Berlin

A photo-essay on the German capital in six parts.

6. Aus in Europa

The train from Vienna back to Berlin, on the morning before our flight home, ran a couple of hours late, and Jane and I ended up talking with the young Austrian couple sharing our carriage.

(In English, of course; in perfect English. Everywhere on the Continent I feel embarrassed by my monolingualism, that Australian cultural blind-spot. At a free film screening we attended in Vienna, an M.C. in his twenties took the stage to introduce what we were about to see. After a long introduction in German, he repeated it in excellent English, for which we tourists in the audience felt pathetically grateful. Then he repeated it again—in Italian. I thought of those parts of my brain storing the words to Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' when they could have been storing Italian or German. "If he starts speaking French," I whispered to Jane, "I'll scream.")

The guy on the train was a political science student, as I once was, and when he learned we were Australian asked us about Mr Howard's policies towards asylum-seekers (another embarrassment; I certainly couldn't name the Austrian premier). The conversation wandered from there to the European Union and its own concerns in that area; to the EU itself, the euro, and Austria's attitudes towards both, having joined the EU only in 1995; and to Austria's relationship with Germany. A little like Canada and America, I speculated. His descriptions of a strong trade relationship, a similar 10:1 population ratio, a 'little brother' feeling among Austrians and general indifference among Germans, all sounded familiar. There was the shared language, of course; and there was something else they shared.

"There is always this issue, in the background, of History," he said. The capital H was understood. This left-liberal twenty-year old, not even old enough to have sung 'turn around, bright eyes' in 1983, had grown up under that capital H; they all have.

The H was hanging there, in that carriage, as the crumbling homes of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik passed by our window, still bearing wartime scars. I couldn't hope to say anything meaningful to these two about what it might mean to them and their people. So I spoke of other people.

"Sometimes it seems to me, living in the UK, as if the British cannot move beyond that history. When we told people we were coming here, they would make jokes about the war... So many people's attitudes towards Europe, and the euro, seem to be shaped by it. Even the young...

"Australians fought against Germany, but it's not such a big issue there any more. We fought against Japan, too, but young Australians don't keep talking about that. The old, sure; you can understand someone who was a soldier or a prisoner of war not being able to look past that. But Australian fashion and pop culture show a lot of Japanese influences nowadays, in clothes, cartoons, computer games. It's the same in North America. The war hasn't been forgotten, but it isn't the focus of our thinking about Japan...

"When I see Berlin, I wonder why the British don't draw inspiration from it in the same way. There are so many positives, the amazing new architecture, the youth culture, the techno music, that whole feeling of looking to the future. It's such an exciting place, but they don't recognise that."

I knew why, though I didn't get the chance to explain. The British don't recognise the new Berlin because they don't know it. They travel to Florida, France and Spain, not Germany. Londoners know Paris, not Berlin. The quirks of geography and the weight of History have skewed their sense of Europe such that its centre of gravity lies somewhere between the Alps and the Pyrenees.

This has far-reaching implications for Britain's relationship with Europe. To a foreigner like myself, the rhetoric of British opponents to greater European integration sounds increasingly strained. Britain is not really part of Europe, they suggest; Britain lies between America and Europe, but belongs to neither; Britain should keep the pound because it needs a strong currency to trade with America.

If Britain isn't part of Europe then Japan and Java aren't part of Asia. You can see the White Cliffs from Calais on a clear day, and reach them in half an hour by ferry, train or hovercraft. If Ireland can accept its place in Europe, surely Britain can too. And it's more than just geography: historically and culturally, Britain has more in common with its European neighbours than with its former colonies on just about every count except language (and even that isn't the barrier it used to be, as our Viennese M.C. showed). Ask any tourist. If Britain lies between America and Europe, then Portugal lies between Brazil and Europe, France lies between Algeria and Europe, Denmark lies between Greenland and Europe. And Britain isn't the only place influenced by America: the world is influenced by America.

Britain is part of Europe, of course, and has been part of the EU for decades; but the introduction of a shiny new currency has brought all these issues to a head. It's been wonderful to travel around Europe this year with a pocket full of gleaming coins and crisp notes, not having to carefully manage our spending to use up every note before we head home. The only reminder of those distant days of Bureaux des Change, exorbitant commissions, and changing currency every time you hit a border has been... topping up our euros before leaving the UK.

Britain missed a unique opportunity in failing to adopt the euro from its inception, and looks set to pass it up again next year. Suspicion of the Continent and attachment to tradition will easily swing any referendum towards the pound (though why is the pound so special and not the guinea, the crown, the shilling, the ha'penny, the farthing, the groat?). Never mind that adopting the euro can only reinforce the UK's status as a gateway for trade between Europe and the English-speaking world; can only be of benefit to its important tourist trade; can only help to soften the divide between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and will stop the English from giving me funny looks when I hand over a Bank of Scotland note.

Never mind any of that. The most important aspect of the euro is what it symbolises: a new currency for a new Europe; a Europe looking to the future; a Europe working together after centuries of war. It may seem a stretch to read all of that into a few notes and coins, but what is money but a system of symbols—symbols of value, and values? What are these pieces of paper and lumps of metal without the value we invest in them?

When it comes to Europe, Britain is divided between those who share such forward-looking values and those who value the past. And when Britons look at the past, they see a London devastated by the Blitz and painstakingly, painfully rebuilt—pointedly, an experience not shared by France and Spain, the Europe they know.

But it was certainly shared by Germany. Not just Berlin, but every German city was hammered into rubble. Their old buildings aren't original, they're rebuilt and repaired; their new buildings stand where others once stood. The difference is most striking when you see a town that was never bombed: Bamberg, south of Nuremburg, is still uniformly medieval, a town straight out of fairytale. So much of that is gone, replaced with concrete. So much like the south of England.

When Britain thinks anxiously of Europe, it thinks not of Portugal and Denmark but of France and Germany; Germany alone holds over a quarter of the population of the EU. But its images of Germany are based largely on memories, of places that are gone, bombed and destroyed, and of a culture that has changed and is still trying to change. Berlin, the seat of Hitler's rule, would be unrecognisable to Hitler in almost every way. This city does not belong to him. This future is not his.

Berlin Skyline

Towards the end of our train trip, it dawned on me that the Austrian couple weren't a couple, and that the young woman wasn't Austrian—she was a Berliner. The looks exhanged between her and the Austrian weren't those of a couple consulting one another, they were those of an Austrian checking how a German was responding to what he was saying about her country. For a moment I too was worried that I might have said something tactless about her city or her country. She'd been fairly quiet throughout our discussion of the past.

But as we pulled into Zoologische Garten, she smiled at us, and her eyes showed no sign of distance or anxiety. This was her home, this vibrant city here and now, and she was proud of it.

"I hope you enjoy your time in Berlin," she said as we left the carriage.

Thank you, we said. We did.

29 July 2002
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