After visiting the Berlin wall, I told my companion that I could imagine how the Wall's presence must crush Berliners'…
Touristen raus. Tourists out. It was written, not on the Wall itself (which was covered along that stretch in the Kreuzberg district with other graffiti less transparent in meaning, esoteric doodlings done with some flair by adept practitioners of the metropolitan guano school), but on some kind of machine housing hard by. The directive was rhetorically inadequate for its purpose; it did no more than register distaste for intruders, and lacked the glint of menace required actually to chase anyone off. We laughed and walked on, along the Wall. (Although my host, an old friend, was not a tourist but an American diplomat assigned to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, I assumed that the inhospitality extended to the likes of him as well.)
On this evening during the last week in May, my first night in town, Berlin was chill, gray, dank, dungeon-grim, the sky like a lid bolted shut, a misty rain falling that seemed the condensation of human misery. Viewing conditions were ideal for what we had in mind. Where the street curved, and the Wall along with it, there was a public observation platform. Such platforms stand here and there along the Wall’s length, and they are intended to serve as reviewing stands, from which Western observers may inspect the Soviet bloc’s supreme achievement: the perfection of lethal force against its own citizens.
We climbed the stairs to the platform, and looked out through the gray flickering rain at the no-man’s-land that stretched between the Wall right before us and another wall nearly one hundred yards away. Directly across from us, perhaps thirty yards off, stood the border guards’ watch-tower, its observation post covered with the coppery mirrored windows that you see in countless new office buildings, including a few in East Berlin. One of the windows was open, and we could see a guard standing inside, with his back to us. When he turned around, he stiffened with surprise at finding himself under surveillance. Yet his manner as he looked us over was casual and disdainful and certainly befitting a man who had a machine gun and who saw that we did not. I did my best to endow my own contemptuous stare with deadly firepower, but the guard was well-armored. When he turned away, it was plainly not in disquiet or shame, but out of boredom.
The impression he made on me was more striking than the one I made on him: even in perfect safety, and despite my bold look, I felt an inward cringing. The predator’s regal power of life and death was unmistakably his; although I stood beyond lawful reach of that power, I felt it all the same, and got a taste of the fear and disgust that his feral lordliness must inspire in those who have to acknowledge him as their keeper. In this elemental mastery—which is so effective because it is the sort that men tend to appreciate most readily—lay the success of the East German terror state. By the judiciously focused use of terror, the German Democratic Republic has pretty well done what it wanted most desperately to do when it built the Wall twenty-five years ago: it has convinced East Germans who in ever increasing numbers were finding their homeland uninhabitable that there is after all a crueler fate than having to live in East Germany.
Here were the true foundations of the German Democratic Republic, and they appeared to be unshakable. Shaped like a scepter with modern lines, the watchtower was not merely a perfect emblem but also the most fearsome embodiment of East German sovereignty. There are 289 of these watchtowers along the Wall; they tend to be placed within shooting distance of one another, so that the guards themselves should not be led into temptation. My friend enumerated various other standard features of the “modern boundary,” as the no-man’s-land is known to its proprietors: the contact fence on the eastern side, rigged with light and sound alarms; German shepherd dogs on patrol, to see to anyone the human sentries might happen to overlook; the trench, five meters deep, which runs down the middle of the boundary in order to inhibit the passage of any unauthorized motor vehicle, such as, say, a hijacked tank. In the sector we surveyed, I could not make out the trench, which is said to be hard to spot, and I did not see any dogs, but the modern boundary nevertheless looked simply impassable.
We stood on the observation platform for some time. I stared and stared, taking in the malevolence that the terrible landscape radiated, and as I went on staring, the place went out of mental focus for a moment, so that it seemed literally inhuman, as alien as the face of some inconceivably remote star. When this brief spell of disorientation had passed, I recognized the feeling of unearthly strangeness as one I had experienced in Dachau, where I had gone as a tourist several years ago. There, too, the familiar elements of the landscape—concrete, metal, earth, sky—had suddenly turned uncanny, unidentifiable, as though they had no place in the world I knew. These mild and fleeting episodes of cognitive disarray were, I suspect, unsuccessful escape attempts; what I was attempting to escape from was the shame I felt in these places, shame at the humanity I had in common with the men who had conceived and brought forth such abominations, and in common with the other, decent men who had failed to prevent their being brought forth.
When we climbed down from the platform, I was certain that, whatever else I might happen to see in Berlin, none of it would rival in significance what I had just seen. Here was the sight that revealed the soul of the place. As my friend and I walked on, I told him that I could imagine how the Wall’s presence must crush Berliners’ spirits under its intolerable weight, how it must be a source of relentless and crippling pain. He said that people really seemed to pay it no mind, to go about their lives as though it weren’t even there. I said I couldn’t believe it. He told me it seemed to be so, all the same.
Thus was I made acutely aware how elusive the significance of things might be for a tourist in Berlin. Touristen raus: perhaps I had been wrong to laugh at the warning that this was no place for tourists, that these awful sights were not meant for outsiders. As I reconsidered the warning, I read in it the implication that a mere visitor’s eyes necessarily lack the acuity required to see things as they are there, that long acquaintance with the peculiarities of the local atmosphere is indispensable to clear-sightedness. I had wanted not merely to see Berlin as a tourist did, but to understand it, at least to some degree, as a Berliner did. Yet I was already deep in incomprehension. Touristen raus: only a Berliner can divine the spirit of the place, the warning insisted, and, despite President Kennedy’s celebrated avowal, we are not all Berliners.
Once I had acknowledged that my view of the place would inevitably be an alien and partial one, I felt free to give in to my tourist’s bemusement with the very things that the natives ignore. Berliners might scarcely give the Wall a glance, but, if you are not a Berliner, the Wall commands your attention, and holds it. When it is in sight, it is what you look at; when it is out of sight, you wonder where it is. So even when it disappears from view for a while, perhaps for quite a while, it does so only to increase its fascination with each reappearance. It takes you by surprise again and again: you spot it just down the street or through a break in the trees; you turn a corner and hit an abrupt, inarguable dead end; you can even go for a spin in the countryside and suddenly find it on either side of the road, outlining a slender freedom peninsula at the knobby end of which, in the agreeable but precarious suburb of Steinstücken, you make a U-turn and head back toward firmer ground.
The Wall curves right around the dapper little restaurant we sought out in a dim corner of Kreuzberg one evening, and found full up. It is not always so accommodating. Buildings that straddled the frontier were knocked down, so that no one could make his escape by stepping out the back door. (One of the first to die in an escape attempt was a woman who jumped from her fourth-story East Berlin apartment into the West Berlin street below.) In one stretch the walls of a cemetery were incorporated into the Wall, and the cemetery’s gates bricked shut. East Germany’s statesmen knew just how badly their constituents wanted out.
