History erupts in sometimes disturbing ways in the palimpsest that is present-day Berlin. You can’t just focus on one time period when you visit the city. Today’s Berlin opens up within a hall of mirrors that reflects and refracts all those other Berlins. To speak about the Berlin of the past 25 years requires the vocabulary of the Cold War. You find that this discourse still operates within the semiotics of the murderous Third Reich, utilizing the grammar of the First World War as inflected in the vernacular of Expressionism. Prussian imperialism provides the city’s basic syntax. One nonetheless must be fluent in history, then, before attempting to read Berlin.
My first impression of Berlin was a blank map. Of course, I knew enough of its twentieth-century history to have an idea of where I was headed when I bought a one-way ticket on the night train from Warsaw to Berlin in early 1996. At the time, I had been living in Poland. The evening before I was to leave, my Polish friends wanted to help orient me for my arrival in the morning, so they dug out a map of Berlin they had used for school trips years before. There was something strange about this map, though. I prided myself with a knowledge of history as well as the ability to decode maps, but something didn’t make sense. I barely recognized any of the landmarks. It took several minutes before we realized the problem: it was an old map of East Berlin. In the space where my primary area of knowledge lay was a pure white blank.
According to this map, the world dropped off into oblivion at the Brandenburg Gate. It was as if Hegel had been correct when he claimed that history would end with Napoleon, who triumphantly had marched through the Gate after defeating the Prussian forces. There was no pesky Tempelhof Airport to remind anyone of the failed effort to blockade the western sectors of the city. Despite the attempt to render history illegible, one could still read its traces. Nothing could have better oriented me for my experience of Berlin.