The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Memories of that “empty, homogeneous time”
Beyond the wall

It’s now more than a month that I entered Berlin for the first time. I may as well say it was the first time I entered Germany. Once, in 1973, a Switzerland-bound train I was in with my parents stopped for a few minutes at Bonn, then West Germany’s nondescript capital. A soldier came into our compartment and sat opposite us, and got off at the next stop: it seems fantastic, but it is true. For many years, this was my only claim to having been in Germany.

We flew into the Tegel airport; oddly, for a capital city, there is no pre-eminent international airport in Berlin. This is in keeping with its history; its once-lapsed status, its division into two cities, its rehabilitation after reunification. Even its lack of a single international airport seems to be located in its inward, traumatic complexity; its shyness of landmarks and its proliferation of them; its dubious but continuing fascination with its emblems of the past; its being situated in this constant narrative of relocation — mental, ideological, physical, geographic. So, there is the “old” city centre and the “new” city centre, the “old” town hall and the “new” town hall; but these inscriptions of “old” and “new”are themselves fairly recent, and don’t predate reunification. The expected movements of history have been compressed unnaturally; it’s a little like being in Calcutta during the Pujas, but on a long-term basis, so that one might almost hope to become inured (who knows') to this intertwining of the fantastic and the factual, this encounter with the banal, the historic, the allegorical, the domestic, and the proximity between them.

It was a brilliant summer. It took me by surprise: this natural affluence of daylight in the midst of such palpable material affluence was difficult to digest. I thought, blinking in the sun, of, at once, those pre-war summers when Stephen Spender and company descended on Berlin, to sunbathe with god-like blonde boys, and also of the vanishing, in an instant, of sensual innocence, political blindness, devastating pain, into the vacancy of this present-day, new-millennial happiness. Bathed in light, I was there with Spender, in the Thirties, as I could never have been if I had lived then, and I was here, in post-unification, post-Schroeder, post-Iraq Berlin.

We stayed in a lovely flat in Schoeneberg (“beautiful hill”, apparently, though there was no hill in sight) with large windows and wooden floors, and that most un-English of promontories, a balcony, spacious enough for a dog, let alone humans, to be content in. There was no dog; but my new friend’s “children” — a blonde sixteen-year-old boy and a dark-haired nineteen-year-old girl — kept coming in, going out. My friend and his wife no longer lived with each other; they spoke to each other on the phone and shared the children; they had become blood relations. His name was Reinhold (“Call me Reini”), and he taught English at the University of Magdeburg in the former East Germany, where, in four days, I was to read out my stories.

I went out and stood on the balcony and surveyed the buildings opposite. I looked greedily; more reticent but no less compelling than cathedrals and temples, they wouldn’t give up their secrets in a glance. Schoeneberg, Reini said, had been a mixture of economic classes and religions before the war; people of varying income groups had lived here, and not a small number of Jews. (I discovered later that the area used to be called the “Jewish Switzerland”, and had a sizeable upper-middle class Jewish population at the turn of the century.) “Tagore might have come here,” he beamed. Why' “Einstein lived here. If they met in Berlin, it might have been here!”

The houses I saw from the balcony, like the building I was in, had been erected in the Twenties; they had miraculously survived the bombing. Thus, some of the residential areas of Berlin, which escaped both the bombs and the social levelling of East Berlin, have an extraordinarily ambiguous “inner weather”. There are certain cities where the houses in which people live and whose residential districts are even more revelatory to the outsider than their monuments and landmarks. Calcutta, I’d say, is one, for a walk in Mandeville Gardens or a drive through Bhowanipore or Alipore is much more instructive and charged with excitement for the visitor than a pilgrimage to the Victoria Memorial. Berlin, I think, is another.

Next morning (again, glorious), Reini said he’d take us — me, my wife, our daughter — for a walk around Schoeneberg. On a plaque at the bottom of the façade of a nearby block of flats, partly hidden by the undergrowth, was the message that Einstein had resided here. We crossed the main road, further rows of buildings, and bridge. We came to the “old” town hall and the “old” city centre. Before the wall fell, the Schoeneberg town hall had been the town hall of West Berlin. Happy, indeed secure, to be at the centre of an American colony, it displayed lapidary words from John F. Kennedy addressed to West Germans. At midday, the stentorian chimes of the “freedom bell” rang out, as it had for fifty years, once a signal to benighted East Berliners that liberty and democracy would one day be theirs. Unlike the Iraqis, the West Germans, till recently, were happy with their liberators (and had chosen to forget their Russian ones); liberated not only from Nazism, but the dreariness of socialism and enforced equality.

On our way back our companion pointed out signs that hung from posts on the pavement, black German words on a white background. I recognized only “Juden” as common to them all. These signs were meant to remind you of the exact day when, say, Jews became barred from taking PhDs. Another proclaimed the date when they were deemed ineligible to become professional classical musicians. Another recorded the day when Jews were denied access to well-known areas of recreation. The dates ranged from the late Twenties to the late Thirties: no one could claim that they didn’t know what was coming.

Thinking of those signs, I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin and his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” for two related reasons. The first is obvious; Benjamin’s own history, his destiny and aborted career, are inextricable from the history the signs narrate. Unable to become a professor because of his religion, driven to suicide by fear after the fall of Paris in 1939, it is only after walking around Schoeneberg that I understand something of the panic that fuelled his eloquence: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not an exception but the rule”; and, “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing [that is, Fascism] are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.”

Part of Benjamin’s critique of what he calls the “empty, homogeneous time” of (Western) history — that is, Western history as a metaphor for history itself — surely involves his violently endangered Jewish identity. It was the inability of German liberals and opponents of Fascism to imagine outside the paradigm of that “empty, homogeneous time”, to imagine in what way Fascism might be happening beyond and outside it, that helps bring Fascism, in Benjamin’s eyes, into existence; and the same might be said of many secular individuals and political parties in India — the problem is not just the calculated connivance with Fascism, but the inability to imagine it is really present, to acknowledge that it is not an element in our “empty, homogeneous” secular history with which we can quarrel on our own terms.

The other thing that struck me gradually, as I looked at these signs — astonishing, estranging, and puzzling — is the profound, as-yet unfathomed importance of the Holocaust to European identity and self-consciousness. This is something I hadn’t quite grasped till I travelled to Berlin. Obscene though it might be to say so, it seems that the obsessive righteousness, memorialization, and remorse surrounding the Holocaust — in Berlin, in Germany, but also everywhere in Europe — suggests that it, too, has become an all-important component of that “empty, homogeneous time” without which history would be unimaginable (although it is imaginable without many other traumas in the twentieth century) — a development that Benjamin, naturally, didn’t live to see; nor can we know whether, as a once-divided Zionist, he would have wanted to. The Holocaust cannot be replicated or repeated; it has been universalized, almost aestheticized, with the authority only Europe has, or has had, to universalize and aestheticize. Both Jew and European non-Jew are hurt and outraged if any equivalence is made, say, between what is happening in Israel and Palestine and what happened in Europe. The “‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”, but, ironically, this statement is doomed to be proven true only in retrospect.

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