It's Hip To Say 'Ich Bin Ein Berliner'

The sign seems appropriate, somehow, to the spirit of the New Berlin: EUROPE'S FASTEST ELEVATOR. It takes just 20 seconds to zip to the top of the 25-story DaimlerChrysler building, one of a crop of brand-new skyscrapers sprouting from the heart of this city 10 years after the cold war. Look down from the viewing platform, and it immediately becomes apparent why the changes sweeping the city have been firing Germany's collective imagination. A little more than a decade ago Potsdamer Platz, the local Times Square, was a no man's land sundered by the Berlin wall. Now the city's center is a showcase for the snazzy works of some of the world's best architects. It is a place of green promenades and cafes, Rollerbladers and high-tech rickshaws, in a city vibrant with possibility.

But peering down from the top of the DaimlerChrysler building, one can't help but spot something else: a giant scar in the earth. The vacant lot, just a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, is a reminder that Berlin is also a place where the past can never be erased. The site is to become the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, unified Germany's first central monument to the annihilation of European Jewry directed a half century ago from this city by Hitler. And this week marks the opening, in another nearby neighborhood, of the Jewish Museum, a stunning, nervy building designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. Prominent Americans, among them former secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former ambassador to Germany Richard Holbrooke, will attend the gala opening, along with Jewish leaders from around the world. The museum's aim, say its creators, is to show the huge achievements and contributions that Germany's Jews made to the country--not to portray them simply as hapless victims of the Holocaust. "If Berlin is again to be a great world city, then it is necessary that Berlin, and in a sense all Germany, accept the notion that there's no special group of real Germans," says Michael Blumenthal, the American director of the Jewish Museum, who fled Berlin in 1939.

For most enlightened Berliners, that is their hope: to at long last inhabit a normal city, cosmopolitan, open and peaceful--worthy of its place as the center of the new, unified Europe. The problem is that Berlin hoped for this so many times in the past, and always failed. World War I ended in the Weimar Republic as Berlin became a mecca of modernism and decadence. That was followed by the 12 years of Nazism, when the city served as the administrative headquarters for the bloodiest war in history. Then, abruptly, Berlin became a symbol of the free world--we are all Berliners, JFK said, in one of his most famous speeches, in the heart of the encircled West Berlin--before finally punctuating the history of the cold war with the collapse of the wall. "No city on earth has gone through such a roller-coaster ride--from villain to victim, from horrors to heroics, all in just the last 70 years," says Holbrooke.

Today Berlin faces another of those turning points. Only two years ago the city became the capital of a reunited Germany, at peace with all its neighbors for the first time in modern history. Now, as the European Union prepares to incorporate a clutch of new members from the former Eastern bloc, Berlin will move from a precarious perch on the EU's margin to its geographical center. Joachim Sartorius, director of Berlin's prestigious cultural festivals, says: "Berlin has a chance to become the transformer station between East and West. The question is whether it will use that chance."

First, it must overcome its history of squandered chances. Yes, the new Berlin is presenting itself to the ambitious, the young and the just plain adventurous as a frontier where they can test themselves. Diplomats and other foreigners are importing a cosmopolitan air the city hasn't had in ages. In 1999 Berlin surged past Madrid to become Europe's fourth most popular tourist destination. "Berlin is a cultural and political laboratory," says Florian Illies, a 30-year-old best-selling author who recently moved there.

But so many of Germany's demons still seem only buried, not dead. Ten years after unification, divisions between East and West Berliners seem to be deeper than ever (the two sides tend to watch different TV channels and read their own papers). Unemployment is running at 16 percent (even higher among the young). And the resentment of the excluded is driving the rise of the former East German communist party, whose popularity is raising real possibilities that it may return to power in the city's government in elections later this fall.

And then there's the problem of integrating outsiders. Foreigners and Easterners may be welcome as guests, but their absence is notable among the city's cultural and political elite. Nor is EU enlargement set to be the cakewalk that many intellectuals hope it will be. The Polish border is just 60 miles east of the city--so close that Berlin hotels send out their daily laundry to be washed in Poland. That already has some Berliners complaining about their low-wage Polish counterparts. About two thirds of Berliners and other Germans tell pollsters they think enlargement will bring unemployment, crime, drugs and higher taxes. Throw in the pending loss of the treasured German currency, the Deutsche mark, at the end of this year, and it could all add up to a serious backlash against the very idea of Europe and its enlargement. "Germany still isn't at peace with itself, collectively," says Georg Gafron, editor of BZ, a conservative tabloid and Berlin's biggest-selling daily. "The German Question--our troubled relationship with freedom--will come back, I'm convinced. We don't know where we're going." Perhaps, but most Berliners know where they have been, and few want to return there.