The Wall comes up just behind the rebuilt Reichstag, tauntingly. There, in back of the visitors’ parking lot, six white crosses commemorate those who died nearby in their attempt to escape. Some of these crosses and several elsewhere along the Wall are marked Unbekannt, all that is known of those dead being their courage and their destruction. The date of the most recent murder near this site is October 1984; perhaps one of the guards we saw lounging in the watch-tower was the one who took aim and squeezed the trigger. Regulations stipulate that, once a border violator has reached the raked strip of sandy ground which begins about fifteen meters from the Wall, the guard is not to fire a warning shot.
Along this section, as in many others, the Wall itself does not mark the boundary between East and West; the actual boundary line is a few yards this side of the Wall, and signs posted along the line warn you not to cross it. Some two hundred yards down from the Reichstag, near the Brandenburg Gate, we saw a German in his early twenties stride past the warning signs and right up to the Wall. Just there the Wall is a metal fence about seven feet high rather than the usual concrete one about twelve, and the young man, irrepressibly ebullient, bounced up and down repeatedly, exhorting his companion to get a photo of him with his head over the Wall. There are doors here and there in the Wall, and East German guards have been known to step through and arrest trespassers on Eastern territory. One did not choose that moment to do so. Touristen raus.
East Berlin does not exactly encourage visitors, but it does make it easier for them to get in than for the natives to get out. I entered East Berlin with my friend by way of Checkpoint Charlie, the sole point of entry above ground—the U-bahn, or subway, being the other way in—for diplomats of the three Allied powers, the U.S., Britain, and France, that still take part in the administration of West Berlin.
On my way into East Berlin, I received an object lesson in diplomacy that illuminated the difference between the official Eastern and Western understandings of the Wall’s status. After my friend signed us in at the American border station, we proceeded to the East German border control in his car; on our way, we rolled the car windows up, although the day was warm. When the East German border guard peered through the window on the driver’s side, I showed him the cover of my passport and the photograph inside; my friend displayed instead a form of Allied identification called a flag card. According to Western protocol, our diplomats need not display their diplomatic passports, and they are encouraged not to let the East German guards touch their identification papers; this official diffidence is a precaution taken to prevent the East Germans from stamping these papers with a visa. By observing these niceties at Checkpoint Charlie, my friend upheld the Western contention that this checkpoint is not the international frontier the East claims it is but rather a mere sector crossing, an entrance to the Soviet-administered area of the city that the four Allied powers continue to oversee jointly, by virtue of their conquest of Nazi Germany.
Certain conquerors make more demanding overseers than others, of course. Soviet policy in postwar Berlin has been—as more prudent allies would have expected it to be—inveterate defiance of the London Protocol of 1944 and the Potsdam Conference of 1945, in which the Allies determined the procedure by which they would occupy and administer a defeated Germany. Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, and an Allied Control Council formed to direct the administration of the entire country; Berlin was separately and similarly divided into four sectors, and an inter-Allied Kommandatura formed to direct the administration of the entire city. The occupying forces were to work toward the establishment of a suitable German government—the government of a single Germany, with Berlin as its capital. There was, however, to be some disagreement about just what sort of government would suit Germany best.
After Soviet walkouts in the spring of 1948 threw a wrench into the workings of the Allied Control Council, the three Western Allies proceeded on their own to enact currency-reform measures for the Western-occupied zones of Germany; these measures were intended to stimulate the recovery of the German economy. In response, the Soviets, who were in no hurry to see the German economy recover, ordered a currency reform of their own for the Soviet zone and for Berlin, which happened to be surrounded by the Soviet zone and thus, the Soviets made believe, to lie within their exclusive jurisdiction. The same day, the three Western commandants on the Kommandatura declared that the currency reform for the Western-occupied zones was to include the three Western-occupied sectors of Berlin. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union withdrew from the Kommandatura, and began a blockade of Berlin’s Western sectors, cutting off road, rail, and water communications between Berlin and the Western-occupied zones of Germany. The Allies responded with the famous airlift—Tegel Airport, now the major commercial airport in West Berlin, was built in record time to ease the traffic at the existing airport, Tempelhof—and the Soviets removed the blockade in May 1949.
Also that May, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded; the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) followed that October, in East Berlin. The bickering over Berlin grew more intense and more subtle. Each of the new German nations included in its constitution its exclusive claim to Berlin, and each of course wound up effectively getting half of what it claimed. According to the higher power of international law, which is entitled to override German constitutional law, the four Allied powers retained their status in Berlin as occupying forces, and they continue to do so. In order to ensure West Berlin’s protection under international law, the Western Allies suspended the Federal Republic’s constitutional claim that Berlin was one of its states; however, West Berlin did become a virtual part of the Federal Republic, just as East Berlin did of the Democratic Republic. Although each side continued to voice its claims to the other half of the city, neither was willing to press these claims with significant action. When insurrection flared in East Berlin and other East German cities in 1953, the Soviets put down the revolt, and the West did not intervene. In 1958 Khrushchev demanded that the Western Allies leave Berlin and recognize it as the capital of the GDR. But the West refused, and Khrushchev seemed to get over his crankiness.
Yet Berlin remained a profound irritation to the Soviet overlords. As Berlin continued to be an open city, with free passage between East and West, it was a costly breach in the Soviet empire’s system of fortification, which was employed as much to keep its inhabitants in as to keep invaders out. From the founding of the GDR until the erection of the Wall, three-and-a-half million East Germans—20 percent of that nation’s population—were to head West, a vast majority of them using Berlin as their exit and entryway. So severe a loss could not be tolerated. Khrushchev was compelled to reiterate his demands, in a slightly different form. In June 1961 he informed President Kennedy that the Soviet Union would sign a separate treaty with the GDR, and grant it sole sovereignty over Berlin. Kennedy replied that sovereignty over Berlin was neither the Soviet Union’s to grant nor the GDR’s to accept. Berlin, Kennedy averred, remained under the control of the four sometime Allies, and the Western Allies would not be driven out; they would stand fast in their commitment to defend the right of Berliners “to choose their way of life.”
