What once made the city different has been buried by what makes everywhere else the same.
Checkpoint Charlie is a deflating tourist trap these days. The fake-looking knock-up of the famous U.S. check point that once served as a gateway between West and East Berlin on the fault-line of the Cold War now stands in the middle of a busy main street, surrounded by bland brand stores and cars whizzing by.
It’s easy to forget the extraordinary history that Berlin and its people have experienced. We are so used to the narrative of Germany’s justified downfall during World War II that we forget to consider the German perspective and what it must be like to be a defeated and defamed people.
“The catastrophe had occurred,” as Alexander Starritt describes at the end of his novel We Germans, which gives a German soldier’s perspective fighting on the Eastern Front. “Germany was ruined, occupied, shrunk and divided. We were at the mercy of our captors and conquerors, citizens of a demolished country, children of a shamed people.”
Due to her role shaping those terrible events of the 20th century, Germany has had to reckon with a singularly existential issue: how, exactly, to be German. Up until 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany wasn’t actually a sovereign state. The Occupation Statute meant the victorious Western powers determined important areas of the country’s politics, including foreign policy, while laws passed by the Bundestag could be annulled. Even after the statute ended, hundreds of thousands of foreign troops remained based in Germany. I was based in Osnabruck with my tank regiment.
Since the Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989, Western influence has continued in the city. Berlin has had a full capitalist make-over, and has been visited by capitalism’s bastard child, globalism. The city, despite German unification, remains divided, not between East and West, but between gentrified global malaise and traditional Germanic authenticity. But Berlin is used to being under siege—it is pushing back against the blob of nowhereness that might consume it, with lessons for the populations of U.S. cities.
You get a sense of the challenge for Germany to be Germany and Germans to be Germans—and who might have the upper hand—as soon as you land. Gone are the three cozy old airports where you could get a nice beer and currywurst mit pommes—curry sausage with fries—straight outside the terminal door. The new all-encompassing Berlin Brandenburg Airport is a huge expanse of soulless utilitarian function, a testament to its designers' ability to make you feel like you could be anywhere in the world.
In Berlin’s city center, you encounter a similar thing. Bland gentrification dominates: U.S.-style burger bars and cafes, Asian noodle bars, Portuguese cafes, Italian wine bars. You often have to work hard to find a German bar serving local beer and food. For a non-English city, you hear an incredible amount of well-spoken English.
Over the course of my visit, though, I noticed increasing numbers of bars and cafes with signs in windows indicating they only take cash for payment—in stark contrast to the hip-looking Portuguese cafe that is card-only. In the cash-only bars, it can feel like a parallel dimension—one that existed before 9/11, the 2008 global crisis, and the all-dominating internet. People are smoking inside. Bar staff tally each of your drinks on a piece of paper. Multiple TV screens are not screeching out at you. You might even encounter a sense of bonhomie among your fellow drinkers.
Another striking thing about the city is that there are parts where it is overrun with children. The city’s ubiquitous playgrounds are absolutely bursting with the little ankle-biters.
“It’s a good place to bring up a family,” a Brazilian lady who married a German husband told me. Kindergartens are paid for by the local government and cover children from two years old until they attend school around five or six. You end up paying about $80 a month to cover extras such as food.
But it’s not just generous daycare provisions. Children are riding the trams, peddling bikes alongside their parents, or walking to school amid the pedestrianized professional morning rush hour. The streets are alive with multi-generational human movement, as they are in Spain. The contrast with traffic-jammed and traffic-dependent U.S. cities, where age groups are siloed in separate spaces, couldn't be stronger. It makes you realize that while the environmental puritans calling for no cars are idiotic, those who make life in the U.S. totally dependent on cars are equally foolish and myopic.
Similarly, those socialist-bashing Republicans who call out the encroaching state usually do so while paying lip service to the fact that most American parents have to break their backs to bring up a child, let alone a plurality of children. Berlin's experience suggests providing support for these families is possible.
Despite there being a fair bit of graffiti splashed around Berlin—the city has a famously edgy alternative scene, after all—and lots of people wandering around with open beer bottles due to relaxed alcohol laws, most streets generally feel safe and buzzy. You aren’t constantly smelling weed and urine, increasingly the fragrance in cities around the U.S.
Having won two World Wars and then the Cold War, America's complacency has led to cities such as New York losing the peace. Berlin, on the other hand, which was utterly defeated and had to go through another existential crisis when its identity was riven in two for more than forty years, appears a healthier place for all its struggles, at least in terms of lifestyle and family-friendly opportunities.
Of course, the city, like the rest of Germany, is experiencing the same problems roiling other countries around the globe. Inflation, high energy costs, unchecked immigration, and cultural clashes are causing spiraling tensions and discontent with the political system. One young German man told me that the problems around ghettos of foreigners who won’t assimilate or learn German are getting worse, adding that immigrant crime syndicates wield corrosive power throughout the country.
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What the Red Army and Stalin failed to do, globalist trends may yet achieve, turning this unique and free-spirited city into a bland replica of all the others taking shape. For the rest of us living in those ever blander, bleaker cities, as we face rising costs and falling standards of living—not to mention the defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan—it means we are all getting a taste of being Berliners, and perhaps even of the German experience that laid the foundation for a ruthless authoritarian ruler to make his play.
The additional challenge in most countries now is that it is far less clear who are the captors and conquerors setting the agenda for those of us trying to muddle along.
The New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.