The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Notes And Comments

Berlin: The Big Uneasy

John M. Owen IV

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin.

Collective memories of the dark past are one reason why Germans are obsessed with European integration.

Berlin is important in world politics again. It would just as soon not be. Over the centuries, even as it has risen as a city of consequence in culture and learning, Berlin has experienced fluctuations in its geopolitical weight. As its residents know, a weighty Berlin generally has not been good for the world. But crises both within and outside Europe, ones for which Germany is in no way responsible, are forcing the capital to reassume a mantle that makes most Berliners distinctly uneasy.

Berlin began its modern existence in the eighteenth century as the capital of Prussia, which proceeded to expand in fits and starts until, absorbing Bavaria and several other states within or adjacent to its borders, it emerged as the German Empire in 1871. As a unified state, Germany was an industrial powerhouse and an exemplar of science, culture, and urban planning. But growing domestic discontent (attended by the spread of political pathologies), along with fear and resentment of Germany’s neighbors, was responsible in large measure for the outbreak of the two cataclysmic wars of the last century. Subsequently, during the early Cold War, Berlin was the scene of several crises that might have triggered a third world war. The problem ended in 1961 when the Communists partitioned the city, building a hideous wall that cut from Berlin’s north to its southeast like a Prussian dueling scar.

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