On August 13, 1961, in order to halt “the hostile activities of the revanchist and militarist forces of Western Germany and West Berlin”—which is to say, in order to halt the flow of East Germans heading West, 16,500 of them having made their escape during the first twelve days of that month—Walter Ulbricht, the GDR chieftain, ordered that the Wall be built. The man whom he appointed to oversee its construction was Erich Honecker. The assignment was obviously a real plum. From this distinguished service of his in the public-works line, Honecker went on to become the chieftain himself. The Wall’s original incarnation was a makeshift construction of concrete posts and barbed wire; work on the Wall we know, the one built to last, began several days later.
On August 19, Vice President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech in Berlin, and reasserted America’s devotion to Berlin’s survival and “creative future,” pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” On August 23, the GDR reasserted its claims to sovereignty over the western sectors of the city by opening offices in various railway stations there to issue visitors’ passes to East Berlin. The Kommandatura ordered West Berlin police to close those offices. The GDR, not to be outdone, proceeded to close East Berlin to West Berliners. When the Soviet Union tried to close East Berlin to Allied personnel as well, President Kennedy called in additional troops, and in October our tanks faced theirs across the Wall.
Neither side opened fire, of course, and things cooled down. Students from the Free University in West Berlin—which had been founded in 1948, in disgust with the ideological perversion of the once great Humboldt University in the Soviet sector—sent President Kennedy an umbrella, like the one Neville Chamberlain carried on his way to meet Hitler in Munich in 1938. The bitter gesture was certainly understandable but nevertheless uncomprehending. It was not Kennedy who had feared the rain in 1945 or in the years just after World War II, when the last real opportunity existed to secure the freedom of Berlin, and indeed of Central and Eastern Europe.
Over the course of the past twenty-five years, the city’s division has effectively become a settled issue, another loss for the West. However, diplomacy has managed to mitigate some of the harsher effects of this division, and Berliners have learned to be grateful for small triumphs. The most notable of these was the Quadripartite Agreement of 1972. It reaffirmed the legality of the Allies’ presence in Berlin; it reestablished telephone connections between the two halves of the city, which had been broken since 1952; and it made it possible for West Berliners to make day trips to East Berlin on a regular basis. (There had been a few special holiday easements of the travel prohibition in the previous years.) To a city where the Wall has divided so many families and separated so many friends, these measures were cause for rejoicing.
Yet even when the West has gained a small triumph, there is no assurance that it will keep what it has managed to get. For the West triumphs only when the East grants concessions, and the East can always take back what it has given. In a clear violation of the Quadripartite Agreement, the East Germans have raised the amount of currency visitors are required to exchange on a day trip from five marks to twenty-five. The sum exchanged is non-refundable, and the exchange rate is an extortionate one to one, or ten times the actual value of the East German mark. The number of visits has declined accordingly.
So diplomacy in Berlin is regularly employed, not only as a balm, but also as an irritant. We irritate them by holding to the rules—and, worse still, by trying to hold them to the rules—and they irritate us by simply flouting the rules when it suits them. It large part, our standing on legality amounts to a semantic fussing that leaves the facts of the matter utterly unchanged. Although the Quadripartite Agreement takes pains to avoid calling East Berlin the capital of the GDR, East Berlin serves as the capital all the same. Although the United States has an embassy in East Berlin, we do not call this our embassy in the GDR, but our embassy to the GDR in Berlin. The other NATO countries follow suit, except for Canada, which is more scrupulous still and has no embassy in or to the GDR; matters to do with the GDR are referred to the Canadian embassy in Poland.
The GDR goes about giving offense rather more robustly than we do. Last May, the East Germans sent the various embassies in West Berlin a diplomatic note which declared that there would soon be some changes made in the regulations governing passage between West and East Berlin. The note did not specify what these changes might be. The Western Allied powers, wanting to find out whether the East Germans might have any changes in mind particularly for them, sent a platoon of diplomats into the breach early one morning. Each diplomat presented either a flag card, or a diplomatic passport, or a tourist passport. This reconnaissance party entered unchallenged and returned without casualties. Soon afterward, however, the East Germans insisted that diplomats of all nations except the three Western Allied powers were now required to present passports at the frontier. Certain Western diplomats refused to do so, and they were turned back. About two weeks later, the East Germans realized that the diplomatic forces of the other Western nations were not going to give in to their demands, and they restored the legal crossing procedures. Even their offensiveness has its limits.
Another of their capers threatened to prove more successful, until very recently. It too was a trial of Western patience and resolve, and it had been concocted with uncommon ingenuity and probably a smirk. The Soviet airline, Aeroflot, and the East German one, Interflug, conducted an extensive advertising campaign in the Third World to entice people to emigrate and to seek political asylum in West Berlin. Iranians, Indians, Turks, Lebanese flew into East Berlin, received instructions on applying for political refugee status in West Berlin, and headed on over. (The three Lebanese men whom West Berlin police arrested in August on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack on American installations had entered town just this way.) The Federal Republic of Germany allows virtually anyone to apply for political asylum, and over 40,000 people have done so this year.
Processing the application of a political refugee who enters the FRG through West Berlin can take as long as four years.
The West German predicament must have been a source of delight for the Soviets and the East Germans. One of their fondest wishes is to see the West renounce its insistence that Berlin is still by law an open city. With this immigration scheme, they were doing their best to bring us around to their way of thinking—to compel us to designate the Wall an international frontier. The advantage was theirs, and they seemed to be pressing it. The West German government had already taken measures to restrict the intake of refugees when the East Germans agreed in September to put a stop to the traffic at their end; their capabilities in this respect are beyond reproach. What prompted them suddenly to become so obliging was the desire for improved trade agreements. Once again the West enjoyed a kind of triumph. Still, it is bitterly sad to think that affairs like this are the sorts of things—those that must be done to prevent utter defeat when our own chance for victory is long past, and the enemy is secure in its stronghold—that remain for our diplomatic intelligences to contend with.
There appear to be other things as well. My friend and I had penetrated about twenty yards into East Berlin when he looked at the rear-view mirror and remarked that a car full of Soviet soldiers had pulled out behind us. My friend slowed down to see if they would pass us. They did not. He speeded up. They did, too. My friend, who is not easily flustered, was getting edgy. I knew just what he meant. He drove on for a few more blocks, then said, “Here’s where we find out what kind of day we’re going to have,” and made a quick left turn. The soldiers did not follow. Perhaps their presence had been a coincidence. The day seemed to be turning out a good one.
