13 May 2013

Book review: The Ghosts of Berlin

The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, Brian Ladd, 1997.

I forget where I heard of this book, whether it was a "you might like" on Amazon or a recommendation from someone on the internet, but I added it to my wishlist and it appeared in my hands for my birthday.

It's no secret, not if you've spent any length of time talking to me or read anything I've published, that Berlin is my favorite place in the world. So clearly, a book about the history of Berlin told through its architecture would be right up my alley.

Indeed it was. Ladd divides the book chronologically, mostly, and starts with the walls: the famous one and the one before that, which had been the city wall. He talks about Old Berlin, which he groups from the city's foundation in the 13th century to the end of the Hohenzollern empire (1918), then moves into the metropolis (1920s/Weimar), the Nazi period, divided Berlin, and the capital of the new Germany.

He includes a photograph of Albert Speer's model of Germania, the city Hitler wanted to build over Berlin, which is breathtaking (in the bad way) in its sheer scope. It includes the Reichstag--which is not a small building--dwarfed by the Great Hall. It's obscene and appalling, and reading the various plans Speer and Hitler laid for Berlin's renovation made me turn to Ben and say, exasperatedly, "Nazis!" then read him the offending passage.

For me, the most interesting part was comparing the city as it is now (or was at my last visit in 2010) to the way it was when Ladd wrote the book over fifteen years ago. The final plans for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe hadn't been decided! I'm actually quite happy that the plan presented as the leading design isn't what was eventually implemented, because a slab of granite or metal with 6 million names engraved on it doesn't give anywhere near the sense of walking through the gravestone-like stones that are there.

The Spree Arc plan for the government quarter wasn't implemented the way it was planned in the early 90s, either.

I found this book highly interesting and informative. I would recommend anyone with an interest in modern German history, including the confrontation with the past regarding Nazism, to read this book. I would also recommend having Google Maps open nearby or a recent tourist map so you can orient yourself to the places and street names and see how things did or didn't turn out according to plan.

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