The strangeness of Berlin

Berlin is one of the three cities in Europe that really made me go “wow.” It’s the one that I find hardest to characterize, but here’s an attempt.

Let’s start with the history. Berlin was hopping in the ‘20s, one of cultural capitals of the world. Soon the fanatics took over and made it the capital of the Third Reich. Next came the Allies’ bombs and the Soviet tanks. Then it was divided, and a massive wall broke it in half. That wall endured for thirty years before it was torn down. Now it’s a vibrant place of 3-and-a-half million.

You can’t go through all of that without being weird, and that’s putting it mildly. I went to Berlin before I visited London and Paris, and didn’t then appreciate that it’s so special. Now I’ve had the chance to reflect, and I think Berlin is simply far more interesting than the other two.

Walk around. Notice that Berlin has no organically-developed architecture. You won’t find the consistency of London and Paris. Everything clashes with everything else; there is not the white, neoclassical grace of Westminster, or the more striking grandness that grows along the Seine. Not every building agrees even with itself; witness the glass dome designed by Norman Foster placed on top of the Reichstag. 

After a while, you might alight on a thought. It’s an uncomfortable one, because you don’t really want to believe it, and maybe it’s because you’re just tired, so perhaps you shouldn’t entertain it at all—but you do. Berlin is sort of ugly.

There are no skyscrapers designed by brand-name architects, like in London. There’s no central, well-preserved “oldtown,” like in Strasbourg. The heart of the city isn’t dominated by a centuries-old cathedral, like in Cologne or Milan. If you want to see well-preserved cities on the eastern side of Europe, Berlin is not your best bet; go to Prague or Budapest instead. If you want to see “typical” German architecture, drive through the Black Forest, up to the Rhine valley, or through Bavaria. Berlin might be thought of as a northern Munich, with its old Baroque buildings mixed with contemporary work; only Munich is sunnier, richer, and a hundred times cleaner. To me it’s not obvious if Berlin is example of any aesthetic perfection. There’s always another city that does something better.

But I don’t take this lack of beauty to be a negative. Instead I think of it as quite marvelous.

When I reach for examples of German culture my references always go in one of two directions. It’s either the highly-polished works of Beethoven, Schiller, Brahms, or Fontane. Or it’s the really dark stuff: Berg’s gruesome opera Lulu; Kafka’s surrealist short stories; Brecht’s near-tragic Threepenny Opera; Schönberg’s atonal string quartets; Schiele’s crude, erotic paintings; Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; and on and on.

The first group feel like the product of a Munich or Cologne upbringing. The latter, with its seediness and edginess, belong to the spirit of Berlin. (Yes I know that many of the people here aren’t Germans, but their works are in German or they’re German-speaking and that’s what’s relevant.)

So what’s attractive about Berlin is precisely what’s missing in the cities that are beautiful. It’s not perfect and it cares not to be. Walking through its streets and thinking about the place is unsettling; you don’t know if something strange and unfortunate is going to happen next. That gives it an incredible vibrancy, a freedom that comes from knowing that it doesn’t have to be gorgeous or be beholden to the aesthetic past. Consider that both east and west were equally vigorous in destroying old buildings. The east even managed to demolish the Berlin Palace (Berlin Schloss), the summer residence of the Hohenzollern kings.

Berlin will surprise you. One hears all the time about how Germans are so great at planning and engineering. And then you read of something like the construction of the new airport in Berlin, which has been so mismanaged that every year it needs to add two more years to its completion date, and needs to take out another billion in loans. It was supposed to start operating in 2011, and completion now looks like it’s going to be 2017. The story of its construction involves huge plot twists, and at this point you can’t help but laugh at headlines like “Berlin Airport: The five biggest mistakes,” and “An endless debacle at the BER airport.”

What fun to live in a place like that, in spite of knowing that the hilarity comes from the mismanagement of your taxes. My great complaint with living in southern Germany is that it’s far too comfortable. Things are beautiful and need no change. The occasions for surprise are always structured. Where are the plot twists, the vendors selling delicious goods without a license, the spontaneity that comes when you know that neighbors don’t judge? Everything in the south is polite. Berlin is not that.

The message of Berlin is that not everything is set, that it has room for you. The latter I mean quite literally: There’s plenty of housing available. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month. It’s a small place, but a good location. Is it possible to live anywhere close to SoHo or the Ninth Arrondissement for less than seven or eight times that amount? And it’s not just housing; the food options are diverse and cheap, and you hear sometimes of the amazing nightclubs set up in abandoned warehouses.

Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever. Plan a visit before it turns into Paris.

(Here’s some color-footage of Berlin in July, 1945.) 