But we had not seen the last of the screws, and our next encounter was not a coincidence. After strolling about the center of town, we returned to my friend’s car on Unter den Linden, formerly Berlin’s grandest boulevard, and found a policeman with a truncheon-like demeanor standing on the other side of the street. He was unmistakably waiting for us. “Verboten. Em-bah-zay. Em-bah-zay. Raus. Raus.” My friend nodded, although he had no idea what the problem was. We sat in the car for a time, while he consulted his map. We discussed the policeman’s interest in us, and looked over at him now and again. He was clearly a man with a vocation. He had fists that were made to smash faces and a face that was made to smash fists. And while we dawdled, his fury increased. As it did, his face grew more expressive, so that it came to look less like a blunt instrument and more like a large, ripe boil. At length my friend got his bearings, and pulled out onto the boulevard, without really looking first. Six cars swerved six different ways in their efforts to evade destruction. My friend and I glanced over at the policeman. His pustular wrath was threatening to become volcanic. He seemed about ready to vent the full reservoir of his just socialist loathing upon us, snake-bellied CIA desperadoes that we were, purveyors of mayhem to the world. We looked away, demurely, and did not look back. As we drove off, my friend assured me that even if we’d taken a direct hit broadside, our chances of survival would have been good: a number of East German automobiles have bodies that are made of particle board. He also determined that he must have unwittingly parked in a restricted area. I gathered, from the policeman’s glowering attentiveness, that it must be especially illegal to park a car with American diplomatic plates in this area, which is just up the block from the Soviet embassy.
The cars might be made of compressed sawdust, and an occasional lungful of incomparably foul auto exhaust might make you wish you were inhaling sawdust instead; nevertheless, you have to go to East Berlin to appreciate how grand the imperial city must once have been. Most of the imposing remnants of the old city are now on the wrong side of the Wall; the Soviets got the better of us in this, as in the rest of the deal. It must have been a splendid place, if not a beautiful one: there are buildings of an immensity befitting victorious titans, public squares spacious as small dukedoms, avenues intended to display the glory of parading armies in full bloom. (German military parades are forbidden in Berlin by Allied law, but they are held regularly in East Berlin, on May Day and other occasions for general rejoicing, such as major anniversaries of the Wall’s erection.) It is a city whose magnificence is a celebration of conquest; Frederick the Great, who was responsible for most of the best things, had a capital built that his army could be proud of.
The Soviets and their minions are not entirely unworthy inheritors of this capital, even if Erich Honecker does not spend his leisure composing flute sonatas, as Frederick used to do.
With their taste for the stupendous, for that crushing grandeur which overwhelms you like an avalanche, the Soviets and the East Germans have been faithful, after their fashion, to the character of the imperial city center. They were busy last spring polishing the ancient glories—the great old buildings were bristling with scaffolding—determined that their luster would outshine anything West Berlin might have to offer when the city observes its 750th anniversary next year. Communist regimes, especially the Soviet one, seem to thrive on such occasions of high ceremony. At conducting solemn festivities of self-celebration, they are surely world class. It is the rest of life at which they fail so decisively.
Some of East Berlin’s ugly failures take peculiarly familiar forms. The new regime’s architectural contributions to the imperial magnificence have been executed in high proletarian style: the Palace of the Republic, where the Congress of Peoples convenes, is just the kind of palace that might be envisioned by a locker-room attendant who has won the lottery. Its notions of solemn majesty derive chiefly from hotel lobbies in Miami and Las Vegas. To crown the public happiness, piped-in German rap music resounds through the enormous central hall. Such imitations of Western ways are plentiful, and tend to be so grotesque as to seem like parodies. The vast tracts of proletarian housing blocks look just like the projects, though on a more ambitious scale: in the workers’ paradise, everyone can live the way they do in American slums.
As in American slums, or for that matter in West Berlin, the contemporary urban folk art of wall painting is in vogue. The eastern face of the Wall, however, is graffiti-free. In the interest of public beautification and moral safety, graffiti are strictly state-commissioned—perhaps there is a Ministry of Public Defacement—and executed on designated sites by members of an artists’ union. On a corrugated metal fence near Hitler’s bunker, which is being excavated, jolly zig-zags in tropical fruit colors disport themselves, with the state’s approval. A mural on a similar fence around a construction site depicts the struggle of the world’s oppressed peoples for freedom and peace. Just across the street is another, taller wall, of concrete; it is there to protect the citizenry from the oppression that lurks on the other side.
Actually, to get a taste of the lurking oppression, one would have to make his way first over this wall, then across the River Spree, which is wider there than in most places, and after that over the Wall itself. This lesser wall is imposing in its own right, and it too had been made handsome for the upcoming celebration. The wall used to be a uniform dark gray, my friend observed; now each section of the wall is painted in two shades of gray, so that a rectangular frame of the dark gray encloses, and contrasts winsomely with, an interior panel of light gray. It is a sort of state-sponsored gentrification. The prison-city has been dolling itself up, and pretending it is a drawing room. It is not merely the want of a view there that has spoiled the desired effect.
The desired effect—respectability, the appearance of decency—is a difficult thing for East Berlin to achieve. It goes against the regime’s true instincts. On the western side of the Wall near the Reichstag, where graffiti abound, someone has written, in German, “Down with the Red-Nazi regime.” No insult could be more galling to the East Germans, who celebrate relentlessly the great socialist victory over fascism. Yet East Berlin’s Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism is unquestionably a shrine to the might of Red-Nazism. (The Jews get no special mention there, by the way, or indeed any mention at all.)
What the new German socialists purport to abhor and to repudiate, they in fact revere and emulate. The changing of the guard at the Memorial is notorious for its vivid evocation of the Third Reich’s martial glories. The guardsmen, tall, proud, and fierce, goose-step in precise formation. Even the cut of their uniforms, the shape of their helmets, are familiar. Some of the faces, too, one has seen before. The soldier we saw directing the changing of the guard was blond and handsome and German-looking in just that way which makes Germanic blond handsomeness seem a symptom of psychopathology. He was a picture-book Nazi, his face a caricature of hate-forged ruthlessness. It was simply not possible to look at that young soldier without fear and disgust.
And it was not possible to look at one of his fellow soldiers standing guard there without pity and grief. For as I was examining his face, fixed in that severity which the task commanded, the unthinkable happened, and he broke into a smile. Following his gaze, I looked over at a young woman who was standing a few feet away from me, and it was obvious that her smile had triggered the soldier’s. At first I thought this pursed smile of hers was an ironic one, directed at the whole vicious spectacle, but then it seemed that the tightness of her smile, which made her cheeks quiver, was designed to keep her from exploding with laughter. Perhaps she was the soldier’s sweetheart or friend or sister, and one look was all that was needed to set the two of them off, like a couple of kids who glance at each other in church and immediately turn epileptic with hilarity, disgracing their parents forever. In this case, the young soldier got hold of himself; facial discipline was restored, and permanent disgrace to the fatherland was averted. Still, I had managed to spy the subversive grin, and it was touching to see.
