Metropolis in Ruins. Berlin’s Interval of Time, 1943-1947 (Vincent Buckwitz)

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Metropolis in Ruins. Berlin's Interval of Time, 1943-1947.

Lecture by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.

Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Vincent Buckwitz wrote the following reflection on the October 30th lecture given by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Associate Professor of History.

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Associate Professor of History) was from 2017-2018 Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg/Institute for Advanced Studies Berlin and Guggenheim Fellow. He shared his research about the history of Berlin from 1943 to 1947 as it was transformed from the capital of Nazi Germany to a divided metropolis of the Cold War. In the beginning of the presentation, Prof. Hoffmann citied the speculations of the architecture critic, Karl Scheffler, who was asked in 1920 about how the “Potsdamer Platz” (one of Berlin’s main squares of the time) would look like in 25 years. Karl Scheffler replied to the question with a fictitious dialog of his friends stating three different assumptions of how the square will change. The most significant out of the three is: the square will become even more international, lively and licentious or an abandoned city of ruins which is characterized by devastation. Scheffler’s foreshadowing precisely captured expectations of the time about how Berlin will develop as urban critics of the early 20th century made Berlin appear like a overly fast-growing city which will fall apart like Babylon. Urban criticism from left-intellectuals to right-wing extremists was expressed implying megacities to bundle problems of late capitalist societies. Movies such as “Metropolis” from Fritz Lang produced in 1927 orchestrated mass riots to be a consequence of urbanization leading to megacities downfall. Common belief even among city planners was the collapse of cities in the absence of profound social reforms. But what happens if the worst expectations not only come true but are exceeded? Indeed, the worst expectations were exceeded through the outbreak of World War II.

Prof. Hoffmann pointed out the lack of histories about daily life in European cities during World War II and the importance of including the years before and after the war to understand urban ruination. Contemporaries such as Theodor Adorno reflected about the suddenness of wartime events, which impacted their experiences immensely. Theodor Adorno one of the 20th century's foremost thinkers on aesthetics and philosophy wrote in 1944: “Just as the war lacks continuity, history, an ‘epic’ element, but seems rather to start anew from the beginning in each phase, so it will leave behind no permanent, unconsciously preserved image in the memory.”

This quote inspired me to think about the impact of the suddenness of historic events accompanied by the impossibility of continuity in people’s life and perception. Leading me to the question of how this mentioned discontinuity causes inevitably memory bias and impacts today’s culture of remembrance. An example for the German struggle of remembrance is the 8th of May 1945 when the unconditional capitulation of Nazi Germany was signed by the Wehrmacht (Nazi Germany’s army). The 8th of May 1945 was officially first recognized as a day of liberation from national socialism by Richard von Weizsaecker (German president from 1984 to 1994) in 1985. 40 years after the end of World War II the debate about remembrance of Nazi Germany’s capitulation finally started within German government and hasn’t stopped until today. Hoffmann shed light on the circumstance of a lack in continuity which might be a reason for this ongoing uncertainty about how Germany should remember World War II. Through portraying opinions of the time, Hoffmann’s talk inspired me to consider different arguments such as the discontinuity of time when thinking about German’s culture of remembrance.

By 1941 about half a million forced laborers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, were in Berlin which was throughout the war a multinational place. Despite the terror of the Nazi regime prohibiting any mingling of foreign workforce and inhabitants of Berlin, there still was an exchange between those two groups in everyday urban life. Wartime and Postwar Berlin was an international city. Just after the end of the war in summer of 1945, nightclubs and music bars opened again. While Berlin was under Allied occupation Russian, English, French and German was spoken all over the place. Daily life within Berlin started off immediately after the end of World War II which was used as evidence by Hoffmann to point out the resilience of multinational urban life in Berlin.

Hoffman pictured how global urbanism carried by the people of Berlin could be preserved even through times of war and suppression. Hence, Hoffmann’s presentation of the post-war time is saddening as urban planning within the Soviet Union sector, just as in the American sector of Berlin was a step towards reduced urbanism, a desired goal of Nazi Germany. After listening to Prof. Hoffmann’s talk, I strongly believe in the need of global urbanism in order to achieve intellectually stimulating environments based on people’s free exchange within neighborhoods. Today’s Berlin is characterized by its diversity of people, architecture and culture illustrating modern urbanism. Taking into consideration the extreme circumstances under which people conserved global urbanism, it should be our duty to preserve this lasting idea in times of gentrification of cities due to global capitalism. Summing up, Prof. Hoffmann`s powerful analysis of Berlin’s development from 1943 to 1947 pictured the importance of urbanism and made me think about German remembrance culture.