25 Years After the Wall Cracked Open, a New Berlin Is Emerging

Awash in reminders of Germany's tragic past, the city is reinventing itself with a "good karma" vibe.

The night of November 9 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the great turning points of modern history—the moment in 1989 when the Communist regime of East Germany finally collapsed, and the Wall that had cut Berlin in two since August 1961 at last came to be a meaningless strip of concrete. Border guards stood back, crossing points were opened, and ecstatic Berliners climbed on the top of the hated symbol to usher in a new world.

In the two days leading up to the anniversary on Sunday, Berlin will celebrate with thousands of illuminated balloons tethered along eight miles (12 kilometers) of the line of the Wall running through the center of the city.

At the anniversary moment itself, the biodegradable balloons will be released one by one to float above Berlin, while the Berlin State Opera performs the "Ode to Joy," the finale from Beethhoven's Ninth Symphony and the anthem of European unity.

All of this might feel a bit oompah-pah, and you can be sure that it will be met in Berlin with an incredulous grin. It's all very well setting off balloons, one Berliner said to me, but why can't they do something useful—like finish the new airport, currently four years behind schedule, two billion euros over budget and counting?

For all of Berlin's metropolitan skepticism, to a foreigner—a word that's lost its edge in a city that's home to something like 190 different nationalities—it remains a deeply inspiring place.

It's true that, on the whole, Berlin never really delivers that soupy, cinematic style of seduction that Paris effortlessly ladles out to its visitors nor as much of the adrenaline whirligig as you might get in Manhattan. But a quarter century after the Wall came down, Berlin has something else, something that goes deeper and feels stronger. (Read more about Berlin's many neighborhoods, past and present.)

Old-time Berliners might laugh in their sleeves at such a naive, wide-eyed take on their city, but modern Berlin seems to be making its way into the future with a kind of optimism and openness that's difficult to find elsewhere in a troubled world. It's not Silicon Valley or the groaning, overmoneyed behemoth of modern London.

But for all its grievous history, Berlin might actually be a model, in embryo, of how to get the modern world right. It's the most unlikely of outcomes. Berlin—the city of trauma, of savagery and sorrow, an island for 40 years, no more connected to the rest of the continent than a space station—now, potentially, leading Europe into a civilized, open, generous future.

How is it that Berlin is on the track to happiness?

An Aquarium of the Past

In part, it's precisely because of that violent and difficult past. Nowhere on Earth can the examples of overweening political ambition, tyranny, repression, division, and human failure be quite so obvious.

Walk the streets of Berlin, and you're reminded at every corner of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the great power node. Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of 19th-century imperial Germany, may have said famously that Germany should not become the "schoolmaster of Europe," but here are the lessons written out in urban geography, in the big, half-empty buildings at Tempelhof, commissioned by Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer; in the bullet-scarred stones left visible on Museum Island; in the inescapable reminders and fragments of the Wall; in the stumble-stones in the pavement.

Attempt to dominate, the streets of Berlin tell you, and you will suffer; attempt to destroy, and you will be destroyed; attempt to become the center of the world, and you will find your city carved up and divided. The great monument to the murder of European Jews in the center of Berlin is, in that way, scarcely needed—old West and old East are themselves monuments to cruelty and catastrophe. Sometimes it feels as if life in Berlin is like swimming in an aquarium of the past.

But this is all a monumentalization of a negative, of what a city must not be, a set of shrines dedicated to precisely the things that must not be worshipped.

Other great cities usually conceal the wrongness from the past. Berlin, with astonishing courage, displays it—"wearing her wounds like stars," as Virginia Woolf famously described the London of 1940, when it was being bombed and battered by the Luftwaffe. Berlin's beautiful modern dignity consists, at a fundamental level, of a recognition of a past it needs to leave behind.

This historical layering makes for deeply resonant experiences.

Simon Schaefer, a young Internet entrepreneur who has just opened a "factory" for start-ups on Rheinsberger Strasse, housing among others the now famous Soundcloud, is not content that his new building—the first of many, he promises, scattered across the electronic world—looks out over the line where the Wall once stood. In his office he has hung over his desk one of the chandeliers that used to decorate "Erichs Lampenladen," the now demolished Palace of the Republic, at the heart of old East Berlin. It's as if Berlin needs to fold the past into the present, stirring it in like sugar into cake.

