Much has been written about the Austrian writing Jew Joseph Roth, who was one of the highest-paid journalists of Weimar Germany and who drank himself to death in France in 1939, where he had fled from the Nazis.
He is one of my favourite authors and a good spirit of Berlin; a train connoisseur, a man who lived in hotel rooms most of his life and who, while not self-declaring as flaneur, always had the keenest of eye for life around him and on the streets. He was never afraid to write about it. When I re-read his English-language collection of essays “What I Saw” recently, one of the pieces was really outstanding. It is a short article from 1930 entitled “Stone Berlin” and is initially a book review of Werner Hegemann’s book of the same name, something Roth might have written any day; but the first paragraph really struck me as something timeless and even more so applicable to Berlin today.
So I took this first paragraph and a few lines more and wrote my piece around it. I hope I’m not violating any copyrights or treading on the toes of a literary scholar up in one of the ivory towers. I just pretend Roth gave it to me in exchange for a few drinks one night, and you might want to compare what I did to a metal band using Anthrax-riffs for their first song. I don’t see it as plagiarism, only admiration. If you want to compare, you can find the original text here.
Berlin is, in European terms, a young and unhappy city-in-waiting. There is something fragmentary about it’s history. While the streets of Cologne are still following the outlines of Roman and Medieval walls and the inhabitants of Dublin walk over buried Viking longships under concrete riverbanks, Berliners inhabit the canals and marshlands of the Spree with not much to show in terms of visible ancient history. Leaving a mark on the city were Schinkel, the Kaiser, Allied bombs and Honecker, the ones before them invisible and lost in time.
Berlin’s frequently interrupted, still more frequently diverted or averted development has been checked and advanced, and by unconscious mistake as well as by bad intentions; the many obstacles in its path have, it would seem, helped it to grow. The wickedness, sheer cluelessness, and avarice of its rulers, builders, and protectors draw up the plans, muddle them up again, and confusely put them into practice. And this befuddlement continues to this day — one just needs to have a look at the often deserted Mall of Berlin inhabiting the area of Hitler’s new Reich’s Chancellory; or, of course I have to mention it, the shiny new airport gathering dust south of the city and accumulating energy costs of 17 millions Euros every month , while planes start and land in front of the old GDR hangars nearby every day.
The results of this so-called city development — for this city has too many speedily changing aspects for it to be accurate to speak of a result — are a distressing agglomeration of squares, streets, blocks of tenements, churches, and palaces. A tidy mess, an arbitrariness exactly to plan, a purposeful-seeming aimlessness. Never was so much order thrown at disorder, so much lavishness at parsimony, so much method at madness. If fate can have arbitrariness, then this unimportant city sitting on the plains of Brandenburg has become the nation’s capital through a whim of fate. As if we wanted to prove to the world how much harder it is for us than it is for anyone else! As if there had been one contradictory detail -a capstone- lacking from the structure of our contradictory history! As if we had felt challenged to come up with an aimlessly sprawling stone emblem for the sorry aimlessness of our national existence! As if we had required one more proof that we are the most long-suffering of the peoples of the earth — or, to put it more maligny and medically: the most masochistic.
The story of how absolutism and corruption, tyranny and speculation, the knout and shabby real estate dealings, cruelty and greed, the pretense of tough law-abidingness and blathering wheeler-dealing stood shoulder to shoulder, digging foundations and building streets, and of how ignorance, poor taste, disaster, bad intentions, and the occasional very rare happy accident have come together in building the capital of Germany is fascinating and cruel one indeed. And it does not look like the story has ended yet, despite the recently introduced rent-cap that aims at preserving social structures in those areas mostly targeted by greedy investors and landlords.
Berlin forever remains a city in a constant state of flux, and maybe we deserve no better — or worse.