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History becomes a commodity in today’s Berlin

Over the past decade, Berlin’s history – the most urgent and immediate history of any European city – has been removed from the streets. The legacy of the Cold War, those gaping nomanslands where the Wall used to run till just 35 years ago, have now disappeared. The empty space has been filled with shopping malls such as the Mall of Berlin by Potsdamer Platz, and by branded hotels such as the Hilton, Holiday Inn and Indigo by the East Side Gallery.

At the latter, where the only remaining stretch of Wall has been preserved thanks to the famous imagery painted onto it, there’s far more activity around the new Mercedes Benz Arena and in the East Side Mall than there is actually by the Wall itself.  Meanwhile Berlin’s rougher, more alternative, neighbourhoods, have become more anodyne. These days, if you want a taste of raw and punchy Berlin as it used to be, the best location is the Teufelsberg Cold War listening post, an installation atop an artificial hill out in the woodland to the west of the city, covered in political street art, and moaning in the wind.

The city’s history hasn’t gone away, of course, it has just gone indoors, where it has become a digitised commodity. The Cold War Museum, the DDR Museum, The Deutschland Museum, the Spy Museum – all have opened recently. There’s very little in the way of actual artefacts in these places. It’s mostly touch-screen, mostly footage, with a lot of dependency on smartphone scanning of QR codes.

It’s a long way from the museums of old – although one of the biggest openings of the last year, the Humboldt Forum, is still very much in the mould of the likes of the British Museum, an immense collection of sculptures, carvings, costumes, etc from all around the world, stuffed into glass cases.

So Berlin has lost some of its distinctiveness, in my eyes, but you can’t stand in the way of progress, and the gaping nomanslands that divided the city were no good to anyone. What we have today is a city which has perfectly adapted to all year round modern living and tourism – albeit without the urgency and the raw immediacy of the most significant slice of recent European history.

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