Angry demonstrations are held when a smart new condominium is built on the banks of the Spree, almost entirely because it involves removing a few yards of the remains of the very Wall that 25 years ago the world longed to remove.

When Sophia Brandl, a bottle-blond incomer from Munich, works her plot at Stadtacker, a community vegetable garden laid out on the old Tempelhof airfield, rebuilt by the Nazi regime in the 1930s as the air hub of their new European empire, her onions and tomatoes, kohlrabi, beetroots, and potatoes all gain significance from the fact that they're growing in raised beds laid out above Nazi tarmac.

"There's good karma here," she says. "I enter this place and see openness. Frieden! I can breathe. Of course, this is a city with many lost souls, with many emotional deserts, but everywhere it has these oases. It is the city of possibilities."

The Voice of City People

Possibility has replaced authority in Berlin's DNA, and that genetic modification is part of the strange atmosphere of the city. It's as if a city whose governing principle was once "This is what you must do" has transmuted into a place that says, "This is what I need to do."

Berlin's experience of authority has been so painful and traumatic in the past that it now seeks routes to civic life that in any other European capital would be thought to verge on anarchy.

The Berlin government recently wanted to build houses on the wide-open spaces of the airfield at Tempelhof—currently filled, beautifully, with singing skylarks and loose drifts of wildflowers—but in a city referendum, summoned by no more than 7 percent of the city's population, people voted down the plan. Here, profoundly unlike in London, Paris, or Rome, city authority is powerless against the voice of city people. Sophia Brandl's delight in fresh air is a measure of the kind of city Berlin wants to be.

It has matured since the wild days of the 1990s. When the spectacularly successful gallery owner Gerd Harry Lybke arrived here from East Germany in the early days after the Wall fell, taking up in the now trendy district of Berlin Mitte—empty and run-down then, with no streetlights, no heating in the houses—it was like coming into a fantasy world.

"So, it was, Let's do an exhibition here. Let's have fun," Lybke says. "You wake up ... Hmm, I'm a journalist, and the whole day you are a journalist. You write an article, send it out to the papers. Next day, Ah yes, I'll open a bar, and, yes, you're a bartender. Or an artist, and so you're an artist. I'm a gallery-ist. Yes, everything was possible."

Lybke bought the building that now houses his gallery on Auguststrasse for 250 marks, about 175 euros ($220) a square yard. If you wanted it now, you'd have to pay 6,000 euros a square yard.

"There were no famous people here then. Only losers," he laughs. "Only friendship. No money. It cost nothing." By the late 1990s this had changed. "So money becomes the whole landscape in which we are living. My reaction? To have more money so that I can control it! This now is bohème bourgeois, and I love it! I know my position and my role. Look, I'm a label!"

That 1990s decade of free-for-all in Berlin, of indifference to the demands of commercial life, generated a new identity for the city. "Berlin invents itself again and again," Richard Meng, spokesman for the city's governing senate, says. "It took ten years after 1989 to find the way for Berlin. They thought it would go by itself, but after ten years realized it doesn't go by itself and you have to push it."

The formula they came up with was, in Meng's words, "an open-minded city that lets the international community in and makes it possible for young people to live their life here and find their ideas."

It was, in other words, the very opposite of any previous idea of Berlin as a showplace for power—a denial of that bleak German history of potency, control, brutality, violence, and destruction.

Poor but Sexy

But there was a problem. Berlin's lack of industry and big business meant that its tax base was, and remains, inadequate. Even now Berlin is carrying a debt of 63 billion euros ($79 billion) and running an annual deficit of 30 percent on the city's budget, a shortfall that's made up with grants from other German provinces and the federal government.

Without the rest of Germany to support it, Berlin would go bust. The annual deficit is shrinking, and new enterprises are being encouraged, but still there seems to be little urgency, in Berlin anyway, to plug the gap. A fine kind of carelessness governs its view of its own future as the city that, as the mayor has said, is "poor but sexy."

