All cities need symbols – to define their identity and then declare it, as much for their own citizens as for visitors.

After more than 13 years since my last visit, it was only in the taxi on the way from the airport that the haze hanging over my memories of what symbolised my previous visits to Berlin started to lift.

The first blast of recollection came when I saw the tower – the 1970s/space-age Fernsehturm, the symbol for me of all the fear and thrill I felt going over to the East. It was all distilled into the image of the tower: the subway ride to Checkpoint Charlie; passing through the metal, mirrored corridor under the sinister, steely, gaze of the border guards; emerging on the other side, into a grey wilderness worthy of The Day The Earth Stood Still. The only way to spend any of the Eastern currency we’d been forced to change was to go up the Fernsehturm for a ‘luxury’ dinner.

Then of course there was the Wall. Sweeping down the enormous Strasse des 17 Juni in the taxi, past the golden angel of the Siegessaule Victory Column, I got a sudden surge of what its effect had been – eerie and romantic, dominating the city. My strongest memory of the last time I was here came back: the surreal, cinematic drama of driving along the Wall in winter, at night, under the searchlights of the watch-towers in an enormous white limousine, trying to interview a couple of British pop-stars. (Very David Bowie: “Heroes” meets The Man Who Fell To Earth, but actually it was Bros.)

Suddenly realising I could never go back and revive these memories, the excitement of being back again died away. They were destined only to fade.

Cities ideally, as Bilbao or Paris have demonstrated, should have one strong symbol above all others but none of Berlin’s best emblems (the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, even the East’s old-fashioned Trabants used to represent the city by U2) actually exist anymore, even though they all still appear on most of the city’s postcards and marketing.

There were others, of course, but the cab ride seemed determined to finish off those to.

It charged through the famous pillars of the Brandenburg Gate along with all the other traffic as if it, and all it stood for, was nothing. To its left, the previously imposing Reichstag had been reduced into a mere base for Norman Foster’s new Dome (a giant mirrorball from a giant disco). In the shadow of the tower, the streets around my hotel – one of the glittering emblems of the new city – looked less like the heart of the dark, decadent Berlin or the old alien atmosphere of the East than a nice afternoon in Hampstead.

I couldn’t help feeling cheated; positively dejected. Reading about change does not prepare you for the reality or its consequences.


MORE TEARS, the saying goes, are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. 11 years after the Wall came down, Berlin still seems like a city frantically working out what it’s meant to do next, now it’s got everything it wanted: unification; the prestige and influence of becoming German capital; the reputation of currently being Europe’s most vibrant city.

Arriving so early on in its re-juvenation, the effect is like meeting an old man who’s been given one wish and has decided to be young again.

Berlin has always been a city with an old soul. It has a sense of grandeur and dignity and – actually palpably – pain. But, at the moment, all it wants is to take its chance to re-invent itself as new. Conversely, its identity as a beacon of bohemia, of rebellion, has been over-turned. Suddenly it find itself a place of government and respectability – bearing the burden of taking Germany into the new millennium. But at the same time, of course Berlin above all is never allowed to forget its history.

Whether you regard all this as making for a set of interesting contrasts or a series of conflicts so contradictory, they can only create a crisis of identity pretty much determines how much you enjoy your stay. Personally, I just found it confusing.

The super-modern network of trams and subways runs all night for instance, but then many shops, restaurants and even some department stores don’t take credit cards.

The atmosphere in Berlin still reminds you that Berlin famously has one of the wildest, most depraved all-night club scenes in the world, but, even at night, you find crowds of people standing at the traffic lights waiting for the little green man to start flashing to tell them that it’s OK to start crossing – even when there’s no traffic for miles. (This is taken so seriously, that if a jay-walker gets hit by a car, it’s the motorist who can sue.)

It is marketing itself as having some of the most modern architectural projects in the world, but the whole city is still dominated by the significance of the Wall, which hangs over it like a ghost.

Berlin is building so many symbols of its identity to replace the Wall, in the end, at present it doesn’t really have one.

