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Brian Ladd interview: Ghosts of Berlin

Updated Thursday, 20th December 2007

Laurie Taylor interviews Brian Ladd about Berlin, the haunted city. This is an extended version of the interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed.

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Laurie Taylor: Brian, your book, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German history and the Urban Landscape, begins with a fine line, ‘Berlin is a haunted city’. Remind me of some of the ghosts that inhabit this city?

Brian Ladd: Berlin is remarkable in having the ghosts or bearing the scars of the 20th Century because so many of the terrible things happened in Berlin or happened to Berlin. You have the defeat in the First World War and the disruption of an old monarchy. You have the wildness, the promise of the Weimar Republic then destroyed by Hitler and the fire in the Reichstag building. Then you have, of course, the destruction of World War 2 combined with the destruction wrought by this Nazi regime in Berlin ending in the final and terrible defeat in 1945. And then you have the Cold War in many ways starting in Berlin with the Berlin airlift, and then you have the Berlin Wall that left the City scarred and divided for several decades. And then you have a slow recovery after that, to the unified Berlin that we have now.

Laurie: And some of the names, it is interesting, I mean you of course list some of the names from the past associated with Berlin, whether we’re talking about Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Willy Brandt, Hegel, Einstein, Brecht, Goebbels, but also these names from the past, just reading your book, when I suddenly look at Erich Honecker and I remember the Stasi, and these names all come back. It's interesting, I suppose, in Berlin, so many of these names are still alive in the sense that there are either memorials to some of these people or the lack of memorials to them. Because your book is really about memorials and about buildings and about places, and the arguments over what these places, how they should be retained or whether they should be destroyed, and the nature of memorials. Tell me a little bit more about the nature of these arguments?

Brian: Well, that’s what makes the whole story so interesting. Of course, it's fun to go look at memorials and places where things happened, but what came to fascinate me about Berlin was the extent to which people defined their identity as Berliners, as Germans, as Europeans, as human beings, in terms of how Berlin would come to terms with the places where Hitler worked and did his terrible things, the places where the Prussian monarchy ruled and then was destroyed, the places where the Stasi and Honecker and the East German regime ruled from, and so on.

Laurie: You talk about Berlin as being the first post-national city. What do you mean by that?

Brian: What I mean is that the process of brooding about and arguing over all of these sites and monuments is part of the process by which the Germans are coming to terms with what it means to be German, what it means to be in the capital of Germany after Hitler. And after the division of Germany, as well, there’s a sense that one can’t be unreservedly proud to be German. Now, some Germans don’t agree with that, but many, many influential Germans have argued that in recent decades, and therefore what does it mean to be German, how do we frame our identity, how do we salvage something out of the ruins of German history here in Berlin?

Laurie: And exactly what sort of history should be remembered, what should be honoured, what sort of memorials should there be to mistakes? Let me talk to you about some of the sites of contestation, if you like. Let me begin, it's rather arbitrary but to pluck it out of your book, I'm just looking at a picture now of the Aviation Ministry built around about 1936, looking south down Wilhelmstrasse. Now, of course, this was Goering’s building, wasn’t it?

Brian: Right, Goering being one of Hitler’s right hand men, and like all of them, they built their own mini empires within the Third Reich, and Goering’s portfolio was aviation meaning the Air Force, the Luftwaffe, plus civilian aviation. And he built this building, which was one of the largest in Berlin, and still is one of the largest in Berlin, as a monument to his power, as well as of course to the power of the Third Reich.

Laurie: And then, of course, its use changed because this fell within the GDR. What did the GDR use it for?

Brian: Well, the important thing for the GDR was that it was largely intact in 1945, and so it had a lot of space, and so they moved a lot of government offices in there and it became known as the House of Ministries. And so, in the early years, it was the effective centre of the East German Government, and that came to really matter in June of 1953 when the workers of East Germany rose up against their regime and threw down their tools and marched to the House of Ministries, as it was called, Goering’s former ministry, and demanded democracy and change and were ultimately stopped by Russian tanks.

