Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prussian Ghosts

The enormous expanse of land that stretches in front of Berlin’s ancient looking Altes (Old) Museum, alongside its green domed, Protestant Cathedral, seems far to large for a modern city. It reminds me that Berlin is a capital city and that it was one before, during the first German unification in the nineteenth century.

Capital cities are not just places where people live and work, including the often tedious tasks of government, they are monuments in which the abstract nature of power is brought to ground in buildings and space. The buildings on this immense plaza are certainly grand. The Cathedral has words on its front, in gold, and it is probably real gold, that invoke the blessings of God on the Germans, while the Old Museum, with its columns, invokes the ancient heritage of the West in a continuity from Greece and Rome.

All the columns remind me of Washington and its obsession with claiming that same Imperial past. That should not surprise, given that the American polity and the Prussian were coming into their own almost at the same time. I suppose when I see the magnificent bronze of Frederick the Great, astride his horse, at the mouth of the magnificent Unter den Lindens Avenue with the Brandenburg Gate to his back, right by the palace that was and is the Humboldt University, at the opening of the heroic empty space, I should think of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Certainly, the National Mall is a space like this one, though this one seems more Latin and Classical than French and modernist. At the west end of the Mall was supposed to be a large equestrian statue of Washington, like that of Frederick the Great here; instead a massive monolith in white went up. And then beyond that the classical temple to a sitting Lincoln was built.

I don’t know when I was first taught about the French influence on the United Sates and the harmony between the American and French revolutions. Pierre Charles L’ Enfant’s name says tons, along with that of his mentor General Lafayette, when you ask about who did the urban plan and design of Washington; it does bear a striking resemblance to Paris, although it is most definitely not the City of Lights.

But I am surprised in Berlin to see how much it reminds me of the politics and realities of a very different place, an Empire built on different principles although strikingly similar. Through the nineteenth century, as the United States was arising, claiming a continent and resolving its divisions, before embarking on acquiring an empire in the New World and in the Pacific, Prussia was also arising and becoming great. The beginning of the century was marked by its conflict with Napoleon’s French Empire.

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, often called “L’Eroica” in reference to Beethoven’s deception at the loss of the ideal hero he hoped Napoleon was in the face of a bloody reality. For me that all has seemed to be interesting stories, like so many stories in my life, but not something that really motivated me.

Standing on the wide esplanade, I see those struggles and ideals made real in an empty piece of dirt, no doubt some of the most costly real estate in the world.

And, I wonder, how much did Prussia influence the United States. In the next century, the twentieth, we fought two wars with Prussia’s descendent state. We won, if you can call it that though going in to the wars winning was not guaranteed. Germany was a very worthy opponent in the classical sense.

Before the war, the expanse between the Alleghenies and the Rockies absorbed millions of German immigrants such that German is the largest ethnicity claimed in the US following those of the UK. I know that explorers like Humboldt and his colleagues were fascinated by America, north to south--I mean Tierra del Fuego--its new countries and its indigenous peoples. They have left an invaluable heritage of scholarship. But I wonder how Prussian political thinking and the growth of the strong and powerful state in Europe impacted American leaders and thinkers.

Of course I have heard of the Prussian values of hard work, careful planning, and precision.

But, Prussia no longer exists. Its heartland is divided among Poland and states to its east and north. Konigsberg is gone, with its heritage of Kant the great philosopher. Danzig is more known now for the Polish hero Lech Walesa than anything Prussian. But Brandenburg, Saxony, and Berlin still exist and here I am. And I have heard no one talk about Prussia with one exception.

Of course why should they? People are busy with their current lives. The past generally lies buried unless it needs to be raised for some current reason of struggle or justification.

For example, I am writing at the moment in a cafe in Friedrichshain, in the heart of what was East Berlin. It is an edgy, charming neighborhood coffee house with cut flowers on every handmade table. Careful thought went into the design and the products. Everything is delicious. It’s name is written in English “No Fire, No Glory”, and I found out about it in a blogsite online.

