Under the Unter den Linden

Brian Melican traces three centuries of writing on Berlin’s most famous boulevard…

The most obvious way to get to know a city is to travel round it: on foot, by bike, on a bus, by train. Especially in a town as geographically flat as Berlin, this is what you might call “horizontal” exploration, covering the surface area of a city step by step, route by route.

Yet this form of discovery, however comprehensive, is incomplete without “vertical” exploration: stopping at one given point and investigating its history, digging down to previous versions of the city rather than roaming across the current one. Collating historic writing about places is one way to do this, and is often like stumbling upon a lift down to levels of a city buried under the current one.

The entry to the historical Berlin elevator is to be found somewhere along Unter den Linden, and the writing I found about Berlin allows us to get out and stroll along this promenade at several levels. The first thing that is striking, though, is that the Berlin elevator does not go particularly deep: the lowest level is Thursday, 5th July, 1764, when we can get out and accompany James Boswell, later a biographer of Samuel Johnson, about town.

“I was struck with the Beauty of Berlin. The House are handsom and the streets wide long and strait. The Palace is grand. The Palaces of some of the Royal family are very genteel. The Opera-House is an elegant Building with this Inscription: Fridericus Rex Apollini et Musis. At night we sauntered in a sweet walk under a grove of Chestnut-trees by the side of a beautifull Canal.”

The Berlin Boswell shows us is brand new, of course, which is why this particular elevator does not go any further down. Berlin existed long before 1764, of course, but it was a provincial backwater, no destination for English-speaking travellers. By the sixteenth century, Hamburg and Heidelberg were already on the European map as the port city and the university town respectively; Berlin did not debut in its role – that of being a capital – until 1701.

Yet under Frederick the Great, the city took great leaps forward both economically and culturally, as the Soldier King encouraged enterprise and brought the likes of Voltaire to his court. By the next level up, on 19th October 1777, the Berlin we cover with diplomat Nathaniel Wraxall was already far larger and more impressive than its 1764 predecessor, but somehow anaemic, like an adolescent after a growth spurt.

“Like Peterburgh, this city is magnificent, regular, and has sprung up since the beginning of the present century. It existed indeed previously; but, only eighty years ago, it contained no more than twenty-five thousand inhabitants. They estimate the population now at above a hundred and twenty thousand. In the centre of Berlin, a stranger finds himself completely surrounded by a groupe of palaces or public buildings, of the most striking kind. Several owe their construction to the present King; and on the front of the Opera House, which he built at the beginning of his reign, we read the short and classic inscription affixed by himself, “Fredericus Rex, Apollini, et Musis.” His universal and creative genius has however been constantly intent on maintaining the spirit of military enthusiasm, in the midst of peace, and among all the display of architecture, taste, or magnificence. We never cease to recollect that we are in a country, where from the sovereign to the peasant every man is born a soldier. But it is in the Garrison Church, that those feelings are peculiarly awakened, animated, and called into action.”

Unter den Linden as seen from Schlossbrücke

With Boswell and Wraxall, we are seeing two sides of the same coin: Berlin had been (by the standards of the day) built more or less overnight, and while Boswell saw it as a paragon of gleaming, rational modernity, Wraxall saw it as a soulless expression of megalomania.

“If, however, Berlin strikes by its regularity and the magnificence of its public buildings, it impresses not less forcibly with a sentiment of melancholy. It is neither enriched by commerce, enlivened by the general residence of the Sovereign, nor animated by industry, business, and freedom. An air of silence and dejection reigns in the streets, where at noon-day scarcely any passengers are seen except soldiers. The population, much as it has augmented during the present reign, is still very unequal to the extent and magnitude of the city. Ostentation and vanity, more than utility or necessity, seem to have impelled Frederic to enlarge and embellish his capital. The splendid fronts of the finest houses frequently conceal poverty and wretchedness.”

It is tempting to draw parallels to today: while some complain of insensitive urban development riding roughshod over the needs of the population and oversized, under-occupied buildings built for investors looking to flash the cash, others see an exciting, clean, rational blueprint for the future of urban living. What is certainly the case is that, for as long as English people have been visiting Berlin, they have been talking about the effect and meaning of its architecture and town planning.

Wraxall’s complaint that the city was something of a Potemkin village is not unfounded, though, as our elevator speeds past 77 years of Berlin history in which no British or American writers I came across saw fit to stop by. Despite Berlin’s growing political and economic importance, without a magnetic figure like Frederick and without a unified German state, German cultural life remained elsewhere: in Weimar, in Dresden, on the Rhine. Writers like William Thackeray Makepeace, Herman Melville, and Elisabeth Gaskell all headed for the country’s older destinations; George Eliot made an exception in November 1854, doubtlessly visiting the Opera as she worked on translations from German literature.

“Berlin is a cold place, but the cold is dry and bracing. This morning the roofs are covered with snow, and soon I suppose we shall have the first stratum of snow in the streets which will lie all winter. We work hard in the mornings till our heads are hot, then walk out, dine at three and, if we don’t go out, read diligently aloud in the evenings. I think it is impossible for two human beings to be more happy in each other.”

