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East Berlin: scouting for traces of a city that vanished

By Richard Kepler BrunnerSpecial to The christian Science Monitor / July 22, 1980

East Berlin

Near the eastern end of Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard that is synonymous with the grandeur of imperial Berlin, the tour bus pulls up by the Opera House.

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"Over there," says the East German woman guide, pointing to the square that fronts on the university, "is where the Nazis were burning the books."

Dutifully, the nine tourists from the West stare at the spot. It was there, 47 years ago under the approving eyes of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, that shouting sutdents torched 20,000 books of proscribed writers, among them works by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Sigmund Freud, H. G. Wells, and Helen Keller. On that May midnight in 1933, Adolf Hitler had been chancellor of Germany for four months.

"These flames," Goebbels told the jubilant students who gathered around the smoldering pyre, "not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new."

Indeed they did. And the gruesome evidence of what they ignited can be seen to this day in the Soviet sector of this divided city.

The guide nods to the driver, and we move out into the afternoon traffic of the broad boulevard on which the kaisers had lavished love and money. Here, along Unter den Linden, was official and cultural Berlin, from the enormous neo-Grecian portal of the Brandenburg Gate to the Royal Palace. And between them, ranged in all the splendor of their imperial glory, came the Reichschancellery, the Opera, the state library,t he university, tomb of the unknown soldier, the arsenal, the cathedral.

As we walk briskly toward Marx-Engels-Platz, the irony of the stop at the scene of the book-burning suddenly comes clear. One marvels at how the Soviet masters of this part of Berlin enforce censorship today. Minutes before, at Checkpoint Charlie, we were warned that it is verboten to bring in any newspapers, magazines, or booksm to the East.

Savoring that irony is short-lived, for as we cruise through the vast expanse of Marx-Engels-Platz we are struck by the absence of the Royal Palace.

"What," we venture timidly, "has happened to Schluter's masterpiece?" It had, we knew, survived the war though its roof had fallen to Allied bombs and its facade fared badly in the face of Russian artillery. But it should have stood right here in Berlin's version of Moscow's Red Square.

"It is becoming a ruin in the war," our guide responds, "and how it has left." A splendid explanation. The gilt and grandness of its galleries had come through the war, as had its stout walls. But it was an anachronism in a revolutionary age, and one day in 1951 the Russians blew it up to make way for the present.

But certain landmarks of old Berlin remain. And with a historical imagination, an old Baedeker, and a few yellowing photographs, one can re-create the vanished city from its present reincarnation.

Langhans's Brandenburg Gate, surmounted by the gilded Quadriga, is as impressive as it is massive. A twinge of dramatic irony sets in, however, when one realizes that the Goddess of Victory up there will not be racing off to bask in victories. Farther along, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the state library, St. Hedwig's Church, and the National Gallery have been put as right as can be, under the circumstances. The Pergamon Museum's famous Pergamon Altar and Market Gate of Milet are still there for anyone who can afford one mark.

Even though much restoration has been achieved, much of our guide's words come out in batches of past tense. This was once the Wilhelmstrasse, now the Otto Grotewohl-Strasse. Down there was the Kaiserhof, over there the Adlon. Across the way (in the British sector) was/is the Reichstag building, for it has recently been restored, though not of course to its former use. Down there was the Ministry of Justice, and just there Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry. And still farther along, Hitler's bunker, now a waste ground covered over in grass and weed, best forgotten.