Saturday, September 8, 2012

Berlin, now and then

It rained and galed for about half my trip to Germany, and, after drought and temperatures that had topped 100 in Ohio, it sometimes felt bone chillingly cold in summery Europe. However, I decided not to be the kind of person who can't function if it's not 70 with clear skies, and so I plunged on, trying to enjoy rain and "cool breezes" after the roasting heat at home.

The afternoon I visited Bonhoeffer's childhood home in the Grunewald neighborhood of Berlin it poured rain in torrents, and I was soaked, a situation not helped by the tendency of wind gusts to flip my umbrella inside out into something resembling a large tulip that the wind tried to pull out of my hand. Then the rain stopped, and as I stood shivering at the bus stop under ominously gray skies, I decided I must find a heavier jacket than the lightweight hoodie I was wearing over a now soaked teeshirt. I happened to ask the elegantly dressed woman standing at the bus stop with me where I could buy a jacket, and she advised I get off at a certain stop on the Kurfurstendam, the grand shopping boulevard that runs east/west across the city.

I must have disembarked at the wrong place, for I found myself walking up the windy, on and off rainy Kurfurstendam looking into dress shops showing a few long wool coats, brocade cocktail dresses and silk blouses hanging in rooms decorated with Louis Quinze furniture, ornate crystal chandliers and plush Oriental carpets. How could I even dream of walking into such showrooms, for such they were, rain bedraggled, in jeans and a hoodie, carrying an oversized purse stuffed with now sodden city maps and a directionally confused umbrella? Instead, I decided to get back on the double decker bus and hop off when I saw an area of stores I could reasonably expect to afford. Soon enough, I found a sports store and in it a serviceable and warm violet jacket for 20 euros, on sale, amid all the 70, 80 and 100 euro and higher thinsulate hiking gear, most with American designer labels.

Later, I was told that the posh stores I eschewed on the Kurfurstendam are for the nouveau-rich wives of rich Russian industrialists and other wealthy foreigners, not ordinary Germans and such mere mortals. I thought of those shops as I read an account of an American, Katherine (Kay) Smith, the wife of an assistant military attache who came to Berlin after the first world war.

As recounted in Andrew Nagorski's Hitlerland, after arriving at the fashionable Adlon Hotel, Kay donned a beige coat with a beige fox collar, beige pumps, beige stockings and a dark blue hat in order to make a rakish entrance onto the streets of Berlin. However, Kay learned not to go out too stylishly dressed after a crowd of shabby Berliners gathered ominously around her and her new clothes, and only “made way for her” when they found out she was an American.

Kay had to deal with a flea-ridden apartment, a city problem, and was shocked when her maid wanted to eat the remains of her husband’s breakfast egg. The maid explained she had not tasted an egg since before the war. When Kay told her to eat all the eggs she wanted, the maid, in turn was shocked—in German households food would be kept under lock and key and the servants weren’t supposed to eat the same food as their employers. Foreigners lived well in Berlin; native Berliners not.

I wondered how the Bonhoeffer family fared in post-war Berlin. I know they suffered a hit during the inflation, though they were shielded from the worst effects by the fact that the father was paid by wealthy clients for psychological counseling in foreign currencies. None of the daughters, all married in the 1920s, set up housekeeping in their mother's prewar style, but at the same time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have been one of the fortunate few Germans traveling in the right circles and protected from the worst of the economic hardship facing many in his country. This was not lost on Bonhoeffer, who knew he was insulated from many of life's everyday problems by family money, but who knew too it was wise to finish his university degree and pursue the pastorate. Later, in the short period while he could before the Nazis took over, he worked with other rich Berliners to run programs for poor youth.

The well-heeled Grunewald I saw, row after row of stately houses in a quiet suburb, seemed not much different from what it must when the Bonhoeffers moved there in order to have yard space for a goat and chickens during the "starvation" times of World War I (the grounds surrounding the house were actually rather small). But what was it really like at a time when class divisions were so much sharper, the poor so much poorer, the rich so much richer? What of the threats on the street? I thought of the possible danger the crowd posed to the well-dressed Kay Smith and wondered if it a precursor to anger directed at the Jews. Did Bonhoeffer have to be careful venturing outdoors in his beloved Berlin?

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Pilgrimage to Germany: some Berlin and Bonhoeffer thoughts

I took this photo of a preserved remnant of the Berlin Wall.
As mentioned in the previous blog, I traveled to Germany this summer to visit Bonhoeffer sites and to try to come to terms with Germany's World War II legacy. I spent more of the trip in Berlin than any other place, and had begun to just barely know and fall in love with the city when it was time to leave.

