I wonder if any country appreciates the ironies of history more than Germany. In the last 70 years, its citizens have awakened to life in a war-torn, collapsed economy, a Fascist dictatorship, a Soviet Socialist nirvana, membership in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the most prominent Cold War site and the potential flashpoint of a very hot war indeed, a symbol of human bravery restrained by machine guns and a wall, an icon of anti-humanist sameness supervised by puny apparatchiks, a divided rich-brother-poor-brother territory, a European economic powerhouse. The street that used to bear Stalin’s proscribed name is now called Karl Marx Allee, suggesting that the tyrant may have got it wrong but perhaps the philosopher did not.
Speaking of streets: the other day I attended a recital at the Philharmonic Hall, invited by a former colleague from Hong Kong. She brought along her good friend, the widow of the leader of the German youth movement in the 1960s. He was shot in the head for his troubles, and was allowed into Britain for medical treatment. Once he recovered, Heath’s government bounced him out because he was likely to raise a radical consciousness in England. He found work in Denmark, where he died as a result of his brain injuries. Now, quite conforming to Germany’s view of its past, a street has been named after him, and his part in the founding of the Green Party is well acknowledged. His widow, a jolly woman from Chicago, came in 1963 and remains here still.
Germany’s preoccupation seems to focus on individuals who have shaped—or been murdered—by Germany’s history. Besides naming streets for dead student activists, we find these examples: information kiosks this summer are devoted to poster lessons about citizens who opposed Fascism, one poster per person. These include folk who publicly opposed policies in the late 1930s, Christians who rescued Jews and were put to death, a Russian occupying soldier. There’s the art and history project of placing four-square-inch blocks of bronze before the houses of denounced Jews. The blocks name the victim, give the birth and, if possible, death dates, and the place of execution. Being raised half an inch higher than the paving stone, the bronze blocks intend to trip you up in more ways than one. Then, of course, there is the obligatory reminder of Anne Frank, who was Dutch, by reminding us of her Berliner friend whose house you can visit. Perhaps it is this intense gaze at individuals that makes visits to the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish History Museum, thus far, too unbearable to attempt.
Which returns us to irony—the great coping mechanism in an impossible world. Yesterday was my day in the DDR.
(And while it was my DDR day, it was also a day when Germans, anticipating the imminent arrival of President Obama, were furious to discover that the recent NSA revelations about eavesdropping included the surveillance of German citizens. The word “Stasi” came up more than once.)
My DDR Day: Along the shore of the River Spree, for almost a mile, runs a section of the Wall. Sometimes there are two parallel walls separated by a well-lit killing field. Then come the river and a hoped-for welcome on the western shore. Over the years, fewer than 200 people were killed trying to defeat the wall; thousands escaped here and in other places. But the iconic presence of the wall would be the same if only a single brave soul had died here.
The mile-long remnant of the Wall is called the East Side Gallery, a most colorful display of graffiti art by painters from around the world. Most of the murals—some of them dozens of yards long—involve parodies of moments in the lives of the now-gone potentates: the famous kiss exchanged by Brezhnev and Eric Honecker is a recurrent favorite. The re-purposing of the wall, of course, is Freedom’s spit in the eye to the former Soviet empire and its insipid, censuring lackeys. But then, every few yards, placards remind us that it is Verboten to deface the paintings. Of course, visitors have penned their names, their dates, their messages to a relative who lived and died on the wrong side of the wall. The paeans to artistic and political freedom are also self-designed adverts. Some of the murals contain the email address of the artist and the offer to paint a mural on your very own garden wall. Along the sidewalk, stern looking guards in East German uniforms patrol the wall. They sell postcards, coasters, GDR medals from the trunk of a parked, real Trabant, the two-cylinder hallmark of East German engineering (which it had to be since most of the available steel from GDR factories went to Mother Russia, leaving the Trabant to be mostly a kind of plastic). In the bad days, people hid under the rear seat of Trabis to try to escape. Nowadays, it’s chic to rent a Trabi and trundle through Berlin’s streets in a convoy at a maximum speed of 18 miles an hour.
After the wall, I visited the Museum of East Germany, itself a study in historical irony. The museum conveys the secretiveness and hidden meanings of GDR life in the way it arranges its artifacts. A large wall displays a photograph of fashion, or home life, or political figures. The immense photograph half-hides handles that open drawers and small closets. It’s like a museum designed by Horn and Hardart. Inside each secret compartment, a deeper story is told. The extremely liberal-minded constitution is countered by a judicial or political interpretation. The managed economy becomes unmanageable. You’re invited to vote or ensure a Trabant factory reaches its goals for the year. The game always ends in a loss, even if you win by making all the right political choices.
In the gift shop, you can spend more than you should for replicas of East German production. It was managed economy; now it’s kitch: cheesy folding plastic cups in bright red or yellow plastic. And at the moment you exit the museum, you are introduced to the Last Laugh Division of German irony: the DDR Museum is built into the foundation of the new five-star Radisson Blu Hotel. Immediately across the canal, which borders the front of the museum, looms the Berlin Cathedral. So the two great enemies Soviet style socialism, enemies with flaws all their own, rise above the extremely good natured Museum of Wretched Defeat.