Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Berlin And Tel Aviv: Independence Day

This is Berlin, and we are traveling on Israeli Independence Day; so the little piece of moral kitsch on our breakfast table felt curiously precious, a little reminder of how many decisions people have to make to infuse a society with civilized responses, or to serve notice of the lonely other’s story—the counterintuitive principles, curricula, and “recommendations” that pull us out of our tribe and into the human condition.

You see a great many such decisions in Berlin, so many you get the feeling the city was rebuilt as if from tiny liberal bricks. Almost nowhere is there a German flag without the flag of the European Union flying beside it. Berlin, indeed, is the informal capital of the EU, not only because of German banks, but because the city would never aim to be anything so vulgar as the formal capital.

The architecture is almost transparent in its intent. The Reichstag, just to the left of the Brandenburg gate, is rebuilt to “quote” the way the building looked after it was bombed; also to reveal the people—citizens, tourists, though the words "Dem Deutschen Volke" is still carved into its walls—walking a circular path to the highest point in its rotunda. Watch them, and you hear in your mind the word Deutschen Volke spoken gently, tragically, maybe a little neurotically, the cadences of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, which was written back when German meant something liberating and secular. Transparency is itself an architectural principle here. The chancellery next door looks like a small mountain of glass blocks, inviting us to spy on Angela Merkel yawning after a long day.

AT ALMOST NO place in Berlin can you see buildings rising above the human level, five or six stories, perhaps, each building renovated slightly differently (that is, with window treatments and colors), aiming for simple bourgeois elegance. They look like new condos in Cambridge Massachusetts, except perhaps for the commercial buildings in Potsdamer Platz, announcing the pleasures of Sony and Disney. The other exception is the violently ugly radio tower in the Alexanderplatz, built by the DDR to make a statement now received ironically as a symbol of the regime’s hubris and failure. Everywhere are tributes to cosmopolitanism, a museum of world cultures, an institute of world science, a street of world cuisines: a world of self-chastisement for the treatment of Turkish workers. And tributes to the once quintessential cosmopolitan Germans, German Jews, are now memorialized in every possible conspicuous space.

Irony is the key to Berlin, I think. The winged victory tower anchoring the Tiergarten, pointing to the Brandenburg Gate, or the Von Moltke Bridge over the Spree, or the Soviet Army Memorial, or the Checkpoint Charlie museum—all of these monuments—seem to say: Wars are over; Europeans have manifestly outgrown them, just by putting some familiar laws and protections in place: permeable borders, a common currency, the kind things Pennsylvania did with Virginia long ago. And wasn't Bismarck and his generation hopelessly unimaginative, at least as compared with what Germany and Europe have become?

The Winged Victory is just what the city needs to remind it of its pathetic story. The Junker imperial ambition, so blinkered by a world of marches and bayonets, so oblivious to machine guns, so innocent in its mimicry and stupidity, lead the world down a path unimaginable in its catastrophe, then on to the madness of bloodlust and revenge. Bismarck, the monument’s real creator, now seems such a smaller than life figure. Bigger than life is the Holocaust memorial, an abstract cemetery of stones at the other end of the boulevard, just to the right of the Brandenburg Gate, occupying nearly as much real estate as the Reichstag itself.

Of course, Germany being Germany, the card on out breakfast table does suggest a kind of social engineering, or at least some transcendent coordination. Make a friend: it is something Absolute Mind recommends, like an Audi blinking you to an oil change. Yet the whole city seems to be saying, in every corner, You didn’t expect this, did you? Can you not see how we reject what was monumental here? Can you see how modern we’ve become, how we see that we preserve our past only by holding it at arm’s length, using it as material for the individual’s muse—that we, better than anyone but the Jews, perhaps, know where things lead when you fail to put up a thousand little barriers against what comes naturally.

I AM THINKING of Israel’s Independence Day in Berlin, at breakfast, though not for the obvious reasons.  Actually, no other city in the world feels like the new Berlin to me as much as the newer Tel Aviv. No other city shares so deeply in a common ambition and common horror out of which each newness is sprung.

Externally, Israel’s great city is renovating itself in much the same way as Berlin, taking socialist blocs and fitting them out for a bourgeois revolution.  And Tel Aviv’s irresistibly cosmopolitan nature impresses itself on the senses in much the same way: Russian theater, Arab melodies, Thai food, American everything: the place ostensibly closed to Arabs yet where gay Arabs find a refuge. But at a deeper level, the old modernism of the new Tel Aviv, what we used to call Zionism, seems to me a precursor of this rehabilitated German way of looking at the nation. Independence Day always makes me wish Israelis had not forgotten this modernism, even if Tel Aviv unselfconsciously practices it.

To have a Jewish state meant a place where Jews could breathe in what was best in the cultures of Europe and breathe out what was enduring, or innovative, in a civilization of ancestors, Rabbis, and dissenters. It would be a nation of people holding “the people” at arms’ length. It would be egalitarian, internationalist, progressive. Otherwise, why not just go to America? Then again, ironically, were it not for this transcendent dream, would Zionists not have taken Arab objections to dispossession more seriously?