Berlin presents a paradox for the Bonhoeffer researcher. The city Bonhoeffer knew was largely obliterated during World War II. At the same time, today's reunited Berlin, vibrant, thriving, cosmopolitan and in the process of recreating itself, is probably more like the city as Bonhoeffer experienced it than at any time in the first fifty years after his death

The most awkward part of Berlin is the center, the former no-man's land by the River Spree. The Soviets built the Berlin Wall along the Spree, maintaining a dead space behind it. Today, the German government is reclaiming that dead center space, having built, among other public buildings, a huge modernistic glass and metal government office space (in a style of architecture the Nazi's would have abhorred). All the new buildings sit stiffly, as yet unintegrated into their sites. The bridges over the Spree look artificial as well, too new, like bridges over fake waterways in a Disney World. They lack the classical charm of old stone bridges I have seen in old Berlin pictures. But in time, the structures will meld gracefully into the landscape ...

The River Spree in downtown Berlin today. Internet file photo.
The Tiergarten, the park in the center of the city, which is much like Central Park in New York City, was devastated after the war, but now is back. I was able to walk there, to my delight. Bonhoeffer must have spent time there, too, but we have no concrete record of it. The home his family first occupied in Berlin, where he lived from age six until he was 10, was near the Tiergarten. And almost surely, like many others in Berlin during the Nazi era, he must have taken long walks with friends on isolated paths in the Tiergarten in order to have conversations away from eavesdroppers and spies.
I took this photo of the Tiergarten. I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of how it looks today?

What struck me most about Berlin was my sense that it has come to grips with its past--and that this has given it both humility (I want to say peace, but that word carries implications of complacency that are not there) and new energy. World War II is energetically present as living history, as if it happened yesterday, not more than half a century ago. My host family talked about it in an everyday way. Though most Berliners were born after the war, it's part of the fabric of their city. Perhaps this is only natural for the city that was the capitol of the country that started World War II and which suffered an almost unfathomable degree of destruction during and after it.

The destroyed Tiergarten after the war: ''I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten--a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there ... and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you." Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit, quoted from Eric Larson, In the Garden of Beasts

Two ways the war--always "the war"-- lives on are through stars scattered in the pavements throughout the city indicating where Jewish families once lived and where they perished, be it Auschwitz, Dachau or elsewhere. Another reminder, built against a preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, is an exhibit about Nazism spread along the ruins of the Gestapo's (always prefaced with "notorious") Prinz Albrechtstrasse prison, Bonhoeffer's last stop en route to a concentration camp. The city appears to have accepted its responsibility for the horrors its government unleashed and to have recoiled from its former embrace of militarism and exceptionalism.

It seems to me that we in this country began a similar process of self-exploration and soul-searching after Viet Nam, a process that perhaps reached its culmination in our own Viet Nam wall memorial in Washington, a place that always seems to me drenched in sadness. Then we stopped, and some people have criticized the Viet Nam memorial for not glorifying the conflict. I believe that we have not yet come to grips with how Viet Nam tore at us a nation, and that, as result, we are still living out that ideological conflict in strange ways, especially in our politics. I sometimes wonder if we will have to be brought to the brink of destruction ourselves before we can come to terms with who we are: a nation that wants to go back to the country as it was before that war or a nation that wants to embrace the changes that the Vietnamese war helped to bring? In many ways, these competing worldviews mirror those of Germans in Weimar Germany of the 1920s--some (many) bitterly hated and resisted the new society ushered in after World War I, while some embraced it. The Bonhoeffer family seems to have accepted their country's new direction.

We have two surviving letters Bonhoeffer wrote from the (notorious) Prinz Albrechtstrasse prison to his parents, where he was transferred on Oct. 8, 1944. The first is a birthday (hers) letter he was allowed to send to his mother on December 28, 1944. He says nothing of his own situation, writing only in general, if heartfelt, terms: "Dear mother, I want you to know that I am constantly thinking of you and father every day, and that I thank God for all that you are to me and the whole family." His guards allowed him to write again on January 17, because of the "People's Sacrifice," a last ditch propaganda effort to gather supplies and rally the people to defend Berlin against the Soviets. He instructs his mother to give away any clothing of his without "another thought," mentions his pleasure at receiving a Christmas letter from Maria, his fiancee, and asks for some supplies, such as books and toothpaste, indicating he was still able to receive packages from the outside. After that, silence and a series of increasingly poignant and distressed notes from his parents, obviously desperate for some word about his fate.

As I have begun reading about pilgrimage, I realized that Bonhoeffer spent much of his life as a pilgrim, roaming the world. I will write more about that in a future post.