Where Berlin And America Meet


If you are old enough for the name Prussia to have any resonance at all, it is probably an unpleasant one of militarism, a legacy of the First World War. Those few Americans who know that Frederick the Great sent George Washington a sword in honor of the victories at Trenton and Princeton are unlikely to be much moved by the fact. This indifference would have amazed earlier Americans, for whom Frederick was truly impressive. You can and should visit his summer palace at Sans Souci, in Potsdam, right next to Berlin. If you want to see splendid monuments to what thrilled, then alarmed, and finally disgusted your ancestors, walk down Unter den Linden, past the Brandenburg Gate, and see the handsome buildings of what were in the nineteenth century the greatest universities in the world. On Unter den Linden itself stands a very handsome equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, and nearby are bronze likenesses of various great Prussian field marshals—Blücher, Gneisenau, Wartenburg. Schinkel’s Neue Wache, a memorial to the War of Liberation, was a guardhouse for the Prussian Royal Guards. Nowadays it contains a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz of a woman weeping for the World War I dead.

Many nineteenth-century Americans admired Prussia —and Germany as a whole—for their modernity, science, and military strength. But for us later history keeps intruding. In a plaza at the old Humboldt University a new, quiet, and brilliant memorial to the Nazi book burnings consists of a sheet of Plexiglas set into the pavement through which you see only empty shelves and a prophetic inscription from the poet Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will someday burn men.”

We can see through to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Berlin, but the most vivid Berlin for Americans inescapably remains that of the first half of the twentieth century. Some of that Berlin’s echoes are pleasurable and even thrilling: the architecture of the Bauhaus, the expressionist canvases of painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix, and the newly restored Mitte district, where you can imagine you are in the 1920s Berlin of the Weimar refugees. You may not be able to look at the magnificent Olympic Stadium without recalling the Leni Riefenstahl films shot there and what they celebrated, but it is worth trying to do so. Most people manage to look at St. Petersburg without dwelling at every moment on the dreadful human cost of its construction, or at the Parthenon without focusing on the slaves in the silver mines of Athens.

Still, it all happened so recently in Berlin, and is all so much part of our own past too, that this can be harder there. Staying with friends in Prenzlauer Berg, a lively neighborhood in the old eastern zone, I asked about a structure that my German friends guessed was a water tower. I later discovered that it was indeed a water tower, but one that in the 1930s had served a “wild” concentration camp, where Nazi stormtroopers took kidnapped people when they wanted to avoid the already marginal supervision of the courts.

Such sudden surfacing can work in other ways too, though. A Berliner once pointed out to me, with some emotion, a stretch of undistinguished low-rise 1960s housing that was until the 1990s a U.S. Army barracks. This seemed only mildly interesting until my friend explained that many Berliners still haven’t forgotten that the young men who lived in that housing had come to defend their isolated city against what would otherwise have been hopeless odds—that the United States had resolved to risk a ghastly war to protect democracy in Berlin. When I heard that, I recognized that those unremarkable buildings were a part of American history most of us have already nearly forgotten. Wonderful and utterly beautiful things in Berlin that do not intersect American history—say, Cranach’s painting of the Passion in the King of Prussia’s hunting lodge in the Grunewald, or the great altar to Zeus in the Pergamon Museum—are fascinating, but not in the same way. Berlin, as the old saying goes, had the misfortune to produce more history than can be consumed locally. And a lot of that history is part of ours.