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18 thoughts on “The strangeness of Berlin

  1. Prenzlauer Berg has bars with playgrounds attached. Really nice playgrounds too. I have seen them in other places but they always seemed a bit on the sketchy side. The ones in Prenzaluer Berg seem totally natural (like the absence of the bar would be stranger than the presence of it) and keep both parents and kids happy for hours.
    When friends come to visit me (I too live in the south of Germany), they often remark that it looks like Germany from the movies: the scenery, the festivals, the people.
    What’s surprising is that if you pick a recent German movie about people in their 20s/30s, there’s a good chance it takes place in Berlin. Germany in German movies looks like Berlin.
    There is plenty of housing but a dearth of jobs. Hence the low cost of housing.
    For all the things strange about Berlin, it is much more “THE” Germany city than Munich (lots of non Bavarians hate Munich with a passion) or Cologne (crappy beer) or Frankfurt (too money oriented)
    I love that it is really not as touristy as other European capitals. And prices are much more reasonable.

      • Great Article. I very much liked the video at the end too.

        Munich is hated because it holds the claim as Germany’s snob-hotspot:

        1) Munich is one of the richest, most expensive cities in Germany. It even has Germany’s almost most-vibrant tech-startup, which instead like Berlin’s tech-scene, is very un-hip and un-cool because it actually is about making money.

        2) Then there is the fact, that it is the capital of Germany’s by far most conservative region. To non-bavarian Germans it’s election posters are a obscouriosity, while simultaniously boasting to be international (Never mind all shops are closing at 8pm) and the anti-thesis to the “up tight”, protestant rest. The German dolce-vita.

        It might anger outsiders that Munich gets away with this (at least economically).

        Besides it’s expensiveness (see 1), cultural bigotry (see 2) the 3) boringness it’s soccer club wheighs on the Bundesliga, the snobby-ness is probably most hammered into German consciousness by

        4) the Neue Deutsche Welle Band and their reoccuring theme of and the aftermath reaching younger generations (like me who never listened to them).

        I’m from Berlin, grew up in Hamburg and now live in the South.

        • I’ve gotten the sense that Bavarians aren’t very popular.

          I always thought that Berlin has the more interesting tech scene. Which Munich startup are you referring to?

          • Also Germany only became a modern nation state late in the 19th century. More so than all the other former nation states Bavaria has managed to keep its own identity alive: Their own dialect, their own flag, even their own anthem is still sung… Munich is their capital.

            Bavarians tend to have a German as well as a Bavarian identity and they set themselves a bit apart from the rest of the country. But it’s mostly playful; while I know many Germans who make jokes at the expense of Bavarians I have yet to meet anyone who truly dislikes them (football being the obvious exception).

            Alex’ view is somewhat traditional: The ethically strict protestant northerners would look somewhat disturbed towards the southern catholic “live and let live” approach to morality.

            Regarding startups: As far as I know Munich is big with biotech startups and it has many venture capital firms.

  2. Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever

    It could, probably, if it operated without artificial building height limits and if NIMBYs don’t get to veto new buildings. That would set it against virtually every other city in the developed world, however.

    • True, those ‘orginal’ Berlin (read post 2005) are now using AirBnB etc to make money on their cheap rents… esp in P.Berg/Mitte/X-Berg.

  3. Non-Bavarians dislike Bavarians because Bavarians are more socially conservative than the average German, more Catholic than the average German, and are more economically successful than the average German. Bavarians, especially from Oberbayern, are pretty parochial as well. Bavarians also display a lot of local pride that makes them seem particularly obnoxious to non-Bavarians. For Americans the Texas=Bavaria analogy is a helpful way to understand the antagonism. Munich is very Bavarian, but is also considered very yuppy.

    Berlin is the city that best reflects the political “Germany” of the past 150 years. Vienna can still make a case for being the most “German” city in Europe if you take the long historical view of German culture.

    • Nobody likes the Bavarians, it seems…

      I haven’t visited much of the east, but it feels like Berlin is its own city. No other German city I’ve visited feels anything like it. But maybe I should just get out of the southwest more.

  4. “There’s plenty of housing available.”

    Im not sure we share the same definition of “plenty”.

      • Been looking at flats for two months now for me and my GF. Having talked with a few others it seems like the prices has risen greatly in the last year. It’s definitely not cheap anymore, I have never seen an apartment, however small, listed for 200€ in the A-area.

        • Gotta agree, the paragraph about housing seems like it was written 5 or 6 years ago. Sadly, things have changed and not only is it hard to find an apartment…but prices have also increased significantly.

  5. I think by framing the question as “Why do non-Bavarians hate Munich so much” is giving you more justification for the supposed hate than is actually necessary. My experience is that most Germans actually really like Munich, it is probably number two in terms of the most visited German cities by German tourists / weekend trippers. As with all places there are reasons not to like it and if you ask the question the right way, you will get those explanations.

    Oh and Bayern München of course too.

    • Yeah I definitely got more of that than I expected. I followed Alex’s framing, and you’re right that it could have been asked differently, and better.

  6. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month.

    Pretty sure that person has been living there for more than 15 years then. Renting a studio (what Germans would call a one-room apartment) is probably around 400-500 Euros anywhere within the Ring, and a two-bedroom apartment (that’s 3 rooms for Germans: 2 bedrooms + a common room) is probably at least 900 Euros. It all depends on the neighborhood of course.

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