“So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” - Dr. Abraham ErskineIt is a good time to visit Germany. The Cold War is over, and the Holocaust is a memory shared only by great-grand parents and their peers. The statue of limitations, even on Nazi war criminals, has effectively passed. In the centre of Berlin - the Mitte - the Brandenburg Gate casts a shadow over the demarcation of the East-West divide, and the echo of the Berlin Wall.
Walking around a place so utterly transformed - the old Checkpoint-Charlie, the remnants of the Stasi interrogation building, a Starbucks in old-East Berlin – is exhilarating: proof of history’s power to surprise. Few foresaw the brevity of East Germany and its state security apparatus’ lifespan - so caught up in the nuclear and ideological-standoff of the superpowers.
It is easy to say that all is well that ends well, yet the thought that it might not have been this way stains my pleasure of passing from Pariser Platz to Ebertstrasse unhindered. I imagine another world in which the Wall never fell, or an atomic firestorm incinerated Europe, and endless other permutations. Parallel universes have spilled over into Berlin before: in the no man’s land where East and West Berlin met – particularly the gate, the old parliament building, and the GroBer Tiergarten – old photos depict a world where World War II never ended. More than East Berlin (which the Soviets cannibalized for their own desperate industrialization) Cold War bile blighted the old Mitte, scorching it with rhetoric and fear. Even Berlin’s heart – its Reichstag – remained empty; none passes freely beneath the archways of the Brandenburger Tor; none jogged carelessly through the garden; the Victory Column stood alone.
Now, of course, we can wander in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate; we can take the side-trip to the Holocaust Memorial and laze on its stylized tombstones as if picnicking in a cemetery; we can have our photo taken with faux Soviet guards beside a replica of the checkpoint police-box. Brandenberg Gate glows golden with its renovated sculpture of horses and chariot; the Reichstag, crowned with a glass beehive that looks like a Harman Kardon Soundticks’ subwoofer, is again the house of government. Life has returned to this, the most famous stretch of the death-strip. Like Hiroshima – crematorium for a hundred thousand souls beneath a bustling city – we see in Berlin the old mantra again in action: life goes on.