The Berlin Question

The sign doesn't mince words: EUROPE'S FASTEST ELEVATOR. And fast it is. It takes just 20 seconds to zip up to the top of the 25-story DaimlerChrysler building, one of a crop of brand-new sky-scrapers sprouting from the heart of the New Berlin. It's easy to see why the dramatic changes here have fired the world's imagination. Little more than a decade ago, Potsdamer Platz was a no man's land sundered by the Berlin wall. Now, as everyone knows, it's a showcase for the snazzy works of modern architects, from Renzo Piano to Helmut Jahn. But look past the bustling construction sites, toward a football-field-size vacant lot a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate. It's set to become the site of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Germany's first real monument to the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II.

As a symbol of the new Berlin, the contrast could not be more apt: past and future, in constant ferment. After a roller-coaster century of shattered imperial dreams and the purgatory of cold-war division, Berlin has embarked on a headlong adventure of rebirth and self-definition. Only two years ago Berlin became the capital of a reunited Germany, the most populous country in Europe, at peace with all its neighbors for the first time in modern history. And as the city rediscovers its almost forgotten role as a powerful seat of government, its trademark cultural and intellectual ferment is melding with the complex realities of big-time politics. With the European Union preparing to incorporate a clutch of new members from the former Eastern bloc, Berlin has moved from its precarious perch on Europe's margin to a position smack dab at its heart. The role transcends mere geography. Already the laboratory of Germany's own growing together of east and west, Berlin (with its bent for further European integration and expansion) is both the testing ground and the driving force behind this vastly more ambitious unification project. "Berlin has a chance to become the transformer between east and west," says Joachim Sartorius, director of Berlin's prestigious cultural festivals, likening the city to a sort of "energizer" that will power Europe toward the future. After centuries of aspiration, he suggests, Berlin is poised to fulfill its grand ambition: to become the center of cultural creativity and political innovation in Europe.

And yet. If there's one thread that runs through German history, it's the story of great potential, tragically unfulfilled. Like Germany itself, Berlin has always been something of a latecomer, struggling to catch up with modernity and join the great cosmopolitan cities of "the West." Always it has fallen short. Democratic revolution failed in 1848, as did the chance to establish a modern nation-state in 1871, when Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck made Berlin the capital of a newly united, authoritarian German Empire. When the kaiser's empire collapsed in 1918, Berlin sank into chaos and street fighting. Berlin was an artistic and literary trendsetter during the Weimar Republic, on the verge of becoming Europe's de facto cultural capital, only to see that promise dissolve in Nazi nihilism and terror. It failed as the capital of the Third Reich, and yet again as the capital of communist East Germany. Even today the city's renaissance is far from assured. It is mired in debt and political scandal, its economy a shambles after a decade of false optimism. Irony of ironies, the old Communist Party threatens to regain power in this fall's city elections. So let us ask the Berlin Question. Will the city make it this time, or fail once again?

The outward signs are good. To stroll through Potsdamer Platz or the rejuvenated Mitte, Berlin's historic center in the former East, is to breathe the air of a city reinventing itself. Intellectuals, businesspeople, artists and writers are flocking, not only from Germany but across Europe. For the young, the ambitious and the just plain adventurous, Berlin is becoming like New York or London--a place for all comers to test themselves, be they lobbyists, lawyers or performance artists. "Berlin is a cultural and political laboratory," says Florian Illies, a 30-year-old best-selling author who recently moved to Berlin from Frankfurt.

Or take Giovanni di Lorenzo, 42, an Italian who edits one of the city's leading daily newspapers, Der Tagesspiegel. "This is a place where you have the feeling of being a witness to history," he says--in contrast to sleepy Munich, where he used to work. In Berlin, "no one asks you what you've done. They want to know what you're doing now." Countess Isa von Hardenberg, a socialite whose event agency is the arbiter of the city's more important guest lists, rejoices in Berlin's new cosmopolitanism, arising partly from an influx of diplomats and international organizations--not to mention the spicy political intrigue that suffuses the new capital. "Nothing is finished here," she says. "No one knows what this place will be like in three years, who'll be in and who'll be out. That's what's so exciting."

This is Berlin as a Zeitgeist, a thrilling new Metropole roomy enough to allow for the rambunctious overlap of politics and culture in a way that tiny Bonn could never have managed. That mixture may sound normal enough to other Europeans. But after World War II, both Germanys cultivated provincialism as proof of their good intentions. Little East Germany was one big province, happy home to farmers and coddled workers and a rebuke to an industrialized, "imperialist" West. The Federal Republic, or West Germany as it used to be called, wore federalism on its sleeve. Artists schmoozed in Cologne, the media huddled in Hamburg, bankers and businesspeople congregated in Frankfurt. Anything else would have smacked of Machtstreben, the will to power that Germans for decades have taken such pains to shed.