Laurie: Now, with the unification, it has another role as the Unified Germany’s Finance Ministry?

Brian: Right and so the continuity here is it's a large building full of bureaucrats, but of course very different kinds of bureaucrats just doing very different kinds of things, whether it's planning the bombing of London and Rotterdam and Guernica, or trying to build a communist state, or trying to handle capitalist finances, all in the same offices.

Laurie: In terms of memorials, this is interesting because the building, when the GDR were using it as the House of Ministries, had, I understand, a large memorial on the front of the building, which was an announcement of the founding of the Republic, of the GDR. What’s happened to it? Has that memorial been retained?

Brian: It's a mural, and it is indeed still there. This was one of the decisions that was made after unification. There were fights about all of these monuments. Some people said they were ugly, they’re monuments to dictatorship. It's a great example of the 1950s’ style, Soviet style, socialist realism. And the decision was made to keep it, and then, ultimately, finally within the last few years, corresponding to it, just outside in the plaza, is an official memorial to the 1953 uprising and those who died there. And so, it's an interesting sort of typical Berlin pairing of something from the past that we want to remember and not perhaps honour, and something from the past that we want to remember and perhaps honour.

Laurie: And another wonderful example that you give is the Palace of the Republic again. Tell me a little bit about the history of the Palace of the Republic?

Brian: Well, of course, you have to go back to the history of the site, which is what makes that building so important. This was the site of the Prussian Royal Palace, dating back many centuries, which in many ways, for centuries, was the centre of Berlin before the modern era, and that building was, like so many others, badly damaged in the War. It was the Communists then who decided to tear it down, what was left of it in 1950 – a very controversial decision at the time in every sense – and then, twenty years later, they built the Palace of the Republic, which was their parliament building but, more important, their showcase building right in the centre of Berlin.

So that’s where the East German Parliament met, which was a meaningless entity until the brief period in 1990 when they met under the democratic regime after the Wall fell and agreed to reunify Germany. Since then, the building has been shut down because of asbestos contamination, and for years and years there was this fight going on; do we keep this as a memorial to unification, do we destroy it as a hated remnant of communist tyranny, do we destroy it as the building that is standing in the way of rebuilding the Royal Palace. All of these things are being claimed until the last few years when the building has finally been torn down.

Laurie: But they are engaged, are they not, in the rebuilding of the old palace and attempting to reinstate, restore, produce back, again, the previous exterior?

Brian: Yes, that’s a remarkable story, too. Because you have this building that, as I say, has been completely gone since 1950 and so only the very oldest people have memories of being in the building or even seeing the building, and yet, there’s been this ground swell of support for the idea of restoring it with the idea that somehow you can restore a certain kind of wholeness to the City of Berlin by bringing back this enormous building, what some people see as a beautiful baroque building, that it can somehow be brought back and thus something from the past can be restored, and so there’s this longing. And, on the other hand, the opponents of that say that to do so is to pretend that the 20th Century never happening, there was no Hitler.

Laurie: Yes, that’s right. It’s almost an architectural leap over history.

Brian: Right, and so a kind of denial of history in the eyes of the people who are opposed to this reconstruction. Now, the decision has been made that the façade will be reconstructed, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I'm not going to promise you that it will happen yet because it's still controversial and, of course, also very, very expensive.

Laurie: And I suppose the question of exactly how the associations of a previous building can be managed, can be handled, can also be found in some of the arguments over the Olympic Stadium, can’t they? Because here, we had the Olympic Stadium which housed the controversial, famous, 1936 Olympic Games. I'm just looking at that, looking at that particular picture. This, at the Olympic Stadium, a very grand stadium, of course, which has been used since that time, I think it was used as an induction centre at the end of World War 2. But there’s also been controversy here, hasn’t there, about the idea that this might have been used to host the 2000 Olympics?

