‘It’s really a good idea to live in houses and with furniture that are at least a hundred and twenty years old,’ Bertolt Brecht wrote to his publisher in 1953, after he and Helene Weigel had moved into their apartment on Chausseestraße, in the north-west corner of central East Berlin. ‘Let’s say, in early capitalist surroundings until later socialist surroundings are available.’
On 11 March, the Department for Culture and Europe of the Berlin senate announced a pilot project for ‘the opening of cultural and economic events for a tested audience’. It was conceived in a more hopeful moment than the one we are in now. A few weeks ago my amateur football team’s WhatsApp group was buzzing at the prospect of being able to play full-contact football again from as early as 5 April, if the seven-day incidence remained below 100 cases per 100,000 people. It was about 60 at the beginning of March. It’s now approaching 150.
I moved to the Afrikanisches Viertel, in Wedding, about a month after I arrived in Berlin. Most of the streets are named for places in Africa – Togostraße, Windhukerstraße – but Nachtigalplatz commemorates Gustav Nachtigal, Bismarck’s Reichskommissar for West Africa, and Lüderitzstraße is named for the founder of German South West Africa. Only one of these colonial names has been changed – sort of. In 1986, the city announced that Petersallee now referred to Hans Peters, a co-founder of the CDU and a member of the Kreisau Circle of wartime resisters. Small panels were attached to the street signs giving his name and dates. But the street was originally named for Carl Peters, an imperial high commissioner of northern Tanganyika in the 1890s and a notoriously brutal, violent racist, condemned even in his own time.
On the second Sunday in January every year there is a march to the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Berlin to commemorate Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
The first I heard was a text message from a friend in London, around 9 p.m. When I opened my laptop it was already filled with images of the Gedächtniskirche in the centre of former West Berlin, its broken spire left there after the war as a memorial. But now, in front of it, a lorry had been driven into one of Berlin’s busiest Christmas markets: the wooden huts festooned with fairy lights were surrounded by the blue and red lights of the ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Blood stained the pavement and windswept reporters repeated the little information they had. Nine dead, many injured, the lorry’s passenger killed at the scene. The driver in custody. Was it worse that we weren’t even surprised?
A quarter century after the Mauerfall, much of Berlin is still a building site. Hoardings often enthuse ‘Wir bauen um!’ ('We're rebuilding!') to an inconvenienced public, as if construction projects were never simply means, but always ends in themselves.
Why does Berlin have a museum dedicated to the Ramones? (Why does London have a museum with bits of the Parthenon in it?) It seems that the museum’s founder had stockpiled so much Ramonesiana that his girlfriend issued an ultimatum. It’s on Krausnickstrasse, not far from Museum Island, which hosts Berlin’s more established collections like the Pergamon. I went along hoping to be beaten on the way in with a baseball bat, or at least have feedback-spiked insults bawled at me, but it’s disappointingly tame. Perhaps more striking than the presence of the Ramones display is how little of Berlin is not a museum or memorial of one sort or another.