When I read in the Chicago newspapers sometime in July about the unsuccessful attempt by a dozen East German soldiers to commandeer an empty subway train and make their way down an abandoned line into West Berlin—half of them were reported to have been killed in a firefight, the rest executed later—it was this young soldier I thought of. I knew he could not have been among them, for the attempted breakout was said to have taken place in early May, although word of it had not reached the West until two months later. And for all I know, the smiling soldier might be as devoted to his nation’s regime as the laser-eyed maniac. Still, I thought of him, his lapse into humanity, which had been heartening for a moment, then heartbreaking. Cracks may appear in the monolith, but the monolith quickly repairs itself. Escape is a rarity; brutality prevails, and its grip is iron. One especially cherishes the glimpse of humanity one gets where one least expects to see it, but the ultimate effect of such a glimpse is to make one feel all the more sharply the pathos of suffocated life.
There is a wearying sadness that a tourist in Berlin feels, the sadness of being in a former center of civilization which now—even though one-half of the city is once again an eminently civilized place—bears the indelible mark of barbarism. Worst of all is the thought that one barbaric regime has succeeded another, and that the current tyranny of the Red-Nazi regime might seem not an unjust punishment for what came before. The Thousand Year Reich lasted scarcely more than a decade, but its taint lingers, and will linger long, with an awful pungency.
The city still literally shows the scars of its Nazi past. The façades of public buildings, most notably in East Berlin, have been pocked by gunfire. Near the Pergamon Museum, the broken walls of a palatial ruin, immense and craggy, loom like icebergs. Some of these scars Berlin displays deliberately, as penance and admonition. My first night in Berlin, while we were strolling down the Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s Michigan or Fifth Avenue, I was amazed to see the ruin of a great cathedral. This massive shard of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was shattered by Allied bombing, has been left standing, amid the chic stores and cafés that testify to the city’s current prosperity, in order to testify to the destructive forces unleashed by Nazism.
Elsewhere in West Berlin, some of the proudest Nazi monuments still stand unbroken: the Tempelhof airport terminal, which looks like an enormous fortress and was once the largest building in the world; the Olympic stadium, a colosseum insufficiently colossal to suit Hitler, who planned a replacement that would hold nearly a half-million spectators, a virtual city of ecstatic worshippers. From that purely imaginary wonder of the modern world one can trace the descent of the city’s current architectural showpiece, that vision perfectly realized in concrete, rather drab and hardly towering, but, like so many great works of the modern imagination, eloquent in its impenetrability. Studying such lines of descent is of course the province, not of architectural history, but of demonology. For in the face of Berlin one reads a terrible modern fable that can best be recounted in these antiquated terms; it is the story of the exorcism of one demon performed by another, which, having cleared out the premises, proceeded to make itself at home.
It is these 20th-century demons that have made Berlin, in a peculiar way, the most strikingly modern of cities. There are certainly many other cities far newer than Berlin, some indeed so new that they really have no history to speak of. Yet Berlin’s modernity is so impressive precisely because it has asserted its dominance over an ancient and storied past. The history of Berlin’s last fifty years possesses a unique overmastering forcefulness, which has utterly overwhelmed its more distant history. Berlin is the capital of modern cruelty; and as political barbarism has become the salient feature of life in this century, its inhumanity unrivaled by any earlier epoch, one can think of Berlin as peerless in its modernity.
Other cities are intimate with the two principal varieties of modern savagery—Moscow, Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius (the Jewish Vilna), Budapest, Prague—but Berlin alone has both ruled one inhuman empire and suffered as an outpost of the other. Thus the demonic presence there is of singular potency. It has nothing like this strength in the other great fascist capital, Rome—in part because Mussolini’s regime was not succeeded by another similarly monstrous; in part because the ancient Roman glory that Italian Fascism revered has remained the preeminent presence. In Rome, when you see SPQR (“The Senate and People of Rome”) embossed on a manhole cover, you think of some Caesar or other, although you might do so with a laugh; in Berlin, when you see the bear on the city’s ancient crest, you think of Stalin or Khrushchev, and you wince.
Those epochs of Berlin’s pre-Nazi history which modern barbarism has not bulldozed into oblivion, it has refashioned after its own image, so that upon examination the distant past seems to foreshadow the horrors of the 20th century. The East German regime’s sensitivity about Nazism and its reputed precursors has a grim comedy to it. Only in 1980 did it replace the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, removed by the Soviets, atop its commanding perch at the head of Unter den Linden, very near the Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism. Goose-stepping brutes in jackboots were a fitting tribute to socialist peaceableness, but the emperor on horseback, that legendary proto-fascist, was an unendurable embarrassment.
Now the regime feels differently about Frederick. A current exhibition at his magnificent palace in Potsdam, a few miles from Berlin, celebrates his achievements. He has been rehabilitated and pressed into the service of a resurgent Prussian nationalism. New lines of descent are being established for the heroes of the GDR, much as they were during World War II for the heroes of the Soviet Union, when Stalin, knowing it might be difficult to rally his subjects (whose ranks he had already decimated by means of manufactured famine, deadly slave labor, and more conventional forms of murder) around the hammer and sickle, inspired them instead by invoking the ancient military glories of Mother Russia. So now the guardsmen at the Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism can think with pride of the distinguished native military tradition that they represent. A novel socialist outlook on old history has dispersed some of the ghastliness that had enveloped bygone German glories.
This ghastliness, both in its modern forms and in the old ones that have come to seem ahead of their time, haunts the visitor; it follows him everywhere. At a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, I was diverted from the music by my curiosity about what it meant to members of the orchestra to be playing, or to members of the audience to be hearing, Mahler conducted by James Levine. At the excellent art gallery of West Berlin’s Dahlem Museum, I looked hard at Rembrandts and Holbeins, but I lingered longest over a panel of an altarpiece by a 15th-century painter I’d never heard of, Hans Multscher. As Jesus lugs his cross toward Calvary, pudgy urchins pelt him with stones or jeeringly bare their genitals, and, amid the crowd of on-lookers, some of whom are horrified but most of whom are rapt with delight, a fat hag with a hooked nose wears a grin like a scimitar. At first this anti-Semitic touch, the grinning Jewish ogress, seemed the most important thing about the painting. Yet as I looked longer, that detail acquired a different significance, and what held me was the painter’s understanding of the way in which perfectly ordinary men perform unspeakable cruelties, his matter-of-fact rendering of horrific bestiality as a common human characteristic. For the stone-throwing youths were plainly fine, stout German lads. A devout hater of Jews could certainly find in this painting the traditional iconography of his chosen loathing; yet if he were to look more carefully, he would not fail to find his own kind among the Christ-killers. The effect was masterfully achieved, and not to be forgotten.
