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Berlin Wears The Scars Of Its Past All Over


Now to the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is an old city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's very vibrant at night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Location, location, location.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It is a fragmented city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Buildings here in the inner-city were demolished.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Location, location, location.

SIEGEL: Twenty-five years ago this fall I was dispatched to Berlin, where I'd been a couple of times before. The wall that divided the East and the West of the city was also a line that divided the Eastern and Western blocks of a divided Europe. And in November 1989, the wall was coming down. The line was being erased. A city was being reunified.

I watched and reported as East Berlin families streamed through breaches in the concrete barrier to walk down the richer busier streets in the West - streets like the Kurfuerstendamm.


SIEGEL: Hundreds of thousands of East Berliners crowded the sidewalks gawking and gaping at this neon-lit thoroughfare - children catching their first glimpse of the electric train display in the window of Wertheim's department store, adults catching sight of the billboard for the blue movie erotic cinema theater.

Most of the stores are closed for Sunday but that hasn't stopped the strolling. East Berliners have not really come West to shop. They've come to explore - to relish the sensation of being here and also to remember the day when the city was divided.

SIEGEL: In those first days of the breakthrough, demolishing the wall was largely manual labor - the work of motivated citizen.


SIEGEL: How long have you been chipping away at the walk today?


SIEGEL: Three hours?


SIEGEL: As our Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told us on MORNING EDITION today, demolition continues in Berlin. Buildings from the old German Democratic Republic - the communist in the East - come down, new ones go up. Soraya asked city planner Annalie Schoen about how that process is viewed in the eastern side of the city.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There certainly are people who used to live in the former GDR -


NELSON: - Who lament that not enough of East German -

SCHOEN: Right.

NELSON: - Architecture or -


NELSON: - History -

SCHOEN: Right. Yeah, right.

NELSON: - Or monuments have been kept.


NELSON: Would you agree with that?

SCHOEN: Yes, definitely. But I think that is what conquerors do. I mean, they take over.

NELSON: And this was a conquering?

SCHOEN: Well, that's what I heard from a lot of East Germans.

SIEGEL: The German writer Peter Schneider has written a book about how the city of Berlin has changed. It's called "Berlin Now." Welcome to the program, Peter Schneider.


SIEGEL: First, for a quarter of a century, Berlin has been reunited legally, politically, physically. Is it psychologically and emotionally a united city these days?

SCHNEIDER: It will take another generation, but it's much better than it has been ever before. Yes, we thought it would take just one generation but parents have kids and the kids know about the worldview of their parents. And that's still there.

SIEGEL: Berlin, you observe, is not a beautiful city. It is, you write, the Cinderella of European capitals. Describe the look of the city to people who haven't been to Berlin.

SCHNEIDER: I wouldn't say it's an ugly city, but it has had so many faces. It was totally ruined after the war. It has been rebuilt by architects with totally different ideas that architects have today. But you don't feel it's a compact, beautiful city like Paris or London or Rome. But ugliness even has some attraction. You feel included, not excluded. And all the young tourists, they know here is some place for me - not in Rome, not in London, but in Berlin.

SIEGEL: You write about something - about a challenge that Berlin faced after unification - a challenge over the future of the city's past. And in this case, it was what to do with a site in East Berlin which had been the site of the Berliner Schloss - the castle - the old Prussian castle in East Berlin, which the East Germans had in fact built over. Describe what was there and what the question was.

SCHNEIDER: Now what happened there was - there was a Palace of the Republic. This was an icon for many citizens from East Berlin.

SIEGEL: This was the German Democratic Republic or East Germany.

SCHNEIDER: Right. And now the mayor said too much asbestos. It has to be torn down.

SIEGEL: This was the rationale for knocking it down.

SCHNEIDER: That is right. And the East Berliners of course said this is the old colonial way. They are just telling us about asbestos. They have a lot of asbestos in West Berlin, too. So why do you want to take away our palace? And to make a long story short, they got rid of the East German palace. And they are rebuilding right now the Unterland Schloss.

SIEGEL: The old castle.

SCHNEIDER: And we feel very ambivalent about it.

SIEGEL: It's an interesting case, though, that cities with a history face, which is what do you save? What do you preserve? What do you knock down? What do you rebuild? They aren't simple questions.

SCHNEIDER: No, they are not. And Berlin has to answer all the time these questions.

SIEGEL: One thing that's very unusual about Berlin today is its very public acknowledgment - inescapable I would say -of the Holocaust and the fact that the city was once home to a dynamic, thriving Jewish population that was expelled and killed.


SIEGEL: It's all over.

SCHNEIDER: There's almost no city that has so much - so strongly worked to face the past. And you see it at any corner in Berlin. There are these golden stones in front of the houses where Jews had lived.

SIEGEL: These are stumble stones.

SCHNEIDER: Stumble stones - and there are so many other monuments. There are hundreds of them. And they acknowledge that.

SIEGEL: This is not typical of German cities even - what happened - what happened in Berlin.

SCHNEIDER: No, it's not. No. In any way, Berlin is not a typical German city. And that's maybe why it's so attractive.

SIEGEL: Yes, it is said of Berlin as it is said of New York that this is not like the rest of the country. And I gather Berliners appreciate the comparisons to New York City.

SCHNEIDER: Very much so. Because New York, of course, everybody's proud. But in many ways, it also resembles to Detroit I find.


SCHNEIDER: It's not so -

SIEGEL: You're right about this...

SCHNEIDER: - Flattering - this comparison. But there's something to it. Like Detroit now, I think, is in the process of coming back to life - and Berlin had to do this many times. And actually, I've lived in the city for 50 years. And never in my life I've seen the city in such good shape as now. The unification has done something that we have missed for decades. There's a new dimension of the time that has come back to Berlin. We call it future - optimism.

SIEGEL: Well, Peter Schneider, thank you very much for talking with us about your city.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Peter Schneider's new book is called "Berlin Now: The City After The Wall." So that's Berlin. We heard last week on MORNING EDITION about the old divisions in Beirut. We want to hear about your city. Is it more united than in the past? What are the dividing lines where you live? And how are people working to change them? Send us your stories on Twitter and Facebook and tag them #nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.