25 years ago the Berlin Wall came down. The most physical symbol of the division between East and West was pulled apart by the people that feared it. The spectre of a border dividing what was supposed to be whole lives long in the memory and lingered uncomfortably in the background of the independence referendum. Threats of border posts and razor-wire played on the idea that Britain would be another Korea or Germany, people the same cut off from one another by ideologues.
Today Berlin is not the run down and crumbling liminal city of Bowie and Wim Wenders Wings of Desire and Faraway, so close! The cultural tropes live on though. Everything from the rebuilding of the Hotel Adler to the demolition of the East German parliament building is designed to pretend fifty years of history did not happen.
Instead Berlin’s history is increasingly remembered through a series of arbitrary official sites, from the Holocaust memorial to the Topography of Terror exhibition on Nazism. The real scars though are covered up under the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz and the Dunkin Donuts stores in Mitte, the central district. The decision to put balloons up along the wall to mark its path was symptomatic of one of the ironies of post-89 Berlin: everyone is aware of the city’s history but most of the young hipsters would struggle to tell you exactly where the wall ran, or even its proper history.
Around Checkpoint Charlie, famous because it was the point at which you passed from American to Soviet controlled Berlin, people buy mass produced communist memorabilia. When I lived in Berlin you could see queues of tourists waiting to have their picture taken with actors dressed as border guards. The sentry post in the centre of the street is a fake, made to be more authentic than the larger 80s building demolished on reunification.
From the second world war to the 1990s Berlin was the centre of a frozen proxy conflict. Neither East nor West Germany were truly independent. Now though Berlin is controlled by a different group of outsiders, a youthful international class of people from Britain, the US, Israel, Russia, Poland, Scandinavia and Italy who all move to Berlin on wave upon wave of myth building. For young Israeli’s unable to come to terms with the limitations of living in a religious state or the idea of doing a term in the IDF, Berlin offers a way out. It is a city of many subcultures, but the Israeli expat gay scene is one of the more remarkable ones. Importantly, it is a significant step in Jewish people reclaiming central Europe as a natural home in a more modern guise, but now in the company of a multitude of other European ethnic groups.
This is the Europe that the UK seems reluctant to embrace. Those fanning the flames of an exit from the EU seem intent on resisting the reality of the open and interconnected Europe that has sprung up. For some that is a colonial hangover, for others a misreading of the way the continent has almost always worked with people moving from north to south and east to west. Only through British eyes does it become an instrumental project, interesting when it is useful and derided when not. Britain could play an integral part in the next twenty-five years of Europe, or it could build a wall and tell stories about what is on the other side.