Vanishing Berlin

This morning, I noticed that the pound of coffee I brought back from Curra’s, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Austin, was almost gone, so it was time to go to Galleries Lafayette and get some more. When I got to the corner of Friedrichstr. and Unter den Linden, though, something was…wrong. There was the noise of construction, but, oddly enough, that didn’t alert me to what was happening: it’s omnipresent here and eventually you just sort of tune it out. But I finally did notice, and sure enough, on one corner, the Hotel Unter den Linden was being demolished.

I know some of you have stayed there, because it was absolutely the cheapest accommodation in that particular part of town, although its grim DDR facade didn’t really promise anything much in the way of comfort. But I’m told that the rooms really weren’t all that bad, especially for forty bucks a night, and they really had made the cafe downstairs look pretty attractive. But the steam shovels were ripping the rooms apart, and traffic, already a nightmare on Friedrichstr., was down to one lane each way. The thing I always liked about the Unter den Linden had vanished long ago: it once had little shields on top with the logos of the various East Berlin theaters and operas, the Deutsche Theater, the Komische Oper, and so on. These disappeared when the hotel got taken over by a new owner, though, presumably the one which made the place livable.

But the real shock came after I’d left Gal Laf and headed towards Alexanderplatz, where I had to buy a new telephone, since my wireless will no longer hold a charge for more than a minute or two. As I crossed one of the forks of the Spree on Werderstr., I was horrified to see that the Palast der Republik was also being demolished.

This is a major tragedy, for reasons Mike hits squarely on the head. The Palast, former headquarters of the DDR government, and possibly the only major political structure of its type to feature a public bowling alley in its basement, was am emotion-fraught symbol to East Berliners. It represented their government, which many still feel had some positive aspects along with the more obvious awful ones, and it had lately become a center of resistance to them, one more piece of their life scheduled for demolition. At first, it was going to be demolished because it was filled with asbestos, but some savvy Ossi discovered that the proud Western ICC had exactly as much in it. So the ICC got de-asbestified, and then the empty hulk of the Palast did. There was an exhbition of the terra-cotta warriors from Xian, China there, and then various art exhibits, and a guided tour in several languages operated when it wasn’t otherwise occupied.

Besides the obvious “screw you, we won” aspect of the demolition, though, a more insidious agenda is at play here. The Palast was built over the ruins of the old Hohenzollern palace, which was actually a collection of buildings dating back to one erected in 1410. Bombed a bit in the first World War, it was more severely damaged in the second, and in 1951, the DDR just up and levelled it. After unification, a shady group of “patriots” decided that the old Schloss (palace) should be rebuilt — they even had the plans, since Germans are demons for filing stuff away, and there was plenty enough to go on. At one point this bunch built a superstructure of piping on the site and had someone do a very nice trompe d’oeil rendering of the Schloss on some canvas, which they hung on the piping. At sunset, it actually did look like there was a building there if you stood far enough away. Just what they wanted to do with the Schloss was the question. Many Germans felt that it was a symbol of the old Prussian militaristic mind-set, and opposed its resurrection, whether or not they supported the demolition of the Palast. At one point, it was suggested that the Schloss should have a shopping mall inside it (I am not making this up). But the F

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