What is it that's so appealing, so fascinating about Berlin? It certainly isn't how the city is knit together. Even now, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, and 25 years after the fall of the Wall, there are big weedy open spaces, suggesting a recent cataclysm.
During one of our trips to the German capital, my wife and I visited a derelict old building that appeared still to evidence World War II bomb damage. But inside, surreally, it was fixed and tarted up sufficiently to host ... a nightclub.
That is just so Berlin – as is the massively reconstructed and supremely flashy Potsdamer Platz (Potsdam Square), with its vivid history as a post-apocalyptic no-man's land between West and East. And as is the iconic Brandenburg Gate, which deeply and emotionally represents the city's promise and rebirth, as well as its earlier descent into darkness and chaos.
Of course Berlin also is a kaleidoscope of different boroughs – some staid and carefully reconstructed; some artsy and edgy; some third-world enclaves, largely populated by Turkish, Arab, or Kurdish immigrants.
As Peter Schneider says in his book Berlin Now, "What attracts [visitors] to Berlin seems to be precisely what they feel is missing in more beautiful cities: the weirdness, perpetual incompleteness, and outlandishness of Berlin – and the liveliness inherent in these qualities."
In addition to attempting to identify what draws people to Berlin – to visit and to live – Schneider tries to articulate what Berlin is today, as a community, a quarter century after reunification.
Schneider, author of more than 20 books, is exceptionally qualified to write about Berlin. Old enough to remember the end of World War II, he is young enough to experience Berghain, the infamous Berlin techno club, and its throbbing mob of music-and-drug-addled young people – and live to write in this book about it. Since 1962 Berlin has been Schneider's home base, so he's experienced firsthand the aftermath of the building of the Wall and the tearing down of it.
In his second chapter , Schneider begins to talk about the Wall. He writes: "The opening of the Wall was like an awakening after a long sleep – for the eastern half of the divided city in particular. As though touched by a magic wand, the numb, giant body began to stir.... The severed veins and limbs of the divided city fused back together with astonishing speed. Streets in West Berlin suddenly extended to the east again."
Schneider tells how, in the aftermath of World War II, both East and West Berlin were further wrecked by knocking down buildings that didn't fit their respective governments' vision for their slice of the city. For example, in an audacious act of destruction, the East Germans demolished the damaged Berlin City Palace – the exterior of which is now being reconstructed. Schneider writes that Berlin has "become an unwitting open-air museum for the deeds and misdeeds of the pioneers of the architectural profession."
So what of social relationships during division and isolation, and then in the frothy environment of reunification? Schneider's chapters on the love lives of men and women are evocatively detailed, but undermined by their narrow focus on hard-core clubbing and sexual coupling, which certainly describes only a narrow aspect of how Berliners relate to each other.
Nonetheless, sprinkled in the "love" chapters are tantalizing segments about such topics as 1920s cabaret Berlin, Russians in pre-war Berlin, and the dynamic of Berlin's relatively low cost of living.
Partway through Schneider veers alarmingly off course with chapters not so much about Berlin but about overarching German issues – about, for example, the Stasi, and immigration. But then he steers back on pavement.
In what is perhaps his most poignant essay, he visits a Jewish cemetery and finds names on gravestones of some of the countless Jews who blessed and strengthened Berlin through their industry and charity – before the Nazis took power and murdered their descendents. But in his penultimate chapter, "Jewish Life in Berlin," Schneider tells how Jews have returned to the German capital, some even immigrating from Israel.
Schneider deserves plaudits for this engrossing book, which attempts what's practically impossible – describing the essence of what makes Berlin so Berlin. Applause also is abundantly deserved by translator Sophie Schlondorff, whose masterful skills enable Schneider's writing to transition seamlessly, and vibrantly, into English.
David Hugh Smith, a Monitor contributor, married his wife, who is German, in Berlin.