Brian: Right, exactly. What do you make of the Stadium? That’s been another one of these debates. It was then renovated and actually used to host the finals of the last World Cup in 2006. So, again, the decision was made that we will use this stadium, we won't tear it down and ignore it, but we will in fact use this stadium, acknowledge that the Nazis used it. But what does it mean to reuse a stadium? Does it mean that we have overcome the Nazi heritage of the stadium? Certainly, no-one’s saying it means we endorse the Nazi heritage of the stadium. So the meanings are very complicated and mixed whenever you make a decision about using or not using, keeping or not keeping a building,

Laurie: You also give so much interest to the present Berlin by the way in which you refer to Albert Speer’s notion of transforming Berlin into a wonderful new city, I think to be called Germania, was that right?

Brian: Right.

Laurie: And you can still see echoes of that plan in parts of Berlin?

Brian: You have to look very carefully. You have to know what you’re looking for, and there’s a broad boulevard right through the centre of Berlin’s central park, The Tiergarten, which was widened by Speer to its enormous width, intended for things like military parades, and then lined with these street lamps that Speer designed, and so you can see that. And, other than that, there are only tiny bits of this plan that were in fact ever built. But, it's another one of these ghosts, another one of these memories, because that was the grand plan for 20th Century Berlin, and so the rest of Berlin’s history has to decide, do we ignore this, do we bury it, do we reveal the traces of it, what do we do with this unpleasant heritage?

Laurie: And, of course, there’s also the unpleasant heritage of the Communist regime, where certain parts of Berlin have never really re-arisen in the vibrant way they enjoyed before the division of the City. I'm thinking of Potsdamer Platz, tell me a little bit about that, because I'm looking at one picture from the 1930s where one can see, I mean it's like Trafalgar Square, it's a bustling city central area, and then I turn over the page and I look at it in 1972 and all I can see is the East Berlin television tower in the background?

Brian: Right. Potsdamer Platz has a different trajectory of history because the old history there is something that almost no-one’s ashamed of. It was indeed a lot like Trafalgar Square or Times Square, a centre of transportation, entertainment, urban bustle. But then, after the War, it turned out that the line of division and, ultimately, the Berlin Wall went right through the middle of it, and so the little bit that was left there was levelled. And, for decades, there was absolutely nothing. And so, after reunification, then, there was the possibility of restoring something there. But what do you restore? Do you restore the 1920s? Well, there were attempts to do that but what does it mean to bring back the old bustle of Berlin and is that really even possible.

Laurie: And, of course, there are the arguments as well over such things as the Holocaust Memorial, aren't there, where the notion that there should be a Holocaust Memorial. I mean that is a relatively recent idea, isn’t it, that there should be a Holocaust Memorial and then the views of some people saying well, we shouldn’t have yet another reminder of that particular past, haven't we got enough already?

Brian: It's very complicated and a long story, as you suggest. This is something that trickled up very gradually in the post War decades, and this is where Berlin had the peculiar advantage, in a sense, of being a city that had been cut off from its history, no longer the centre of anything important, and so people were able to brood about their history and gradually came to point to the sites where the Holocaust was organised, directed, planned. And so that’s a very interesting history, and some of those sites have since been memorialised, excavated and so forth.

And then comes along this idea of a central memorial to the Holocaust, which, as you suggest, is controversial on the one hand because you have this remarkable spectre of a nation building an enormous memorial in the centre of its capital to its victims, to the victims of Germany - Germany making that statement. But, on the other hand, there’s opposition to it from people who say that this is a memorial to the victims, Germany has no business memorialising the victims, Germany has to pay attention to the perpetrators because that’s our legacy, the SS and Hitler and the Nazis, and so we should pay attention to those and not the victims. And so it all becomes very controversial on many levels.

Laurie: So that is the assertion that we are not a country of victims but we are a country of perpetrators?

Brian: Right. That this is the firm position of some of the people involved in the memorial debates. There are others, of course, who will acknowledge that Germany is a nation of perpetrators and victims, in many cases, not innocent victims but victims nonetheless.






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