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The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.

The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. By Brian Ladd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. ix plus 271pp. $29.95.).

Writing about Berlin is in vogue this season as readers have occasion to ponder at least four strikingly diverse works about the city's past and present. [1] Ladd's, I submit, is the most original of these. While it qualifies as a work of history, it nicely integrates architecture and urban planning and establishes an intriguing relationship between landscape and national identity. The book coincides with the pervasive development presently transforming downtown Berlin.

Reunification and consequent rebuilding require that Berliners confront their past, decide which artifacts merit preservation and which do not. These questions are definitively answered only when Germans reach a consensus, an unlikely prospect, on their past. The dimensions of this problem are encapsulated in the first sentence of the book: "Berlin is a haunted city." In essence, this is a work on historical memory as it relates to the urban landscape and the problems its "ghosts" present to the builders of a new Berlin.

Berliners need not have long memories. Precious few ghosts survive from that which passes for medieval Berlin, and even those from Schinkel's Neoclassical Berlin are much diminished. The most haunting are monuments and landscapes which date from the end of only the last century. It is they which evoke remembrances of a lost war and exiled dynasty, a failed republic, a terrorist dictatorship, and horrendous devastation in the wake of still another lost war, and, finally, the trauma of a divided city. These are the events and their monuments which presently haunt (and taunt) Berliners, especially as phalanxes of cranes are unleashed to recreate a capital city.

Ladd introduces the reader to Berlin's most notable artifacts--the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag, and the Nazi "topography of terror"--the New Reich chancellery and bunker and Aviation ministry. Divided Berlin left its share of phantoms--the remains of The Wall, the demolished Hohenzollern Royal Palace and replacement (sort of) Palace of the Republic in Marx-Engels Platz, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church ruin in West Berlin, 1950's Soviet Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee), and West Berlin's International Building Exhibition (1957) in the reconstructed Hansa Quarter. These architectural opposites continued into the next decade with the building in West Berlin of Ernst-Reuter-Platz and Alexanderplatz in the East. German Democratic Republic (GDR) monuments of Lenin, Marx and Engels, Ernst Thalmann, and the Soviet War Memorial each sparked controversy over their place in reunited Berlin. Even street names were not spared the politics of city renovation. On the other hand, a few edifices --notably Schinkel's Doric Neue Wache or New Guardhouse (1818) won acceptance as a memorial by Nazis, the GDR, and united Germany alike. The present authorities have simply adopted a new name--the Central Memorial to the Victims Of War and Tyranny.

The Wall and Potsdamer Platz represent two outstanding landscape ghosts. While it stood unbroken, the former was the chief visual symbol of divided Berlin. The Wall was, moreover, replete with creative graffiti and even memorials on each side to honor respective heroes. Today what remains conjures diverse images of this very recent past.

No Berlin specter is more fitful than that of Potsdamer Platz. Once a bustling 1930's commercial center, then an unplanted field dividing Berlin, the Platz presently accommodates countless cranes busily rearranging the turf for the likes of Sony, Daimler-Benz, and Hertie's department store.

Ladd writes well about a fascinating theme, is comfortable with the vocabulary of city planning and architecture, and displays a good understanding of Berlin history. Indeed, he has written previously on city planning in Germany, 1860-1914. His challenge to Germans to make decisions about their past monuments is compelling. He accommodates the reader with nine pages of Berlin history chronology, 55 illustrations, and a plenitude of notes, bibliography, and index.


(1.) Alexandra Richie, Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin (New York, 1998); Ronald Taylor, Berlin and its Culture (New Haven, 1998); and Michael Z. Wise, Capital Dilemma: Germany's Search for a New Architecture of Democracy (Princeton, 1998).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Schmidt, Albert J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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