Berlin is empty, and I am far from home. To protect my immunocompromised roommate, I’m living for a while in an Airbnb in the outer ex-Communist neighbourhood of Weissensee. It is listed as ‘Flo’s shabby chic flat’ but clearly run by a housing corporation. The decor is just what you expect: de-wallpapered walls, exposed brick, a framed print that says Be You Be BRAVE. It’s a look that suits the iconic centre of Berlin—the ruined Wall, the trendy galleries, the squats and punk scene—but not this petit bourgeois suburb, where the ‘Ice Cream Cafe Surprise’ boasts forty years of continual service and old-timers walk around the lake to greet the ducks as ever before, despite the pandemic.
My German friends on Facebook share photos of the city without people—Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz, the gaudy centres of post-Wall Berlin suddenly emptied of inhabitants. These images are titillating and sad; they hold a germ of disaster, like the city is on the verge of collapsing without us.
In Berlin, the aesthetic of ruin does a roaring trade. And nowhere is cooler for young Australians. Berlin’s dark history is not unrelated to the city’s appeal, although we often overlook it. The totalitarian past makes the present feel liberated; drab grey walls are all the better to paint on. Peter Schneider has written how the city’s perennial incompleteness ‘gives every newcomer the feeling they can still find a space here’. But the flip-side of this openness can be a certain lack of interest, even disdain, regarding who- and whatever happened to be here before. Here we all come to work remotely for global companies, to type away on projects for magazines or publishers back home, occasionally grumbling about the locals. (As an expat friend said to me when I moved here, tongue halfway in cheek: ‘To make it in Berlin, you have to be famous somewhere else.’)
Expat Berlin is a paradox—it is at once our favourite place and a non-place; it has too much history, which starts to feel like no history at all. For settler Australians, this heady mix is liberating and strange. Over centuries, Europe saw the New World as a place of thrilling, dangerous freedoms—now the tables are turned. Robert F. Coleman reported to the New York Times in 2012 on his band’s unproductive three-month stint in a ‘hedonistic paradise crammed with cheap beer and drugs’. Coleman’s mates got fucked up in public, didn’t pay their fines and grumbled back to ‘structure and a sound state of mind’ in Melbourne. ‘Berlin’, he reflected, ‘was ruining us.’ In the Australian imagination, the city is dark and Dionysian—both for better and for worse. A strange destination for us children of sunshine, political stability and thirty straight years of uninterrupted GDP growth.
Long before Coleman’s adventure (and mine), flocks of settler-Australian writers made their way to London, Oxbridge or Paris to encounter the deep roots of European culture. Germaine Greer and Clive James would stay, eager to join in what A.D. Hope called the ‘civilisation over there’; others, like David Malouf’s Johnno, came back. For a later generation, particularly the children of postwar migrants, Europe often appeared as an illusory cultural origin—one that needed to be visited in person, even if the results proved disappointing. Narratives of encounter and return reflected Australia’s growing cultural confidence, with Europe often shown as cloistered, alien, or just a bit shit. ‘Besides’, John Forbes teased, ‘if you remove the art Europe’s / like the US, more or less a dead loss / & though convenient for walking.’
Expat Berlin is a paradox—it is at once our favourite place and a non-place; it has too much history, which starts to feel like no history at all.
As we travel, we train our local identities. What does it mean for our self-image that the ‘heart of Europe’ Australians seek today—and then come home from—is Berlin, a place we like to think of as a moral and physical ruin?
Traveling to visit ruins is part of a noble tradition. In the 18th-century, young British elites would embark on the Grand Tour of Europe, visiting the most storied ruinscapes of Italy and Greece in order to reflect on the transitory nature of human civilisation. Paintings from this period are titillating, haunting—and empty of people. This same instinct towards abstraction and solitude appears in the way contemporary Australian literature talks about Berlin, even as much of the city is rebuilt. In her 2016 novel A Guide to Berlin, Gail Jones paints a typical tableau: ‘The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after wartime bombing.’ Her protagonist Cass, a lost Australian writer in her 20s, rides the S-Bahn around the ‘desolating ash-grey’ winterscape of post-Wall Berlin as she meets a group of Nabokov-loving expats for Speak, Memory-inspired storytelling sessions. ‘Rubble, more rubble,’ she reflects. ‘There was a history of Berlin to be written on the topic of rubble. Wreckage, waste, the sense of corruption or crime scene.’
