Why Berlin? U2’s Bono was once asked about why the band chose to record their great album Achtung Baby there in 1989. To record an album in Berlin, just as the wall fell, helped them to produce something spectacular, maybe even the best thing they ever did.
I look at postcards of the city then: the wasteland around Potsdamer Platz, and the Brandenburg Gate standing like an exhausted old man behind the barbed wire and the machine gun nests.
I was a teenager in apartheid South Africa when Achtung Baby came out. That album gave me a glimpse of troubles I hadn’t thought about, but had had uneasy premonitions of: in sunny South African classrooms we learnt about German history. While apartheid groaned all around us, we learnt about the camps, the gas, the trains, the wall.
In 1989 when German reunification happened, I saw images of Berliners sitting on the wall amid falling concrete, buoyed by a bright and fiery glow of national unity that I barely understood and didn’t really care about.
Glued to the television, our elders said that history was being made. But as teenagers in the white suburbs, far from the townships that smouldered and erupted, we sensed the actions of history only in seismic shivers beneath the sprinkler patterns of idyllic Saturday afternoons. I didn’t connect the facts I learnt for history exams with those people on the wall, and it was only when Bono was asked “Why Berlin?” that I asked myself the same question.
My answer came in 2012 when I went to Berlin as a historian, to study the violence of one of West Germany’s notorious 1970s left-wing terrorists, Ulrike Meinhof. What I found was a city like a great organic stenograph, constantly writing the past into the present.
It began for me at the Reichstag, which I visited on my first snowy night in Berlin. Its four blackened towers are still marked by the butchering of the final days of World War II. A glass dome now rises from its midst, inviting the tourists of the world and every German pupil on a school tour to look down upon the workings of the Parliament of the once-again most powerful country in Europe. In this merging of glass and bullet holes, the Reichstag trembles with its past and its present.
Chopped in half by ideologies
Berlin is a city constantly under construction. From east to west, cranes rise above the skyline. The old East is, in parts, resplendent: Fried-richstrasse is now a teaming shopping district. Checkpoint Charlie is a garish tourist trap, with bored actors playing crossing guards. Potsdamer Platz, resuscitated from the wasteland, is sleek beneath the tall horns of high buildings. Billboard ads for international brands dwarf the remnants of the wall.
A double row of cobbled stones marks the path of the wall through the city. It is the moment when you stumble on this path while walking down a quiet street that you realise what it must have meant for the city to be chopped in half by ideologies, then sewn back together in the rough euphoria of the end of the Cold War. It all still feels unfinished, as though history is not done with this city. Berlin still has great empty spaces amid the urban sprawl. It feels like a place that is wounded, but has risen. Which is why it makes me think of home.
In Berlin, the public transport is open — no gates, no turnstiles, just an honour system. The odd person gets caught without a ticket and pays a fine, but most people make sure they have their tickets on them. There is none of that twitching pressure of the London or Paris underground, where you feel rushed and pushed to get through, get past, get on.
In the evenings, even in winter and with the ice-cracked air, the city streets throng with people on their way to the opera, a restaurant or the massive booming clubs the city is famous for. Old couples in fur coats on their way to see Wagner sit next to tattooed youths wearing earphones and carrying beer bottles. Neighbourhoods rise and fall before your eyes, as you ride the Berlin underground from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz across the heart of the city. Street names evoke the century of centuries: Hannah Arendt Platz, Marlene Dietrich Platz, Hegel Platz … Oh Berlin, you old beauty, with your great thinkers and dreamers.
And your darkness. The city carries its past crimes and defeats in plain sight. Walking from the Brandenburg Gate down the elegant stretch of the Strasse Des 17 Juni towards the Berlin Victory Column, you come upon the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten. An imposing structure with Russian lettering on its facade, this memorial to the Red Army soldiers who fell in the final days of the battle for Berlin in 1945 is arresting. The apex is an enormous statue of a Red Army soldier, his hand raised in haughty domination above the city he has conquered. The monument, built in the months after the end of World War II, is kept up by the City of Berlin.
So there it is: the defeated Germans tending the monument of their conquerors, out of respect for what was defeated by those conquerors, which was Nazism. I wonder about that, and I think about home again.
Our fights over street name changes. The old Afrikaans names gradually erased, struggle names replacing them. Airports renamed, towns renamed. In Germany, the perpetrators of Nazism were the German people, and they remained the majority who themselves had to carry forward the burden of accounting, acknowledging, healing and seeking redemption.
Symbol of atonement
In South Africa, the white minority that perpetrated apartheid is now just a white minority, full stop. The mentality of the minority is often the laager, and old enmities can simmer and burn inside it. Now the national narrative is being retold from the perspective of the victims as victors. Is this why, I thought, standing before the Soviet monument in the Tiergarten, we care so little for this kind of tangible symbol of atonement in South Africa?
I’ve fallen in love with Berlin. I’ve walked its grim and sometimes desolate streets and studied the past still so visible on its surfaces — the bullet holes spattered across buildings; the obelisks of the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe; the pinched faces of the old people in winter, trussed up in greatcoats, aloof and alone on the buses and the trains.
Returning after new year to South Africa, the heat is appalling. Faced with my own violence, in my own society, I am numb and unseeing again. I ignore the local news, full of murder and rape.
Berlin taught me that I have become inured to my own history. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I write about a female terrorist in a place far away, whose country has always obsessed me, whose history feels more like mine than my own. I may have turned my eyes away from South Africa, yet I cannot escape the violence of my own past.
My own privilege and memories are built on violence, so when I write about the past, I am attracted to violence. I lived through the 1980s in South Africa as a child, and though the censors and suburbia kept the guns at a distance, I felt at every moment the frailty and the aggression upon which my little world was built. When my eyes turned to German history, it was a strange mirror of my own world: a shameful past, a constant battle with that past in the present.
However saddened I am by the daily presence of violence in my country, it is the singular fact of my life growing up here. Apartheid was built on violence, and post-apartheid South Africa is suffused with it. One day, if we are an honest nation, we too will have memorials of atonement scattered across the land. And, just like in Berlin, the billboards and the cranes on the skylines will remind us that we are ever changing — building and rebuilding, falling and rising.