Foreign Correspondence: Where to pause in ever-changing Berlin

Sanssouci, in Potsdam near Berlin, was the baroque palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia: It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Sanssouci, in Potsdam near Berlin, was the baroque palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia: It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. AP

Rory MacLean, 60, is a Canadian author of 10 travel books, including the best-seller “Stalin’s Nose.” His most recent, “Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries,” was published this fall (Picador, $13.97 paperback).

Q. When were you in Berlin?

A. I first saw the city in the ’70s. At the age of 17, I spent my summer vacation “doing” Europe, climbing the Eiffel Tower, tripping down the Spanish Steps. In the last week of the vacation, I went to divided Berlin – and the sight of a wall in the middle of civilized Europe shook me to the core. I knew the history, I knew what had happened, but I didn’t understand how it had happened. How had the Berlin Wall’s builders grown blind to their human experience, clouding it with dogma, dividing the city, the country, the world? I became fascinated by them and the East-West divide.

A couple of years later I returned as the assistant director on “Just a Gigolo,” a movie starring David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. Bowie introduced me to his Berlin and I fell in love with that most remarkable city – on the front line of the Cold War, at the flash-point of the world where nuclear war could begin at any time. We forget that only 40 years ago West Berlin was surrounded by three-quarters of a million Red Army soldiers. Ever since then I’ve gone back time and again, and spent the last five years there to research and write my book.

Q. The city’s history is told through characters, like a novel. Why?

A. There are very good academic histories of Berlin, but I’m not an academic. I’m a storyteller fascinated by history. I wanted to tell Berlin’s history through the stories of 25 key Berliners, German and foreign, from Frederick the Great to Christopher Isherwood (the British writer who inspired “Cabaret”), from the builders of the Wall to Bowie. In my travel books over the years, I came to believe that only by experiencing a country or society through another’s point of view can we truly begin to understand – to empathize with – that person or time.

Q. Over the centuries, Berlin was repeatedly destroyed. How much of a patchwork feel does it have?

A. I wouldn’t say “patchwork.” What I find most interesting is its volatility. Unlike Paris or London, its identity is not based on stability, but on change. No other city has been so powerful and fallen so low, been so hated and so loved.

To my mind this constant reinvention gives Berlin its dynamic. Modern and old Berlin exist cheek by jowl, as if the different layers of human experience are intertwined and living on. There’s the ecstasy of the “Cabaret” era of the 1920s and the suffering and pain of the Second World War. Walk down almost any street and you find bullet holes, and deeply moving memorials to individual murdered Jews, and strange linear parks where the Berlin Wall once stood. History feels alive in Berlin.

Q. Where would you go to find the Cold War Berlin?

A. The Berlin Wall Memorial, on Bernauerstrasse, which witnessed some of the most tragic scenes when the city was divided in 1961 – you’ll know the pictures of East Berliners jumping from windows, of guards jumping over barbed wire to freedom in the West. The museum has the city’s only preserved and unadorned stretch of the Wall, and it’s a horrific sight. There was an inner and an outer wall; between them were tank traps, mines in a no-man’s-land and barbed wire, all overlooked by watchtowers and border guards instructed to shoot fellow citizens who wanted to live under a different political system.

Q. Where can you see Hitler’s Berlin?

A. Tempelhof Airport, the former central Berlin airport, conveys some sense of Hitler’s Third Reich because it is so fascist – so massive. German eagles still flank each side, though with the swastikas removed. Its vast halls echo with that degrading Nazi idea that the individual has value only as part of the collective whole.

Q. Where would you go to channel Berlin’s wild 1920s “Cabaret” ambiance?

A. That hedonistic spirit is alive in the city’s modern clubs. There’s a nightclub called Berghain that’s sort of the world capital of techno music: Berliners took Detroit techno and morphed it into a European vibe. It’s a massive generating station converted into a dance club that’s packed from Friday evening to Monday morning. Some people even go there for the whole weekend, then head straight to work on Monday morning. “Homeland’s” Claire Danes calls it “the best place on Earth.” I love it.

Christopher Isherwood and others like him went to Berlin because of its more liberal attitude toward sexual preferences in the 1920s. Berghain carries forward that hedonistic tradition.

Q. What about the 18th-century Berlin of Frederick the Great?

A. The best place is Potsdam, just a short ride away on the S-Bahn, the local train. Frederick’s Sanssouci is a most wonderful palace – a great outing – within a gorgeous park.

Q. Berlin was not much of a place in medieval times. Does anything remain from then?

A. Remember that 85 percent of the city center was destroyed in World War II, so little remains of the medieval city apart from two churches. In one of them, the Marienkirche – St. Mary’s Church, built around 1270 – is a wall painting of the Totentanz – the “Dance of Death” – created to mark a plague in the late 1400s; it shows Death dancing with people he selected to die. It’s very moving, especially given Berlin’s own historical dance with death ... and life.