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In a letter to a friend, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) recalled how, as a child, he enjoyed “charming, graceful nature in such abundance” in the vicinity of Tegel Castle. Tegel, the Plattdeutsch word for “brick,” was still a small town northwest of Berlin on route to Hamburg in Alexander von Humboldt’s times. Here he spent the warm seasons of his childhood with his brother Wilhelm. Besides the castle, the family owned a townhouse in the center of Berlin, which was three hours carriage ride along sandy paths.

If you walk through the castle’s surroundings today, you can imagine him as a boy strolling around this romantic setting, perhaps listening to the hammering of a woodpecker, then walking over to the lake to enjoy the scenery. Nature made him curious and open to the world. This is where he started to collect plant specimens, stones, and insects, earning him the nickname “the little apothecary.” Objects of nature were his favorite toys. “Both brothers withdrew into their own worlds — Wilhelm into his books and Alexander into lonely walks through Tegel’s forests, great woods that had been planted with imported North American trees. As he wandered among colorful sugar maples and stately white oaks, Alexander experienced nature as calming and soothing. But it was also among these trees from another world that he began to dream of distant countries,” writes Andrea Wulf in her biography of Alexander von Humboldt The Invention Of Nature.

More… “Bricked In”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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In the beginning, the Wall was made of barbed wire and soldiers. On some streets, cinder blocks had been stacked. In the Neukölln borough, on Harzer Straße, the Wall was about neck-high. East and West Berliners could look at each other over the Wall but they were not allowed to touch. In a photograph taken on the first day, August 13, 1961, two mothers stand on either side of a coil of wire that reaches to their knees. The babies they hold stretch out to each other, inches of air between their fingers. There seems to be a magnetic repulsion preventing them from holding hands. In another picture from that day, a young man in a crowd stands across from two border guards; a chest-high stack of cement is separating them. The young man appears to be asking one guard a question — both lay their hands on the Wall…. More…

 

In Berlin, the powers-that-be have ensured that the dead live on. I don’t mean with statues — pick any city and you’ll find a plinth topped by a notable erstwhile resident, and Berlin is certainly no exception. No, this city goes further in its national pride by naming its streets, parks, and bridges after long-deceased German luminaries. Writers, politicians, and protestors lend their names; so too — and perhaps more importantly — do the many top-drawer composers and philosophers that have enriched the world and increased the country’s cultural stock. Schubertstrasse, Brahmsstrasse, Schopenhauerstrasse, and Lessingstrasse are not tucked-away lanes but well-traversed streets. To get to one of my favorite bookstores I head along Kantstrasse (one of the city’s main arteries), turn onto Leibnizstrasse, and before reaching the multi-lane chaos that is Bismarckstrasse, branch off onto the leafy calm… More…

 

When the Soviets finally released the autopsy report on Hitler’s corpse in 1968, it contained the startling datum that the Führer was one testicle short. The body found outside the Berlin bunker had been burned with gasoline and had to be identified by its dental records (Hitler had terrible teeth, with metal implants for false incisors). But according to the strikingly-named Russian examining Doctor Faust Shkaravaski, Hitler’s scrotum sack remained perfectly intact — “singed but preserved” — and very definitely minus a bollock. This news from the USSR was greeted with fascination in the West and has inspired a cottage industry of explanations from industrious Nazi historians:

Theory #1: The Führer was born that way.

The possibility that Hitler was born with monorchism — one testicle missing — provoked a flurry of studies on Hitler’s psychology, arguing that… More…

Berlin in the 21st century is something of an experiment with aftermath. How does a city that has been through so much and caused so much pain carry on and heal its wounds? You can’t just get Old Testament on the place, burn it to the ground and salt the earth. If we Sodom and Gomorrhaed the location of every atrocity, we’d have no place left to live. And so post-World War II and post-Berlin Wall, various techniques are explored. There was a taboo phase, and the bad things were never discussed. Then there was an “educate the children” phase. A writer told me that the children used to be forced into six-week-long courses on the Final Solution. They were told that their parents were responsible or at the very least participants, and if they were told any differently, they were being lied to.

Berlin in the 1920s boasted a string of theme restaurants that rank as the forgotten precursors of Disneyland and Las Vegas. The most popular was the colossal Haus Vaterland (Fatherland House) on Potsdamer Platz, where customers entered beneath an electric sign that announced “Every Nation Under One Roof” to wander through a domed entertainment complex that took up a whole city block. Inside were 12 restaurants, each with live music and its own international gimmick — Turkish cafe, Western saloon, Hungarian peasant tavern, Spanish flamenco bar. Like a World’s Fair pavilion, it was a palace of high kitsch. The most popular venue was the Bavarian Wine Terrace, which gave an ersatz view over a giant fake painted Rhine, complete with a poetically ruined castle. Every hour, the lights dimmed, fake lightning flashed, thunder clapped, and sprinklers sent a light summer rain shower to refresh the happy crowd.

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Americans might have flocked to Paris in the ’20s, but the real action was in Berlin — the modern Babylon where every night felt like New Year’s Eve and any pleasure could be obtained for a price. In fact, if ever a historical era blurred into one continuous, manic party, it was Berlin in the Weimar years. (The name Weimar Republic comes from the small city where Germany’s first democratic constitution was drawn up; it lasted from 1919 until the Nazi takeover in 1933). Berliners had always enjoyed a reputation for licentious behavior and artistic rebellion; many Germans blamed the invigorating Berliner Luft, Berlin wind, for encouraging a tendency to perversion. But the defeat in the World War I and the hyperinflation that followed seemed to shatter any vestige of security and restraint. By 1923, it was as if there really was a whiff of cocaine in the breeze: “The… More…

 

Prostitutes were the big difference in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life. When he lived in Dresden he showed definite artistic talent but he didn’t have anything in particular to say. His paintings and drawings weren’t yet fully his own. He was still learning about the world and still learning about his own talent.

Then, in 1911, he moved to Berlin. He quickly acquainted himself with the new Berlin prostitutes. They were out there in the streets, roaming, hunting. He was out there too, alone with his sketchpad. He was watching the movement of people in the late night air, a certain flickering of the streetlights along Potsdamer Platz. His sketches from that period take on a mania. The lines are flying all over the page. Kirchner is after something now, a specific tempo and density, a tightening of perspective… More…

One hot and, for Hamburg, uncharacteristically sunny afternoon we turn left out the door of our apartment building and head toward the Innenstadt for a bit of shopping — “downtown,” that is, and not the “inner city” of a literal translation. Down the Rothenbaumchaussee and then cross to cut through Dammtor station; up and over the flying bridge that comes down by the Holocaust memorial, past the Livotto Eis gelateria and then the opera house, through the Gansemarkt and along Jungfernstieg, the city’s Fifth Avenue promenade; past the Alster Pavilion café, in whose band Brahms’ father had played the horn. We’ve been here a week and we’re looking for sheets, and perhaps predictably we end up not at Karstadt’s or the Alsterhaus — not at the German stores — but at Habitat. Half the staff seems to be 20-something Brits speaking German; the others are Germans speaking English. We find… More…