Tulip Frenzy’s Berlin Field Trip

Leica M9, 50mm Summilux

The shadow of the past is everywhere in the new Berlin.  Right here, across the Spree from the reborn Reichstag, people died trying to swim to freedom.  While remembrance, admirably, is to be found throughout the city, perhaps the most interesting thing about Berlin in the 21st Century is how much it takes its sad and awful 20th history in stride, how much it has moved on.

The entire gang from Tulip Frenzy World Headquarters has long wished to return to the city of “Heroes,” of Achtung Baby, of Iggy singing “Nightclubbing/We’re nightclubbing/We’re what’s happening.”  We were here twice in the ’80s, passing through Checkpoint Charley from the vibrant West Berlin to the soot-stained, depressed East.  We’ve dearly wanted to stage a field trip here ever since.

Berlin and rock’n’roll are connected in ways that virtually no other non-English speaking cities ever have been.  For how marvelous it was that, the same year the Mekons released “Memphis, Egypt,” (“East Berlin/Can’t buy a thing/there’s nothing they can sell me/Walked through the wall/no pain at all/I’m born inside the belly of rock’n’roll”), that wall came down, and we could be heroes for more than one day.

What once was the center of the city, and then was locked away behind The Wall, is once again the center of the city.  The Brandenburg Gate is open enough for half-marathoners to pass through where once The Wall stood, before the admonishment to tear it down was, if not heeded, then simply overtaken by events.

Leica M9, 50mm Summilux

We tried to remember if that 1987 speech by President Reagan was on the same trip when he visited, because Helmut Kohl asked him to, the SS burial ground in Bitburg, giving rise to one of the Ramones’ best and least appreciated songs, “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg.”  This all was such a long time ago.

Different from when last we were here was the way the German government now directly addresses its past.  This photograph of disposessed Jews, expelled from the German Volk, is embedded in concrete on the sidewalk outside the building in which Goring once held forth:

Leica M9, 35mm Summilux

And in the Bebelplatz, where the books were burned, even in the shadow of one of the world’s great universities, there now is a thick pain of glass that allows light to emanate from an emptied library below.  Look carefully.  Click on the photograph to see the ghostly details.

Leica M9, 35mm Summilux

At the Topography of Terrors, a modern museum that tells the story honestly about the horrors of Hitler’s machinery of murder, and on the very spot where Himmler and the other psychopathic gangsters planned their crimes, history is laid open. No punch is pulled.  Whether or not Germans visit it could not be told; most of the conversations we overheard were in English.  But it has been open for some years now…  Though our sense was that at the stunning Memorial To The Murdered Jews Of Europe, the visitors were as much German school children as tourists.

Leica M9, 35mm Summilux

But on a sunny day — we actually had one — it’s a gorgeous city, and it exists in living color, not the black and white of news reels.  One walks around a city that has shrugged off most notions of division, and has punctuated what survived the war — and what survived the communists — with the post modernism and precise design sense of a rich and sophisticated city that weirdly has little in the way of contemporary airs.  It’s somewhat stunning to learn that Angela Merkel lives in a modest town house just across the street from the Museum Island, protected by a single policeman. But in the context of what Berlin — and Germany — is now, it makes perfect sense.

Leica M9, 35mm Summilux

At night, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, where once guards stood with machine guns lest anyone try bolting for the West, there now is freedom to demonstrate, and in behalf of causes — the environment — that only rich countries pay attention to.

Leica M9, 35mm Summilux

The Germans now take transparency almost to the level of fetish, but can you blame them?  After having been ruled by a criminal gang that brought destruction down on everyone, the most vulnerable in particular, until finally the rubble came down on the German people themselves — after 45 years of imprisonment behind a Curtain and 27 years behind a Wall — walking in the clear light of a normal country is an achievement, and one to admire.

Leica M9, 50mm Summilux

For more images of the new Berlin, go here.

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