After seeing the painting, I found myself maintaining a perverse vigilance on the city streets that day, peering keenly into the faces of passersby, with an eye out for the monstrosity latent in the ordinary Berliner. My watchfulness, however, was less fruitful than it would probably have been in a place like Dayton or Omaha. I uncovered no demonic passions shining darkly; the ordinary faces seemed to have nothing out of the ordinary to disclose. Of course I don’t know how many Berliners might have caught a glimpse of me and wondered what sort of emotional disturbance was behind that fevered look of mine, that strange searching intensity. But they are probably used to tourists.
Even as Berlin seems to activate a predilection for morbidity in the visitor, to sharpen his awareness of human beastliness and suffering, it makes him feel this rawness of the nerves to be something outlandish—and furthermore, ausländisch, literally alien. It is soon plain that being in Berlin simply does not torment Berliners as it does him. In fact they hardly seem to mind at all, and, to the visitor in his exacerbated state, this general unconcern might seem to be insensibility. As my friend had told me, Berliners do seem to live in Berlin pretty much as people do anywhere else. And they do give the appearance of being demon-free. If you were to administer a word-association test to a visitor in Berlin and to a native Berliner, asking them both what the word Grünewald meant to them, one would instinctively think of the most lurid crucifixion ever painted, and the other of the lovely belt of woodland that runs through the city.
In West Berlin, a composed and commodious urbanity flourishes. West Berlin is civilized as one fears no major American city can ever hope to be, and as even that long-time paragon of civility, London, can no longer call itself. You can stroll fearlessly at dusk along narrow paths in the thickly wooded Tiergarten, which in New York or Chicago or Rome would be a Raubtiergarten, paradise for bushwhackers and hell on anyone else. The U-bahn is not only clean and safe but downright congenial. Some aspects of this civility take some getting used to; the American tourist in particular needs reminding that certain minor acts of lawbreaking he indulges in as a matter of course are looked upon unfavorably. You don’t jaywalk or cross against the light; pedestrian legions dutifully unmoving on the streetcorner eye you scornfully if you do. You don’t bash your way into tight parking spaces; it is a Berliner’s nature to resort to law immediately upon your touching his car with your own. Such strict decorum might sound confining; in fact, it is, a bit. Still, there is a danger you might acquire a taste for this kind of thing. Neither boom boxes nor police sirens nor lunatic ravings rend the air. Indeed, you feel confident that even public lunacy would be a quiet and decorous thing there, these days; if you were actually to meet a screaming madman at large, he would probably turn out to be a visitor from New York, whom the insufferable civility had unhinged.
Public order and tranquility are the rule in West Berlin, but by no means do they rule out fun. West Berlin’s hedonism is of the standard late 20th-century sort. It is a far cry from the desperate licentiousness that one associates with the Berlin of the Weimar republic, ravenously bolting down its pleasures with a fearful relish, as at an orgy conducted in the shadow of deprivation. Nowadays, in the shadow of deprivation, West Berliners seem placidly to regard a certain regular pleasure-dosage as their due, the way people might in Malibu, for instance.
The week I was in West Berlin, it even looked a bit like Malibu. A windsurfing regatta was being held on the Wannsee, a picturesque lake that is a popular spot for weekend outings. The profusion of sailboards atop car roofs gave the city that somewhat raffish air of seagoing festivity that is the hallmark of the beach resort. A bumper sticker on a van with Berlin license plates and a sail-board on top advertised surfing holidays. Not far from the splendid house where the Nazi leadership had convened the Wannsee Conference in order to perfect the Final Solution, windsurfers now convened in order to zip joyfully across the blue waters.
Of course, this innocent sportiveness does not sweep aside the pall of demonic memory, but rather acquires a poignancy from its lingering presence. At the Olympic stadium, which is quite a tourist attraction, my friend and I felt keenly the horror of the place, this altar to the matchless strength and splendor of the Teutonic body; yet my friend also told me how he was looking forward to attending a top-drawer track meet that was going to be held there in several weeks, and I was rather sorry that I wasn’t going to be around for it. Especially in a place like this, one cannot but savor the sweetness of peaceable democratic life, with its toothsome abundance of inconsequential pleasures; however, neither can one forget, in such a place, that the great democracies’ taste for life’s sweetness has caused them more than once to recoil from its most bitter necessities, and has been responsible in no small part for the most tragic events of our terrible century.
Still, life is good in West Berlin. The pleasures that Tocqueville foresaw as rising to preeminence in democracies, those of physical well-being, are attended to devoutly there. Sport, or at least watching sport, ranks high among these pleasures; sex, or at least watching sex, presumably ranks higher still, for most people; yet neither of these, one suspects, is supreme. The key to determining the hierarchy of bodily pleasures lies in the monumental departure store KaDeWe, which devotes its entire top floor to food. This pricey cornucopia is crammed, to borrow A.J. Liebling’s delectable phrase, with lots of the best of everything. Eating well might not, on its own, be the best revenge, but it does contribute mightily to such vengeance. The cafés on the Kurfürstendamm are packed on a Friday evening. Restaurants tend to pile food high, and patrons to put it down in a pleasurable hurry. Italian restaurants are especially notable for their number and their quality. Many of them are owned and staffed by Sicilian families who are in no hurry to go back home. One Sicilian waiter proudly told us that he often serves American diplomats stationed in East Berlin, who come over in need of a good meal.
Although belly-pleasures might enjoy premier rank, the pleasures of mind and spirit are not without their place in West Berlin. The symphony and the opera are excellent. Painting, too, is said to thrive; what I regret most about my stay is that I did not have a look at some of the galleries featuring contemporary works by Berlin artists. Yet the chief intellectual and spiritual pleasures of democratic life lie, not in making or contemplating works of art, but in forming and promoting one’s opinions; and such pleasures tend to be most exquisite when one’s opinions have to do with the indecency of democracy.
