In central Berlin, Potsdamer Platz is a major public square and intersection which has been the foundation through which major shifting narratives in and about Germany’s place in the world have been negotiated and fought over. The fights were numerous, bloody and often, with the world watching.
It’s here where after the twinkling lights of the Roaring Twenties have faded, the terrifying Nazi regime began to secretly jail, interrogate, and torture it’s prisoners. Nearly every building of the Platz was destroyed in the Allies bombing of Berlin, save the Weinhaus Huth and the old ruins of the Hotel Esplande.
After the Nazi’s were defeated, Germany was divided with East Germany ruled by the communist Soviets. Buildings were rebuilt, but in East Germany, working and living conditions would worsen. By June of 1953, a workers strike would be decisively and brutally crushed, with 55 officially dead. Other estimates put the death toll as high as 125. And West German officials placed the tolls far higher, with as many as 83 people dying in the uprising, 1,838 injured and 5,100 arrested. It was also claimed that 17 or 18 Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot demonstrating workers. However, these figures are disputed.
The proxy wars of the Cold War and the divisions of Germany and Berlin, both structural and literal, would inflame political tensions and come to be a seminal moment in Germany’s history.
In 1961, the Berlin Wall would come to bisect the Platz and eventually, the Platz itself would become a part of the border zone, a death strip.
The Berlin Wall would fall at the end of 1989, and eight months later, to celebrate, Roger Waters, lead singer and guitarist of the band Pink Floyd, would hold in the most famous former no-man’s-lands in the world, one the largest rock concerts of all times. A rough estimate of 350,000 bought out the show, and right before it had started, the gates were opened, enabling another 100,000 to see it. Soon after Germany would be reunified.
But Inka Bach’s short story, “Squatters” takes place before reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall, during the divided Germany. Here, the history of the Platz is indivisible from the political struggles which have defined Berlin.
Empty buildings like statuaries surround Potsdamer Platz, and squatters have taken up these abandoned edifices for themselves.
A group of young people live illegally in an abandoned building, listening for police sirens and hoping they don’t get evicted. When the police do come, they seem to go through the motions of investigating those squatting. They look around and even joke with the squatters, and they do not forcibly evict them. Bach notes that some of the policemen are younger than those living in the building.
Times are difficult for many and the economic disparity crosses nationality. Turkish women and Poles sell their wares on the street, while men who look the same drive Mercedes and have the same haircuts and carry their briefcases. (Bach 114)
Part of what makes the Inka Bach’s story interesting is that in moments, her sentences are often merely fragments, incomplete and shifting, creating an impression of permanent volatility:
You can count piles on Potsdamer Platz. Piles of sand, piles of rubble, mountains of stones, earth. Built up. The digger hums. A monotone, constant whine, pounding, but nothing is shaken. The piles grow bigger, turn into grown up piles; they gradually grow towards each other and form banks, dams, and dykes….Sometimes you think you can hear the sound of canons, gunfire. In the coming night the full moon will shine and stand clear over the area. (113)
The shifting, uneasy narrative runs congruent to the history of the Platz which Bach’s story recounts. The narrative dips through 1994, and then shifts to the mid-1980’s. Characters here think of the mid-1960’s and the Third Reich, and changes again.
The narrative is quick and confusing, daring the reader to keep up with it. Much like an area in the heart of Berlin. This place, a represention of death for so many. Destroyed again and again. Rebuilt again and again. Left abandoned and bisected by a Wall, until the Wall fell. Shifting again and again.
But after reunification came redevelopment, and with that came commercialized entertainment for the masses. Today there are movie theaters and shopping malls, nightclubs and apartments. Personally, I think it looks like a theme park.
Or, perhaps I’m just a cynic.
Despite the odd evolution of the area, Germans have always been better than anyone at at properly contending with their own sordid history and acknowledging it, while giving their past the importance it deserves and providing proper context.
One American’s opinion doesn’t matter, and there’s not to say that the “Americanization” of the Platz didn’t come without controversy, it did. Many had some serious reservations about the changing nature of the Platz.
But maybe it’s okay that not every spot of death around the world be consecrated. Maybe it’s alright that the shifting nature of this place is a feature.
Not a flaw, but a certainty.
Inka Bach’s “Squatters”
Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now: The City After the Wall