welcoming migrants, calling the victims “Angela’s dead.”

It was a response that brought to mind an essay written years ago, criticizing the area around the Gedächtniskirche for being too cosmopolitan — a meeting place for different kinds of people, for “harlots” and “so-called men” and for people speaking “all the languages of the world.”

The essayist expressed contempt for what he called “the spirit of the asphalt democracy” and predicted a “day of judgment.”

That was in 1928. The writer was Joseph Goebbels.

Source: NYT > World

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