The New York Times
An Insecure City Demolishes Its Own CharmBy NICHOLAS KULISH
Published: February 26, 2006
When I first lived in Berlin more than a decade ago, my favorite moment each morning was when my streetcar rumbled past a giant black bust of a dead Communist hero, Ernst Thälmann. Dawn came stubbornly late in winter and the temperature was often well below freezing. Waiting for the streetcar to come, stamping my feet to keep the feeling in my toes, I would often question why I had chosen the frigid outer reaches of Germany over my second choice, Barcelona.
Passing ugly old Ernst's monumental bald head, I remembered why. Here was Adolf Hitler's opposite in the era of street fighting captured in Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories." Thälmann was executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in 1944. The cold war Communist government erected this ugly statue while the city was still the center of a standoff between superpowers. It had since been tagged around the base with extensive graffiti in the strange brew of post-wall Berlin.
I never much worried about Ernst's value as art. His clunky statue brought together the most interesting eras in the city's history, which were also reflections of larger forces in Europe and the world beyond. In many ways, Berlin was the defining city of the 20th century, and here was proof.
My thoughts drifted back to Ernst when I learned that workers there have begun tearing down another monument to that Communist era. The Palace of the Republic is a squat thing, a dumpy rectangle of concrete and steel. Its only real claim to beauty was bronze glass that could catch a sunset just so and emanate a warm glow. The first panels of the facade have come down and by next year there will be nothing left.
That is a shame, and an all-too-clear indication that the city's towering inferiority complex is standing strong. The palace opened in 1976 on a prime piece of real estate on the main drag of Unter den Linden. It sits incongruously among imposing museums, monuments and historic Humboldt University. The East German government built it on the spot where a war-damaged Prussian castle was demolished in 1950. The plan now is to spend years and possibly over $1 billion to place a replica of the old castle there.
Real history is falling so that fake history can take its place.
This has set off debate and protests over architectural merit, old rivalries of East versus West, and whether the money could be better spent — which it surely could. The supporters of the faux palace say the Communist one is an eyesore, that the city needs its historic center back whole and untainted.
Berlin lacks the kind of confidence that allows a self-assured woman to wear a beauty mark with ease. It is always looking over its shoulder at Rome or London or New York when it should be celebrating its amazing uniqueness instead.
In her extensive history of the city, "Faust's Metropolis," Alexandra Richie writes that for centuries the city was a backwater and that only after German unification in 1871 did it really take off. "Berlin is a city which has never been at ease with itself," she writes of the "parvenu" capital, which insists a little too loudly that it has more bridges than Venice. (No one ever mistook Berlin for Venice.)
It is not a matter of hiding from the darker episodes in recent history. In the last few years the city has unveiled a Jewish museum and a prominent new monument to the Holocaust. The final game of the World Cup will be held in the stadium built by the Nazis, where Hitler presided over his Olympic Games. But while the stadium still stands, echoes of the unphotogenic Communist past are being wiped away, despite a poll showing a majority of East Germans favor keeping their odd palace.
As an on-and-off resident of the city, I have played host to many tourists in Berlin and not one asked to see castles, of which there are several originals. Will they clamor to see a reconstruction? My visitors wanted to see the Berlin Wall. They wanted to see Checkpoint Charlie. The history that matters to tourists coming to Berlin is 20th-century history.
I have never met a German who moved to the city because it was the imperial capital. It is Berlin's liveliness and strangeness that attracted them. For many West Germans part of that was the allure of the old East Germany, in all its splendid ugliness. The goofy television tower in Alexanderplatz that dominates the East Berlin skyline — which looks like a disco ball set on a skinny concrete pillar, with a barber's pole shooting out the top — is a mainstay on Berlin T-shirts. History happens. It cannot be engineered.
I will miss the Palace of the Republic. It will be jarring not to see it when I return to the city and I know I will be sad for the homely thing's absence. Now I fear they will one day destroy Ernst, in a misguided effort to restore Berlin to a particular majesty that never was.