Although one might expect that being foolish in the usual ways would be rather more difficult in West Berlin than elsewhere, in fact outspoken inanity is easy enough to come by. On the wall of a building that houses a bookstore in Kreuzberg, a large banner declares, in German: Peoples Need Peace. U.S. Out Of Nicaragua. A sign in the bookstore window announces that Nicaraguan coffee is sold within. There, three blocks from the Wall, persons sufficiently astute to overlook the vulgarly obvious and to peer into the very heart of the matter can gather, in an atmosphere enriched by the fragrance of this peaceable bean, to esteem the truly estimable and to loathe the truly loathsome. For decency’s sake, one feels obliged to entertain the hope that the bookstore is really a CIA cover. The odds are not good, however.
Evidence suggests that the local chapter of the irreproachably moral is seeing to it that West Berliners be made to know that their side of town is no better than the other, and that the American presence in particular be made to consider daily its dark and bloody history. The Free University has placed the Salvador Allende Memorial Dormitory directly across from the main American military compound. (The dorm got into the news earlier this year when a former resident, a so-called diplomat from Libya, was murdered in East Berlin.) Near the opera house, the injunction Nights Euroshima splashed on a wall similarly serves as reminder and warning: never again. One wonders what became of the students who sent Kennedy that umbrella; they seem positively sagacious compared with the current run of chumps.
During my stay in Berlin I chatted with Sicilian waiters, French soldiers, and French, British, and American diplomats, but I did not have a single conversation with a real Berliner—did not get the chance to hear what it is like to call Berlin home, or to explain to a native what it is like to be a tourist in his hometown. After I had been back in Chicago for several weeks, however, I got the chance to remedy this deficiency, after a fashion, when Harper’s published an essay on Berlin by the novelist Peter Schneider, “Up Against It,” on the occasion of the Wall’s 25th anniversary. Schneider’s essay addresses precisely the question that interested me the most as I went about my tourist’s business in his city: what is the difference between an outsider’s understanding of this strange place he has come to have a look at and a Berliner’s understanding of this strange place he calls home?
Touristen raus? No, but Touristen Achtung! “Does the tourist’s quasi-obligatory visit to the Wall provide him with the experience of the original?” Almost certainly not, for the Wall’s true nature is apparent only to those who, in looking upon it, do not see it at all, treat it as though it weren’t there. “Perhaps the Berliner’s refusal to take any notice of the Wall is a realistic appraisal: after twenty-five years, the Wall, like the God of the Old Testament, is in truth invisible and not named. It functions largely as a symbol of the spiritual condition that for the time being is called Wahnsinn.” Wahnsinn means madness, and Schneider explains that, during the past several years in Berlin, the word has acquired a fashionable new usage: in speaking of something as Wahnsinn, one enjoys “a special kind of pleasure accessible only to cognoscenti, some new kind of high.” Berlin is the “natural home” of this superior and pleasurable understanding, “a spiritual condition beyond good and evil,” in which one perceives with relentless clarity the madness of modern political life, a madness that Communism and democracy partake in equally.
Berlin’s status as the symbolic focus of the conflict between Communism and democracy has endowed Berliners, according to Schneider, with special powers of discernment which enable them to recognize both systems as propagators of Wahnsinn. “There is no fertile soil in Berlin for planting the idea that the social system on the other side of the Wall represents the empire of evil.” What Schneider goes on to emphasize, however, is that West Berliners are sufficiently wise to know the East is not really bad, and East Berliners sufficiently wise to know the West is really not good. It is ignorant presumption for Westerners to think that Easterners long for the freedom that democracy offers. (In any case, those rare Easterners who flee to the West find something very peculiar, and perhaps turn peculiar themselves. Schneider cites the unfortunate cases of three men he knows who, in escaping to the West, plunged themselves into degradation, perversion, or outright craziness.) The Wall, Schneider concludes, is really no longer necessary, for the enforced confinement of the past twenty-five years has succeeded in turning East Germans into living models of socialist man. If the Wall were dismantled today, it would become clear that “what has developed is not two states but two ways of life, two different value systems. Only then could a genuine contest be carried out, point for point, to determine which state has done what better. . . .”
Of course, if the Communist enterprise had been the success Schneider claims it is, the Kremlin would have already ordered the Wall taken down—would have ordered all the walls down, no doubt in a magnificent rite of triumphant exultation. For nothing would better serve the cause than the spectacle of the Eastern multitudes—so commonly thought to be held captive in their homelands, so commonly thought to ache for democratic freedom—freely spurning the West’s whorish enticements and clinging faithfully to the unexampled happiness of Marxist-Leninist domesticity. Perhaps, following this logic, the real reason the Wall stays up is the Soviet Union’s fear that if it comes down, the East would be overrun with Western emigrants clamoring that they, too, have a right to know the greatest human joys.
The Wall, however, will go on standing for a very long time. It will go on standing for the same reason it was built in the first place: the East German regime, and its Soviet masters, need it there. The Wall, and all the walls of the Soviet empire, are indispensable to the war that Soviet Communism continues to wage against its own subjects—more precisely, against the refractory humanity of its subjects, which refuses the inhuman form that Communist mastery seeks to impose on it. The very fact of the Wall’s existence proves that there is but a single matter in which the East has excelled: the conduct of war. If they weren’t superior in that, they could not have built the Wall or kept it standing; if they were superior in anything else, they would not have built it or be keeping it standing.
The obvious inanity of opinions like Schneider’s only deepens the sadness with which a tourist regards Berlin. Elsewhere, such foolishness would still be foolishness, but there intellectual failure of this order seems an act of unforgivable moral turpitude. For the cruelest thought one suffers from in Berlin—it is a thought that is forced upon one, over and over—is that our century could have been spared its most horrible sufferings had decent men only seen clearly and done in time what had to be done. There is a tradition in 20th-century democratic thought of failing to recognize the monstrosity of the monstrous, and that intellectual failure of the democracies has contributed decisively to the signal moral failure of our age, and indeed of human history: the failure of decent men to extinguish the monstrous before it could work its irremediable evil.
Although such views as Schneider’s stand out with eye-catching prominence against their background, they are not the prevailing views in West Berlin. A robust and sensible public voice makes itself heard above the nitwit yammering. The Wall’s presence, in its blunt viciousness, permits, even demands—or more important, one might say, demands, and even permits—a public language of uncommon candor and clarity. The public language in East Berlin, of course, is one of belligerent mendacity, based as it is upon the principle—a familiar one in Berlin—that the more audacious and magniloquent the lie, the more likely it will rule unchallenged: the Wall is the “anti-fascist barricade”; the crime of assisting East Germans to escape East Germany is dealing in “subversive slave traffic.”
