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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 most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. 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…

What makes up the history of a city? Is it the linear timeline — the who invaded when; the who led which group into victory or destruction; the list of intellectuals, emperors, madmen, musicians, scientists, orators who came through and left their mark? Maybe it’s the physical landscape, the rivers that create trade and wealth, the mountains that provide security and shelter. And what does that history add up to — if you learn enough about a city’s history, will you finally understand what makes the city what it is, will you capture its essence on the page?

Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. 424 pages. Princeton University Press. $29.95. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin by Alexandra Richie. 1,168 pages. Basic Books. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter. 528 pages. Knopf…. More…

Back in June, when the sun was rising at 4:30 a.m. and setting after I went to sleep, I was having a little solstice dinner. It didn’t really feel like the summer solstice, even with the sun trying to rile you from bed at ungodly hours. Summer in Berlin is temperate and wet. There’s only one week or so that blazes through and leaves you gasping on your kitchen tile floor, or — like one pregnant woman in Germany — losing your shit on the un-air conditioned public train, taking off your shoe, and using it to pound through the window. But that never happens until mid-July. In June, you’re still wearing your leather jacket and you are able to do things like make a roast for the solstice and drink a Spanish red. And because there the sun feels vague rather than relentlessly mutating your skin cells into pre-cancerous… More…

In a public park where families take their children to play on the swings, in what was, just a few decades ago, East Berlin, is a wall of relief sculptures. The sculptures date from the Communist days. They depict children who are happy and healthy, adults who are industrious and kind. There is work, play. There is life. Monuments like these — the remnants of the dreams and aspirations of a lost civilization — can stimulate that most disconcerting emotion amongst Germans: ostalgie (literally, east-stalgia, nostalgia for the old East Germany). It is not the first thing you expect to encounter in Berlin, ostalgie, until you realize that nothing in Berlin is settled, no aspect of the recent past has yet been laid to rest.

 

Just up the block from the park is a square, in the center… More…

Part of Chicago froze in the 1930s. I’ve been thinking of my old home city of Chicago a lot lately, and of my new home in Berlin. The thread that ties them together seems to be that they’re both stuck in time. In the same time. They have one foot in this chaotic contemporary period, but the other is still in the 1920s and early ’30s, each summed up as a Bob Fosse experience (Chicago and Cabaret).

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry. 320 pages. Viking Adult. $25.95.

And why not? It was a glamorous age for both. Berlin had its cabarets, Otto Dix, sex, and liquor. Chicago had its speakeasies, gangsters, and gunner girls. With what followed — rubble for one, crime and poverty for the other… 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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