Unter den Linden around 1900

The next stop at Unter den Linden is much later still, in the late 1890s, when Victorian wit Jerome K. Jerome visited Berlin. The city’s poor reputation for culture still seems to putting British and American writers off visiting it.

“Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre is overcrowded, its outlying parts lifeless, its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance that scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

In the Berlin cafés and restaurants, the busy time is from midnight on till three. Yet most of the people who frequent them are up again at seven. Either the Berliner has solved the great problem of modern life: how to do without sleep, or, with Carlyle, he must be looking forward to eternity. Personally, I know of no other town where such late hours are the vogue, except St Petersburg. But your St Petersburger does not get up early in the morning.”

The historical tendency to compare Berlin to St. Petersburg is interesting: both were new capitals, built in the 1700s on grid plans, and viewed by visitors from the old metropolises of London or Paris as upstarts, or as America-style visions of the future. Viewed from our standpoint, walking around on today’s streets, Berlin seems overloaded with history; peering down literary elevator shafts, however, we see that there are plenty elsewhere which go far deeper. Seen from Jerome K. Jerome’s level, Berlin was no more an old town than Brasilia or Canberra is today.

Then again, what Berlin is lacking depth, it makes up for in historical layers. From here on up, the stops on our lift become more and more frequent. On 13th November 1918, for example, we scurry across Unter den Linden with Evelyn Princess Blücher, a British noblewoman who married into the German aristocracy:

“The streets are very quiet now, and the few passers-by hurry along, almost afraid of one another, and avoid the shadows, for no one knows who or what may be lurking there. Before every important public building sentries are posted, and in front of the Brandenburger Tor, with its grotesque blue-black shadow of the galloping horses and the car of victory, I can see them pacing up and down.”

We could get out of the elevator in the Berlin of 1929-1933 with Christopher Isherwood, or during the Röhmputsch of 1934 with the daughter of the then US ambassador, Martha Dodd. Another stop would be in 1936 with Thomas Wolfe, one of the big American novelists, or in 1938 and 1939 with William Shirer. Or we can tread through the slush of the first snows of late 1940 with US foreign correspondent Howard K. Smith, as German high command realises the war is not yet won and starts dismantling its victory podiums:

“What happened to those hopes is history. Churchill was not having any that season. The gilt on the wings of the stylized eagle tarnished in the first snows of winter, and late one evening when I was walking up Unter den Linden, I stopped to watch a squad of workers knocking the planks of the triumphal stands apart and carting away these tissues of hope, in trucks, They worked swiftly, and next morning Pariser Platz was clean and open again. Morale sank steeply after that.”

Destruction of the Linden Passage, 1945

Just a few months later, in 1941, we can join another American journalist, Harry Flannery, for a walk down this historic boulevard: “As I walked down Unter den Linden on this Sunday, German bands played on the island spaces between the two roadways, and figures in character, including comic cows and horses, danced to the music. Even hot wieners were offered for sale, if you surrendered fifty grams of meat marks to the women attending the temporary booths. People dressed in old-time costumes rode by in carriages and stopped at street corners to collect. Along the Linden, as I went by, the collectors were tall men dressed in tall hats and tight-fitting black clothes, carrying brooms to represent the German good-luck character, the chimney-sweep.”

We could get out again towards the end of the war with Christabel Bielenberg, the British wife of a German lawyer initiated into the Stauffenberg Plot, hurrying across Unter den Linden to get to Gestapo headquarters and plead for his release. Or we could peer out at this thoroughfare through a diplomatic limousine window with British politician Tony Benn in 1957, still quite visibly scarred by the war and stagnating in the East.

We might choose to imagine it through the eyes of a sixties spy with John le Carré, or to watch the GDR’s 30th anniversary parade in 1980 with historian Timothy Garton Ash, and smell with him “that peculiar East Berlin smell, a compound of the smoke from old-fashioned domestic boilers burning compressed coal-dust briquettes, exhaust fumes from the two-stroke engines of the little Trabant cars, cheap East European cigarettes, damp boots and sweat.”

Once you get to today’s stop and the lift goes ping, there’s something quite disorientating about standing in front of the Staatsoper, reading the inscription “Fridericus Rex Apollini et Musis” as some of the millions who make modern Berlin what it is walk past, and thinking about a time when this city appeared to be almost entirely the work of one man.

It starts to seem natural that so much of the modern writing about or literature set in Berlin deals with the weight of its past: there’s a wonderful moment in Anna Winger’s This Must Be The Place, 2008, when her heroine starts to peel at the layers of wallpaper in her apartment and feels as if she is burrowing into the city’s past. Suddenly, everywhere you look, you start to wonder what it was once like, what used to be there, who put it there, and if anyone saw and wrote about it: the elevator shafts I stumbled across start to look rather more like rabbit holes.

Brian Melican‘s Beyond the Enchanted Forest – A Literary Anthology was released in May 2013. The almost 80 extracts in the book chart both how Germans have been viewed by a variety of British and American writers and offers views of several places in Germany at different points in time. The book is now available for order  at £12.99 (UK) or €15,00 (Germany).