It is even using its reputation as “the world’s largest building site” to market itself – with postcards of its amazing array or cranes appearing on postcards and tourist literature, as if this was something good. Roads are closed daily as building sites appear. The soundtrack of jack-hammers is constant.

It’s no wonder you see people poring over maps everywhere you go. (The city is changing so fast, they are all different.)

Like me, they seemed to be fumbling to get their bearings.

I headed for three of Berlin’s potential new emblems that are already complete: the “Info Box” tourist information centre, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum; and the £ 3 billion Potsdamer Platz shopping centre – controversially/significantly built over the no-man’s land beyond the wall.

It may represent some sort of shining Promised Land to converts to capitalism from the East, but to lovers of old Berlin, the Potsdamer is just another superfluous shiny shopping mall that could be anywhere from Milton Keynes or Frankfurt to Denver and in fact symbolises everything that is going wrong.

“The American Way of Life Daimler-Chrysler Sommer Festival” welcomes a banner. A number of artificial pavement cafes offer “Join The Team” Rothmans’ umbrellas to sit under. Naming the street in front of MacDonalds “Marlene Dietrich Strasse” seems less like a tribute than an insult.

Nearby, the hi-tech bright red ‘Info Box’ Building charts the progress of the city’s major development projects – most notably those housing sponsors like Sony, Deutsche Telekom and

A room simulating “the world’s first magnetic levitation train”, linking Hamburg and Berlin, has its admirers but I followed the crowds drawn to the rooms where large video screens were showing scenes of the Wall coming down – mostly from American or British TV coverage, which they had never seen before. Residents from the old East are understandably mesmerised.

I wondered if, like me, they thought the wall, should have been preserved, as a monument to those who had brought it down.

Without it, the question of how Berlin adapts to the continuing fascination with the past, with the Wall and what it meant/means, has become its most obsessive dilemma. It has to commemorate its past without appearing to celebrate it; integrate it into the life of the city without being unable to move on from it. It wants to make amends, to be politically correct, to be a normal apolitical capital, but keeps finding that everything in Berlin is politically sensitive.

Like any number of other heavily-contested memorials, Daniel Libeskind’s stunning Jewish Museum – not officially open until September 2000 but already seemingly completed – is a case in point.

Designed as a modernistic, deconstructed Star of David,
bridging both a futuristic expression of pride that commemorates the victims and culture of its past, disregarding the 24-hour security it needs and the presence already of abusive graffiti, it seemed to me the perfect symbol for the New Berlin, and has already graced the cover of some of the most contemporary guides to the city, like the Time Out Guide.

But despite its (huge) size, distinctive (zig-zagging) shape, and its burgeoning prestige in the rest of the world, actually locating it is another matter.

The staff at the hotel had heard of it but didn’t know where it was, or if it had been completed. Unlike the skyline full of cranes, postcards of it are rare. Signposts for it are few and far between.

Eventually I found it, only 15 minutes’ walk away, hidden away, wedged between two unremarkable buildings into a narrow slice of land out in the suburban outskirts of the Turkish quarter of Kreuzberg. Close-up, it seems like a magnificent building. It’s hard to say because unlike the Pompidou in Paris or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, you can’t step far enough away from it to admire it as a whole.

It was hard to resist the significance of the complete absence of information on it in the Sony-sponsored Info Box.

There are, though, arty posters for the “Topographie des Terrors Museum”, built on Stresemannstrasse, a site that will incorporate the Nazis’ HQ, the Gestapo and SS torture chambers, and the last few feet of Wall that I could find in the whole of Berlin.

Coaches full of Japanese tourists are already cruising by, even though it is virtually hidden by undergrowth.

Street-sellers sell pieces of it, complete with “zertifikat”s of authentication, for anything between 18 and 100 marks, depending on the graffiti on them, alongside fluffy Ich Bin Ein Berliner key-rings, Russian officers caps and “original wall barbed wire”.

The Checkpoint Charlie Museum even has postcards of Hitler’s bunker. The museum is a mess: too small, cluttered and claustrophobic, again as if they were hoping not so many visitors would find it.