When I first came to Berlin, nearly ten years ago, it was cheap as chips. I lived in central Mitte, on a university grant, while working at an NGO. By day I explored the remains of Big History, pedalling around on a disastrous little bike I’d bought on Craigslist—the brakes didn’t work, and by the end of the summer my sneakers were worn through from slowing myself by foot. By night my new friends and I partied along the path of the former Wall—factories and squats turned to nightclubs, rundown share apartments, empty stretches of land besides the filthy river. It was gorgeous and surreal; I felt capable of anything. ‘No one’s really from here,’ I told my brother back home.
As Maria Tumarkin notes in Traumascapes (2005), Europe’s ruins reflect a different sense of history than (settler) Australians find back home. Barron Field complained in 1823 that our continent was ‘a land without antiquities’ where, instead of communing with pride-purging ancestral relics, we have ‘nothing left [to] us but anticipation’. The ruin insists on the transitory nature of the present. Perhaps it finds its opposite in the neoliberal Australian suburb—hyperreal, pastless, and inevitable, glossily zooming towards ecological oblivion. (Of course, Australia’s suburbs are far more interesting than this—but we are dealing in imaginaries.) Historian François Hartog has described post-1989 life as presentism, the sense that ‘only the present exists, a present characterised at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of the unending now.’ Diderot thrilled to imagine his own city fallen: but can any of us really picture the ruins of Westfield Ryde?
A.L. McCann’s Subtopia (2005) is driven by this tension between the (Berlin) ruin and the (Australian) suburb, and by the illusory hope for a radical alternative. The protagonist Julian follows his wild friend Martin from suburban Moorabbin—‘a fucking hole!’—to the ‘joyous, anarchic squalour’ of 1980s Kreuzberg. The two young men hate the suburbs with great passion, though only Martin puts a Molotov cocktail where his mouth is. Julian begins to fantasise about blowing up local bus stops, playing with the possibility of literally turning suburbs into ruin. ‘Suburban experience is exactly the opposite of historical experience,’ Julian reflects. ‘The suburb is history at a standstill.’
Naturally he and Martin both end up in Berlin, a city that—in their imagination—is radically alternative, is politically awakened, and wears its history of violence on its sleeve. Their life there is pure fantasy, of course, no better executed than Coleman’s three-month drugs-fest. Julian’s sexy terrorist girlfriend turns out to merely be delusional. When he returns to modernising post-Wall Berlin years later, he feels he is revisiting a ‘time that hadn’t really happened’. The new Berlin saddens him: developers have triumphed over his illusory alternative, and ‘outside of the system’ represents nothing more than construction-site mud and debris. For Julian, Berlin provides no viable alternative; whether it’s a ruin or a boomtown, he cannot escape himself there. It is a bleak, and thoroughly Gen-X, conclusion.
Perhaps part of the contempt for New Berlin is not about protecting what remains, but instead insists on projecting oneself onto ruination, regardless of what’s there.
For many writers and expats, post-Wall Berlin represents its own brand of disappointment—especially if you think in absolutes. Of course, the cool years are long over: everyone’s agreed about this since forever. Not only did capitalism win the Cold War but the rents are going up, the start-ups are moving in, the nightclubs are closing. In Australia, before moving here again last year, I followed these developments forlornly from afar—as if losing a certain idea of Berlin meant losing a part of myself. Still there is a vast amount of alternative thinking here, and art, and potential—for those who make an effort. Perhaps part of the contempt for New Berlin is not about protecting what remains, but instead insists on projecting oneself onto ruination, regardless of what’s there. ‘I miss the ruins,’ says a Berliner in Kate McNaughton’s novel How I Lose You. ‘They made you feel more free than all this money.’
A way down the street from Alexanderplatz is a Douglas Adams-themed youth hostel, unusually named the Heart of Gold (Restaurant at the End of the Universe apparently too obvious). One night I met another Australian at a nightclub then walked her back to this hostel, where we sat outside and smoked and watched the sun rise. It was hostel chat, the usual kind, all passion and potential and getting the most from life. I cycled home feeling young and free, the evening’s non-romantic turn somehow strengthening a sense that anything was possible here—that the stakes were low here where nothing really happened; that we had all left our real selves back home.
