In September, Tyler Cowen picked Berlin as his “preferred exile”:
There would be plenty of art and music, lots of smart people to talk to, access to other good locales, and the near-certainty of public order, yet with bearable winters and good health care.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he’s not so enthusiastic:
I like spending time in Berlin. But I am never sure I like Berlin itself, West or East. Berlin is Germany being imperial. Berlin is Germany looking toward the east. Today Berlin is Germany pretending it is normal, while not yet having a new identity.
Maybe the change in tone is a function of all the news coverage about Berlin right now, all of it concentrating on the city’s historical importance. But the fact is that for all Berlin is now the capital of the most important country in Europe, it’s still, as its unofficial slogan puts it, arm, aber sexy. (Poor, but sexy.)
I spent four months in Berlin in 2008, and never once did I think of it as “being imperial”. Being grungy is more like it. The most imperial thing in Berlin is the Reichstag, which, after it was wrapped by Christo, was topped by Norman Foster with a transparent dome and opened to the public in as non-threatening and enjoyable a manner as he possibly could. Can Berliners be rude? Yes. But not in an imperial way, more in a sullen way.
Berlin has celebrated mainly itself since the wall went up, and even more so since the wall came down. It was always exceptional in many ways, being divided into quarters given to each of the Allied powers, and being a domicile of choice for young West Germans looking to avoid military service. With the exception of a flurry of construction activity in the early 90s, money has never had much interest in Berlin: it’s much more famous for the Love Parade.
Neither Berliners nor the rest of Germany consider the capital to be particularly German. Instead, it’s a historical anomaly, most of which was literally walled off from the rest of the world for 30 years, and all of which remains a very long way from any other major city. When you’re in Berlin, with its dearth of high-speed rail lines, you don’t feel particularly connected to the rest of Europe: instead, you feel the freedom associated with being distant from the concerns of others. I love the city, and I send it all my love on this special day. Long may it retain its singular character.