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On Berlin today and its recent history

25/10/2014

Berlin has a definite artistic vibe about it. Walking through Alexanderplatz in the centre of the city people congregate in the cafes for coffee and conversation. I saw a cafe with sleek lines and modern design advising “hippies welcome” and populated by people wearing large framed spectacles (similar to mine actually) pouring over magazines espousing the most stylish fashion trends. A New Zealand interior architect we met for dinner marveled over the design features of Berlin’s buildings ranging from the classical and grand museums, galleries and two concert halls in museum island where German high culture is displayed prominently and proudly to the more modern sleek designs (very Scandinavian I am told).

The high culture emanates from the centre including paintings from Lovis Corinth, a renowned artist of the German impressionist school. I was most struck by Corinth’s “Blinded Sampson” housed in the Altes Galleries (old gallery) which you can see below:

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Corinth’s Blinded Sampson speaks to his loss of power  with the aggressive and messy brushstrokes capturing the artist’s frustration following a stroke akin to the mighty biblical figure of Sampson’s loss of power after Delilah cut his hair (the source of his great strength). Corinth painted the work in 1912 but the sense of frustration and loss of power for me could have captured that felt by Germany following the end of the first world war and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which imposed harsh reparations on this country.

To reflect on the grand architecture of museum island, two concert halls and cathedrals is odd given much of Berlin was destroyed during the second world war but it was rebuilt to recapture Berlin traditional style now married with a modern sensibility.

Any city is defined by its history both old and more recent and Berlin of course is no different. It is the more recent past which draws tourists to the city (including myself) in particular; the 20th century rise of the terrible Nazi regime and life under the repressive German Democratic Republic.

During the period of the GDR the city was cleft between two rival ideologies, that of a market based economy coupled with social democratic institutions and that of a centrally planned economy where plans were implemented by one party and from 1961 until 1989 the wall cast its terrible shadow over the city.

To see the Brandenburg Gate and portions of the wall is humbling when one considers the restrictions on people under that regime. Estimates of those killed trying to cross the wall vary widely but I thought one of the simplest condemnations of the GDR regime came from an interview featured in the Tranenpalast (palace of tears) with a woman who escaped before the wall was erected; as a school girl she said to her mother “in this country I can’t be who I want to be”.

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