In its most enchanting moments, inner Berlin feels symbolic and surreal. You experience the past at such a vast, inhuman scale—so the sociologist Wolf Lepenies writes—that you eventually just ‘remember a void’. Does Berlin’s well-packaged totalitarian backdrop really bring us face to face with the past—or does it let us feel the nightmare then wake up, returning to our precious non-German innocence?
Such innocence is the defining trope of Anna Funder’s Stasiland (2003), Australia’s most fêted piece of Berlin literature. As Funder travels through formerly-Communist East Germany, her narrative persona is an avatar of Australian innocence. Ethically and aesthetically, she is appalled by eastern Germany—she finds it tortured, dark and tacky: a linoleum wasteland of state surveillance and forgetting. Her decrepit apartment, like East Germany, ‘refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy’. (Historians generally do not support this simplistic portrayal of either East German society or the Stasi itself. )
Each story about the Stasi is accompanied by shocked asides to the reader—Funder has admitted to playing up the naiveté of her narrator figure—and sometimes heavy-handed chiaroscuro. One German reviewer picked up on this pose: ‘Is it because people Down Under have the benefit of such great distance, because ideologies are absent on the Fifth Continent? Does Anna Funder come from such a promised land, where pragmatism is not a euphemism for following-along but instead a synonym for fairness?’
A promised land indeed. Funder’s book is packed with Alice in Wonderland references. ‘I’ve been in a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed,’ she tells a coworker of her time in ‘Stasiland’. Funder peers through beer bottles like a looking glass, shrinks ‘like Alice’ from the Stasi HQ, and portraits the Stasi chief as the Queen of Hearts. ‘I’ve been having some odd adventures in your old country,’ she says to a victim of Stasi persecution, ‘Curious and curiouser.’ Her Berlin is completely surreal: Funder has explained she wanted first to write a novel, but (revealingly) found East Germany too unreal to be believable in fiction. Australia, by contrast, appears far-off and real—yet strangely unmarked by the incriminating dynamics of the Cold War. Funder’s persona suggests that being an ingénue from a distant and ‘untainted corner’ of the world helps her to open up sources who might be more defensive against a familiar enemy. Yet for her probing innocence to work, ‘Australia’ must remain normalised and blank.
Isn’t there another, harder lesson for Australia from East Germany: that people can have interesting, stylish, multifaceted lives while still profiting from appalling government policies?
It is not like Australia hasn’t had its own issues with law enforcement, of course—from Joh Bjelke-Petersen to Nauru, Don Dale and Home Affairs’ privacy and technology controversies. Might it be that our innocence means too much to us—that the West’s morbid fascination with the ‘lives of others’ under Communism has made us complacent about our own societies? And isn’t there another, harder lesson for Australia from East Germany: that people can have interesting, stylish, multifaceted lives while still profiting from appalling government policies? Anna the innocent shoots through the looking glass, has her adventures—then comes home to the safety of the real world.
The expat narrative ends with return to ‘normal life’ in Australia. Our friend in the New York Times gets a mortgage with his long-term girlfriend and adopts a dog. A Guide to Berlin’s Cass certainly cannot penetrate Berlin’s deeper past: and when real violence bursts into the narrative, she returns home, shaken. Subtopia’s Julian ends up settling down, married, to a house in Carlton. For him, perhaps for many of us, the excitement of History was always out of reach—as Cavafy wrote (although not quite about Moorabbin), ‘You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore / This city will always pursue you.’
But then Australia’s suburbs themselves are not so guiltless. Each of the characters in A Guide to Berlin partakes of their nation’s defining horror—an American professor lost his parents in the Holocaust, an Italian is traumatised by the Bologna station bombing, a Japanese man became Hikikomori (unable to leave the house) after the 1995 sarin gas attacks. When it is Cass’s turn to talk about her childhood, she flubs her lines—she gabbles on, making Australia seem all sunny and strange and upside-down. And she is evasive about her brother’s death, ostensibly the guilt that defines her. Through Cass the Australian naif, Jones’s novel challenges the magic of storytelling and the ethics of witness—middle-brow assumptions at the heart of works like Stasiland.
And perhaps there is another national tragedy left unsaid, or intentionally obscured by this suburban New World innocence. Australian suburbia, after all, is always already the site of apocalyptic violence and dispossession, as well as instrumentalised forgetting. It is all unceded, sovereign land. If Australians like to visit Berlin—in person or in literature—and come away feeling innocent, feeling once-removed from the violence of history, then that might be less a disappointment than a dodge.