That mind-set has not disappeared. But suddenly, in Berlin, these worlds have come together. Gary Smith, director of the three-year-old American Academy in Berlin, has seen an explosion in the number of artists, writers and intellectuals coming to the city, all seeking the vibrancy of the avant-garde, the underground, sometimes the just plain kooky--all of which Berlin offers in unique profusion. Its three universities and 24/7 cultural life allow for plenty of experimentation, not to mention its countless and somehow continuously crowded cafes, lounge bars and dance clubs. Prowl its theaters, and you'll run into everything from the latest production by Peter Brook to a lyrical movie by an emigre director from Tajikistan. Kunstwerke, a scrappy showcase for contemporary art, has come to rival New York's P.S.1 as a mecca for Europe's best young visual artists. The Schaubuhne features on-the-edge performing arts, like the frenetic and fragmented works of Germany's rising young choreographer Sasha Waltz. Small wonder Susan Sontag, the American writer and a lecturer at the Academy, calls Berlin "the San Francisco of Central Europe."

Small wonder, as well, that Berlin's cultural and political elite see EU enlargement as a chance to be seized. If Europe's future indeed lies to the east and to the north, as most agree, "Paris and Brussels start looking very much on the edge," says Catherine Kelleher, director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. "It's much harder there now to stand on a soapbox and proclaim you're at the center of Europe." And in an EU where London and Paris are distinctly national capitals, a cosmopolitan, Europeanized Berlin could well be the continent's symbolic uber-capital--a sort of capital of capitals.

How lovely that would be, at least from Berlin's perspective. But then, there's that sobering history to consider, the tragedies of squandered opportunity. Before it cashes in on the rosy future, modern-day Berlin must cope with some brute realities. For starters, the city is an economic basket case, its inhabitants among the poorest in a Germany that's already the slowest-growing economy in Europe. A top-heavy bureaucracy and a cronyist political class have left the city 70 billion Deutsche marks in debt. Unemployment, at 16 percent and even higher among the young, promises only to deepen. So do divisions between east and west Germans. (Ten years after unification, both sides still tend to watch different TV channels and read their own papers.) The resentment of those excluded from Berlin's outward renaissance has buoyed the former East German Communist Party, whose growing popularity in the east has set the stage for its return to power in the city's government after elections this fall.

No less troubling is the problem of "outsiders." The place is full of xenophobic distrust of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and all the other newcomers who could make the city great. Even within its sizable community of Turks, who have long made Berlin their home, precious few count among the city's cultural and political elite. Nor is EU enlargement set to be the cakewalk that many hope. The Polish border is just 100 kilometers east of the city--so close that Berlin hotels send out their daily laundry to be washed in Poland. And that already has some Berliners hurting from the close competition of their low-wage Polish counterparts. That's one of the reasons why about two thirds of Berliners and other Germans consistently 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 as Berliners see it. With the EU, the mark and the welfare state--the sacred trilogy of Germany's postwar patriotism--all losing their shine, it's uncertain what, for Germans, will take their place. "Germany still isn't at peace with itself, collectively," says Georg Gafron, a leading newspaper editor. "The German question--our troubled relationship with freedom--will come back, I'm convinced. We don't know where we're going, and we're scared. It's not a good feeling."

Some see hope in a signal event: the official inauguration, this week, of a second memorial, the Jewish Museum. It's an eye-stopping, nervy building clad in zinc, designed by Israeli-American architect Daniel Libeskind, that slashes through Berlin like a scar--or, some say, a suture. Close to 400,000 toured it when it was nothing but an empty shell. Like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the building has become an attraction in itself, an instant entry on the A-list of the world's great architecture. In contrast to the planned Holocaust Memorial a few blocks away, this museum is not dedicated to the Jews as victims. Instead, the Jewish Museum is a homage to the generations of Jews who once made Germany great, a sad and powerful reminder of what Germany lost when it destroyed its Jews. The largest of its kind in Europe, it pays tribute not only to Germany's Jewish writers and musicians, scientists and business leaders, but also to the ordinary German Jews who helped build their fatherland in its many forgotten ways.

In spirit, the Jewish Museum is the new Berlin: a reconciliation of past and present, looking to the future, not as a rebuke or warning but as an exhortation, a reminder of what Berlin once was and could again be. Its message is the power of diversity, secure in mutual tolerance--a conclusion with direct relevance, say some, to the present situation in Germany's new capital. "If Berlin is again to be a great world city, then it is necessary that Berlin, and in a sense all Germany, accepts the notion that there are no second-class Germans, that there's no special group of real Germans," says Michael Blumenthal, the American director of the Jewish Museum who fled Berlin in 1938. "Twenty-first-century Germany had better get used to the fact that a minority--whether Jews, Turks or Africans--can add vibrancy to the city and be loyal German citizens." In a globalized economy, where German companies' American or British competitors can easily recruit the best and brightest of immigrants, he adds, tribalism is not an asset.

And that's precisely why the opening of the Jewish Museum will be a signal moment. Virtually the entire political, industrial, cultural and intellectual elite of Germany will be there, along with Jewish leaders from around the world, plus dignitaries from Washington to Shanghai. How appropriate that they'll be listening to Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony playing Mahler and Schonberg--just two of the German Jews who once composed in Berlin. Undoubtedly some will be there because they have to be, or because it's so obviously a to-die-for invite, even for a party town. But surely no small number will understand that Berlin's future is again at stake, and wonder if the city is ready to absorb the museum's lessons. And make it this time around.