Visiting Berlin, Germany: some confusing memories in Wilhelmstrasse

Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany | Source
Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, Germany. View towards Unter den Linden with Hotel Adlon.
Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, Germany. View towards Unter den Linden with Hotel Adlon. | Source
Europaeisches Haus, corner of Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse, Downtown Berlin
Europaeisches Haus, corner of Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse, Downtown Berlin | Source
Margot Honecker, Minister for National Education, German Democratic Republic, 1988
Margot Honecker, Minister for National Education, German Democratic Republic, 1988 | Source
Aerial photo of Wilhelmstrasse and the Tiergarten, Berlin
Aerial photo of Wilhelmstrasse and the Tiergarten, Berlin | Source

Concrete, glass and anomalies

Wilhelmstrasse, in the heart of Berlin's government district, is where it all happens. Or used to happen. 'It' being defined as government business, I suppose. Or more likely there is the fact that Wilhelmstrasse, having been the site of the pre-World War Two Foreign Ministry, has sometimes been used approximately as the word 'Whitehall', in London, England, not only to refer to a street but also to denote official thinking in government circles. (The use of the term 'Quai d'Orsay', Paris, is also comparable.)

It may be a nebulous, historical term, but as I went down Wilhelmstrasse, I was struck by its cleanliness and by the clipped and geometrically precise lines of many of its modern buildings. I looked with interest at the display at the ParlamentsBuchhandlung (Parliamentary Bookstore). I walked past Europäissches Haus, office of the European Commission in Berlin, on corner of Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse. In the first photo I have supplied of Wilhelmstrasse, close to the intersection with Unter den Linden, the famous Adlon Hotel — or should I now say the Adlon Kempinski? — is clearly visible, with its distinctive green roof.

The Adlon's main entrance is on Unter den Linden. The hub of Berlin social life in the early 20th century, in a fine, 1907 neo-Baroque building, it was partially destroyed by the Red Army in 1945. It continued to operate in a wing of the building from an entrance on Wilhelmstrasse during most of the years of the communist-led German Democratic Republic.

In 1997 the Adlon was reopened by German President Roman Herzog, having been thoroughly rebuilt and refurbished. (I hesitate to use the word 'restored', because it begs the question, restored to what? to its formerly glory? if so, when were its glory days? during a militaristic Empire that plunged Germany into World War One? surely not during the National Socialist period, when Germany was plunged — and plunged others — into World War Two?)

When writing about buildings in the government district of Berlin, it may be useful to note that the political class in the Federal Republic of Germany traditionally wields a lot of power (the government even jailed the editor of the respected journal Der Spiegel for 103 days in the 1960s before backing down)(3). However, this is not the same as saying that public representatives actually represent public opinion with a high degree of accuracy. On many significant issues, the political class takes and implements policies diametrically opposed to what the public favours. For example, for their dependability and stability, many Germans highly respected the Bundesbank and the Deutsche Mark, which currency the political class chose to subsume into the Euro, which in recent years has undergone severe troubles as a result of successive bail-outs to Eurozone member countries with weaker economies. Many, even most, Germans support effective border controls, while Chancellor Merkel's perceived call for migrants to 'Come to Germany!' was widely received with little enthusiasm among Germans. The fact that a few years ago reports emerged that the German government was employing 17,000 former members of the former East German secret police, the Stasi, only served to underline the disconnect between the political class and the highly taxed electorate. While there may arguably be strong reasons for all these measures pursued by the German government, the political class in Berlin is still presumably working hard to win hearts and minds over such issues among its electorate.

More than one building on Wilhelmstrasse is used for Parliamentary offices. So with the presence of these buildings, does this make the locality a lively forum for interaction between constituents and rousing parliamentary characters similar to Canada's John Diefenbaker or Great Britain's Michael Foot? Well, hardly so. It is widely commented that the Bundestag does not have a strong tradition of lively debate; and given that both Government and Opposition Members of the Bundestag seems to maintain a tacit agreement on many matters which are diametrically opposed to the known views of many, even most, of the electorate which they represent, the presence on Wilhelmstrasse of Parliamentary offices somehow seems effuse the not too subtle aura of an extension of the Executive, rather than an effective check on it.

