Written by Ben Fergusson
Berlin is full of holes. Literally. The moment you notice them, you begin to see them everywhere. Deep starbursts in stonework, plaster and brick. They are bullet holes, still perfectly visible, that pockmark the streets and remind visitors and residents, if they care to take note, that Berlin was, in the not too distant past, the location of heavy urban warfare. You notice too that the level of destruction – the extent and spread of it – is quite different to that in, say, London, where there were no rifles being shot in the streets or rockets being fired.
It was this very visceral presence of history in the fabric of Berlin that was one of the biggest inspirations in the writing of my novel The Spring of Kasper Meier. And it was a presence very close to home. The apartment block that I used to live in in the Prenzlauer-Berg district had been un-renovated since it was built in 1900. Other than a few cosmetic repairs, the windows, the doors, the tiles, the plaster mouldings across the front of the building had all witnessed the traumatic machinations of German (and European) history over the last 100 years. Being in the East of the city, the feet that had climbed our staircases belonged to citizens of six different countries: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, Russian-occupied Berlin, the German Democratic Republic and finally, and for just over 20 years, the united German Federal Republic. Living in this building, becoming intimately acquainted with every corner, every crack, every broken banister and graffitied wall, it became impossible not to be constantly aware of the ghosts of Berlin’s past, not to imagine what all these people had been doing in ‘your’ home.
The topography and layout of Berlin’s apartment blocks also heavily informed the character and atmosphere of the book. In Germany the architecture of most of Berlin belongs to the Gründerzeit – literally the ‘time of foundation’ – and, like Paris’s ‘Haussmann’ apartment blocks, they are long boulevards and side streets, perfectly straight, five stories high, the balconies in neat rows along the front. Behind this facade, there is a courtyard, around which the rest of the apartments are arranged in what are known as the ‘side-house’ (Seitenhaus) and the ‘back-house’ (Hinterhaus). In Berlin, I lived in one of these back apartments. Sitting at my kitchen window, I was enclosed like the Kasper Meier of my book, and could also watch – Rear Window style – the other residents as they lived their separate lives. And I was of course aware that they could also watch me.
The regularity of this architectural form also adds to the ever-present sense of a city that has suffered severe trauma. Throughout Berlin there are larger holes, whole lots where a building suddenly stops, cut off abruptly at one end or missing its whole middle section. In East Berlin particularly, there was no money to fill these holes in, as in London, and instead either gravel or concrete covers the ground, creating a strange pooling of the street, or a makeshift playground or garden has grown in its place. Standing in these voids, you can easily imagine the bomb going off, taking out floors and floors of apartments and residents in one gigantic blast.
It’s interesting to note that one of Berlin’s most celebrated, moving and subtle memorials to the Holocaust plays on exactly this sense of history being in the very fabric of the streets and buildings. In 1996 the conceptual artist Gunter Demnig laid the first fifty Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) in the streets of Berlin. These small brass ‘stones’ replaced existing cobbles outside buildings and were simply engraved with the names of any former residents of that building who were deported and killed in the concentration camps. The stones are remarkably powerful and achieve something very profound – reminding us that the horror of a genocide of unimaginable proportions was experienced person-by-person living in this city, in this space that you live in. The project was such a success that it has since spread across Germany and succeeds in making it impossible not to experience this darkest chapter in the country’s history at a very human level.
History intervened again to keep these scars fresh. They are most prominent in districts like Prenzlauer-Berg and Mitte, areas of town on the ‘wrong’ side of the Berlin Wall, where there was no money to refurbish the dilapidated buildings. When the Wall came down artists flocked to these places, because the rents were cheap, and – as gentrification goes – these neighbourhoods have become Berlin’s most fashionable, and most expensive. Of course, as Berlin grows richer post-Reunification, the buildings in the East have began to be replastered, the scars slowly disappearing. In stone work, this is a harder job, and you notice that many grand blocks, U-Bahn bridges and municipal buildings are filled with tiny squares of stone, pushed in to fill the holes. Too flat and too clean, they pepper the stonework like raisins in a fruitcake. One can only hope that, like the stumbling stones, some of these traces remain to make us pause and reflect on the myriad lives that lived in these streets, so that isn’t just left to novels like mine to remind us of the extraordinary lives that were lived here in the very recent past.
Ben Fergusson’s novel The Spring of Kasper Meier will be published by Little, Brown in July 2014.