Espiner's Berlin : London celebrates the Battle of Britain - and Berlin?

All this week in Britain they’ve been celebrating the fact that they were bombed by Nazi Germany. By contrast, Mark Espiner writes, you’re unlikely to hear positive stories of Berlin’s blitz.

Blick in die neue Heimat. Der Brite Mark Espiner erkundet Berlin.
Blick in die neue Heimat. Der Brite Mark Espiner erkundet Berlin.Foto: Thilo Rückeis

It’s not just English eccentricity. It’s the 70th anniversary of the blitz and the Battle of Britain, major events in the war which the Brits - and Londoners in particular - believe defined the nation’s character and which are invoked with relentless regularity. The “blitz spirit” of camaraderie, so the story goes, helped the country pull through, even if now it is coming to light that the Blitz spirit wasn’t all resilience and teamwork: it provided an ideal environment, apparently, for crime to flourish and there was organised looting and theft as the bombs fell. 

By contrast, you’re unlikely to hear positive stories of Berlin’s blitz, for obvious reasons - although the conditions in the German capital must have been similar, if not worse. 67,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Berlin compared to the 20,000 on London and there were 50,000 Berlin casualties compared to London’s 30,000. 

Some clever people in the UK, who call themselves retronauts, have tried to recreate a little bit of the feeling of what it was like to have your city bombed with these fascinating photomontages. But while Britain’s bombing is all very familiar to me, the stories of the Berliners in their blitz are hardly audible in British consciousness. 

So, if you’re an ordinary Berliner, or know one, who lived through Berlin’s air raids and would like to talk to me about it do please get in touch. Then I could make a video as an answer to this one in the Guardian.

We’ve all, no doubt, seen the aerial pictures of a postwar devastated Berlin. As I get to know the city better, I find it hard to work out which buildings are original here. From the pictures it looks like nothing was left standing. Does that mean that all these lovely looking altbaus are fake reconstructions? 

Thinking about the destruction made my first visit to the Babylon Kino in Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße all the more fascinating. I learned that it dodged the bombs and survived the war intact, although ironically was almost destroyed by DDR neglect. It had art deco splendor and a the whiff of an era when the movies were about more than popcorn and big bucks. Built in 1929, it was one of 5076 cinemas in the city. I’ll say that again: it was one of 5076 cinemas in the city. I don’t know how many there are today, but there surely aren’t that many. 

I decided in my blitz week to watch Berlin, Die Sinfonie Der Grossstadt - a silent film made in 1927. My motivation was to try to get a feel of what Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz were like before the bombs. Nothing could quite prepare me for the emotional punch it packed. 

It was like a time machine. As the camera raced across the city, I could pick out a few scant landmarks, but it wasn’t the buildings it was the Berliners that stood out. The people who make the city. The poor, the rich, the young, the old all caught in the lens - all oblivious to what was going to hit them a decade later. Those children playing in the pond, did they survive the bombs or the camps? That man, did he die in uniform? 

It was sobering, but beautiful too. The city looked majestic and while it resembled something of itself now, its black and white 80-year-old face looked fresher, more modern, more crowded, even buzzier than it is today. If you’re curious, see for yourself on YouTube

What you’ll miss on the small screen, though, is the joy of inhabiting this lost world. You witness the innocence of it. And then can’t avoid thinking of the destruction of this beautiful city. And the people. The Berliners: some in bowler hats like the stereotype of an English gent, workers, mothers, schoolchildren, pleasure seekers in high heels. It looked like London. I had a strange rush that I can only describe as a mixed feeling of misplaced patriotism and love and loss for this place. 

I felt that for a short hour I connected to a root of the city that bypassed the awful Nazi years and division that followed it. So while Londoners look to the bombs of adversity to define themselves, perhaps while still remembering the horrors the Berliners could also take a joyful lesson from before that. Back to 1927, with all its modernity, vision, industry and humour. 

You can email Mark at mark@espiner.com or follow him on Twitter @DeutschMarkUK

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