It’s a recurring feature of life in Berlin that you are reminded of what the place once looked like. This is a city built on the ruins of a previous city, after all, and the history is thick.
Some nostalgia is built into the very environment: Many subway station’s walls feature large-scale prints that show their surroundings in the before times: Before or during World War II, before the aerial bombardments reduced it all to rubble.
Most of these city views are totally benign, just peaceful scenes of former glory. They hardly even imply the horror of the war or the associated human suffering. It’s an odd choice, really, this ever-present reminder of what was once there without any explainers of why the world looks completely different once you walk out of the station.1
After more than ten years in the city, I’ve developed a reflex to look up specific places to see their pre-war state—ideally beyond the postcard impression. This image of what’s now Mehringplatz in Kreuzberg stopped me in my tracks: Not because of the surrounding it shows (long gone), but because of its ghostly quality.
At first sight, all seems normal, until your eyes glance towards the bottom of the picture, which appears to curve up towards you, with a child covering its face with its arms. It’s a bright day, and yet there’s something dark here, about the people going about their day as history continues in its unstoppable march.
I much prefer the images that give you pause, such as a photo at the entrance of the station Hallesches Tor: It shows a pair of workers climbing across the grotesquely mangled train tracks following a bombardment. You can feel the destruction in your bones, a powerful reminder of not just what used to be, but also what happened to it.↩︎