Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday in East Berlin

Berlin is in most ways the opposite of Paris. It sprawls. Many of its plazas dwarf human beings. Its streets can take along time to walk across. Its newer apartment blocks go on forever. It feels wide open to a Los Angeles native like me, though Berliners don't really see the LA comparison. Unlike Paris too, half of its central city was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt by sector and then rebuilt again after the end of the Cold War. There are only bits and pieces of the 19th century here, and not the enormous Hausmannian unity that makes Paris beautiful and yet a little isolated in itself.

Berlin is half-way to everywhere to the East and South - Prague, Budapest, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Istanbul, Bagdhad. The approach to Berlin is across mile after mile of rails and roads. The new central train station is bigger than a drydock for an aircraft carrier. Across the street from the new station the old Berlin wall lines the Spree River- now the longest collaborative mural project anywhere. On the opposite bank stripped brick factories wait for something with their windows gone. Large parts of town are still under construction, while old power stations and apartment blocks remain shut down, waiting for the next round, which will be as big as the round they're in. On the first day the setting sun shone on a still working station's three steel towers.

Thus it took us a while Sunday morning to get out to Lichetenberg east of the city, on the S-Bahn that goes to Wartenberg. It was too sunny not to take pictures, of metallic Friedrichstrasse, the Spree downtown, the industrial wrecks, the rebuilt village blocks lining empty streets, including the one leading from the station at Noldherplatz, where Ines said the Neonazis were planning their march that would rename, unofficially, some street there after the Berlin police commander who in 1919 ordered the killing of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

These two famous socialists were among many other things founders of the Spartacist League and prominent anti-war and anti-imperialist activists who had called on soldiers and sailors to stop fighting the war and rise up to replace the Kaiser. Luxemburg was a leading marxist intellectual as well, and had written superb, original, and fundamental work on a range of subjects from the role of imperialism in the capital accumulation process to the weakness of reformism to the politics of the mass strike and to major errors committed by the leaders of the Russian Revolution. After the Spartacist League had formed an alliance that became the German Communist Party and supported the January general strike in 1919, the Social Democrats, led by Luxemburg's former student Friedrich Ebert, used the Freikorps to suppress their Left opposition, and in the process had her, Liebknecht and hundreds of others killed. As it happened, we were passing the Nazi march site on our way to visit the Luxemburg memorial on the anniversary of the assassination.

I had pictured a small memorial. There would be a gravesite - greener and more spread out than Jim Morrison's in Pere Lachaise in Paris. There would be a similar number of devotees, maybe up to a hundred since it was an anniversary. But after all this was Berlin.

We got off the train and hopped into a taxi. The driver said the streets were blocked and we hopped out again. We entered the tunnel to cross under the tracks and were swept into a river of people. We emerged on the other side and found hundreds more carrying red flowers. There were a few college-age anarchists and then thousands of middle-aged and elderly people, mostly well-dressed, utterly respectable, all carrying the same red flowers - thousands and thousands of flowers. There was a steady stream of people from grandparents to infants that went on hour after hour. There was the clustering, the solid wall of unmoving people, around the graves and the mounds of flowers. There were food trucks and political tents. They were expecting 80,000.

What is Rosa Luxemburg to them? Martyr to war and to proto-Nazism? A great figure of revo- lutionary thought and action? One of the giants of German political history? Unfor- gotten leader of a continuing revolution?

I have no idea. I don't know whether the members of the procession think she belongs to the future as well as to history. I don't know who they were - reluctant capitalist conscripts from the former East Berlin. Or older people unhappy with the regressions visible in the world, or people honoring part of their national identity. I do know I have never seen such a mountain of red flowers, or such a flow of people carrying flowers while not carrying. Whoever they were, they came for her. They came for the fallen. I think they came for the cause she fell for. If you put a flower on the grave, and you remember, then what you remember isn't actually gone.

We took the S-bahn back west a few stops to Waschauer, got off in the sun and walked over the bridge to another of Berlin's apparently several dozen art zones, this one in Friedrichshain. We ordered lunch in a corner tavern on Revalerstr and toasted various things including the Rosas still to come. Mattias joined us, and we walked through the neighborhood on Koperikusstr toward the east bank of the Spree, past 50s apartment blocks to an abandoned east Berlin power station on Rudersdstr that has become the biggest club in Europe, then rounded the corner where the statue of Rosa Luxemburg in the Michelin guidebook sits in front of the empty Neue Deutchland building, East Berlin's defunct daily, whose building continues to preside.

We were on Pariser Kommune by this point, and we walked in front of the shopping-mall train station Ostbahnhof down to Holzmrkt along the industrial buildings next to the water. One is a glass-cube restaurant. We walked down the side and found a brick patio with chairs facing the sun. There was the Spree, as still as a mirror, as empty as a good beach day after the a-bomb's gone off. Hidden below the patio was a wooden dock where a golden wood vaporetto dinner boat waited to take Mattias and Ines on their friend's birthday cruise. Off they went. I looked back across the water into the sun. Berlin here is Venice - if Venice had built brick factories by the river, let them fall into ruin, and allowed the grass to swallow them. My camera had stopped. The sun hung there. The boat froze on the mirror.

We started everything up again - back to the S-bahn at Jannowitzbruche, Hackesher Markt, and the History museum for the rest of the afternoon. In the exhibit on Portugal I saw a globe by Martin Behaim from the early 1500s. It had a golden-brown Europe and Africa and Asia, and on the other side, in the black sea, no New World. It was an Earth with everything except the Americas. It was another Earth, an alternate Earth, and in this room no two Earths were the same. In the Klaus May exhibit there were the Indians he invented in Bavaria, and the Arabs he connected with heroic utopias. In the long gigantic history of Germany there are the centuries of almost unbroken war, and the amazing murderousness of the leaders. And through all of this time there were always many Germanies.

Actually since 1919 not that much time has passed. On this trip, about my sixth to Berlin, I felt that the hidden side of the world is going to rotate into view.

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