FU Marx and Engels: the capitalist vs the communist Berlin

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Berlin is a mutilated city.

So much of it has been destroyed, so much of it has been rebuilt, so much of it has not been rebuilt, so much of it is still being rebuilt. So much never will. Thanks to destruction visited on the city by RAF and the US Air Force and subsequently the Red Army, some one third of the modern Berlin is made of green spaces and water. Whole suburbs that have been razed to the ground have not been resurrected, including the prime real estate between the Bundestag (the parliament; formerly the Reichstag) and the river Spree. Only the Swiss embassy remains, alone and neutral.

The area that was once the old East Berlin is a sea of cranes. But it’s not new steel and glass office building that are being raised from the ground but the old ones, most of them the legacy of the Prussian era, being slowly returned to the old glory. Over the 45 years of the communist rule, the East German rulers destroyed what has not been already destroyed and neglected the rest of the Berlin of the bourgeoisie and the monarchy. There is such a backlog of reconstruction and renovation work that even the quarter of a century of the reunited Germany and the former West’s money has not been sufficient to catch up. So the work still goes on along Unter den Linden and on the Museum Island on Spree.

On the east side of the river you step back in time. What communism destroyed in 1945 it rebuilt years later in the communist style. I was having some terrible flashbacks to my Polish childhood as I walked the wide alleys of the ex-East Berlin. Alexanderplatz is a horrid mass of socialism made concrete, devoid of any charm. The streets are grimier and even the air smells dirtier. At a local Donkin Donuts franchise legions of flies crawl over the sweet offerings. It is a surreal feeling, almost as it the time stood still since, say, 1988. All the billions of deutschmarks and decades of Western love has not managed to erase the past and truly reunite the city, both in appearance and in spirit. If Merkel’s Germany wasn’t currently financing the profligacy of the rest of Europe, I would recommend razing much of East Berlin and starting afresh.

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I leave Berlin with mixed feelings. Like many large and old European cities, it doesn’t really have a heart, not in a metaphorical sense but spatially. Its monuments and nerve centres are scattered haphazardly over a large area, connected by roads but not much more. I found some parts of it more cheerful, open and sunny than I expected, but others more melancholy and desolate than I initially thought.

As I was walking back from Alexanderplatz toward Unter den Linden, I stopped in a little park by the river. In it still stands a monument to Marx and Engels. Much of it is covered in graffiti but the two metal figures, Marx sitting down and Engels standing by his side like a faithful dog, glisten as if it was still their heyday. They continue to provide the obligator photo backdrop to Asian tourists, who seem to be the only ones still stopping by – out of curiosity, not any ideological affinity. All I can do is to give the two assholes a finger, since they have had so much to do with the current shape of Berlin (and with much else besides). I would love to give an equal finger to Hitler, but understandably his monuments no longer stand in the capital. Berlin is what you get when ideology gets in a way of life. Life eventually wins, but it takes a long time to recover. Here’s to you Berlin, you magnificent bastard. Good luck and thanks for all the memories.

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