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Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 10:26 UK

Washington diary: Berlin stories

By Matt Frei
BBC News, London

I am in London this week, and my thoughts have turned to other European capitals.

One of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was a physical eyesore that created a grotesque division

When I was the BBC's Southern Europe correspondent, I was based in Rome.

My patch was the area covered by the Roman Empire in 50 AD minus Gaul, Britain and the Levant.

We lived on the top floor of a 17th Century palazzo, that had been built on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto, on the ruins of what was once the temple complex that Augustus had erected for his beloved sister Octavia.

The layers of history were piled on top of each other like one of those club sandwiches from which everything spills out messily.

History in stone

Berlin, where I have been filming a documentary series this year, is also a city of layers.

But the cycle of renewal and destruction, the gulf between soaring imperial vision and crushing military defeat is far more brutal, recent and relevant to our lives today.

Berlin's history is writ in stone. It is a history of ideas: some noble, some revolutionary, some barbaric.

But all of them, at some stage, were turned into architecture. The most obvious example was the ugly 12ft high (3.6m) cement wall, whose toppling two decades ago the world will remember on 9 November 2009.

The wall was a physical eyesore that created a grotesque division.

Some members of my own family are East German, but I only met them after the wall came down.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
In architectural terms, the Nazis' most lasting legacy for Berlin was the destruction they brought upon it

My uncle and aunt were as curious to see the five star East Berlin hotel where I was staying on Unter den Linden - which had previously been reserved for party bosses and foreign delegations - as they were to meet their distant relative.

It was remarkable how the two halves of the city developed in different ways.

The East built the grandiose victory parade-ground known as the Stalin Allee. High rise residential blocks boasted brand new flats with hot running water and central heating for Berliners who had known nothing but rubble after the war. The facades are still clad with tiles from the famous kilns at Meissen.

Not to be outdone, the West created the Hansaviertel, where renowned Western architects created sleek bungalows that merged Bauhaus minimalism with bourgeois cosiness.

The Cold War competition mirrored what happened in Berlin before the war. Modernist architecture was born in proletarian housing estates like Onkel Tom's Huette or the Horseshoe building. A far cry from the miserable housing estates of the 1960s, these were pleasant residences set in pine forests, redefining industrial living.

Nazi legacy

They were also the natural turf of the Communist party. The Nazis associated the architecture with the party and declared war on modernism.

They built their own vision of residential paradise on the banks of the Krumme Lanke, a picturesque lake on the outskirts of Berlin.

The roofs are pitched. The windows have shutters and quaint boxes overflowing with flowers. It was a Hansel and Gretel idyll built for Hitler's most vicious killers.

When the Russians marched into Berlin they found the lake full of bodies. Dozens of SS families preferred to swallow a cyanide capsule than face the justice of the victor.

Today the neighbourhood is a des res colony, favoured by artists and academics. It is one of the eeriest places in a city that has plenty to spook you.

Berlin's newly refurbished Neues Museum
British architect David Chipperfield has refurbished Berlin's Neues Museum

In architectural terms, the Nazis' most lasting legacy for Berlin was the destruction they brought upon it. Approximately 80% of the city was flattened by bombs.

A few of their buildings survive. The former Air Ministry - in which a portly Goering dreamt of ever-larger portions of world domination - is today's Finance Ministry.

Tempelhof airport, still one of Europe's largest buildings and the world's first truly modern airport, was commissioned by Hitler for the 1936 Olympics. Now it stands empty.

The runway is silent but for the howling winds, and the giant departure hall is the aviation equivalent of the vast, empty hotel in the film The Shining. It is haunted, spine-chilling and beautiful.

Intellectual magnet

Hitler and Speer never got a chance to build Germania, the new imperial capital that they planned. But they made a start.

The most bizarre monument to their hubris is a giant round cement block, a 10-storey spherical meteorite plonked in the middle of a residential district, surrounded by apartment blocks and allotments.

It was put there to test whether the notoriously swampy clay soil of Berlin could withstand the weight of Hitler's giant new triumphal arch. It could not. The block sank into the ground and has stayed there ever since.

Not that the soil texture of Berlin became much of an issue. After 1945 a triumphal arch was not really on the cards.

Berlin's Reichstag building
Sir Norman Foster's Reichstag dome symbolises Berlin's rebirth

From the very beginning, Berlin was treated by its rulers like an architectural laboratory chamber.

Blame Frederick the Great, the Prussian philosopher king. He was obsessed with military discipline but also loved playing the flute, paid the French philosopher Voltaire an annual salary and was probably gay.

His summer castle at Sanssouci is as camp as a rococo Cage aux Folles.

Frederick wanted to turn Berlin into a world class city. He had the buildings, the architect - Karl Friedrich Schinkel - and the money.

What he lacked in his garrison town were people. So he invited Jews, Huguenots and other minorities from all over Europe to settle in Berlin, luring them with greater freedoms than they could enjoy elsewhere.

Those were the origins of Berlin as a breeding ground for intellectual insurrection, from Karl Marx's theory of collectivity to Einstein's Theory of Relativity to the embrace of promiscuity in the sexual revolution of the 1920s.

The city was forever rubbing up against the demands of discipline and Prussian notions of duty.

Rebirth

As I watched the anarchists, hippies, neo-Nazis and riot police beat each other up in a cloud of teargas on 1 May this year, I was struck by how little had changed.

Berlin has always relished its confrontational spirit, even though it has brought it to near extinction.

Today's battles are - on the whole - much more civilised.

But almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is still in the pangs of yet another rebirth.

This one, though, is the happiest so far. It is driven not by a despot, a victor, a warped monarch or a revolution. It is driven by the desire of modern Germany to acknowledge its painful past and move on.

The skyline is littered with a forest of cranes. Earth-movers chomp away at East German eyesores, jackhammers chip away at blackened World War II ruins.

But this is a very "liveable" city with great food, music, parks and twice the number of opera houses or symphony orchestras you would normally expect, thanks to the fusion of two halves.

Like the Reichstag (which was revamped and re-domed by Sir Norman Foster), the newly refurbished Neues Museum - courtesy of British architect David Chipperfield - is an astonishing melding of neo-classicism and 21st Century post-modernism that does not hide the bullet holes and bomb craters of an ugly era.

This is history beautifully on display with warts and all. Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, Berlin seems, perhaps for the first time in its history, comfortable in its own skin.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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