In the face of such sneering falsehood, West Berlin is given to a plainspoken sternness, which is heard in the newspapers, in the speeches of public officials, sometimes even in the signs in public parks. The East-West border cuts the Glienecke Bridge, known as die Brücke der Einheit, the Unity Bridge, in half; the bridge is closed except to authorized teams of military observers who are permitted to scout enemy territory. (It was over this bridge that Anatoly Shcharansky was released to the West.) A sign on the Western side of the bridge, in a beautiful park that is favored by Sunday strollers, reads “Remember that those who named this bridge ‘The Bridge of Unity’ are also the ones who erected walls, strung barbed wire, and established death-zones to divide East from West.” It is difficult to think of an official American utterance to equal this for penetration and eloquent forthrightness, unless it is “evil empire.” West Berlin does depart now and again from this abrasive honesty, and adopts a more conciliatory tone in order to lubricate some deal or other between the two Germanys. Nevertheless, my diplomatic friend assures me, most people in West Berlin, not to mention a considerable number in East Berlin, know very well on which side of the Wall the evil empire stands.
However, it does seem that West Berliners prefer not to spend much time looking off in that direction. The observation platforms on the Western side of the Wall once numbered about 300, roughly one for every watchtower on the other side; now there are only about 100 platforms still standing. Evidently, use of the platforms fell to the point where the cost of maintaining them all could no longer be justified. It is difficult to organize a mass demonstration of political sentiments in West Berlin. To observe the Wall’s 25th anniversary, plans were made to form a human chain running the full length of the Wall, over a hundred miles, and encircling West Berlin; maybe 1,500 people turned up.
To rouse public passion as the anniversary approached, an East Berliner who had recently escaped to West Berlin told the press a remarkable getaway story: he had painted his car to resemble a Soviet military patrol car, obtained Soviet uniforms from helpful Westerners, dressed himself and a few mannequins as Soviet soldiers, and driven through Checkpoint Charlie. The story was a fake; the truth he judged insufficiently sensational to cause the desired stir. (He did succeed in turning a nice profit on the hoax, selling his story to a British television station.) The story of the twelve East German soldiers who were thwarted in their daring subway-hijack attempt was very likely a fabrication as well, my friend has told me. These storytellers must have hoped that, by injecting the populace with a strong enough dose of heroic fantasy, they could render the invisible Wall visible again.
Common sense gives one a strong suspicion as to the reason for the Wall’s invisibility to Berliners, and what I saw on my last night in Berlin confirmed the suspicion that I’d had almost from the start. That night, at the opera in West Berlin, I saw a performance of Fidelio that was one of the most moving artistic performances I have ever seen. Beethoven’s opera is a work of the rarest nobility and beauty, and the production was in every respect a fine one; but what gave the performance its truly unforgettable power was the way Beethoven’s art pierced to the very souls of the audience and bared the profound emotion that the demands of living an ordinary life in this extraordinary place customarily force out of sight.
During the finale of the first act, when the chorus of prisoners, let out into the sun for a moment, sang its superb hymn to freedom, the feeble voices of men who were all broken slowly gathering strength until they rang out clear and full and ardent, “Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben”—only here, only here is there life—the audience drank in this song with a ferocious need. Around me people wiped away tears, even choked back sobs. I, too, began to cry.
Throughout the second act, I could see in the tensed forms of those seated around me that they were clenching their griefs tightly to themselves, careful not to let them spill again. Yet the tears forced their way out once more, during the opera’s finale.
When Don Fernando announced that he had arrived to end the “Frevel Nacht,” the night of outrage that was Pizarro’s tyranny, and the chorus of prisoners now joined by townspeople sang out, “Heil sei dem Tag,” hail to the day, the house lights came on, and some time before the opera’s end, bathing the audience in freedom’s daybreak. The woman seated beside me dabbed at her eyes repeatedly, brushing her tears away as fast as they came. The shoulders of a man a couple of rows ahead shook several times, then suddenly stopped shaking. Someone behind me gave out a sigh.
What exactly these people, or any of the others there, might have been crying for, I can’t say, for their tears took in fifty years of grief, the most grievous fifty years men have ever known, when many were inhuman in the name of a purer humanity, and many others turned away in fear from the sight of their monstrosities, and even the virtue of those sufficiently strong to fight these evils was really not good enough. No doubt this Fidelio touched many personal griefs and losses; no doubt it made many people grateful that they had been spared crueler losses, deeper griefs; and no doubt, too, it made them mindful of those who had suffered the worst, under the Nazi empire of which their city had been the heart, and under the Soviet empire which now surrounded them. All these feelings, in proportions that varied from one person to the next, were bound together in the public grief, of which I now had a glimpse; and added to them was the disturbing emotion inspired by Leonore’s heroic perseverance and her ultimate triumph, an emotion oscillating between thankfulness for the sublime imagination that gave such virtue such a reward and bitterness at the crueler actuality that has massed evil upon evil against a decency slender and worn.
There is no shortage of reasons for sorrow in Berlin, but vitality will not tolerate an untiring grief. The current vigorous normality of life in West Berlin is a measure of the inhabitants’ disregard for the most striking things about the place, which happen to be the saddest and the most terrible. If the Wall is invisible to Berliners, it is not because some privileged spiritual condition beyond good and evil empowers them to see through it. Rather, it is because the Wall’s stark brutality, its patent and ever-present evil, against which they are helpless, has compelled them to find refuge in a studied blindness. To see the Wall every day of one’s life—really to see it, as clearly as if one were seeing it for the first time—would be more than most people could bear. In Berlin, to live constantly in full awareness of where you were would require nothing less than heroic fortitude. In West Berlin, such uncompromising attentiveness would be especially difficult to maintain, for diversion from it offers itself so readily, so agreeably.
No doubt there are Berliners with the strength of mind necessary for so trying a life. Apart from those few, however, perhaps it is the tourist who can best appreciate the Wall and its native city for what they really are. Perhaps it is easier for someone who is merely passing through, and for whom the history of the place is not so painful a part of himself—like an old wound never quite healed, a sharp fragment of metal still lodged somewhere in the body, delivering a jolt of pain when one makes a particular sudden movement—to make his way around boldly there, and to look without blinking at the things that those who must live in their presence prefer to pass with eyes averted.
Berlin is a place everyone ought to see, and in Berlin one would do best to begin one’s sightseeing at the Wall. There should be no real surprises there; you see nothing that you did not expect to see. Still, there is something about the sight: unless your vision is irreparably damaged, the view forces you to see clearly. Such clarity can take you far in Berlin, even if you are a mere tourist. And it is hard to think of a vacation souvenir to match in value this sort of unclouded perception.
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In the Capital of Modern Cruelty
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?