Friday, 17 July 2015

Berlin #2: Year Zero

Before my first research visit to Berlin I did some desk research, as you do. Tripadvisor, Google Streetview, the usual stuff. And YouTube. A lot of YouTube.

I wanted a rough visual idea of what Berlin must have been like at the end of WWII, and during the Cold War as a divided city. So I'd still be a superficial tourist, yet having a better idea of the city's layers of history.

Some of the films were newsreels from the immediate aftermath of the war, July 1945 - previously unseen colour film uploaded to social media recently by Chronos Media.

What do they show?

Old men on bicyles or crutches;
Russian troops, US jeeps;
Trams - already running again;
The original Adlon Hotel in Unter den Linden;
Bullet-scarred walls, the carcasses of burnt out cars;
A pockmarked sign for the REICHS KANZLEI;
The shellshocked crest of the Brandenburg Gate;
Street signs in Russian, huge framed posters of Stalin;
Destroyed bunkers, buildings collapsing in clouds of dust;
Long lines of refugees with handcarts of their last possessions.

Most of these clips are silent, apart from echoes of PA announcements at a now wrecked sports arena, or what sounds like an old film-projector whirring away (or is it the camera?), or the gloomy drone of aircraft engines in the overhead shots, as the full extent of the apocalypse unfolds.

In the central districts of Berlin Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Tiergarten, and Wedding up to 30% of the buildings were irreparably destroyed.

* * *

Some of the remaining buildings were left in an "in-between" state. Entire walls missing, leaving three-sided living rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms - like a bizarre theatre set. A woman is moving around in one of these precarious rooms, in a surreal drama. Toilets, tables, beds, chairs, entire floors and walls could crash to the ground at any moment.

All around are heaps of rubble, fallen joists, mangled pipes and wiring, testimony to how how flimsy and illusory our everyday "solidity" can be.

From around 5:20 in the same film, large parts of the city have been reduced to empty shells and brick-dust, as if swarms of ants have eaten everything and turned it into ant-hills. Into near nothingness, zero. like the remains of an Ancient Greek or Roman city. Returned to the sand that the original metropolis was built upon. Dust to dust.
"What could have possessed people to found a city in the middle of all this sand?"
- Stendhal on Berlin
It makes you think twice about the trees you come across in the streets and parks today. Most are probably less than 70 years old. Any that survived the aerial bombings and Soviet mortars would have been hacked down in the first hard cold winters after the war, for firewood.

Flying across an eerie, treeless city of dust. This is no video game. It reminds me of that term "Year Zero", the Khmer Rouge's title after the takeover of Cambodia in 1975. Which in turn was probably a nod to the "Year One" of the French Revolutionary Calendar after they got rid of the monarchy in 1792.

In Berlin's "Year Zero", much of the city from before the war no longer exists. Some of it was gone thanks to Albert Speer's perverted dreams, and the relentless bombing raids during the war, then the arrival of the Red Army and the street-to-street fighting.

Then there was the Wall of course, carving up the city from 1961 to 1989. And, if all that wasn't enough, imagine all the further changes by the urban planners, East and West, followed by today's rush of property speculators.

* * *

An indelible image in the first video above (around 1:30 in the film) is of the human chains - almost all of them women - as they pass along buckets of bricks.

There's a German word for them: die Trümmerfrauen. Literally "the ruins women", "the rubble women". Tearing down the ruins brick by brick, transferring the bricks and other recyclable materials (wood and steel beams, wash basins, pipes) to the street to be cleaned and stacked.

Die Trümmerfrauen. I must find out more about them.

Abandoned Berlin

But Berlin in July 1945 wasn't a totally blank canvas. Check out Abandoned Berlin, a brilliant blog by Waterford-born journalist and Berlin resident Ciarán Fahey (under the pseudonym 'Spudnik Ó Fathaigh').

It's an unusual travel guide for urban explorers to venture into the city's abandoned and forgotten sites, under the tagline "If it’s Verboten it’s got to be fun."

His blog chronicles Cold-War era listening posts, TB clinics, Nazi bakeries, army camps, boarded-up breweries, the abandoned Iraqi embassy, the 1936 Olympic village, an ancient amusement park, a U-boat bunker ... buildings on borrowed time, sites that people want to forget.

As Ciarán puts it in his blog,
"Every crumbling building, creaking floorboard, fluttering curtain and flaking piece of paint has a tale begging to be told. Abandoned Berlin is an attempt to document the past, uncover hidden history and preserve the memory of neglected glories – as they are now. 
"The buildings may be falling down, vandalized and abused, but they maintain stoic dignity through the dust and decay. They want visitors! They want to share their memories! 
"Nothing stays the same, as they know only too well. Even abandonment and neglect are comforting in the face of almost certain development. Bland apartments, generic shopping centers – who knows what perils await? 
"Links to yesteryear are scrubbed clean and sanitized, historical mementos covered in concrete or plaster, everything forgotten under the guise of progress.
And as he puts it in the preface to his book-of-the-blog:
"It’s just a snapshot, a snapshot across the past, present and future that will never be the same. Come back tomorrow and it will have changed. Not much, but perceptively. No place ever stays the same and all efforts are doomed to failure. 
"Documentation, I feel, is the best we can hope for. Grasp what remains of the past through the present.  This is an attempt to remember someone else’s memories."
I wish I'd come across his blog before my first Berlin visit. Not just as a "travel guide" but for his insights about how "Even abandonment and neglect are comforting in the face of almost certain development."

In that sense ruins can be comforting. They can even have a certain perverted, fascinating pleasure. There, I've said it. A pleasure. As a recent Guardian arts review puts it:
"There is pleasure, even a kind of manic glee or joy, in ruins, especially if they are not our ruins – and sometimes even if they are. The atavistic thrill of destruction, as a retort to impotence, is all about us. Every child knows its allure, and that destruction can be a kind of ecstasy, even if it is only the collapse of a tower of wooden bricks."
Next stop: Checkpoint Charlie