Exhibits include everything from the cars and fake suitcases used to smuggle people out of the East (“Two Suitcases Full of Fiancée” as one newspaper headline put it) to a stuffed badger from the apartment of the former Chief of the Stasi.

Like the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate hasn’t fared much better. Littered with piles of bricks, sand and rubbish, traffic pours through it virtually constantly, as if – after all those years, after all it represented – people still can’t get enough of the rush of driving through it, happily polluting it as they go.

From here, I joined the file of tourists clutching maps heading off to the cafes up the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm, like ants.

Now that their monuments are for tourists, even with a map, looking for the actual heart of the city proves futile.

The Wall coming down has if anything, only made things more polarised. Residents in the East could hardly afford to move into West Berlin. Locals talk about “going out in the East” or “living in the West” more than ever. The dialects and accents are different. The status symbols (the cars, clothes, watches etc) are more marked than ever. After the initial euphoria of freedom, residents have scattered into a series of areas like the boroughs in New York with their own identities, like the Turkish quarter of Kreuzberg or strongholds in the old East, stoically oblivious to the changes miles away, turning themselves into ghettos.

Mutual resentment and disaffection seems on the increase.

Inspired by the profits and the subsidies to be made, businessmen and property developers moved into the East to make a killing.

After the Wall came down, the students, artists and radicals moved out to the cheaper East but gradually the bohemian culture of Berlin legend (the one that gave us the likes of Cabaret, Dietrich, Isherwood, Wings of Desire, David Bowie’s Heroes, or the Love Parade) has slowly been driven out – first into Mitte (in the East) and then from there on to Prenzlauer Berg and now Friedrichshain. The shiny new offices of big business and the arrival of 30, 000 government officials have taken their place. Benetton, Starbucks and Planet Hollywood have moved in. Whole areas have been gentrified.

“It’s gone all schicky-micky,” one local lamented, nostalgically – (meaning “swanky”) looking around at his favourite cafe, now an example of the homogenous, stylised, chic of the kind you’ll in anywhere from Santa Fe to Primrose Hill.

The assessment, “I bet you can’t find a cappuccino out there !”, as a punter in one cafe enthused to me about one area out in the deep East, starts to turn into a recommendation.

Resentment of the way they have been annexed is such that a resistance movement of “Ostalgia” – built around the old-fashioned culture of the former East – has emerged. They have their own political party – the PDS (the old Communist party) and old brand of East German cigarettes, Berliner beer and even washing powder have been revived, as symbols of dissent.

Even the football team (Hertha Berlin) – supported virtually entirely by “Wessies” is upwardly-mobile, having been bought by Bertelsmann , one of the largest media/publishing conglomerates in Europe, leaving patriotic “Ossies” to follow their ‘Polar Bears’ ice hockey champions and singing defiant chants about the Stasi.

The principal icon/logo of Ostalgia though is the little green and red Ampelmannchen men that appear on old East German traffic lights, which the city tried (and failed) to modernise with those from the West.

No-one mentions the word ‘apartheid’ but the effects of 40 years of wealth for one side of the city have taken an unavoidable toll.

Westerners have a tendency to treat their new brothers as country bumpkins. “It’s like trying to merge Cornwall into Camden,” one student explained to me. “Have you seen the way they dress ?”

The people in the East seem to know they can never catch up, especially as all the rules have been changed.

Resentments are unavoidable, especially after qualifications from the old East were declared virtually null and void compared to those from the West.

“Wessies” have not only lost their city’s old identity but are paying heavy Solidarity Taxes to invest in the East, while their formerly prestigious department stores and streets like the KaDeWe or the Ku’Damm are empty and growing shabby as more and more modern malls go up. Its history is being erased, or reduced into the most trivial forms of tourism.

Instead, Berlin is just emerging with more bars, bistros and pavement cafes than Amsterdam, Venice, and Manhattan put together, and, like them, by marketing its monuments, churches and museums, is turning itself into a city for tourists, a “schicky-micky” leisure centre for Yuppies, for multi-national corporations, property developers and government.

On the plus, it’s a great place to visit rather than to live.

But as for the old Berlin, the strange, isolated Berlin, the Berlin that was unique… that Berlin is dead.