Berlin is riding its own kind of boom—fueled by tourism, by new Internet money, by a growth in population, by a growing recognition that its geographical position gives it a vital role in the future relationship of Western and Eastern Europe, by the money the presence of the federal government inevitably brings in its train.

The question is whether too great a success will start to erode Berlin's famous freedoms. Demonstrations are held in the city against the building of new apartment blocks. In parts of the city like Kreuzberg and, even more, Mitte, which were the great squat hangouts and art centers of the 1990s, the new problem is money, the infusion of capital that will alter the preciously inclusive social fabric of the city.

One woman I met in Kreuzberg—she would not give me her name—told me how the rich would park outside her apartment block, "sizing it for gentrification. They don't need schools," she said, "they just want parking spaces." But she has a sentence she shouts whenever she sees a limousine full of prospectors: "Go away! This is my house, not your money."

A continuation of that inclusive fabric of the city is central to Berlin's own escape from the pressures of modernity. The London model (a destructively rampant free market in housing) or the Paris model (a superchic white core surrounded by poor and troubled immigrant suburbs) is to be avoided at all costs. Only by integration and participation, by a version of intimacy, can the modern city hope to be a humane one. You hear that message from all corners.

Since 2009, Marco Clausen, a social historian, and Robert Shaw, a filmmaker, have run a 7,000-square-yard productive garden called the Prinzessinnengarten right in the middle of urban Berlin.

It doesn't produce that much veg, but if you suggest it is more for show than for reality, Clausen has a very Berlin answer: "What's the difference?

We have open gardening days in which 10,000 people take part in a season. All of us, we exchange gardening knowledge and everyday experiences. It brings people together. What we produce is a neighborhood."

His garden embodies, Clausen says, "a different form of living together, a different form of relating to nature, a different form of economy, of sharing profits, of not just looking at the watch. It's a symbol of a lot of things that people desire."

For many, this Berlin culture, which had its roots in the pre-1989 squats of West Berlin, is under threat.

A City Made by Culture

"What will this city look like in the future," Clausen asks, "if we just go on selling to the highest bidder? The city is not made by its planners and architects—it's made by its culture and everyday connections. There's a huge collective emotion around free spaces and participation and not just being the object of planning. These are initiatives that create social profit without making money. If you act only according to the market, you cannot fulfill the needs of a civil society. Because the market does not take care of the social or ecological environment."

It's a powerful and widely shared vision of what a good city might be. Don't let money or power dominate, don't let property drive out humanity.

Wolfgang Thierse, the ex-East German politician who since 1989 has been closely involved with the reunification of Germany and Berlin, calls the city he loves "a loud and contradictory metropolis," full of currents pulling in multiple directions.

His hope for Berlin is as "a self-sustaining vibrant city." But increasing riches, and the way Berlin's attractiveness is drawing in business and investment, may carry the seeds of its own destruction.

In the central district of Prenzlauer Berg, once in the East and where Thierse still lives, more than 90 percent of the population has been pushed out in the past 20 years.

"Gentrification is an experience of the last ten years, and a painful experience," he says. "People expect the city to put brakes on that process, precisely to make it less painful. The intense focus on integration and accommodation of difference is the essence of German political life and thought. And we have to make that happen in Berlin."

The great German success since 1945 had been a product of what Germans call "capitalism with a social dimension."

For most Berliners, Thiese says, "London and Paris are completely negative role models of the unregulated market. A great majority want a government to steer the process of housing."

This is the central paradox: Berlin thrives on the careful organization of an apparently liberated city. But how to resist the increasing dominance of the market? How to create the institutions in which people will believe? How to reconcile success with intimacy?

The co-habiting of the German federal government with this distinctly un-Washingtonian city is the most revelatory of sights. Those who think that Germany consists of steel-rimmed-glasses-wearing engineers thinking of ever more satisfying ways in which the door of an Audi might sound as it shuts, should have a look at this city.

For all the presence of right-wing thugs and illegal immigrants, Berlin is the most hope-filled experience in Europe.

"The city that is never being but always becoming," people said of Berlin in the 19th century. It is still true.

This has been adapted from an article published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic's German edition.

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