On a prime site adjacent to the Adlon on Wilhelmstrasse is the British Embassy; it was opened in the year 2000, and described by former British Ambassador to Berlin Sir Christopher Meyer as 'incredibly expensive' (at a time when other parsimoniously administered British embassies — said Sir Christopher — such as Washington, DC, were suffering from cockroach infestation and and sewage back-up)(1). Which brings us to the question of how the British Government seems in recent decades to have perceived its role in Berlin: such a prime site on Wilhelmstrasse, maintained at such 'incredible' expense, maybe denotes that the British government has imagined itself to have a pivotal role in Berlin political life. This, even as in so many ways Germany and Europe have moved on from the influence that Great Britain had or thought it had in 1945 (2).

There is a sequel to the British Government's decision to maintain such an 'incredibly expensive' Embassy on Wilhelmstrasse. This street is — and especially was — a major thoroughfare in Berlin's City Centre. The Embassy was opened by The Queen in 2000. Then came 9/11, and President George W. Bush's bold expedition into Iraq, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's lone decision among the US's key allies to join the Iraq intervention. The 'incredibly expensive' British Embassy facing onto busy Wilhelmstrasse — separated from the roadway by only a thin sidewalk — immediately gave rise to security concerns, which forced the construction of car bomb barriers, which closed the road to through-traffic, and which in turn soon cause widespread resentment among Berliners. When a local hospital started to complain that its ambulances were being hindered from their essential emergency service, this only served to give the British Embassy precisely the sort of publicity that it did not need. Far from being a tool to win friends and influence people, the new British Embassy, combined with the problematic Iraq intervention, thus became in some ways a huge 'own goal' which proved incredibly expensive in terms of goodwill.

One of the longest-serving political personalities identified with Wilhelmstrasse in the mid to late 20th century is Margot Honecker (1927-), who served as the German Democratic Republic's Minister of Education (she was also known as the wife of the German Democratic Republic's leader Erich Honecker). Frau Honecker served as Minister from 1963 until 1989, when suddenly the Berlin Wall came down. The building on Wilhelmstrasse from where she governed educational issues in the GDR is now also used as offices for Members of the Bundestag.

In many ways Germany is such a fine country, which has come in leaps and bounds from what it was in 1945. It is also inevitable that foreign bloggers visiting Germany will pick up a whole host of impressions involving curiosities, anomalies and ironies, and there do seem to be a few of these in Berlin's Wilhelmstrasse.

March 3, 2016

Notes

(1) Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential, London: Phoenix, 2005, p. 71.

(2) I always think that remarks attributed to Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery summed up official British attitudes to the supposed importance of Great Britain's role vis-a-vis Germany after World War Two; he said that without the Americans Britain would have arrived in Berlin 6 months earlier than the Allies actually did at the end of World War Two; then he added that without American help the Allies would not have won at all. (With nods and winks, it might be inferred from the labyrinthine thought-processes of British officialdom, that Whitehall likes to imagine that Britain's influence vis-a-vis Germany is pivotal, but then acknowledges more or less that this influence is predicated upon American coat-tails, so to speak.)

The Canadian Embassy is located further afield at Leipziger Platz.

The American Embassy occupies a prime site on Pariser Platz, close to the Brandenburg Gate, and not far from the main entrance of the Adlon Kempinski. Befitting the close German-French relationship within the European Union, the French Embassy also occupies a prime site on the Pariser Platz, close to the Government district.

(3) In the United States or Canada, this would be the equivalent of Ben Bradlee or Peter Mansbridge being jailed for not cooperating with censorship.


Map of Germany
Map of Germany | Source

Also worth seeing

In Berlin itself, a few of the many visitor attractions include: the Brandenburg Gate; the Reichstag building; the Fernsehturm (TV Tower); Charlottenburg Palace (German: Schloss Charlottenburg ); Berlin Cathedral (German: Berliner Dom ) and many others.

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How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Berlin Tegel Airport (Flughafen Berlin-Tegel ), where car rental is available. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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