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Winter 2007

On Berlin

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Stephen Greenblatt

This past June in Berlin I had occasion to escape briefly from the World Cup fever then raging everywhere in the city by spending the afternoon in a museum. Not that I particularly minded the Fußball mania. Some German friends of my generation were unnerved by the thousands of flags that proudly waved from apartment windows and shops, and above all from cars that seemed to have been magically transformed en masse (by means of little plastic flag-poles hooked to the windows) into official emblems of national spirit. There had been no comparable display of flag-waving nationalism in Germany since the fall of the Third Reich, and for those who came of age in the 1960s, denouncing the crimes of their parents, the frenzied dream of German Weltmeisterschaft conjured up the nightmare of the past. After all, everyone knows who built the Olympic Stadium.

But the crowds I encountered were good-natured, and the ardent fans of competing national teams did not hesitate to wave their own flags. German patriotic enthusiasm on behalf of their national soccer team seemed to me quite benign, particularly when set against the comparable burst of flag-waving ardor that occurred in the United States in the months after September 11. That ardor, at once defensive and belligerent, found its expression in the ubiquitous bumper stickers that displayed, next to the flag, the motto "These colors don't run," a sentiment that seems to have emboldened the reckless military adventurers in our government to believe, correctly it seems, that the public would support virtually anything. By contrast, the frenzied German celebrations of this or that heroic victory on the soccer field struck me as—to adapt a phrase I once heard the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien use to describe the Berkeley student revolution in the 1970s—a pastoral ballet on a nationalist theme.

Still, it was pleasant to escape from the big video screens outside every café, the carnival traffic clogging the streets, and the loud-mouthed, over-heated teenagers into the cool rational quiet of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, where there was a large exhibition called "Berlin-Tokyo/Tokyo-Berlin: The Art of Two Cities." My interest in the exhibition was heightened by the fact that I had just come to Berlin from Tokyo, where I had seen a strange adaptation in Japanese of a play that I had co-authored. The details of this project are not relevant here, except to say that the Japanese writer and director Akio Miyazawa had simultaneously copied and reversed most elements in my play, so that the effect was akin to a photographic negative.

I thought that something of the same effect—appropriative reversal or mimetic negation—could be detected in certain of the objects exhibited in "Berlin-Tokyo/Tokyo-Berlin," and not only in the Japanese response to the West. In the paintings of Berlin's Die Brücke group, for example, the motifs and even the colors displayed the distinct influence of Japanese woodblock prints, then popular among avant-garde European artists, but the spirit of those prints, at once theatrical and impersonal, had been transformed by Kirchner and his contemporaries into something inward, psychological, and distinctly off-balance. Indeed the German paintings never seemed more intensely German than at those moments in which they were most clearly gesturing toward Japanese art. There are all the marks of cultural encounter—objects transported from one country to another, a market assuring that these objects reach the appropriate communities, go-betweens facilitating understanding and interpretation —but the encounter serves to reinforce distinctiveness and separation, the non-coincidence of visions.

Perhaps it is this non-coincidence at the center of an apparent encounter or even alliance that could help explain the strangest aspect of the exhibition, something that threw me off-balance and made me wonder— as I almost never do—why I was in Berlin. For I grew up in a house that shuddered at the very name: when I first ventured to Germany, on a summer trip as a college student, my parents reminded me that if I had been born in Berlin in 1943, and not in Boston, the Germans would have crushed me without remorse as a kind of bug. That I do not shudder is a function of the fact not that the Germans have forgotten this horror but rather that they remember it so powerfully. In Berlin above all the memory is pervasively present: in Peter Eisenman's brooding Holocaust memorial, next to the Brandenburg Gate; in the twisted form of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum; in Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock's brilliant installation in the Bavarian Quarter of cheerful-looking signs bearing the text of the anti-Jewish laws; in the innumerable small, brass "stumbling stones" inscribed with the names of those who had been deported and murdered. These constant reminders are not—as they may superficially seem—a historical Grand Guignol, designed to raise gooseflesh. They are in fact the opposite: an indication of health, a marker of recovered moral bearings, a sign (to borrow de Quincey's phrase) of the reflux of the human upon the fiendish.

This brings me back to the exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Any attempt to chronicle the last hundred years of cultural exchange between Berlin and Tokyo must have at its center the years in which the two cities were bound together politically and militarily, as the principal pillars of the Axis powers. There was therefore a growing suspense, as the visitor descended the stairs from the contemporary installation by Toyo Ito and began the progress through the galleries, from the passionate reception of Japanese art by European modernists in the years before the First World War, to the exhibition in Tokyo of the artists from the avant-garde journal Der Sturm and its electrifying influence on young Japanese painters, to the experiments in architecture, photography, and film in the 1920s. Everything seemed to be leading up to the years in which Japan and Germany sought to conquer the world.

But precisely here, under the thematic heading "Totalitarianism and War," there was not so much a void as a weird, sidestepping dance of avoidance. In the gallery hung a small number of melancholy paintings, images of hunger, despair, and death. No trace of the art that exuberantly celebrated the Axis; no glimpse of Arno Beker or Fujita Tsuguji or any of the other artists who eagerly glorified militarism and war. And accompanying the images was the following brief text on the wall, in German and English:


In the 1930s and 1940s Japan and National Socialist Germany shared nationalist, anti-communist policies. By 1936 the two countries had already formed an alliance against the Soviet Union known as the Anti-Komintern Pact. After the outbreak of World War Two, this was followed by the Tripartite Pact, now including Italy and directed against the USA. Japan entered the war in 1941 and capitulated in August 1945 when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


So much for the shared dream of world domination; so much for the Nuremberg laws, Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Poland, Nanjing; so much for the brutal plunderers, the murderers of millions, the racist ideologues who conspired to enslave those whom they did not choose to annihilate. The exhibition's characterization of Hirohito's Japan and Hitler's Germany is not, strictly speaking, inaccurate—both regimes did share "nationalist, anti-communist policies" and the Japanese did surrender in the wake of the atomic bombs—but it is all the same a gro-tesque lie.

While I was standing in front of this text, a German acquaintance of mine suddenly appeared, as if I had conjured him up. A historian, about my age, he was precisely one of those decent, alert, highly cultivated people who make Berlin so agreeable.

"Appalling, isn't it?" he said quietly and added, in a still more muted voice: "This is the consequence of reunification."

Astonished, I asked, "What are you talking about? Why do you think this was written by an East German?"

"They grew up thinking that, as communists, they had nothing to do with fascism. They never really came to terms with the past."

"I think this was written by a Japanese curator who was attempting to imitate the German remembering of the past and managed only to negate it," I replied.

"You have," he said, with a strange look on his face, "a touching faith in German uprightness."

When I got home I sent an email to the exhibition's press liaison to ask who actually wrote the wall text. The answer told me very little. "The sources for the exhibition texts at the walls were texts from both Japanese and German curators which were adapted to the small format of texts within the show." Beware collaboration.



Stephen Greenblatt is a professor of English at Harvard and the author, most recently, of Will in the World, a book about Shakespeare.
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