That is part of how I am exploring Berlin. I look to see what expats and locals are reviewing and describing in German and in English. I tried Spanish, but it has not been as productive for me.

At the Frankfurter Allee U-Bahn stop, there is a big, five or six story mall, glitzy and glassy, with the dreams of consumption pushed to the front. Not too far away rises a ten story, maybe, building of probably socialist apartments. Near the coffee house stands what looks like a collective building dedicated to solidarity for the workers of the world. But other than for the urgency of groups like that, the recent past is just that, past and it stays in the names of streets (Karl Marx Allee), in buildings, and in some of the memories of a generation that is quickly disappearing.

To be fair, the twentieth anniversary of the Wende, when the wall came tumbling, is coming up in a couple of weeks, and so there is a lot of official re-membering of that moment and of the lost worker’s Republic. Now the press is filled with discussion of current Chancelor Angele Merkel’s birth and upbringing as well as activism in East Germany, before the Wende, and now she is the head of all Germany.

Why should I be surprised to hear almost nothing about Prussia, another disappeared state, even though it was one of the world’s great powers? It is monumentalized through out the city and in the name of the place where I am Friedrichshain, named after Frederick the Great, but why should people need to talk about it?

The only mention to date came from Frank, my housemate. One day he just mentioned in passing that his parents came from east Prussia and that with the Russian victory in the War--yes it is still the War, and the breakup of Prussia among Slavic and Baltic states, his parents fled west. They made it into the Allied zone, where he was raised.

When one talks about the war, even here, one almost never hears mention of the deportation of ethnic Germans from what was Prussia. Hardly any are left. Breslau, just over the border in Poland, was once one of the largest German cities, now it is a large Polish city and has almost no ethnic German inhabitants. There has been a massive change in population.

Silesia, of which Breslau was part, became part of Prussia though it was Catholic and Prussia predominantly Protestant, in the dynastic politics of the royals of the time.

But I have heard about Breslau much of my life, since my aunt and her family was from there and since my landlady in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was part of Breslau’s large German jewish population and escaped to the jungles of Bolivia in ’38 I believe. She was very bitter about what had happened to her world of refinement and culture.

It was not gone, like Prussia, but now it was reduced to exchanges among a few people in the jungles and savannahs of lowland South America.

According to the brilliant Frankfurt Philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, there is a small movement afoot to build a museum and monument in Berlin to all the Germans forcibly deported from the East. Though there was much suffering and much violent abuse of these refugees, Habermas notes that the idea is like a hot potato.

No one wants to see it happen, though people are aware. The fear is the rise of a German nationalism of a brutal sort that could seize hold of that memory. Instead, the official memory is of German atrocities in the war, and especially the Shoah, the Holocaust.

Just yesterday, while I was walking in Pankow, in a light rain, I came across a beautifully restored white building. On it in big metal letters is “The Jewish Community” and then there is a metal plaque which states the building had been a synagogue and boarding school. During the war all of its residents were deported to the death camps.

That is the official memory. There are very good reasons for it, and from it has arisen the marvel of contemporary Germany firmly committed to the European community and the building of an international society which limits the sovereignty of all nations in that very Prussian notion of rules and order.

But ghosts, especially ghosts of past glory in the monuments of a monumental city seldom stay silent. I see them in the empty spaces of the esplanade in the heart of Berlin. I wonder when and how they will speak and march again.

We have our ghosts too. It is halloween day after tomorrow, when ghosts are suppsoed to come out and be contained, but our ghosts are not containable easily. We have our Paris-like Mall and our Prussia-like empire, though a constitutional democracy, and our ghosts look to ride.

It is particularly strange that I, an American who strongly supports a strong international order, bring memories of Prussia and the German East from hearing about them in my childhood in another land. Thus I disturb the ghosts here, even if just in this post. And, such is the nature of ghosts. They arise in very strange ways to haunt complex and powerful societies.

No comments:

Post a Comment