‘Und wir ahnten, die Völker der Welt schauten auf diese Stadt.’
So sings Reinhard Mey in his beautifully poetic Mein Berlin, released in 1990. It refers to the Berlin air lift, when Allied countries flew planes over their sectors of Berlin (which was divided into four occupied zones following WW2), dropping much-needed supplies to citizens after a blockade by the Soviet Union in its attempt to gain control in the capital. It translates roughly as ‘And we sensed that the people of the world were watching this town.’
My world certainly seems to have been focussing on Berlin recently. A four-day break this February inspired what I’m sure will be a lifelong affection for this unique city, with its vibe and appearance so starkly different from any other capital I’ve visited, and since then events seem to have conspired to cement and raise this admiration to a level beyond what I imagined its modern buildings and distinctive platzes ever would have been able to arouse.
First, I discovered Heroes/Helden, a version of David Bowie’s beloved track (famously the story of a pair of lovers living on either side of the Berlin wall) with half of the verses in German. (Check out my piece on Bowie’s legacy or my focus on ‘Moonage Daydream’ for an update on the degree of Bowiemania from which I suffer.)
Despite the common perception that German is a harsh language, I found that translation revealed the German to be incredibly moving, and actually more poetic than its English equivalent. Bowie’s characteristic crescendo means that by the end he is crying out ‘Wir sind dann Helden’ (‘we will/can be heroes’); but this goosebump-inducing climax is far from the myth of screeching German perpetuated by WW2 films. With a knowledge of the painful separation of Germany in this period, the intensity is poignant, not angry – and simply beautiful.
Next, I discovered, or rather re-visited, Reinhard Mey’s Mein Berlin, which is quoted above and tracks the whole of Berlin’s turbulent history from the end of WW2 to ‘die Mauerfall’ (the fall of the wall in 1989). Not only did his vivid imagery and descriptions of his beloved hometown evoke wistful memories of my own short time there, but like Bowie, his moving and reflective narrative on the sorrow which Germany’s divide engendered on both sides was exceptionally stirring. Enough, in fact, to bring happy tears to my eyes when Mey’s ‘Augen sehen sich nicht satt’, a lovely idiom which translates to give the sense that his eyes can’t get enough of the image of ‘Freiheit, endlich Freiheit’ (‘freedom, finally freedom’) when the wall falls.
In contrast to the famous Fawlty Towers line, there certainly wasn’t a reluctance to mention the wall in this city whose history and development it has in all senses so drastically shaped. Pieces of the historic barrier scatter the city, most notably in Potsdamer Platz, at Checkpoint Charlie and along the Berlin Wall Walk, and countless memorials and museums commemorate the victims of ‘die Teilung’ (the separation), giving information about life under the divided regime.
So, one would struggle to make a meaningful visit to Berlin without soaking up at least a small part of its singular past and learning about unparalleled stories of sufferance and bravery. And it is that, that pervasion of Berlin’s history throughout the city, that remembrance of the troubles which have shaped it, which gives rise to such strong emotional reactions to these stories for anyone who has visited the capital and been impressed by its unique atmosphere.
Berlin has a vibe and attraction which make it worth visiting for its own, modern-day sake; but, seemingly more so than any other city, its history saturates every part of it in an enchanting way, making it incredibly difficult, I think, to resist forming a profound connection with and intense admiration for both its past and present charm.
Here are the YouTube links to both of these bewitching songs:
Heroes/Helden – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG6sXLQwlJU
Mein Berlin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLi_M1Uezyc
The featured picture was taken at one of the many remaining sections of the Wall which are scattered through the city; this one is near Checkpoint Charlie.